2017-06-01 15:15:44 UTC
Death Row Solitary: 'Their Walls Have Driven Them Mad'
Anthony Graves emerged from solitary confinement over 6 years ago to become a
national crusader for justice reform, but it took a recent report by
researchers at the University of Texas at Austin to add new urgency to his
campaign to reform the practice in his own state.
Graves spent more than 18 years in the Texas prison system, including 16 years
in the all-solitary Allan B. Polunksy Unit, after being convicted for murders
that he didn't commit. He was released in 2010 after DNA evidence helped
exonerate him - but the trauma of his nearly 2 decades behind bars is with him
Graves started his own foundation - with about $250,000 the state compensated
him for the years he was wrongfully imprisoned - to support his efforts. His
argument that solitary confinement on death row is inhumane has been reinforced
by the study published earlier this spring by the Human Rights Clinic at the
University of Texas School of Law-Austin, entitled "Designed to Break You:
Human Rights Violations on Texas' Death Row."
The study's title, he believes, couldn't be more accurate.
"Every day you have something going on in solitary confinement," Graves, who
spent some 12 years of his solitary confinement on death row, told The Crime
"From men going insane, to men dropping their appeals, to men overdosing on
their medication - and some men not even being men because their walls have
driven them mad."
Texas death row inmates, according to the report, are subjected to a total ban
of visits from attorneys, friends and family; "substandard" physical and
psychological health care; and lack of access to what human rights activists
would consider "sufficient" religious services.
"Prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates'
mental health, exacerbating existing mental conditions, and causing more
prisoners to develop mental illness for the 1st time," the report said.
As of April 2017, 233 men were on death row in the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice's Polunksy Unit in Livingston, which "Texas Tough" author Robert
Perkinson called the "most lethal" death row prison "anywhere in the democratic
world." Another 6 women are housed in death row at the Mountain View Unit in
According to the UT-Austin study, inmates on death row spend an average of 14
years and 6 months housed there - most of the time in solitary.
According to a 2014 ACLU brief, Texas death-row prisoners had most of the same
privileges as those in the general prison population until 1999, when they were
effectively confined to permanent solitary confinement until their execution.
Under current conditions, according to the report, inmates on solitary are
confined to 8 by 12-foot cells for at least 22 hours per day, and are banned
from socializing or eating with other inmates. Inmates are only able to see out
a small window in their cells by rolling their mattresses and standing on them.
A bill calling for an Office of Independent Oversight Ombudsman for the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which would increase transparency in the
prison system was considered by the Texas legislature this session, but failed
to move forward.
The problem is not confined to Texas. According to the UT-Austin Human Rights
Clinic researchers, more than 3,000 death row inmates across 35 states are in
solitary confinement. Most are isolated due to their original capital
conviction - and not for behavior while in prison.
Some states have reformed conditions. 7 - California, Alabama, Georgia,
Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and Indiana - now allow visits on death row with family
and attorneys, for example.
But the number of exonerations has focused attention on what happens to all
prisoners who experience solitary confinement.
Graves said he was fortunate to have a support system when he was released from
prison. However, he says he suffered from PTSD, sleep deprivation and
loneliness. He was so used to having only himself for company that he had a
difficult time adjusting to the company of others.
"It's like landing on Mars," Graves said of his return to civil society. "The
whole word has changed, and you have to deal with that. You're starting to feel
like maybe you can't make it out here and you start to deal with it
"The sad part is there are no facilities or programs trying to deal with these
He believes inmates held in solitary confinement are set up for failure when it
comes to rehabilitation, and that runs counter to the purpose of any criminal
justice system. Considering that even inmates on death row could be released,
as he was, on new evidence that exonerates their charges, authorities should
not exclude those inmates from reform measures.
Researchers found "self-injury" is 8 times more likely, and suicide 5 times
more likely, in Texas' solitary confinement than in the general population.
"Men are literally going insane and attempting suicide because of the way we're
allowing the state to house death row inmates," he says.
A 2015 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas report backs up Graves'
claim. Researchers found "self-injury" is 8 times more likely, and suicide 5
times more likely, in Texas' solitary confinement than in the general
Nevertheless, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) counters that its
processes and procedures are working effectively.
In a statement emailed to The Crime Report, identical to one published in The
New York Times, and other publications, TDCJ Director Jason Clark said:
"Offenders on death row are individuals who have been convicted of heinous
crimes and given the harshest sentence possible under the law. TDCJ will
continue to ensure it fulfills its mission of public safety and house death row
Clark declined further comment on solitary confinement or any of the study's
Graves believes that conditions on death row will only improve if Texas and
other states stop seeing solitary as a "weapon" used only to punish prisoners.
"Solitary confinement shouldn't be a weapon," he said. "But the way it's
designed (currently), there is no way to properly get them ready to send them
back out to the general population (in prison) or into the world.
"It's a recipe for disaster."
Nevertheless, Doug Smith, a policy analyst at Texas Criminal Justice Coalition,
who was instrumental in pushing the bill forward, said there is evidence of
A law went into effect Sept. 1, 2015 mandating that correctional departments
conduct a mental health assessment prior to placing prisoners in solitary
confinement. The legislation was a direct result of the ACLU study, which
called for TDCJ to exclude people with mental illness from being placed in
Smith, an ex-inmate who served some of his sentence in solitary, acknowledges
that TDCJ now offers improved services to different segments of the prison
population, including a program to help some inmates transition from
administrative segregation back into the general prison population.
But other states have gone much further.
California loosened its stringent solitary confinement policies after a
successful lawsuit in 2015 that followed a series of hunger strikes staged by
inmates across the state in protest over "inhumane conditions and degrading
conditions of confinement."
The strikes, deemed the largest of its kind, garnered worldwide attention and
led to a series of legislative hearings including a lawsuit that ultimately
ended the use of long-term solitary confinement in the state.
"Prolonged solitary confinement is torture and cannot be imposed on any
"We argued that prolonged solitary confinement is torture and cannot be imposed
on any prisoner," says Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney and associate
director of legal training at CCR, which joined the lawsuit in 2012.
"We successfully settled the case based on California agreeing to release
thousands of prisoners who'd been in solitary confinement for decades into
general population prisons. Under the settlement, California no longer puts
prisoners in solitary based on gang association alone which is how so many
people ended up there for so long."
Meeropol said Texas appears to be out-of-step with the rest of the country
which is moving away from solitary confinement.
"We've seen several states over the last decade recognize that solitary
confinement is not necessary for prison security," she states. "In fact, it's
counter-productive, and based on the (UT-Austin) report, it seems clear that
Texas' solitary confinement system violates the Eighth Amendment and is
desperately in need of reform."
In March of this year, 3 death row prisoners in Louisiana filed a lawsuit on
behalf of all death row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola,
asking for a change to the prison???s policy that automatically places all of
them in solitary confinement without opportunity to challenge their placement.
Betsy Ginsberg, director of the Civil Rights Clinic and clinical associate
professor of law at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law,
believes such lawsuits can set a pattern for change elsewhere in the country.
"Prisons have a set of factors to take into account to determine what level of
security a prisoner needs," she said. "It doesn't need to rely just on
someone's sentence..... It should be how well they behave inside a prison."
Ginsberg said the growing opposition to solitary confinement has been boosted
by statements from Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy.
"The view that is gaining consensus is that it is inhumane," she said.
That's encouraging to Graves, who has been crisscrossing the state to provide
resources to the wrongfully convicted and ensure they have support to re-enter
back into society. Graves was influential in convincing a key witness to
testify in Alfred Brown's case, the latest Texas death row exoneree.
He has also in demand as a speaker on criminal justice issues at universities
and organizations across the country. Recent appearances include: the American
Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project's 25th anniversary with
retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and the Anti-Defamation
League's Summer Association Program.
Graves also testified at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Hearing on Solitary
Confinement led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), and frequently presents at ACLU
Continuing Legal Education workshops.
Even as he sees reform happening in other states, he worries he will still wait
a long time before anything changes in his home state.
"Texas laws are disconnected from the reality on the streets," said Graves, who
is now studying for a criminal justice degree through an online program with
the University of Maryland.
"[It's] one of the worst states when it comes to inhumane punishment."
(source: Christine Bolanos, a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas, covers
government, education, human interest features and business for numerous
international, national and local outlets----thecrimereport.org)
7 jurors chosen as selection in Leeton Thomas double-homicide trial resumes
A feed mill manager, a retired elementary school teacher and a college student
majoring in finance were among seven jurors chosen Wednesday in Lancaster
County Court for the double-homicide trial of Leeton Thomas of East Drumore
Jury selection was scheduled to enter a 3rd day Thursday as attorneys work to
seat a total of 12 jurors and 2 alternates.
Prosecutors are seeking to convict Thomas, 39, in the stabbing deaths of an
East Drumore Township woman and her 16-year-old daughter, both witnesses in his
sexual molestation case.
If convicted of 1st-degree, or premeditated murder, Thomas faces an immediate
penalty hearing at which the jury will impose a sentence of death by lethal
injection or life in prison without possibility of parole.
State police accuse Thomas, who lived on Conowingo Road, of breaking into the
basement of a house on Spring Valley Road in East Drumore Township and fatally
stabbing Lisa Scheetz, 44, and Hailey Scheetz, 16.
Scheetz's 15-year-old daughter, Paige, survived stab wounds to the chest,
shoulder and back. First Assistant District Attorney Christopher Larsen listed
her as a prosecution witness.
(source: Associated Press)
PA moratorium doesn't solve costly death penalty problem
Execution proceedings happen in the state of Pennsylvania 5 times each year -
yet the state hasn't executed an inmate since 1999.
Mock executions are routinely performed to ensure that in the event of an
execution, the prison guards and doctors would be prepared. But right now the
state isn't permitted to actually execute any inmates.
That's because in 2015 Gov. Tom Wolf signed a moratorium on executions in the
state while a bipartisan task force investigates the cost, history and
effectiveness of capital punishment. Since the state of Pennsylvania carried
out its last execution 18 years ago, hundreds of people have sat on death row
in limbo - currently, 165 inmates await their executions.
Seeing numbers like those may have been what prompted Gov. Wolf to institute
the moratorium in February of 2015, but the review itself has actually been
underway since 2011 - and nearly 6 years later it still isn't completed. It's
far beyond overdue at this point, and now the Commonwealth must decide whether
to reinstate capital punishment or end the practice altogether.
Since the moratorium began, not much has changed. The last execution carried
out in Pennsylvania's chambers - which are at the state Correctional
Institution in Rockview - was in 1999 against Gary Heidnik, who received 2
death sentences in addition to his cumulative prison term of 150 to 300 years.
Today, the list of condemned prisoners is still growing - but the names on it
don't seem to matter to the state.
Among the condemned are 165 prisoners who are reduced to little more than their
name, a single letter abbreviating their race and their sentencing date. These
prisoners have been in solitary confinement - a practice that causes inmates to
suffer from anxiety, depression, insomnia and paranoia - since their sentencing
dates, which date back to 1983, over 30 years ago.
And these are expensive years - each inmate in solitary confinement costs the
state $10,000 a year more than their counterparts serving life sentences
without parole. Trials can vary in cost, but each trial costs taxpayers
millions of dollars, and in capital punishment cases there can often be
multiple trials, increasing the state's spending in a period of severe budget
Beyond the price of housing and sentencing the condemned inmates, the state
also constantly maintains the execution facility. While we don't know the daily
operation cost of the facility, we do know that an investigation by the Reading
Eagle found that between 1978 and 2014, the state spent over $800 million on
its capital punishment proceedings - nearly $300 million per execution actually
We also know that the state currently sits in a budget deficit of nearly $600
million, which would be reduced if the state decided to end capital punishment
- but it can't seem to decide, given its failure to produce the review.
The issue isn't with the morals of capital punishment - that argument requires
far more consideration, and even then there are no clear answers. But the issue
is with Pennsylvania's course of action. By placing a moratorium on capital
punishment and failing to produce a long overdue review, the state continues to
cost its taxpayers - a clear example of the state failing to take decisive
action to address a pressing issue.
The answer is simple - the state needs to decide with finality whether or not
we will be among the other 31 states that practice capital punishment. Until
then, we are merely wasting our money, waiting for someone to decide if $272
million per procedure is worth it - but while the morality of the issue is
complex, the economics of it seem much more simple.
(source: The Pitt News Editorial Board)
4 Cumberland murderers try again to get off death row
4 death row inmates convicted of murders in Cumberland County on Tuesday asked
the North Carolina Supreme Court to give them another chance to prove that
racism was an illegal factor in their trials.
2 former judges from the North Carolina Court of Appeals and other lawyers
filed briefs on Tuesday to bolster the request.
The 4 inmates previously used the now-repealed North Carolina Racial Justice
Act to get off death row in 2012. The Racial Justice Act said that if a death
row inmate can prove to a judge that racism tainted the conduct of his murder
trial, then his death sentence must be commuted to life in prison without
All 4 were returned to death row following a December 2015 Supreme Court ruling
that overturned their reprieves and sent their cases back to Cumberland County
(source: The Fayetteville Observer)
Florida Supreme Court revising death penalty jury instructions
The Florida Supreme Court is one step closer to establishing new capital crime
Comments have rolled into the court over the past month about its proposed
amendments to the jury instructions in 1st-degree murder cases, which the court
originally posted for public viewing on April 13. The commenting period ended
May 29. 5 commenters have entered requests for oral arguments in the case. None
have yet been scheduled.
8 Marion County defendants and 2 local death row inmates are waiting on the
finalization of the jury instructions. 7 of the 8 defendants have not yet gone
to trial to determine whether they are guilty of the state's highest crime; the
other, Kelvin Coleman, is waiting for the penalty phase of his trial to
determine his fate.
Death row inmates Renaldo McGirth, sentenced in 2008, and William Kopsho,
sentenced in 2009, have been granted re-sentencings by the state's highest
State Supreme Court justices are faced with revising jury instructions after
Gov. Rick Scott signed new regulations in March requiring a unanimous jury
decision in death penalty cases. The regulation also requires that juries, not
judges, find the aggravating factors in a case worthy of sentencing the
defendant to death.
The verdict form given to penalty phase juries has been completely revised to
lead jurors through the process of determining the correct sentence.
Jurors must first unanimously find that at least 1 aggravating factor - such as
if the defendant is a previously convicted felon or the defendant knowingly
created a great risk of death - was established by the state beyond a
reasonable doubt. They must then find whether the factors are sufficient to
warrant a possible death sentence. If the jury is not unanimous on either of
these topics, the defendant will be ineligible for the death penalty and will
receive life in prison without parole.
Another major revision is that definitions of aggravating factors and
mitigating circumstances and instructions on how to determine whether a witness
is credible have been moved to the final jury instructions, meaning the jury
will hear them before heading into deliberation instead of before hearing
This change made initial jury instructions significantly shorter: a brief
explanation of the trial process and what the jurors should consider are paired
with brief definitions of key terms, which are readdressed in the final
Most of the comments about the new jury instructions simply concerned word
choice - using "proven" instead of "established," or "verdict" instead of
"recommendation," for examples - and additional explainer language.
Howard Dimmig, a public defender in the 12th Judicial Circuit, though, believes
the state Supreme Court needs to complete a "comprehensive re-evaluation of the
standard jury instructions." In the 6-page document he submitted as commentary,
he states the last comprehensive review of capital crime jury instructions
occurred in 2004.
The new unanimous jury rulings "constitute a paradigm shift in Florida's death
penalty jurisprudence which necessitates a complete reassessment of the
standard jury instructions," he wrote.
Only after re-examining the instructions should the state Supreme Court adopt
final jury instructions, Dimmig wrote.
The Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International
University's College of Law and the Florida Association of Criminal Defense
Lawyers submitted a joint commentary. Their biggest critique to the
instructions was about the jury verdict form.
They want the verdict form to be modified to show that the jury's findings
"must not only be unanimous, but must be based on proof beyond a reasonable
When the Florida Supreme Court released the revised instructions, it stated
they could be used immediately until further notice. It is unknown when the
final instructions will be published, but Marion County's 1st death penalty
decision is slated for August: Coleman's penalty phase trial is set to begin
(source: The Ocala Star Banner)
Penalty phase begins in Orance County death penalty trial
An Orange County jury will likely decide this week whether a man convicted in
the murder of an 83-year-old woman should be sentenced to life in prison or
Juan Rosario, 30, was convicted in April of murdering Elena Ortega, as well as
robbing and setting fire to her home in 2013.
The same jurors who found him guilty returned Wednesday to hear opening
arguments regarding whether he should be put to death or get life in prison.
All 12 will have to recommend a death sentence for him to be sent to death row.
The governor reassigned the case from Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis
Ayala to Ocala-based prosecutor Brad King after Ayala announced she will not
seek the death penalty for anyone. This is the 1st capital case being tried in
the region since that announcement.
"There was a careful plan or prearranged designation by Juan Rosario to commit
the murder of Mrs. Ortega," prosecutor Kenneth Nunnelley said. "He went back to
her house because she saw his face."
Jurors found Rosario guilty after about an hour of deliberation last month. The
state's main witness was his girlfriend at the time, who said he came home with
blood splattered in his shirt and told her he robbed an old lady, and that he
had to go back and kill her because she woke up and saw his face.
Ortega's belongings were found buried in Rosario's backyard months later, after
his girlfriend came forward and told deputies she buried them there.
On Wednesday, jurors wiped away tears as Ortega's daughter, Elena Wilson, took
the stand and talked about how much her mother meant to her.
"She was my cheerleader, my best friend, my guardian angel," Wilson said,
reading from a prepared statement as photos of her mother flashed on a screen
behind her. "I truly don't wish this on anyone. Until this day, I still repeat
the word 'mom' many times every day, looking for her love, her attention, her
Jurors also heard from Wilson's husband, Ortega's son-in-law, who talked about
how welcome Ortega made him feel in her home; and Ortega's son, who talked
about the sacrifices his mother made to keep them well and happy when they were
growing up in Cuba.
The defense will get its chance on Thursday, when jurors hear about Rosario's
childhood and family life, which defense attorney Luis Davila described as
"dysfunctional, to say the least." Davila was 1 of 5 children raised by a
single mother, Davila said. His mother's live-in boyfriend shot and killed her,
"He was under the influence of extreme mental and emotional disturbance at the
time of this incident," he said.
(source: Orlando Sentinel)
Prosecutors cleared to seek death penalty in disemboweling and other cases
The death penalty is back on the table for a Sunrise man who admitted to police
that he disemboweled his girlfriend, and for a Miami man charged with killing
his ex-girlfriend and dumping her body in a ditch in Delray Beach, an appeals
court ruled Wednesday.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal struck down a February ruling by Broward
Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes that blocked the state from seeking the death
penalty against Fidel Lopez, 26, who is charged with first degree murder in the
gruesome slaying of Maria Lizette Nemeth, whose remains were found in her
apartment at the Colonnade Residences in Sunrise on Sept. 20, 2015.
The same ruling applies to the case against John Eugene Chapman, who is facing
a murder charge in Palm Beach County for the death of his ex-girlfriend,
Vanessa Williams Bristol.
Death penalty prosecutions delayed despite new state law
Both defendants were set to go to trial earlier this year, when the status of
the state's death penalty was in flux. The judges in their cases ruled that the
death penalty could not be sought because the indictments did not include the
"aggravating factors" a jury would have to find in order to recommend
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Krista Marx issued her ruling in the Chapman case in
January. Holmes' ruling came a few weeks later. Prosecutors appealed both
cases, arguing that aggravating factors are not always clear by the time a
grand jury decides to indict.
In a motion in the Lopez case, prosecutor Tom Coleman argued that recent
Florida Supreme Court decisions make it clear that a jury needs to find that
aggravating factors have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, but grand
juries, which meet closer to the beginning of murder cases, do not need to make
"The Florida Supreme Court has consistently and unequivocally rejected the
argument that aggravators must be alleged in the indictment," Coleman wrote.
The appeals court agreed with the prosecutor, putting the Lopez and Chapman
trials back on track for jury selection, barring any other delays that are
sought by defense lawyers.
Attorneys for Lopez had demanded a speedy trial in early February, and jury
selection was scheduled to begin in the middle of that month. The speedy trial
demand came at a time when Florida had no legal death penalty procedure in
place, giving Holmes a second reason to keep it from being considered.
The governor signed a new death penalty law in March that requires a unanimous
jury recommendation. Wednesday's appeals court ruling said the new law
addresses concerns about the constitutionality of the state's procedure.
Information on Chapman's next court date was not posted on the Palm Beach
County Clerk's website Wednesday.
Lopez is due back in court for a status conference on Friday. Defense lawyers
have not said whether they will proceed with their demand for a speedy trial.
Attorney Melisa McNeill said in February that the defense was ready for trial,
brushing off questions about whether the timing of the demand was intended to
capitalize on the uncertainty over the death penalty.
(source: Sun Sentinel)
Death row inmate set to die in June challenges midazolam ruling
An Alabama death row inmate has asked a federal appeals court to block his
execution for the slayings of 3 people 23 years ago.
Robert Melson, 45, is set to die by lethal injection on June 8. His attorney,
John Palombi with the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama,
filed a motion last week in the 11th District Court of Appeals asking for the
execution to be stayed until a judge can review and rule on Melson's appeal.
A lower court previously dismissed Melson's challenge to Alabama's 3-drug
lethal injection method of execution because the motion was filed past the
deadline, court records show. His appeal to the 11th Circuit states that the
court should conduct a hearing on Melson's method of execution challenge, and
delay the execution until those issues are resolved.
Melson was convicted in Etowah County for fatally shooting 3 people, and
injuring another, at a Gadsden Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits restaurant in April
1994. He has been on death row since May 1996.
Another man, Cuhuatemoc Peraita, was also convicted in the crime. Peraita was
originally sentenced to life in prison but was moved to Alabama's death row
after his conviction for his role in stabbing another inmate to death in 2001.
Employees Tamika Collins, 18, Nathaniel Baker, 17, and Darrell Collier, 23,
were killed in the shooting. Bryant Archer was the only survivor and identified
Melson as the shooter. Prosecutors said Peraita planned the crime.
Melson's previous 2 appeals were denied. He has exhausted his direct appeal,
state postconviction remedies, and federal habeas remedies, the Alabama
Attorney General's Office previously stated.
Court documents filed in Melson's case argue the switch to midazolam from
pentobarbital has caused a "method of execution that has failed to work
properly in 4 states, including Alabama."
The documents state the district court that denied Melson's case on the
midazolam switch must hold a trial on the issues raised in his motion. It
continues, "Mr. Melson's execution should be stayed pending the resolution of
his and the other challenge to Alabama's method of execution."
The filing seeking a halt to the execution states a list of reasons why the
stay should be granted: Melson meets the standard for being granted a stay,
would likely be successful on appeal, his motion should not have been dismissed
in the lower courts, Melson is not required to suggest a 3-drug alternative
method of execution, and he will suffer "irreparable harm" if a stay is not
The document also states Melson's attorneys should be able to use either cell
phones or landline phones during the time of his execution, should something go
wrong. According to court documents, prohibiting phones in the prison and
witness rooms violates Melson's "right to access to the courts."
Former death row inmate Tommy Arthur raised similar claims about phones and
method of execution in his appeals, but courts - including the U.S. Supreme
Court - denied his motions. He was executed on May 25.
The Attorney General's Office stated in its Jan. 18 motion to the Alabama
Supreme Court, "Melson committed his horrific crime many years ago, and his
conventional appeals have been completed for several years."
The office declined to comment on the newest motion.
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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