2017-05-01 14:04:48 UTC
Massive UAlbany death penalty archive goes digital----Documents 15,000+
government-sanctioned executions dating to 1608
During his life, M. Watt Espy searched libraries and courthouses across the
country gradually building what is widely considered the most comprehensive
record of executions in the country.
For decades the archive sat in stacks of boxes in his Alabama home. Next year
the archive, which is now housed on the far shelves of the special collections
library at the University at Albany, will be available digitally to researchers
across the world.
The collection includes over 28,000 handwritten index cards describing
individual executions as well as supporting documents from news sources,
courthouses, local histories and countless sources.
"Watt devoted his life to this hobby - let me call it - he went from courthouse
to courthouse, library to library, town to town," said Jim Acker, a
distinguished professor at UAlbany School of Criminal Justice and a death
penalty scholar who conducted an oral history with Espy.
The execution archive - dubbed the Espy File - documents over 15,000
government-sanctioned executions dating to 1608. Before his work, researchers
thought there had been closer to 5,000 legal executions in American history.
The Espy File, which Espy donated to UAlbany in 2008, is the centerpiece of the
broader UAlbany Death Penalty Archive, which also includes records from
advocacy groups, lawyers and others.
Thanks to a Council on Library and Information Resources grant, the university
is undertaking an 18-month long project to digitize the Espy archive and
organize it in an easily accessible and searchable format. Once complete,
researchers will be able to log in and search thousands of executions by name,
state, method and much more. The material will be far more usable that in its
"To use any of this material, since it's in paper form, you have to come to
Albany," said Brian Keough, head of the university's special collections. (The
library does scan and send digital versions of small parts of archives to
researchers who can't make it to campus.) "What the grant will do is digitize
every index card and piece of paper," Keough said. "If you search for Conrad
Vaughn (one of thousands in the archive), you will get all of those papers
right at your fingertip."
Espy, who lived in Headland, Alabama, continued his research until he died in
The raw statistics of the archive are already available to researchers through
the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data at the University of Michigan.
Arkansas, for instance, which executed four death row inmates by lethal
injection last month, carried out 23 lethal injection executions prior to 2002.
Between 1608 and 2002, 502 people were executed in Arkansas, according to
In New York dating to the Colonial period, over 1,100 executions were carried
out, including 404 hangings, 695 electrocutions and 20 burnings. The state
abolished the death penalty a decade ago. (The archive covers "legal"
executions that were carried out in accordance with the law and does not
include "extralegal" killings like the countless lynchings of blacks in the
While the raw statistics paint a grim picture, Acker said, the details embedded
in the archive tell a much fuller story. Once available digitally in its
entirety, researchers - ranging from teams of scholars and lawyers to amateur
historians and family members digging into their past - can look into the
details of how specific executions were carried out, what the condemned's final
words were and the details of the crime that led to an execution.
There was this case from Albany, for example, an execution reported in a Boston
newsletter on July 9, 1741: "We hear that a negro belonging to John Laver,
Esq., was burnt alive for carrying a child... into the woods and there
barbarously murdering of it on the last day of May.... After a strong pursuit,
the murderer was taken and on the 8th of June was take and brought to Albany
where he was executed on the 12th."
"Here it goes so far beyond the statistical; the stories are rich with detail,"
Acker said. "They come alive in a way."
Acker said the archive also informs modern debates over the death penalty. The
archive details some cases that were ultimately overturned, including the
execution of 14-year-old George Stinney.
As states have struggled acquiring the drug combinations needed to carry out
lethal injections, lawmakers have proposed considering formerly used methods
like the firing squad. In some states, those methods are still on the books.
Want a record of old firing squad or gas chamber executions? Check the Espy
"People need to appreciate that these kinds of issues have permeated the
history of capital punishment," Acker said. "They aren't new, there have been
struggles to learn the lessons of history."
For his part, Espy was no fan of the death penalty. He told a CNN interviewer
that he changed his mind about the death penalty's deterrent value after about
6 months of researching historical executions, citing cases when alleged
victims "turned up alive" after a defendant was put to death. He estimated as
many as 1/2 of the people executed for rape might have been innocent.
"Murder is a crime against society," Espy said in his Southern drawl.
"Executions are crimes against humanity."
(source: The Daily Gazette)
Death row killers in Deltona mass murder likely to get new sentencing hearings
The 2 men sentenced to death in the most horrific mass murder in Volusia County
history will almost certainly get new sentencing hearings and a chance to
escape a lethal needle in their arm.
Troy Victorino, 40, and Jerone Hunter, 30, were sentenced to death in 2006 for
a mass murder in which they clubbed and stabbed 6 young people to death in a
house on Telford Lane in Deltona. A 3rd man, Michael Salas, 31, was sentenced
to life in the killings. And a 4th, Robert Cannon, 31, pleaded guilty to avoid
a possible death sentence and is serving life.
But following decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme
Court, Victorino and Hunter's death sentences will likely be struck down either
by a trial court or an appeals court, according to Victorino???s attorney Chris
"Troy Victorino is undoubtedly going to get a new life- or death-penalty phase
trial," Anderson said.
The higher court rulings require that jurors unanimously find and specify what
aggravating circumstances they found justifying the death penalty. And a state
Supreme Court decision requires that the jurors unanimously recommend death. In
neither Victorino's nor Hunter's cases did jurors unanimously recommend death.
State Attorney R.J. Larizza is already planning on a new penalty phase trial
for Victorino and Hunter, said Kay Shukwit. She is the mother of 19-year-old
Michelle Nathan who was slain during the bloody murders. Shukwit said she was
called to a meeting at Larizza's office this year in which he spoke to the
victims' family members, some by teleconference.
"My mouth dropped with him saying we are, not might, we are going to be having
a new trial," Shukwit said in a phone interview. "I just started crying."
The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas on Investigation Discovery will focus
on the Deltona massacre in which 6 people were clubbed and stabbed to death.
The show airs at 10 p.m. on Monday on Investigation Discovery.
The show includes interviews with Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano, former Volusia
County Sheriff Ben Johnson, former State Attorney John Tanner and Brandon
Graham who was a witness in the case. Bill Belanger, the father of victim Erin
Belanger, and Kay Shukwit, the mother of another victim, Michelle Nathan, are
Shukwit said in an interview with the News-Journal that she welcomed the chance
to talk about her daughter's life.
"I was really excited when I was asked to be interviewed and to know that this
type of show was going to be made because to me this is my type of therapy,"
The guilt phase of the trial, in which Victorino and Hunter were found guilty
of 6 counts of 1st-degree murder and other charges, won't be repeated, only the
penalty phase. But Shukwit said that will take 2 weeks or more. She said she
has no interest in reliving the horrors. She said she told prosecutors she was
"You are dragging all of us through all of this all over again," Shukwit said
she told prosecutors. "You are ripping that Band-Aid off the wound again and
here we go: crime scene photos, you are hearing everything. We are going to be
seeing Troy Victorino and Jerone Hunter in the courtroom, every single day. So
it's pretty much setting us back to, you know, 10 years ago, so it's going to
be very fresh."
Larizza's spokeswoman, Shannon Peters, declined to comment on the case or
Shukwit's description of the meeting.
Besides Shukwit's daughter Nathan, the other 5 people killed were: Erin
Belanger, 22; Roberto "Tito" Gonzalez, 28; Jonathan Gleason, 17; Francisco
"Flaco" Ayo-Roman, 30; and Anthony Vega, 34.
Nathan hid in a closet and tried pulling a blanket over her face as she pleaded
for her life, according to testimony from Salas. Her pleas did not sway Hunter
who stabbed her in the chest and hit her in the head with a bat, Salas
Shukwit will be among the people interviewed about the mass murder during a
program called "The Real Story with Maria Elena Salinas" to air at 10 p.m.
Monday on Investigation Discovery.
Other people who will be interviewed on the show are Belanger's father, Bill
Belanger, Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano, former Volusia County Sheriff Ben
Johnson, John Tanner, who was the state attorney at the time, and a witness in
the case Brandon Graham.
Tanner said the killings set a horrible record in the county's history.
"There was none worse, none more horrible and really none more senseless than
the Victorino murders," Tanner said.
He said that while the killings have at times been dubbed the Xbox murders they
were not over an Xbox.
"It wasn't really over an Xbox. It was over quote honor. Victorino felt he had
been disrespected," Tanner said in a phone interview. "And why others would
participate, why anyone would participate in something like that over any issue
let alone that, is beyond most of our ability to comprehend."
Jurors recommended Hunter get a death sentence for Gleason's murder by a vote
of 10-2, death for Gonzalez's murder by a vote of 9-3, death for Nathan's by a
vote of 10-2 and death for Vega by 9-3. Jurors recommended life sentences for
Belanger and Ayo-Roman's murder.
Hunter's attorney Ann Marie Mirialakis could not be reached for comment on
Friday. She has filed a motion before Circuit Judge Randell Rowe to vacate the
Jurors recommended death for Victorino by a vote of 10-2 for Belanger's murder,
10-2 for Ayo-Roman's, 9-3 for Gonzalez's and Gleason for 7-5. They recommended
life for the murders of Nathan and Vega.
Victorino, who is 6 feet 6 inches tall and a Latin Kings gang member, has been
described as the ringleader in the murders. But his attorney, Anderson,
disputes he was the ringleader.
Then-Circuit Judge William Parsons, who has since retired, sentenced Victorino
and Hunter to death.
Shukwit, who lives in Deltona, said she has good days and bad days. She said
she feels blessed that she still has 4 other children but misses her "oldest
"I'll see kids that went to school with Michelle and I'll see that they've
married, they had a child or 2," Shukwit said. "I missed out on Michelle
getting married. What she would be today. Who she would be today."
(source: Daytona Beach News-Jouranl)
Florida needs answers on death penalty discretion
The courtroom at the Florida Supreme Court seats 164, which may not be enough
for all the attorneys, organizations and individuals who have intervened in the
unprecedented case of Aramis Ayala v. Rick Scott.
6 groups have weighed in as friends of the court on behalf of Ayala, the state
attorney for Orange and Seminole counties who is fighting to regain the 23
murder cases that the governor assigned to another prosecutor after she said
she would not seek the death penalty in any of them
Among her supporters is a group of 45 prominent lawyers and judges, most
well-known nationally. Among them are 4 former Florida Supreme Court justices,
2 former presidents of the American Bar Association, 9 current and former
district attorneys in other states, and 4 former U.S. Justice Department
officials including Jamie Gorelick, who was Attorney General Janet Reno's
3 "friends of the court" support Scott, among them the Florida House of
Representatives and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which sided
with the man who controls their budgets rather with the colleague who is
fighting for their independence as well as hers.
1 group of families of murder victims is backing Ayala. Another is for Scott.
Despite the extraordinary interest, this case is not going to decide whether
the death penalty is as error-prone, financially wasteful and as altogether
counter-productive as Ayala correctly insists.
Florida needs answers to those questions, but capital punishment is one of
those issues where precious few politicians care to be confused by facts. As
the steam was building in Ayala v. Scott, the House of Representatives defeated
a budget amendment calling for an objective study of the costs and consequences
of the death penalty.
For the court, however, the questions are simply these: Did Ayala abuse her
discretion in deciding as she did? Did Scott abuse his in stripping her of
those 23 cases?
It's one of the most significant arguments the court will ever hear. Florida
prosecutors make perhaps tens of thousands of judgment calls every year: What
crime to charge? What crime not to charge? What plea to accept? They have even
more power than the judges in deciding who goes to prison and for how long.
Should a governor be able to supersede one of those decisions simply because he
doesn't agree with it? Carried to an extreme, that makes him a dictator.
As the brief of the 45 lawyers and judges argues, "The real issue - and the one
properly before this Court - is the independence of state attorneys to exercise
their discretion without interference from other political branches of
government. Indeed, this case puts squarely at issue the fundamental
independence of prosecutors and the judicial branch ...
"The Florida Constitution does not allow the governor of the state to support
the exercise of prosecutorial discretion only when he finds it agreeable to and
to intervene when he feels otherwise." the brief says.
This is the gist of Ayala's case, although she contends that the governor's
power to reassign state attorneys is a lot less limited than Scott's
predecessors have taken it to be. They sent in substitutes not only when some
prosecutor reported a conflict of interest, such as a relative or former client
facing charges, but also in cases of official misconduct where they believed
the resident prosecutor was compromised by friendship or indifference. But I
can recall no case like Ayala's, in which the issue is not whether to prosecute
for a crime but only whether to ask for a specific penalty.
Scott contends that Ayala made an "across the board determination not to
undertake a case-specific analysis." In effect, his lawyers say, she decided
not to exercise her prosecutorial discretion.
His position appears somewhat inconsistent with what the governor's office
wrote last year to a citizen who had complained about another state attorney.
State attorneys are independently elected, charged with "certain discretionary
duties," and answerable only to their voters, the letter said.
All this begs the question of whether Florida will be harmed in any way if
Ayala gets the cases back and the defendants she convicts go to prison for life
instead of to death row.
The answer is no. Florida would be better off.
The killers would be behind bars for life. Anyone who thinks that's getting
away with murder should consult the ghost of Aaron Hernandez. Florida would
spend a lot less money putting them in prison and keeping them there. There
would be no multiple rounds of appeals, many of them to federal courts beyond
the state's control. The families of victims wouldn't have to wait 20 or 30
years or longer for closure.
In any event, the voters of Orange and Seminole counties will have the
opportunity to pass judgment on Ayala three years from now. Why isn't Scott
willing to wait for that? Is it because that would be no help to his U.S.
Senate campaign next year?
It would be useful - and overdue - to have a comprehensive study from the
Legislature's highly capable and nonpartisan office of Office of Program Policy
Analysis and Government Accountability. Among other things, the people deserve
to know how much extra money they are spending on death cases. OPPAGA should
also be tasked to explain in detail what happens to the enormous majority of
killers who don't end up on death row. In fiscal 2015, for example, Florida
courts sent 942 people to prison for homicides ranging from manslaughter to
1st-degree murder, but only 8 to death row.
A safe guess would be that prosecutorial discretion accounted for virtually all
of that. Isn't it time to know?
(source: Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay
33 on Alabama's death row would no longer face execution under proposed bill
An Alabama senator wants to expand the recently enacted law that halted the
practice of allowing judges to impose death on convicted capital murder
defendants despite a jury's recommendation of life without the possibility of
State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, introduced a bill that would make the new law
retroactive, effectively taking more than 30 inmates off death row who were
sentenced to die by a judge's override of a jury recommendation for life
"The Alabama Legislature has admitted that this unfair and unjust and we're not
going to do it anymore in Alabama," Sanders said.
But the legislature should extend that same justice to those already on death
row due to judicial overrides, Sanders said.
There are currently 179 men and 5 women who are on Alabama's death row,
according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.
As of December, according to the federal public defender's office in
Montgomery, the number of death row inmates sentenced to die by a judge
overriding a verdict was 34. But one of those inmates - Ronald Smith - who had
their jury recommendation overridden by a judge and sentenced to death was
executed after that number was released.
Ivey signed the bill, which had been passed by the Alabama House of
Representatives on April 4.
Alabama had been the last state to allow judicial override - Florida and
Delaware stopped last year in the wake of court orders. The Alabama Legislature
enacted a law this session that did away with the practice.
But during debate over the bill Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, introduced an
amendment that stated the act would not apply retroactively to inmates
sentenced prior to enactment of the bill. The amendment was approved.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on her first full day in office on April 11 signed into
law the bill that says juries, not judges, have the final say on whether to
impose the death penalty in capital murder cases.
Sanders introduced his bill on April 20, less than 3 weeks after the
legislature had approved the bill doing away with judicial override. The bill
has not made it out of the senate's judiciary committee.
With less than 10 days left in the legislative session, it doesn't look like
Sanders' bill has a chance to make it to a vote this session. Sanders also has
bills that he submitted at the start of this year's session in February
regarding the death penalty. One seeks to repeal the death penalty and another
seeks a 3-year moratorium on it. Both those bills also appear dead in the
Sanders, an opponent of the death penalty, has submitted the bills in prior
Judicial override was initially designed to prevent runaway juries and an extra
level of procedural safeguards to prevent the unjustified imposition of the
death penalty, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty
But instead, in Alabama it has historically been used to impose death sentences
against the will of the community and has been disproportionately used in
election years in cases of white victims and African am defendants, he said.
Arkansas governor still faces execution scrutiny
After an aggressive plan to execute several inmates by the end of April put him
and Arkansas at the center of the national death penalty debate, Gov. Asa
Hutchinson was poised to return to a more familiar role as policy wonk with a
special session focused on the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion. But lingering
questions about the last execution - which included an inmate convulsing and
lurching 20 times on the gurney - is going to make shifting attention to other
issues a difficult task.
Just how much the session set to begin Monday will be overshadowed by questions
about the execution of Kenneth Williams and calls for an investigation into
potential problems was clear when Hutchinson appeared before reporters late
last week. The bulk of his 30-minute press briefing focused on the execution,
with a handful of questions about the state???s $70 million budget shortfall
and none about the Medicaid plans that will dominate the session.
Hutchinson dismissed calls from death penalty opponents and Williams' attorneys
to call for an independent investigation into the lethal injection, saying he
didn't see a need for anything beyond a routine review of the execution
procedure. Hutchinson asserted there isn't any evidence that Williams felt pain
during the execution.
"I think it's totally unjustified," Hutchinson said. "You don't call for an
independent investigation unless there's some reason for it."
Hutchinson's comments, however, are unlikely to quell calls for a deeper review
into an execution that death penalty opponents are pointing to as another
example of the problem with midazolam, the sedative used in Arkansas' 3-drug
lethal injection process. The state's initial plan to execute 8 inmates over an
11-day period was set by Hutchinson because the state's supply of the drug was
set to expire on Sunday. Arkansas instead put four men to death over an 8-day
period, after 1/2 of the executions originally scheduled were halted by the
A federal judge on Friday ordered Arkansas to preserve evidence from Williams'
body, including blood and tissue samples, which are signs more legal action is
Arkansas' lethal injection protocol won't be on the agenda when the Legislature
convenes this week and it's unlikely to come up when the governor addresses a
joint House and Senate session, but the questions about the execution could
hover over the session nonetheless.
The special session is focusing primarily on Hutchinson's plan to impose new
restrictions on the state' hybrid Medicaid expansion, which uses federal funds
to purchase private insurance for the poor. Hutchinson's proposing lowering the
program's eligibility cap, which would move 60,000 people off the expanded
coverage, and adding a work requirement for participants.
Hutchinson has touted the changes, which would need approval from the Trump
administration, as innovations in health care that could be models for other
states. Before the wrangling over the state's execution schedule, the proposals
seemed to give the Republican governor and the state a spotlight while the
future of the federal health care law remained hazy. But any attention those
changes could garner pales in comparison to the national and international
scrutiny Arkansas has faced over its multiple execution plan.
Hutchinson came across as a reluctant figure over his decision to push for the
executions, calling it a part of his job to carry out the law. That reluctance
was again apparent the day after Williams' lethal injection, when Hutchinson
was asked when he'd feel comfortable having the state carry out more
"I really don't even want to think about it right now, quite frankly,"
Hutchinson said. "You know that I do my responsibility, so if the attorney
general sends over names that are subject to execution we will start the
process over again in terms of dates, in terms of access to drugs. Even though
these victims have had justice in the cases of the 4, there's a number of
others waiting for justice."
(source: Associated Press)
Death finally gets a breather----Arkansas concludes a remarkable season of
The state of Arkansas finally concluded its hangman's festival, conducting the
last of 4 executions over 8 days. Gov. Asa Hutchinson originally set out to
impose death on 6 men, both black and white, over 8 days. He was racing the
sell-by date on the state's supply of lethal chemicals, but the courts kept
getting in his way. The hangman - perhaps he should be called the "needler"
since Arkansas uses drugs, not rope or electricity, to kill - can rest after
the stress of imposing the largest number of executions over so short a number
of days in 57 years.
Kenneth Williams, 38, who murdered a 17-year-old college cheerleader, died
Thursday night, 13 minutes after a sedative, the 1st of 3 drugs, was
administered. 3 minutes later he began thrashing on the gurney, "lurching" 15
times over a period of 10 to 15 seconds, "coughing, convulsing, lurching,
jerking with sound even with the microphone [in the execution chamber] turned
off," an Associated Press witness reported. He "lurched" 5 more times and
continued to struggle for breath until he died seconds after that. A spokesman
for the state Department of Corrections disputed The Associated Press account,
conceding that "he did shake," but only for 10 seconds.
How the condemned die is more important than the state, not only in Arkansas
but in 30 other states that take a life for a life, is willing to concede. So
has it always been. "When the English gave up boiling people alive they took
happily to hanging," writes John Deane Potter in "The Art of Hanging," a
history of the death penalty published in 1965. "Boiling human beings, which
had come down from the savage dark places of history, was gradually superseded
by hanging. This was not for any humane reason."
Pity has never had anything to do with a humane death at the hands of the
state. Boiling was inconvenient because it required a large tub and a lot of
oil, which was expensive. The guillotine is efficient, quick and perhaps the
most humane method, but it's messy and the clean-up is inconvenient. A firing
squad is quick and easy, but only if the marksmen are accurate. So the rope,
easily available, became the favorite method of the state and persisted until
someone devised the electric chair, which is often painful and not always
efficient. The condemned have occasionally caught fire. Electric chairs are
usually fashioned in the prison workshop and are sometimes badly made. Hence
cometh the poison needle.
(source: Editorial, Washington Times)
Witness to death----State should ensure transparency in executions
Last Thursday, as the state administered the death penalty for the 4th time in
8 days, questions about how to proceed with executions remained very much
Arkansas law declares that executions are private matters, but there is no
responsible form of government that should carry out such a penalty without
public accountability. Executions and secrecy may be standard practice in
places like Japan, China, Syria, Iran and similar countries, but Americans have
long expected that someone other than government officials should be present to
document a government-sponsored killing as a form of justice.
What's the point?
Arkansas should remove all policy barriers that limit what unbiased witnesses
can see when the state puts an inmate to death.
Why does it matter? Because government officials have been known, once or
twice, to reveal only information that supports the government's position on an
issue. And, yes, the implication there is also that they've been known to cover
up a thing or two.
Arkansas' protocol for killing inmates has been scrutinized in a general sense
ad nauseam. Arkansas' conduct of 4 executions in barely more than a week
provided fodder for specific assertions that the lethal injection process
amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, something the U.S. Constitution
Ledell Lee became the 1st Arkansas prisoner in a dozen years to die at the
hands of an executioner. Witnesses to the April 20 execution said the 12-minute
process went smoothly. Even an attorney known as an advocate for death row
inmates and against executions said Lee's death "appeared to be without
Then came Jack Jones and Marcel Williams. Jones' death took 14 minutes, during
which he moved his lips for about 2 minutes after the 1st of 3 drugs entered
his body. A microphone inside the death chamber was turned off, so it was
impossible for witnesses to tell if he was speaking. Reporters said they saw no
signs of obvious suffering or pain.
But attorneys trying to stop Williams' execution quickly posted a filing in
court claiming Jones' death was "torturous" and asserting he was "gulping" for
air. State officials called the description "inaccurate." After a 2-hour delay,
Williams was given the lethal doses. His execution took 17 minutes, during
which a reporter said he stopped breathing and "grimaced." He was pronounced
dead nine minutes later.
Lastly, was Thursday's killing of Kenneth Williams, which added fuel to the
debate over the state's methods. In a 13-minute execution, a reporter
documented a period of 10 to 15 seconds in which he was "coughing, convulsing,
lurching, jerking with sound even with the [execution chamber] microphone
turned off." The reporter said Williams' breathing appeared as a "clear attempt
to draw oxygen."
State officials called the shaking an "involuntary muscular reaction." A
spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who issued the death warrants and had the
power to stop the executions, called them "flawless."
On Friday, however, federal public defenders filed a motion seeking to preserve
evidence in Williams' execution, arguing the accounts of his death show the
"Arkansas execution protocol did not prevent execution by torture." Also
Friday, Hutchinson dismissed calls from the American Civil Liberties Union for
an investigation beyond the standard review of any inmate's death.
Did what happened to Williams amount to torture, or was it just a natural body
reaction to the sedative? It's far beyond our medical expertise to determine.
But what we will assert is how vital the role of unbiased execution witnesses
is when it comes to documenting this most serious of punishments. Yet, while
the state allows -- indeed, requires -- witnesses, its approach appears
designed to limit information those witnesses can actually collect.
For example, reporters were first told they would not be able to take even pens
and paper in with them, a ludicrous policy soon reversed by the Arkansas
Department of Correction. And the business of turning a death chamber
microphone on for an inmate's statement but off for all other aspects of the
event? It seems geared toward limiting the available information about what's
Naturally, there will be differing accounts and interpretations of what's seen.
But the reason people are there at all are to be witnesses. The state doesn't
serve those ends by limiting what those witnesses can see and report. Unbiased
witnesses serve as a check and balance against what the state prefers to
describe and what opponents to the execution claim.
State law demands witnesses should be present, and they should be. Government
policy should let them be full witnesses to this most serious of state actions.
(source: Editorial, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Oklahoma prison population breaks its own record, set 4 months ago
The number of incarcerated inmates in Oklahoma has reached 62,000, reports The
The state's prisons are currently at 109% capacity. Back in December the state
of Oklahoma hit a new prison population record of 61,000. Now, in only 4
months, 1,000 inmates have been added to that record.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh said something
needs to be done immediately to ease overcrowding. He said, in the long-term,
rehabilitation programs are the answer. But, he added, "In the short-term the
only thing we can do is hope and pray the legislature will step up and give us
the necessary money to acquire, rent, beg, or borrow more additional beds to
handle the influx."
Experts have projected that, if nothing is done, Oklahoma's prison population
will increase by 25% over the next 10-years.
Death penalty an escape from life in prison
So what, your supply of midazolam is about to expire. Whose fault is that?
Arkansas has recently made national headlines after scheduling eight executions
over the course of 11 days and performing the 1st double-execution any state
has had in 17 years this past Monday. Four of the proposed executions were
granted stays by federal courts.
However, the schedule of executions wasn't the only thing that caused
controversy. According to a New York Times article, during the 1st execution
Monday night, there was speculation that inmate and convicted murderer Jack
Jones showed "evidence of continued consciousness" after being administered the
injection, as he was gasping for air.
And then there's the possibility that Arkansas' 1st execution was of an
innocent man. Ledell Lee was convicted of the murder of Debra Reese in 1993 and
has maintained his innocence ever since.
After not executing anyone in 12 years, why, all of a sudden, is there a rush
for capital punishment? Many of these men have been incarcerated since the
1990s. It seems as though someone finally realized that they were about to
waste their supply of one of the drugs used to execute inmates and this was how
they decided to save a few dimes.
Bottom line, the reasons behind Arkansas' big rush to execute are nothing but
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States "prohibits the
federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and
Naturally, it is my inclination to believe that using a sedative that has had a
history of not working properly in executions is exactly the kind of "cruel and
unusual" punishment that American citizens are protected from. Using drugs that
have been known to contribute to a botched execution is inhumane and a direct
violation of the Eighth Amendment.
According to one reporter who visited California's death row, inmates are
housed in 1 of 2 locations. Women are placed at the Central California Women's
Facility in Chowchilla and men are taken to San Quentin State Prison.
Armed officers line the halls inside death row and men are housed in steel
cages five stories high. Doctor's visits are rare, usually once every 2 or 3
months. Often times an inmate's quality of life on death row is dependent upon
how well they follow the rules.
1 inmate on death row, Justin Helzer, once stated that life in prison without
the possibility of parole is far worse of a punishment than execution. However,
he adds that many men sit on death row for up to 40 years due to the lack of
executions taking place. He was given the death penalty in 2005 for the murder
of 5 people, attempted his 1st suicide attempt in 2010 and was found dead in
his cell in 2013.
It seems to me as though being forced to spend the rest of your life behind
bars is much worse than being put to death. It's an everyday reminder of the
crimes you've committed and the life you could have led otherwise.
(source: Opinion, Cailynn Knabenshue, Pasadena City College Courier)
Feds refuse to share secret files with Tsarnaev lawyers
Federal prosecutors are refusing to turn over to convicted marathon bomber
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's appellate lawyers 13 "classified" documents that are still
sealed nearly 2 years after he was condemned to death.
The secret government filings were part of Tsarnaev's case in U.S. District
Court for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that killed 3 spectators, wounded
hundreds more, and were followed by the murder of an MIT police officer and
wounding of a transit cop.
Without knowing what they are, the 23-year-old death-row killer's lawyers
insist to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit they "will not be
able to meaningfully represent Mr. Tsarnaev on appeal ... There is no precedent
for allowing secret information in a case under the Federal Death Penalty Act."
But in their opposition filed late last week, prosecutors for acting U.S.
Attorney William D. Weinreb and the U.S. Department of Justice contend, "The
fact that this is a death penalty case changes nothing. Although defense
counsel in capital cases have a duty to advocate vigorously for their client,
they do not have an unqualified right to access classified and otherwise
The documents, which prosecutors have shared only with Tsarnaev trial Judge
George A. O'Toole Jr., are described along with "the reasons for their
continued non-disclosure to the defense" in a filing with the appellate court.
It, too, is sealed; however, prosecutors did disclose that none of the disputed
information was used against Tsarnaev at trial and none of it is "helpful to
O'Toole issued an order last month denying Tsarnaev's public defenders access
to the paperwork.
Although Tsarnaev's lawyers are appealing his 30-count conviction and death
sentence, no brief has been filed and no date has been set for when one is due.
(source: Boston Herald)
The Scientific Case Against the Death Penalty
In early April, Amnesty International reported that India ordered a total of
136 executions in 2016, up by 81% compared to the previous year. It added that
by the end of 2016, 104 countries around the world had abolished the death
Over the years, criminal defence lawyers around the world have argued with
varying success that violent behaviour is in part due to biological and genetic
vulnerabilities - all in order to decrease the culpability of the individual.
The notion that criminal behaviour is the result of biological disposition and
partially beyond one's control has been popular for some time now and
Studies have implicated higher testosterone levels, neurotransmitter
abnormalities, an extra Y chromosome and the warrior gene in some men. Others
have documented abnormal electrical and metabolic activity in the brains of
violent criminals. Some of these ideas continue to attract attention while
others have fallen by the way side, and the puzzle remains unsolved. However,
many experts, including the world's leading neuro-criminologist Adrian Raine,
believe that there is enough data to emphatically claim that violent behaviour
is, in part, biological.
A field that is rapidly evolving and may provide indirect evidence to allow us
a better understanding of the biologic basis of aggression is pharmacogenomics.
It is the study of how genes affect an individual's response to drugs.
It is common knowledge that certain medications can induce aggressive
behaviours and even physical violence in otherwise non-violent individuals. One
example is varenicline, which is used to stop smoking. Several antidepressants
can do the same. An anticonvulsant called perampanel can induce violent
behaviours and even homicidal ideation often enough for the drug to carry a
'black box' warning to highlight these potential effects. Benzodiazepines are a
group of tranquilisers that can, in certain individuals, cause a paradoxical
reaction in the form agitation and aggression rather than sedation. A group of
drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease can lead to hypersexuality and this has
been brought as a defence in sex-crime prosecutions.
What is curious is that not everyone taking these medications experiences the
behavioural changes. Recently, studies have been conducted to understand why
only some and not all patients on a particular medication experience adverse
neuropsychiatric effects such as aggression and agitation. Levetiracetam is an
effective anticonvulsant that is popular among neurologists and commonly
prescribed as the 1st line treatment for seizures. Its behavioural side
effects, if they do occur, are usually almost immediate and abate as soon as
the drug is withdrawn. These adverse effects are more common in children than
adults and can lead to them hitting or biting others.
In 2013, a study examined hundreds of individuals with epilepsy on this drug
and analysed the impact of genetic variations on an individual's susceptibility
to the effects. The researchers selected polymorphisms of certain genes of
interest a priori. They found that the gene variants associated with lower
dopaminergic activity had higher a neuropsychiatric side-effect load. Dopamine
is a chemical neurotransmitter in the brain. Though further research is needed
to reconfirm these findings, the study underscored the effect of our genes on
These arguments are not meant to give credence to biological determinism or
scientific racism. Societal, cultural and environmental factors certainly
contribute to all human traits. The arguments are also not meant to discount
the potential of rehabilitative measures, especially since we know that the
brain is plastic. They are not meant to condone violent crime either. The
arguments are made merely to highlight that we have sufficient scientific
evidence - or at least ample doubt - to absolve the criminal to the extent that
the death penalty can hardly ever be justified, even in heinous crimes.
Add to that the statistical evidence that points to the death penalty not being
a deterrent for criminals, and it is certainly time for India to abolish this
system of retributive justice.
(source: Jay Desai is a neurologist----The Wire)
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