"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A death row inmate, a murder victim's son, and a 16-year quest for justice

Police mug shot of Walter Ogrod taken April 6, 1992
Police mug shot of Walter Ogrod taken April 6, 1992
This wasn’t the story that Tom Lowenstein had bargained for. The year was 2003 and the crusading writer had travelled to a prison in the remote southwestern corner of Pennsylvania to interview a death-row inmate named Walter Ogrod for what he thought was going to be a book about America’s damaging obsession with the death penalty.

He’d initially shrugged off Ogrod’s letters insisting that he was innocent, that he had nothing to do with the horrific slaying of a 4-year-old girl – found naked inside a TV box – that had roiled a rowhouse street in Northeast Philadelphia in 1988. That’s just what any murder convict was going to say, right?

But now as Lowenstein sat just across a Plexiglass barrier from Ogrod at Pennsylvania’s state prison in rural Greene County and listened to Ogrod’s blank recounting of his ordeal in the sinkhole of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, he realized that the then-36-year-old Ogrod was “off” -- developmentally disabled. In no way, the now-New-Orleans-based journalist realized, did the murder convict sound anything like the character who’d signed an emotional confession after a relentless 14-hour police interrogation.

The death-penalty idea was scrapped. What emerged that day was a writer’s obsessive, 16-years-and-counting quest to show that Philadelphia police and prosecutors had used a false confession and the beyond-dubious involvement of a notorious and later-discredited jailhouse snitch to solve a high-profile murder by locking up an innocent man -- a man who now has spent nearly half his life behind bars.

The 348-page product of that journey, The Trials of Walter Ogrod, is out this week from Chicago Review Press. It’s a remarkable book that is hard to put down as it evolves from a grim true-crime saga -- drenched in a 1980s Philly of crank-fueled bikers and claustrophobic crime-fearing streets -- to Ogrod’s sudden entrapment in a maze of suffocating injustice that updates the term “Kafkaesque” for a new millennium.

Ogrod’s 1992 arrest had been on the front page of the Daily News – the seeming resolution of a murder that had torn apart Rutland Street, a rowhouse block off Cottman Avenue in Northeast Philly. On the steamy afternoon of July 12, 1988, a 4-year-old girl named Barbara Jean Horn wandered off in search of someone to play with, and turned up dead several hours later on a nearby sidewalk, stuffed inside the TV box.

Initially, no one was arrested even after the neighborhood was plastered with fliers showing a police sketch of a man whom several witnesses had seen lugging the box – short to average build, sandy blonde or brown hair, slight moustache. Four years later, two of Philadelphia’s most aggressive homicide detectives were put on the case; after an intense push to get Barbara Jean’s stepdad to confess, the cops set their sights on Ogrod, a somewhat “slow” young man who’d lived across the street in 1988 and now had a steady job driving a truck.

The detectives brought in Ogrod, who hadn’t slept the night before, and kept him up for another 14 hours, pressing their suspect that he was blocking out his memories of killing Barbara Jean, until Ogrod finally signed every page of a 16-page, highly detailed confession that had been written out by Detective Marty Devlin.

When Lowenstein finally met Ogrod nearly a decade later, the author said what struck him most was the Death Row inmate lack of affect and inability to express emotion – about his plight in prison, his difficult upbringing, or anything else – yet the so-called confession was filled with angst; it quoted Ogrod stating that “you have no idea how hard this is for me” and that he wanted to commit suicide – nothing like the way he talked in real life.

There were other problems: Ogrod didn’t look anything like the police sketch, there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and there were strange gaps in the police work, such as a failure to search the apartment where Ogrod lived at the time of the arrest. Lowenstein was hardly the only one who thought the so-called confession rang false; when prosecutors first brought the case to trial in October 1993, the jury voted for acquittal only for one juror to blurt out that he’d changed his mind right as the verdict was being read, prompting a mistrial.

When the retrial came in 1996, the so-called confession had been pushed to the background. Prosecutors instead focused on a scenario developed by a notorious jailhouse snitch, John Hall, nicknamed “The Monsignor” because of his supposed ability to solicit confessions. Placed as Ogrod’s cellmate, Hall came forward with a claim that Ogrod had told him about a months-long scheme to kill Barbara Jean that was nothing like the story he’d allegedly told the detectives. Hall also introduced Ogrod to another snitch, Jay Wolchansky, who eventually told a variation of Hall’s tale on the stand at Ogrod’s second trial, in exchange for leniency in a pending case.

By 1997, Hall’s reputation as a witness was in tatters; he was nixed in the high-profile Center City jogger murder of Kimberly Ernest after admitting a scheme to fabricate and then claim he'd found key evidence, a necklace, from the cell of one of the defendants, and cops or prosecutors found him not credible in several other cases. In his dogged reporting, Lowenstein eventually persuaded Hall's wife (her husband died in a 2006 apparent drug overdose) to admit that she’d helped her husband lie about the Ogrod case and that she’d even written Ogrod letters in prison pretending to be a stripper named “Autumn,” in an unsuccessful attempt to elicit information.

But by then, Ogrod had already been convicted in his re-trial and sentenced to death, in large part because of the snitch testimony. After Lowenstein published his first piece about the holes in Ogrod’s case in the Philadelphia City Paper in 2004, lawyers working through an American Bar Association death-penalty project began fighting to overturn his conviction; the first bid went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and failed, and efforts to introduce new evidence that could free Ogrod have dragged on for years. Another hearing is slated, tentatively, for July.

The Philadelphia DA’s office – which declined to comment for this column – continues to fight doggedly to keep Ogrod on Death Row. One particular source of frustration is that both prosecutors and the courts have successfully rebuffed efforts to perform state-of-the-art DNA tests on fingernail scrapings taken from Barbara Jean in 1988 – tests that Ogrod’s lawyers believe could point to alternate suspects.

Click here to read the full article

Source: philly.com, Will Bunch, March 28, 2017

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Former Warden: Arkansas Execution Rush Is Dangerous and Risky

Arkansas' death chamber
Arkansas' death chamber
The Arkansas government is preparing to execute eight death-row prisoners in a ten-day span, before one of its lethal-injection drugs expires. It plans to execute two people per day over four days: April 17, 20, 24 and 27. The decision is dangerous for many reasons. As has been widely discussed, the sedatives may not be safe to use and could risk prolonged, torturous deaths. But an additional set of trauma and peril must be accounted for as well: The rapid schedule will put an extraordinary burden on the men and women required by the state to carry out this most solemn act, and it will increase the risk of mistakes in the execution chamber — which could haunt them for the rest of their lives.

As Commissioner of Corrections in Georgia, I presided over five executions. Those executions were spaced over two years. We had a legal duty to carry them out and attempted to do so with integrity. However, for me and many of my former colleagues in other corrections agencies, our role in executions led to a deep sense of guilt, sleepless nights and permanent emotional damage.

For me, unlike the “kill or be killed” mindset in war or other forms of self-defense, carrying out executions felt very much like participating in premeditated and rehearsed murder. Either from religious training (“thou shall not kill”) or established societal norms, every person knows that taking a human life is one of our culture’s most serious offenses. It exacts severe mental trauma — even when done under the auspices of state law. As I have written before: I don’t remember their names, but I still see their faces in my nightmares.

Ron McAndrew, a warden who oversaw executions in Florida has bravely spoken publicly about how the trauma from doing his job led to a period of alcohol abuse and nightmares about the men he had executed. Fred Allen, who worked as a member of the Texas “tie-down team” responsible for securing men before the lethal chemicals are injected, helped execute 130 men before he finally broke down and had to leave his job. Former Oregon warden Frank Thompson has written about how participating in executions leads to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide. Ira Craig Baxley, a former corrections major responsible for executions in South Carolina, began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These examples are only a small sampling.

I am gravely concerned for the well-being of the execution team in Arkansas, especially given the compressed schedule. The amount of fear, stress and exhaustion — all compounded by the terror of making a mistake — is too much to ask.

The state’s plan is relentless and harsh in and of itself. But when you examine the drugs that state officials are rushing to use, the risk of harm gets even worse.

The reason for Arkansas’s planned 10-day mass execution is that a sedative called midazolam is going to expire at the end of April. Midazolam has been used in many executions that went horribly wrong, including in Ohio, Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere. In Oklahoma, on April 29, 2014, Clayton Lockett did not die until more than a half-hour after he was injected with midazolam. Well after he was expected to be unconscious, he groaned, convulsed, and visibly struggled while on the execution table.

Lockett’s execution was scheduled to be the first of two performed back-to-back that day. The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety’s subsequent investigation includes a section, “Two Executions Scheduled on the Same Day,” which includes interviews with the execution team members. They discuss the “added stress” and “urgency” that they felt because of the rate of executions. In order to decrease chances of future botched executions, the report recommends that executions should not be scheduled fewer than seven days apart.

Arkansas has never used midazolam before, and the state has not executed anyone for twelve years. State officials have put this intense execution schedule on a staff that has not conducted an execution in the state using this risky protocol in over a decade. They will be using drugs they have not used before, which no one , as far as we know, has experience administering in an execution.

Arkansas’s accelerated execution schedule is far more risky and dangerous than any other planned executions I am aware of. I implore state officials to abandon this dangerous plan. They can still save truly innocent people — corrections workers — from life-altering trauma.

Source: TIME, Allen Ault, March 28, 2017. Dr. Ault, a former warden of a maximum security prison, served as a commissioner of the Georgia, Mississippi and Colorado Departments of Corrections and later as chief of the Special Projects Division of the National Institute of Corrections; he recently retired from being dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.

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Islamic State stones youth accused of homosexuality in Mosul

Members of the Islamic State stoning a youth in Mosul, Iraq.
Members of the Islamic State stoning a young gay man in Mosul, Iraq.
Mosul (IraqiNews.com) The Islamic State group has sentenced a youth to death by stoning in the city of Mosul, on charges of homosexuality.

The terrorist group published photos on affiliated websites showing a number of IS Diwan al-Hisbah (accountability) members, while reading out death sentence according to Sharia, in the presence of a crowd of people, before carrying out the execution based on “the limits of Allah and Islam”.

The photos revealed that the Islamic State militants started to throw the youth with stones, who was blindfolded, after throwing him from a building’s rooftop, but the exact time and location of the execution were not identified.

The incident is not the first of its kind in Mosul, where the terrorist group claims to implement the limits of God and Islam.

Earlier this year, Islamic State militants sentenced a man to death by throwing him from a high rooftop in Mosul, after accusing him of being homosexual, while used the same method to execute four people, including two of its own members, on charges of homosexuality and sodomy in Dor al-Toub area in central Mosul.

Source: Iraqi News, Loaa Adel, March 28, 2017

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Florida: Ayala's decision spurs debate on death penalty

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala
Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala
Florida's death penalty has been hit by controversy for decades, marred in the past by botched executions and more recently by court rulings condemning the way defendants were sentenced to death.

The latest controversy over Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala's decision not to seek death sentences in capital cases -- and Gov. Rick Scott's removal of her from a case involving an accused cop-killer --- has galvanized longtime opponents of the death penalty.

"This could be the spark that sets it off for a real conversation nationwide, not just in Florida," said retired Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry, an outspoken critic of the state's death penalty system. "Most transformative acts did not take a majority of the people. Only a few people started it, and it gained momentum. This could be one of those moments."

But Senate President Joe Negron said the controversy swirling around the death penalty almost certainly will not diminish lawmakers' support.

"There's a strong consensus that the death penalty is an appropriate sanction for certain horrific murders that are committed," Negron, R-Stuart, said. "I think that when the state is seeking to potentially execute a citizen for his crimes, there should be a very high level of scrutiny and due process. I also think that our current system provides that."

More than a decade ago, the American Bar Association called for a moratorium on Florida executions, based on a study that said the system was dogged by problems involving racial disparities, fairness and a lack of oversight. More recent studies have provided additional evidence to bolster criticism of the death penalty in Florida, which leads the nation in death row exonerations.

Florida opponents of the death penalty, including many Democratic legislators, have renewed calls for a moratorium, seeking further review of geographic and racial inequities regarding who is charged with the death penalty and eventually executed.

But with Scott and Republican legislative leaders strongly supporting capital punishment, such a moratorium is unlikely.

"There's no doubt, if you look at national trends, that the Florida Legislature's and governor's office insistence place them in a handful of states that are actively trying to devise a system which is going to produce death sentences," said University of Miami law professor Scott Sundby, who has researched the behavior of juries in death penalty cases.

It's been more than a year since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, put executions on hold and sent the death penalty into a state of limbo.

The U.S. Supreme Court 8-1 ruling in the case in January 2016 found that Florida's system of allowing judges to find the facts necessary to impose the death penalty was an unconstitutional violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.Ayala, the 1st black state attorney elected in Florida, said she reached her conclusion after deciding that "doing so is not in the best interest of this community or the best interest of justice."

But Ayala's decision not to pursue the death penalty for Markeith Loyd -- accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sade Dixon, and the execution-style killing of Orlando Police Lt. Debra Clayton --- sparked outrage from Republican lawmakers, Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi and resulted in calls for the state attorney's ouster.

The governor reassigned the Loyd case to Brad King, an Ocala-area state attorney who is an outspoken proponent of the death penalty.

For many blacks, especially in Southern states like Florida, the death penalty is rooted in a history of discrimination and remains a stark reminder of lynch mobs. Adding to racial tensions, Florida has never executed a white defendant whose victim was black, something critics are quick to highlight.

"Race has always been an issue in the death penalty, whether it's Florida or anyplace," said Florida International University law professor Stephen Harper, who runs the school's Death Penalty Clinic.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, March 27, 2017

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Luck and the Death Penalty

Anatomy of Innocence
In 2002, the playwright Arthur Miller wrote the brief essay below to help the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern's law school in its campaign to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. In it, Miller described the case of Peter Reilly, a teenager who was convicted in 1974 of brutally killing his mother. The essay, previously unpublished, is featured in a new anthology, "Anatomy of Innocence," which features the testimony of several wrongfully convicted people - some of their stories written for the book by Lee Child, Sara Paretsky and other high-profile authors.

It is a small town so everybody knew the boy. He was approaching eighteen but he was slight, blond and soft-spoken so he was referred to as a boy. His mildness made it hard for many to believe that he had butchered his mother even after the State Police announced that he had made a confession. In fact, the longer his trial went on, the fewer the folks who felt convinced of his guilt.

Still, strange things do happen and he was convicted and was actually in a car on his way to the State Penitentiary when a group of residents raised enough money - some even mortgaging their homes - to lodge an appeal, and he was returned to the local jail. Basically a conservative community, many people there had rather unwillingly come to believe that the confession had somehow been forced out of him by the police.

At the hearing to decide whether to give him a new trial, things did not look good; the 2nd judge seemed a fair and sympathetic listener but the defense, now under a new lawyer, was required to produce new evidence, not easy to get hold of. But several days into the hearing the state's attorney who had gotten the boy convicted dropped dead on a golf course and a substitute prosecutor immediately took his place and began studying his papers on the case.

In the files the substitute discovered an affidavit from a witness who swore that he and his wife had seen the boy in another part of town at the very moment his mother was being attacked and killed. This affidavit had been withheld from evidence, never introduced into the original trial despite the witness being a policeman who had known the boy and had not the slightest doubt that he had recognized him. Introduced into the hearing the very next morning, the affidavit blew the state's case out of the water and the boy was freed.

If the state of Connecticut had had a death penalty, the boy may well have been executed. The boy's mother had been nearly eviscerated, savagely mauled, and feelings of disgust and anger were aroused. Indeed, it was only the adventitious death of the prosecutor that saved the boy from a long sentence in a penitentiary that would probably have destroyed him, gentle and mild as he was. Connecticut is not normally considered a benighted state but one with a very high income level, and a large proportion of educated people. Yet this travesty happened there.

Any honest supporter of the death penalty simply cannot avoid facing the high probability of mistaken verdicts, of which there are indeed many in this country. The nation's conscience forbids the state to kill innocent people. The death penalty makes the presumption that there are never going to be corrupt, ambitious, cowardly prosecutors and police who, afraid to admit they were wrong in arresting a suspect, go down to the end insisting on his guilt; that there are never honest mistakes in judgment, never any visual misidentifications, but that in each and every prosecution the guilty verdict is invariably deserved.

The boy, Peter Reilly, regained his freedom in Litchfield County because a prosecutor died at the propitious time and because his neighbors believed in him, and outsiders were moved to come to his aid. The life of the innocent cannot be allowed to depend on that much luck nor the states dishonored by pretensions of infallibility in absolutely every capital case that comes before its all but overwhelmed courts.

Source: New York Times, March 28, 2017

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Justices side with Texas death row inmate who argued intellectual disability

The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with a Texas man on death row who argued he was mentally disabled and could not be executed.

In a 5-3 ruling, the court said the state's definition and standards for assessing intellectual disability "create an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed."

Those standards, known as the Briseno factors, take into account whether neighbors, teachers and friends think the person is intellectually disabled, makes plans or was impulsive, is a leader or a follower, responds in a rational way to situations, respond coherently to oral or written questions and can hide facts or lie to others in their own interest.

In delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said adjudications of intellectual disability should be informed by the views of medical experts.

"Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual's life is at stake," she wrote in the majority opinion, which Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined.

The case centered on Bobby James Moore, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for fatally shooting a store clerk during a botched robbery that occurred when Moore was 20 years old.

Evidence at his trial showed that he had significant mental and social difficulties beginning at an early age. At 13, he lacked basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year and the seasons. He could hardly tell time or understand the basic principle that subtraction is the reverse of addition.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), however, said Moore had failed to prove significantly sub-average intellectual functioning with an IQ score of 74.

Ginsburg said, however, that when an IQ score is close to, but above, 70, court precedent requires courts to account for the test's "standard error of measurement" and consider a defendant's adaptive functioning.

She said the court also deviated from prevailing clinical standards in considering his adaptive functioning.

Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissenting opinion that Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined.

Roberts said he agrees that the state used unacceptable standards to analyze Moore's adaptive deficits, but disagreed that it erred in analyzing Moore's intellectual functioning.

"The Court overturns the CCA's conclusion that Moore failed to present sufficient evidence of both inadequate intellectual functioning and significant deficits in adaptive behavior without even considering 'objective indicia of society's standards' reflected in the practices among the states," he wrote.

"The Court instead crafts a constitutional holding based solely on what it deems to be medical consensus about intellectual disability."

Source: thehill.com, March 28, 2017

Texas Used Wrong Standard in Death Penalty Cases, Justices Rule

 Bobby J. Moore
Bobby J. Moore
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday continued a trend toward limiting capital punishment, rejecting Texas’ approach to deciding which intellectually disabled people must be spared the death penalty.

Writing for the majority in the 5-to-3 decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Texas had failed to keep up with current medical consensus, relied too heavily on I.Q. scores and took account of factors rooted in stereotypes.

“Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. She was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The case was the latest in a series of decisions refining the court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which barred the execution of the intellectually disabled as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Atkins decision gave states substantial discretion to decide just who was, in the language of the day, “mentally retarded.”

But the decision did set out a general framework. It said a finding of intellectual disability required proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low I.Q. scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said I.Q. scores under “approximately 70” typically indicated disability.

The case before the court on Tuesday concerned Bobby J. Moore, who has been on death row since 1980 for fatally shooting a 72-year-old Houston supermarket clerk, James McCarble, during a robbery.

Justice Ginsburg wrote that Mr. Moore’s I.Q. was in the range of 69 to 79, meaning that other factors had to be considered. In dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that only two I.Q. scores had been found reliable, of 78 and 74.

“The court’s ruling on intellectual functioning turns solely on the fact that Moore’s I.Q. range was 69 to 79 rather than 70 to 80,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

The reliable scores were enough, he said, to decide the case and to allow Mr. Moore’s execution.

Justice Ginsburg said the courts have more work to do when I.Q. scores are close to the line. For instance, she wrote, Mr. Moore had reached his teenage years without having learned the most fundamental things.

“At 13,” she wrote, “Moore lacked basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year, and the seasons; he could scarcely tell time or comprehend the standards of measure or the basic principle that subtraction is the reverse of addition.”

Click here to read the full article

Source: The New York Times, Adam Liptak, March 28, 2017

The Supreme Court Keeps Tinkering With Death

It’s been more than two decades since Justice Harry Blackmun renounced the death penalty, calling it a “failed” experiment and writing that “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” By refusing to stop the use of capital punishment, the Supreme Court has consigned itself to tinkering with the death machine, trying in vain to make a barbaric, irrational system appear predictable and just.

The latest tweak came Tuesday, when the court tossed out the death sentence of Bobby James Moore, who was convicted in 1980 for murdering a supermarket clerk during a robbery. Mr. Moore has intellectual disabilities — among other things, his I.Q. is in the 70s, he “lacked basic understanding of the days of the week, the months of the year and the seasons” at the age of 13, and he failed out of ninth grade.

After the Supreme Court barred the execution of people with intellectual disabilities in 2002, Mr. Moore challenged his death sentence. A state court ruled in his favor, finding that under current medical standards Mr. Moore was so disabled that executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban of cruel and unusual punishments.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, reversed that decision. The lower court, it said, had mistakenly applied a newer definition of intellectual disability. But Texas case law relied on an older definition, and used a seven-factor test drawn up by a judge in 2004 to determine whether someone has sufficiently severe disabilities to be spared. For example, it asks, “Has the person formulated plans and carried them through or is his conduct impulsive?” Because Mr. Moore mowed lawns, played pool and took part in the planning of the robbery, the court found that he could be executed.

The Supreme Court gives states a good amount of room to set their own intellectual-disability standards, but on Tuesday it found that Texas had crossed the line.

Writing for five members of the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the state’s approach was unconnected to modern medical consensus. Even the dissenting justices — Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. — agreed that the seven-factor test wasn’t acceptable. Instead, they argued, Mr. Moore’s I.Q. score was high enough to render him fit for execution.

Tuesday’s decision was good for Mr. Moore and perhaps a handful of other inmates, although it came too late for many others. More than anything, it drove home the futility of the tortured, macabre exercises the court engages in whenever it deals with capital punishment.

The real question is not whether Mr. Moore’s I.Q. is 69 or 74, or whether he knows the difference between Monday and Thursday — it’s why a few states still insist on engaging in a practice that the rest of the developed world rejected long ago, and why the Supreme Court refuses to end it for good.

Source: The New York Times, The Editorial Board, March 29, 2017

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Japan: Death-row inmate convicted of killing 4 in 1993 dies of illness

Gallows trap door, Tokyo Detention Center
Gallows trap door, Tokyo Detention Center
TOKYO — Gen Sekine, a former pet breeder on death row for killing four people in Saitama Prefecture in 1993, died Monday while in detention, a person familiar with his condition said.

The 75-year-old inmate—who was convicted of conspiring with his former wife Hiroko Kazama to kill three people in a financial dispute stemming from his dog breeding business—is believed to have died of an illness, according to the source. Kazama, 60, is also on death row.

Sekine, who was also convicted of a separate killing the same year, died at the Tokyo Detention House on Monday morning. He had collapsed there in November last year, according to the source.

In 1993, he murdered a 39-year-old company employee, a senior member of a crime syndicate and the man’s driver by making them swallow poison capsules. He then dismembered their bodies before incinerating and abandoning the remains, according to a court ruling.

In the separate case, Sekine murdered a 54-year-old woman after selling dogs of foreign origin to her in a scam.

Sekine and Kazama were initially arrested in January 1995. In March 2001, a district court in Saitama Prefecture sentenced them to death for committing, in the words of its presiding judge, “cruelly ruthless and extremely heinous crimes.”

The Tokyo High Court rejected the pair’s appeal in July 2005, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision in June 2009.

Source: Japan Today, March 28, 2017

Murder suspect extradited from Argentina

TOKYO — A 44-year-old Japanese man who has been on the international wanted list in connection with the murder of a Chinese woman in Japan in 2010 has been arrested after he was extradited from Argentina, police said.

The suspect, Tomoyasu Takiya, was arrested upon his arrival at Tokyo’s Haneda airport late Friday night, Fuji TV reported. 

Police said he has initially been charged with stealing a cash card belonging to the Chinese woman, Shi Jieying, who was found strangled to death in her apartment in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in August of 2010.

Police said convenience store surveillance camera footage showed Takiya, who has admitted he knew the victim, using her cash card to withdraw 10,000 yen from the store’s ATM. 

He left Japan before the victim’s body was discovered and his whereabouts remained a mystery until he was seen in Buenos Aires earlier this month.

Police said they expect to upgrade the charge to murder after interrogating Takiya.

Source: Japan Today, March 26, 2017

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Boris Johnson refuses help for innocent Florida death-row Brit

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
The Foreign Secretary has refused to support the last appeal of a 78-year-old Briton, who has spent 3 decades in a US prison for a crime he did not commit.

British businessman Kris Maharaj was arrested in Florida in 1986 and sentenced to death for murder, despite compelling evidence of his innocence. 

Since Mr Maharaj’s conviction, human rights organization Reprieve has established - through six people affiliated with a Colombian drug cartel - that the cartels committed the crime.

Mr Maharaj has filed a final appeal against his original conviction in the US federal courts, asking the court to consider the new evidence of his innocence. Clive Stafford Smith, founder of Reprieve and Mr Maharaj’s lawyer, has asked Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to submit an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief from the British Government.

However, in a recent letter to Reprieve, Mr Johnson confirmed that the Government would not submit such a briefing. His letter said that the Government's position "still stands" - referring to previous correspondence in which ministers said it would not be "appropriate” to support Mr Maharaj's case.

Mr Johnson’s predecessors have previously intervened with amicus briefs for British prisoners and businesses. Three years ago, the Foreign Office commissioned four lawyers from an international law firm to intervene on behalf of BP in litigation surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, saying the case “implicates the rights of one of the United Kingdom’s largest companies”.

The Foreign Secretary’s refusal to intervene in the case comes amid fresh concerns for Mr Maharaj’s wellbeing. Already confined to a wheelchair, Mr Maharaj was recently hospitalised after contracting a potentially fatal flesh-eating bacteria, due to unsanitary prison conditions.

Speaking to BBC Five Live in an interview broadcast this morning, Kris’ wife Marita said the couple had received "very little help" from ministers. She urged Mr Johnson to "do something" to support him, saying: “We are nearly 80 years old. Time is passing - we have the hope that everything is going to be okay, but we had that hope so many times. It's a horrible feeling. We've been disappointed so many times." She added that she believed the authorities in Florida "know he is innocent."

Senior Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley has supported Mr Maharaj’s request for a fresh hearing.

Commenting, Clive Stafford Smith – Mr Maharaj’s lawyer at Reprieve – said: “It’s deeply disappointing that, while the UK Government will intervene in a case involving a British firm, Boris Johnson won’t support an elderly, innocent Brit who has been through a 30-year ordeal in prison. Kris Maharaj doesn’t have much time left – all he and his family want is one last chance to reverse decades of injustice. Mr Johnson must meaningfully support Kris’ final bid for freedom.”

⇨ The Foreign Office's letter to Reprieve is available on request.

⇨ Further detail on Kris Maharaj’s case is available at the Reprieve website, here.

Source: Reprieve, March 28, 2017

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Eight Arkansas death row inmates sue to block executions over 10 days

Arkansas' death chamber
Arkansas' death chamber
(Reuters) - Eight Arkansas death row inmates who are scheduled to die over a 10-day period in April filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday to halt their executions, saying the state's rush to the death chamber was reckless and unconstitutional.

Governor Asa Hutchinson has approved back-to-back executions for April 17, 20, 24 and 27 to make sure a difficult-to-acquire lethal injection chemicals do not expire before the state can implement the punishments.

Arkansas' last execution was in 2005, and it has faced numerous legal challenges since then about its protocols and drug procurement secrecy.

Most U.S. death penalty states abandoned multiple executions on the same day about two decades ago because of factors including the additional strain put on the families of victims, inmates and prison staff, who needed time to review procedures and decompress.

"There is no justifiable rationale to hold multiple executions on the same day. Nor is there a justifiable rationale to hold eight executions within 10 days," according to the lawsuit, filed in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The lawsuit said the state is planning its first execution in dozen years with a new prison systems head, new protocols and a new set of lethal injection drugs, including midazolam, a sedative that has been dropped by states after it was a part of a few troubled executions.

"Just one mistake at any point can have disastrous consequences," the lawsuit said.

Hutchinson has said it would be irresponsible to tell the victims' families that Arkansas had the lethal injection drugs and did not carry out the executions.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, double and triple executions on the same day have occurred 10 times, all between 1994 and 2000, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, which monitors U.S. capital punishment.

No state has executed eight prisoners in 10 days, and only one, Texas, has executed eight prisoners in a calendar month, it said.

"This is unprecedented and it is reckless," said Robert Dunham, the center's executive director.

Oklahoma was the last state to schedule a double execution, in April 2014. Its lethal injection protocol failed on the first execution, however, and the state postponed the second one.

Source: Reuters, Jon Herskovitz, March 27, 2017

Stop Executions in Arkansas - support Death Penalty Action!

Eight executions have been scheduled in the span of ten days (two a day for four days in April) starting the day after Easter – all because the lethal injection drugs are expiring. DeathPenaltyAction.org is on the ground in Arkansas working with the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to assist in stopping the executions. You can help!

Death Penalty Action launched on March 15, 2017, with its very first project being to assist the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty with its work to stop four double executions in 10 days. Arkansas has not had an execution since 2005. Now it wants to restart a process known to be racist, arbitrary, expensive and prone to error. If Arkansas carries out all 8 executions, it will be at a rate unmatched by any state since the United States resumed executions in 1977.

You can help stop the executions by supporting Death Penalty Action.

Death Penalty Action joins a broad network of organizations making up the movement to abolish the death penalty, some of whom are also helping in Arkansas. Death Penalty Action's focus is on filling needs which are not otherwise being met, and lifting up the visibility of this issue so that more people know about it and are driven to act.

Death Penalty Action (DPA) will provide high visibility resources, support, educational and direct action events and activities within the broader anti-death penalty movement. DPA is led by Abraham Bonowitz and Scott Langley, two seasoned anti-death penalty organizers and movement leaders.

Your support today for Death Penalty Action builds our capacity to lend our experience and expertise to the work of our allies on the ground in Arkansas and elsewhere. It will pay the basic costs any start-up has, from salaries and office equipment to the expenses of the direct services we offer. Most immediately, that includes travel and related expenses in Arkansas.

Please invest generously for the greatest impact! Thank you.

Source: DeathPenaltyAction.org - A start-up to STOP EXECUTIONS!, March 2017

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Iran: death sentences for expression of opinion

Iranian courts have sentenced three individuals, including a woman, to death for the expression of their opinion.

Iran Human Rights (MAR 27 2017): Three prisoners by the names of Sina Dehghan, Mohammad Nouri and Marjan Davari have reportedly been sentenced to death by Iranian courts based solely on opinions or beliefs they expressed.

"Verdicts like the ones issued to Sina Dehghan, Mohammad Nouri and Marjan Davari are reminiscent of the ones issued in the medieval times. The international community must speak out about their death sentences. We call for global condemnation," says Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the spokesperson for Iran Human Rights.

According to close sources, Sina Dehghan, a resident of Tehran, was arrested on October 21, 2015 by Ministry of Intelligence agents from the city of Arak. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Dehghan was reportedly just finishing up his mandatory military service at a base in Tehran operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Close sources say that prior to his arrest, Sina Dehghan along with Mohammad Nouri, Sahar Elyasi, and an individual under the age of 18 used the messenger app "Line" to share content that the judicial and security authorities in Iran consider offensive to Islam.

Branch 1 of the criminal court in the Markazi province, presided by Judge Mohamad Reza Rahmati, reportedly sentenced Sina Dehghan and Mohammad Nouri to death and Sahar Elyasi to seven years in prison. The individual under the age of 18 has reportedly not received a sentence yet and was released on bail.

In February 2017, Iran's Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences for Sina Dehghan and Mohammad Nouri and reduced Sahar Elyasi's sentence to three years in prison. Additionally, these three individuals were sentenced by a Revolution Court to 16 months in prison on the charge of insulting the Supreme Leadership.

Sina Dehghan was reportedly physically beaten at the time of his arrest. And when he was held in Arak's Ministry of Intelligence detention centre, he was reportedly mistreated and subjected to torture and pressured to give forced confessions.

"Sina Dehghan, who is 21 years old, is currently held in a ward with prisoners charged with dangerous crimes, and he is experiencing many challenges there," a source close to Mr. Dehghan tells Iran Human Rights.

Marjan Davari

Marjan Davari was reportedly arrested on September 24, 2015 in Karaj by Ministry of Intelligence agents for holding a class and translating a book about "Eckankar". She was sentenced to death by branch 15 of Tehran's Revolution Court, presided by Judge Salavati, on the charge of "Spreading corruption on earth".

"In order to issue the Corruption on earth charge, the court cited the topics that Ms. Davari translated and the lecture she gave - in addition to using the following accusations against her: apostasy, illegitimate relationships, gathering and colluding against the state, and membership in Eckankar," a close source tells Iran Human Rights.

Marjan Davari was detained in Ward 209 of Evin Prison where she was not allowed any contact with her family or lawyer for four months. She is currently held in Gharchak Varamin Prison located in the city of Rey (Tehran province). In February 2017, she was transferred to this prison from Evin's women's ward.

Source: Iran Human Rights, March 27, 2017

Iranian Teen ‘Tricked Onto Death Row’ After Confessing to Blasphemy

Sina Dehghan
Sina Dehghan
An Iranian facing the death penalty for insulting Islam was allegedly tricked into signing his own death warrant.

Sina Dehghan was 19 when he was arrested by the Iranian revolutionary guard for insulting the national religion via an instant messaging app.

According to human rights activists, he was fooled into signing a confession in the belief that prosecutors would be released without punishment.

But, having signed the confession document, Iranian authorities allegedly went back on their promise – and Dehghan is now stuck on death row with little hope.

According to a press release by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), his death penalty – punishment for “insulting the prophet” was confirmed in January.

He was also reportedly found guilty of the lesser charge of insulting the supreme leader – which carries a 16-month prison sentence.

Almost all Iranian executions are carried out by hanging.

A source close to Dehghan told the CHRI: “During his interrogation, Sina was told that if he signed a confession and repented, he would be pardoned and let go.

“Unfortunately, he made a childish decision and accepted the charges. Then they sentenced him to death. Later he admitted that he signed the confession hoping to get freed.”

Dehghan has reportedly been in Arak Prison since his arrest in October 2015.

Iran is one of the most prolific state executioners in the world.

In recent years, the nation has been accused of executing children – although officials have denied the claims.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in much of the Islamic world. Other nations which share the penalty include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen and Nigeria.

Source: HEATSTREET, Kieran Corcoran, March 28, 2017

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An Arkansas Inmate Is Set to Be Executed Due to a Legal Technicality

Marcel Williams
Marcel Williams
Marcel Williams has spent the last 2 decades on death row, and his execution is set to take place next month. But his lawyers argue he never received a fair trial in the first place.

Marcel Williams is scheduled to die on April 24th, 2017. Williams was convicted in 1997 for the rape and murder of Stacy Errickson, a 22-year-old woman who was found in a shallow grave near Little Rock 3 years earlier. The jury deliberated Williams' sentence for just 30 minutes.

Williams is 1 of 8 men to be executed through lethal injection in Arkansas over just 4 days in April as part of the state's effort to use up its supply of midazolam before the drug expires.

But Williams' attorneys say his initial trial lawyers failed to present mitigating evidence about his traumatic upbringing to the jury in 1997. That evidence, they argue, would likely have resulted in a life sentence for Williams. Since that initial trial, a procedural technicality has prevented the legal system from righting this wrong. Now, Williams is asking the Arkansas Parole Board for clemency.

The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that the circumstances of an individual's life can influence culpability and thus sentencing. For this very reason, the Court struck down North Carolina's mandatory death sentences for 1st-degree murders in the 1976 case Woodson v. North Carolina.

"A process that accords no significance to relevant facets of the character and record of the individual offender or the circumstances of the particular offense excludes from consideration in fixing the ultimate punishment of death the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind," the Court ruled in Woodson v. North Carolina.

In Williams' case, that mitigating evidence was his violent and turbulent childhood. In written testimony to the parole board, David Lisak, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, wrote that Williams, who suffered a childhood marked by neglect, violent beatings, and sexual abuse, was "exposed to pretty much every category of traumatic experience that is generally used to describe childhood trauma." While a child, Williams' mother prostituted him out to older women in exchange for food stamps or money for bills. Lisak characterized the violence Williams endured as "unrelenting" and "savage."

Williams' trial attorneys now claim, according to Williams' petition to the clemency board, that, at that time, Williams' defense team "didn't really understand what the true meaning of what mitigation was," which runs counter to the standards for capital defense attorneys that were already standard practice in the 1990s.

"Certainly by the mid-'80s it was understood that childhood trauma, abuse, parental neglect, extreme physical abuse would be powerful evidence for a jury," says Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project. "That was some of the heart of the evidence that capital defense lawyers should be looking for and investigating in their cases."

The lawyer responsible for Williams' appeal also failed to present this evidence at the proceedings requesting a new trial in 2000 - despite the fact that the request was based on the argument that his trial attorneys did not provide adequate counsel when they failed to present mitigating evidence to the jury.

A new crop of attorneys took over Williams' case in 2006 and filed a petition in a federal district court to present evidence about Williams' troubled childhood. And they succeeded in overturning Williams' death sentence, at least temporarily. "[I]t is reasonably probable that but for the errors and omissions of his lawyers the jury would have returned a verdict to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole rather than a sentence of death," Chief Justice Leon Holmes found in 2007. Judge Holmes ordered the state to grant Williams a new sentencing hearing or change his sentence from death to life without parole. But the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his decision on the grounds that the federal court could not consider evidence that was never presented in state courts. In other words, despite the validity of the evidence, Williams no longer had the right to present it, due to his lawyers' errors.

"It's kind of astonishing to me that the court is basically saying, 'there's evidence out there, we know its out there, there's no problems with it, except a procedural problem, but let's go ahead and approve the death sentence,'" Stubbs says.

"A lot of times what the courts will say is they are protecting the law, and they have to follow the rule of the law or its not any good, and to a degree that's true," says Jason Kearney, one of the attorneys who took up Williams' case in 2006. "But ... when someone's life is on the line I think there's an exception to any rule that ought to come into play."

The Williams' parole board hearing on Monday will be the last chance for this evidence to make a difference in his sentence, but the board rarely grants clemency in capital cases, Kearney says. A negative outcome for Williams would also set a troubling precedent for anyone else who has a similar path to clemency.

"For all of this compelling mitigation information to just go unconsidered and to have never been put in front of a jury, the legal system really fails when this happens," Kearney says. "If the clemency board doesn't recognize that, then they're really not serving their purpose."

Source: Pacific Standard Magazine, March 27, 2017

Victim says death row inmate should not be executed

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Attorneys for the eight inmates scheduled for lethal injections next month filed a motion Monday asking a federal judge to block their client’s executions.

This comes the same day the Arkansas Parole Board announced it would not recommend clemency for death row inmates, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee, who both claimed innocence and asked for a sentence reduction Friday.

Monday, Marcel Williams asked for clemency. Though, he didn't try to claim innocence, he instead begged for forgiveness and the chance to make a positive impact by reducing his sentence to life without parole.

“This man has turned his life around, and he’s found God," said Dina Windle, who claims she was abducted, raped, and tied up by Marcel Williams 22 years ago. She managed to escape and is now asking the parole board to give Williams another chance at life.

“So he can help others who can see that example he has set and to say ‘that’s the wrong path,’” said Windle.

Williams asked for forgiveness from his victims during the hearing, saying, “To those I’ve hurt, ‘I’m sorry’ is not enough.”

An emotional Williams reflected on his past actions and on his childhood. He was abused and neglected. Now, he claims to be a changed man and wants clemency.

"Being in this situation has forced me to look at myself, and sometimes you don’t like the person you see looking back at you. So, you do what you can to change that, and I’ve tried," said Williams.

Williams is on death row for killing 22 year old Stacy Errickson in 1994. He was found guilty of abducting her from a gas station, raping, and suffocating the young mother of two. Her body was found in a shallow grave weeks later.

“Stacy wasn’t raised by a daddy. She didn’t have one, and her twin brother Tracy didn’t have one," said Carolyn Moore, Errickson’s mother who wants Williams executed. “Neither one of those were in jail, so that’s no excuse for these convicts."

"I still think of her every day and always will," said Trista Wussick who was babysitting Erickson's kids at the time of her disappearance. “Marcel Williams is my boogie man. He doesn’t deserve any mercy."

The Arkansas Parole board has not announced whether they recommend clemency for Williams yet. Another clemency hearing is scheduled for Friday for two more men.

Source: KTHV-TV, March 27, 2017

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