2017-08-21 13:13:34 UTC
Florida set to conduct its 1st execution in a year and a half
Ahead of a planned resumption of executions in Florida on 24 August, 18 months
after the last one, Amnesty International is issuing a paper on recent
developments relating to the death penalty in the US state.
"Death in Florida" outlines the state's response to the January 2016 US Supreme
Court decision that Florida's capital sentencing law was unconstitutional, and
the governor's reaction to a prosecutor's subsequent decision to reject the
When State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she would not seek the death
penalty due to its demonstrable flaws, Governor Scott immediately responded by
ordering her replacement with a different prosecutor more willing to engage in
this lethal pursuit. So far the Governor has transferred 26 cases to his
Racial discrimination was 1 of the death penalty's flaws - along with its
costs, risks and failure as a deterrent - cited by State Attorney Ayala, the
1st African American to be elected to that position in Florida.
"Here are 2 officials taking very different approaches to the overwhelming
evidence that the death penalty is a failed policy," said Erika Guevara-Rosas,
Americas Director at Amnesty International.
"One says drop it, it is a waste of resources, prone to discrimination,
arbitrariness and error. The other says crank up the machinery of death.
"One is acting consistently with international human rights principles. The
other is not."
The prisoner set to be executed on 24 August at 6pm is Mark Asay, who was sent
to death row in 1988 for 2 murders committed in 1987. The last execution in
Florida was of Oscar Bolin on 7 January 2016, 5 days before the US Supreme
Court issued its Hurst v. Florida ruling that the state's capital sentencing
statute was unconstitutional.
(source: Amnesty International USA)
Scott takes Kissimmee police deaths cases from anti-death penalty state
Gov. Rick Scott has reassigned the homicide cases of 2 Kissimmee police
officers from a state attorney who has said she would never seek the death
Scott signed an executive order taking the cases of Officers Matthew Baxter and
Sam Howard from Aramiz Ayala and giving them to fellow state attorney Brad
"Fridan night's violence against our law enforcement community is reprehensible
and has no place in our state," Scott said. "In Florida, we have zero tolerance
for violence and those who attack our law enforcement. Today, I am using my
executive authority to reassign this case to State Attorney Brad King to ensure
the victims of Friday night's attack and their families receive the justice
In March, Ayala stirred controversy when she said she would not seek the death
penalty for Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing Orlando police Lt. Debra
Clayton and his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sade Dixon.
Ayala said then that she would not pursue the death penalty for any accused
"By choosing to seek life sentences over death, we can assure that violent
offenders will never be released. They will never continue to drain resources
from this state with decades of appeals," she said at the time.
Scott then took her off the Loyd case and assigned it to King.
Ayala appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, saying the governor
could not reassign the case because she is an elected official. The court has
yet to issue a ruling.
(source: WTSP news)
Echols says he suffered brain injuries on death row, his wife calls for end to
6 years ago Saturday (Aug. 19), Damien Echols woke for the last time on the
wrong side of a set of jail bars. He spent 18 years in prison, convicted of the
murders of 3 8-year-old boys in West Memphis in 1993. He, along with Jason
Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., denied any involvement and there were
question about the evidence against them.
Echols told Talk Business & Politics the scars from his incarceration are still
real. Each day he copes with physical and psychological damage he suffered
while in prison.,P> "I spent 18 years in prison under abject conditions," he
said. "10 years was spent in solitary torture. The brain injury I sustained
will always plague me."
The specific injury was not disclosed. Echols wife, Lorri Davis Echols told
Talk Business & Politics her husband suffers from post traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD). He has had bouts of depression, and has spent years
acclimating to life outside of prison.
"It's been a roller coaster, but we've worked really hard to build a new life.
It was and is like starting new," she said.
The couple lives in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City and have traveled
the world, giving lectures at universities and other venues about a broad range
of subjects including false convictions, the death penalty, and Echols'
spiritual views. He wrote a New York best-selling autobiography, "Life after
Death," and he and his wife helped to produce the critically acclaimed Showtime
documentary, West of Memphis. One place he visited early this spring terrified
him - Arkansas.
In April 8 men on Arkansas death row were slated for execution. Echols, had he
not been released, would have been included. He journeyed to Little Rock with
his friend, and avid supporter, actor Johnny Depp. The trip terrified him, and
he suffered from a high level of anxiety while he was still in the Natural
"They tried to kill me," he told TB&P at the time.
uring the last 5 years there have been virtually no new leads discovered by
Echols or the army of attorneys, private investigators, forensic scientists,
and others who worked to secure his freedom.
THE WEST MEMPHIS KILLINGS
Echols, along with Baldwin, and Misskelley Jr., were convicted of the 1993
slayings of 3 West Memphis 8-year-olds, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and
Michael Moore. The boys were riding bikes in their West Memphis neighborhood
when they vanished around sunset. Prosecutors claim the boys entered a patch of
woods near their homes, dubbed "Robin Hood Hills," by locals. The 3 boys were
bludgeoned during an attack prosecutors claimed was inspired by Satanism or a
belief in the occult.
1 month later the 3 teens, all from Marion, were charged with the murders after
Misskelley confessed to the crime and implicated the others. The confession
contained inaccuracies including the time and place of the murders, the manner
in which they were performed, and he told police 2 of the boys were sexually
assaulted when autopsy results showed no sexual assault took place.
Despite the inaccuracies, and no physical of forensic evidence tying the teens
to the crimes, 2 juries found them guilty. Echols was sentenced to death while
the other 2 received life terms.
The 3 teens dubbed "The West Memphis 3" languished in obscurity until the 1996
documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" was released
by HBO. Doubts surfaced whether the teens, dubbed "The West Memphis 3"
committed the crimes.
The documentary saved Echols life, he said during a 2010 interview. The
circumstantial case and the lack of evidence raised doubts among a burgeoning
support group that included Depp, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, Dixie
Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, and the director Sr. Peter Jackson. Millions
of dollars was raised in an attempt the free the men.
NEW EVIDENCE, FALSE STATEMENTS
By 2011 Arkansas officials were under pressure to release the men. A new trial
was about to be ordered in the case. New DNA evidence had been discovered
implicating Stevie Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs. A hair found in the
ligatures that bound Michael Moore was a virtual genetic match for him, and a
hair found on a tree stump next to where the bodies were dumped was a genetic
match for his alibi witness at the time of the murders, David Jacoby. Hobbs and
Jacoby have denied involvement in the murders.
One witness who testified during Misskelley's trial, Victoria Hutcheson, signed
a sworn affidavit saying she lied at the trial. During an interview in 2009 she
told a TB&P reporter she was under pressure from police to provide evidence and
was facing a credit card fraud charge. Her son, Aaron, was friends with the
victims, and he claimed for a time to have witnessed the murders, but his
statements proved false. She told jurors she attended a "witches gathering" or
esbat with Echols and Misskelley. Testimony from another witness who claimed to
have heard Echols and Baldwin talking about the murders at a softball game
would have likely been disproved during a new trial, prosecutors admitted.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington agreed to release them under the terms of an Alford
Plea. This unique legal mechanism allowed them to profess innocence while at
the same time acknowledging the state might have enough evidence to convict
them. It's essentially a no contest plea. Ellington has said numerous times if
new trials had been ordered, the men would have been freed because of the
changing witness statements, new scientific evidence, and "stale evidence."
'ARKANSAS MAKES MISTAKES'
Echols has had no contact with officials who worked to imprison him, he said.
Lorri Echols said the state of Arkansas is not only culpable in her husband's
wrongful incarceration, but it has been negligent in not finding and
prosecuting the person or persons who killed the 3 boys. A new investigation
needs to be opened, and the killer or killers need to be brought to justice,
she said. Occasionally, Echols will encounter a troll on social media networks
who believes he's guilty, but most people he interacts with believe in his
innocence, she said.
"In our day to day life in New York, people tend to have done their homework,"
The couple has several creative projects they are working on. Echols is writing
a book that will be published by Sounds True in 2018. Lorri will participate in
an art show later this year in Chicago.
Arkansas officials announced Friday they plan to restart executions. Lorri
Echols advises against it.
"Once again, Damien's case is proof that Arkansas makes mistakes. How many
innocent men have they executed? Is there anything else that needs to be said?"
(source: KATV news)
Marcellus Williams faces execution despite new evidence
On Tuesday night, the US state of Missouri is planning to execute Marcellus
Williams despite a new report from a DNA expert that his lawyers argue supports
his claim to innocence.
In 2001, Williams, who is now 48, was convicted of the 1998 killing of Lisha
Gayle. But his lawyers say new DNA evidence could exonerate him. The Missouri
Supreme Court, however, has refused to review that evidence.
Williams' lawyer, Kent Gipson, has described the Supreme Court's decision as
"We petitioned the court to look at the new evidence on August 14th, and less
than 24 hours later they decided based on the court files that the execution
should go ahead anyway. This is unprecedented," Gipson told Al Jazeera.
Williams, who has always claimed he is innocent, was sentenced to death in
2001, three years after Gayle, a former newspaper reporter, was murdered in her
home in a gated community in St Louis, Missouri. He was originally due to be
executed on January 28, 2015, but Missouri's high court decided to postpone the
execution to allow time for new DNA tests to be conducted.
Those tests showed that the male DNA on the murder weapon, a knife, was not
Williams' but belonged to a 3rd, unknown person.
"There is no physical evidence, no eyewitnesses that directly connect Williams
to the murder, the DNA on the weapon wasn't his, the bloody footprint at the
murder scene wasn't from Williams' shoe and was a different size, and the hair
fibres found weren't his," said Gipson. "It was someone else that killed Gayle,
How was Williams convicted?
During Williams' trial, the prosecution based its case on the testimonies of 2
people, Henry Cole and Laura Asaro. Cole had shared a cell with Williams after
he had been taken into custody on suspicion of being involved in Gayle's
murder. Cole said Williams had confessed to murdering the 42-year-old woman.
The other testimony was given by Laura Asaro, a convicted drug addict, who was
Williams' short-term girlfriend at the time of the murder. She claimed, among
other things, to have seen scratches on Williams neck that were made by the
"These scratches would leave DNA traces on the victim, but Williams' DNA was
not found underneath the victim's fingernails, just like it was someone else's
DNA that was found on the murder weapon," said Gipson.
"She also claimed she saw Williams with the victim's driver's licence, which is
impossible because Gayle's licence was left at the crime scene."
Gipson believes both may have been motivated to give false statements in the
hope of receiving a financial reward. "The victim's family offered a reward of
$10,000 for anyone with tips leading to the arrest of the person who murdered
Lisha Gayle," Gipson explained. "They both got paid by the victim's family
after their testimonies."
With no forensic or eye witness testimony linking Williams to the murder, the
prosecution based its case on these 2 witnesses. "At the time, we didn't have
the technology to do these DNA tests. But even now that there is indisputable
scientific evidence exonerating Williams from the murder, the attorney general
still thinks these testimonies hold more weight than the DNA evidence that
shows Williams didn't commit this crime," Gipson said.
One of those following this case closely is Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known
opponent of the death penalty who came to international fame after she wrote
the book Dead Man Walking, which was later made into a film.
Griffin Hardy, a spokesperson for Sister Helen Prejean's anti-death penalty
organisation Ministry Against the Death Penalty, told Al Jazeera: "The fact of
the matter is DNA evidence shows that Marcellus Williams was not involved in
this crime. That means that there is a killer who may still be out in the
community at large. Missouri should use its resources to apprehend the real
killer instead of executing a man who didn't commit this crime."
Black defendant, white victim, white jury
A significant factor in this case, according to Gipson and Griffin, is
Williams' race. The victim, Lisha Gayle, was a white woman. Williams is a black
man who, according to the prosecution, killed Gayle when she caught him
burglarising her home in St Louis, Missouri, the same district where the
Ferguson protests against police brutality took place in 2014.
"The jury that found Williams guilty consisted of mostly white people. This
district has a history of getting African Americans off juries, especially when
the victim is white," Gipson said.
There were 7 African Americans in the juror pool for Williams' trial, but the
prosecution struck all but one of them off with the result that there were 11
white jurors and one black juror at his trial.
Another issue is the funding of public defenders in Missouri. "This state ranks
49th out of 50 with regards to properly funding public defenders. The public
defender that got Williams' case has publicly stated that he wasn't able to
prepare properly, so he simply didn't have the opportunity to properly
discredit the shaky testimonies that were used to build this case around,"
As to why the court has refused to examine the new evidence, Gipson said: "It's
baffling to me how the Missouri Supreme Court denied our petition barely 24
hours after filing it, with no hearing at all. Listening to what experts have
to say about new evidence is particularly important in a case like this with
scientific evidence. It is frightening that someone can have exonerating DNA
evidence and a court would turn a blind eye to it."
Williams' execution can now only be stopped by the United States Supreme Court
or the governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens. "He is a newly elected governor and
he heavily campaigned on being pro-life. Anyone who says he is pro-life would
not let anyone be executed, especially not when there is more than enough
reasonable doubt like in this case," Gipson said.
Hardy hopes Governor Greitens will stop the execution and that a new
investigation to find Lisha Gayle's killer will be launched.
"Society may debate the question of whether the death penalty is acceptable for
guilty prisoners, but no one can argue with the fact that an innocent person
should never be executed," he said.
Williams is due to be executed by lethal injection.
Al Jazeera contacted both the office of Missouri's attorney general, Josh
Hawley, and the office of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens for this article.
Neither had responded by the time of publication.
(source: Al Jazeera News)
Is Missouri about to execute an innocent man?
Editor, the Tribune: Marcellus Williams is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday,
Aug. 22. He was convicted of the Aug. 11, 1998, robbery and murder of
42-year-old Felicia Gayle in her St. Louis home.
I am against the death penalty on moral grounds, but on practical grounds it
makes no sense as well. Consider that there are enormous costs to the state to
carry through to an execution and that we have a patently-unjust judicial
system, especially for the poor.
Missouri's death penalty is broken for many reasons, including but not limited
to racial injustice, disparities in representation and sentencing,
prosecutorial misconduct and public opinion. These issues are all present in
Williams' case. If you are wealthy, white and connected you will surely "get
off." If you are poor, a racial minority, and have no connections, you will
surely receive the death penalty - guilty or innocent of the accused crime.
Is Missouri executing an innocent man? Very possibly.
According to information from the Marshall Project, there is no physical
evidence linking him to the crime - none of the DNA evidence matches that of
Williams. "The little bit (of testing) that???s been done excludes him.
Marcellus has never confessed. There was no eyewitness testimony. The state's
case rests on 2 snitches, who received monetary compensation. As well,
Williams' post-conviction remedies have not been exhausted in federal court,
which he intends to pursue. Missouri has set an execution date disregarding due
process available to Williams.
Reading about Williams case, there is the question of why this execution is
being pursued so vigorously by Missouri's Governor and Attorney General when,
over many years, there have been so many missteps and clear uncertainty of
guilt. One wonders if there are political careers attempting to be made on the
backs of Missouri's most vulnerable.
You can learn more about the Marcellus Williams case at
www.themarshallproject.org/next-to-die/mo or Missourians for Alternatives to
the Death Penalty, www.madpmo.org/.
Contact the offices of Gov. Eric Greitens and Attorney General Josh Hawley and
ask them to stop this execution. Let Missouri be a state of equal protection
under the law, tempered by a highly-developed sense of justice.
Sometimes a death penalty case is lacking credibility at such an important
level that someone must speak up to preserve what might remain of a civilized
and lawful society.
Barbara Ross, Jefferson City
For Marcellus Williams, doubt exists
Editor, the Tribune: Is Missouri executing an innocent man on Tuesday, Aug. 22?
There is more than a "shadow of doubt" linking Marcellus Williams to the crime
of killing Felicia Gayle in her St. Louis home in 1998. Williams was convicted
based on the questionable testimony of 2 people who received a $10,000 reward.
The fact that no DNA evidence on the weapon (knife), samples of blood, and
clippings of skin tissue or hair matches the DNA of Marcellus Williams is
The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a motion filed last February from
attorneys to halt next week's execution of Williams. Williams' attorney, Kent
Gipson, says testing in December 2016 indicated that the DNA matched some
unknown person, but not Marcellus Williams.
Why do we have to be in such a hurry to execute someone that we don't have the
time to check everything out? This is not justice. Many people have been found
to be innocent because of DNA results. Well-known attorney Bryan Stephenson has
obtained more than 30 retrials of innocent people who were sentenced to
We should never allow an innocent person to be executed. How can we always be
certain that an execution is justified?
This case illustrates how important it is to put an end to executions in
Now is the time to call our humanitarian Gov. Eric Greitens (573-751-3222) and
ask him to commute the sentence, as well as Missouri Attorney General Josh
Hawley (573-751-3321), in order to investigate this case.
Linda Lou Brown, Columbia
(source: Letters to the Editor, Columbia Daily Tribune)
Midwest Innocence Project asks Missouri governor to halt Tuesday's execution
A nonprofit that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions has asked Missouri Gov.
Eric Greitens to put Tuesday's scheduled execution on hold.
The Midwest Innocence Project says new DNA evidence presented last week shows
Marcellus Williams didn't kill former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia
Gayle in 1998.
Williams' attorney, Kent Gipson, asked the state Supreme Court last week to
consider two new tests, which he said show that Williams' DNA was not on the
knife used in Gayle's death. The court denied the request for a stay of
Midwest Innocence Project Director Tricia Bushnell told St. Louis Public Radio
on Sunday that the organization wants Greitens to appoint a board of inquiry to
look into the new evidence.
"This is a case that has so many questions in it, and the reality is, Mr.
Williams has DNA evidence that says it is not him on the murder weapon, and no
one has even let him have a hearing on those results," she said. "It seems
impossible that we would execute someone, put someone to death, when there is a
question that large, without even giving them a hearing. ... This question has
a number of the hallmarks that we see in wrongful convictions."
Bushnell also was critical of the prosecution in the case, which was done in
St. Louis County because Gayle was killed in University City. She said the
prosecution relied on "what we would call 'incentivized informants.'"
In 2003, the state Supreme Court upheld Williams' conviction, saying there was
sufficient evidence to support the jury's conclusion. Spokesmen for Greitens
and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch didn't immediately return
requests for comment.
Williams' original execution in 2015 was postponed. He is scheduled to be put
to death Tuesday.
Missouri will use 2 of its 34 vials of the sedative pentobarbital on Tuesday
when it executes Marcellus Williams, who was convicted in the 1998 killing of
Felicia Gayle, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter.
The state has enough pentobarbital for 17 executions, Williams' included,
according to a document obtained by St. Louis Public Radio. No one except the
state of Missouri knows where the stockpile comes from, despite lawsuits from
inmates and media outlets.
Don't dishonor murder victim Lisha Gayle by executing Marcellus Williams
On Tuesday, Missouri is scheduled to execute a man in exactly the kind of case
that makes even some supporters of the death penalty queasy.
Way back in 2001, Marcellus Williams was found guilty in the grisly 1998
stabbing death of 42-year-old Lisha Gayle, a former St. Louis newspaper
reporter so altruistic that she left journalism to become a volunteer who
worked with the disenfranchised.
Williams, who is also serving multiple life sentences on unrelated burglary and
robbery charges, had, according to prosecutors, been burglarizing Gayle's
apartment when she stepped out of the shower, surprised him and fought back as
he killed her.
Only there was never any physical evidence linking Williams to the crime,
according to his attorneys and Amnesty International.
Now his attorneys say that new evidence, based on new testing that the court
allowed, shows Williams is not a match for the male DNA found on the knife that
was the murder weapon.
Instead, an analysis by Greg Hampikian, a Boise State University biologist,
shows that the DNA is that of an unknown male.
Why allow the testing and then disregard what it finds?
Williams, who is 48, has always maintained his innocence and said the case
against him is based entirely on the word of a former girlfriend and a former
cellmate who he insists were only looking for a piece of the $10,000 reward
offered in the case.
What harm would it do to make sure he's guilty?
We can't think of any, especially compared to the wrong of putting a man to
death for a crime he didn't commit.
The Missouri Supreme Court has denied a petition to delay Williams' execution,
so unless the governor or Supreme Court intervenes, he'll be given a lethal
injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
A spokesman for Attorney General Josh Hawley said he's still confident that
Williams is guilty.
But why not make sure the public can be confident of that, too?
We urge the court to appoint a special master to hear Williams' claim of
Missourians deserve to know for sure that he really is guilty before putting
him to death in our name.
And the memory of Lisha Gayle, who worked with the poor and with children,
would only be dishonored by an injustice carried out in retribution for the
violence done to her.
(source: Editorial Board, Kansas City Star)
OC District Attorney responds to judge blocking death penalty in Dekraai case
The Orange County District Attorney's Office (OCDA) is disappointed that Judge
Goethals made this unprecedented ruling and has denied the California Attorney
General (AG) the ability to pursue the death penalty against convicted murderer
Scott Dekraai. Given the pattern and tenor of his previous rulings, Judge
Goethals' decision does not come as a surprise.
In 2014, the OCDA obtained a guilty plea, ensuring Dekraai would at a minimum
be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The only question
remaining was whether he should receive the death penalty for his repugnant,
callous, and despicable acts committed while exacting revenge against his
Dekraai planned and murdered 8, nearly 9 innocent people, at the salon where
his ex-wife worked, so she would experience the terror and horror of seeing her
friends and clients murdered. Whether some members of the Orange County
Sheriff's Department failed to produce tangential information in a timely
manner has nothing to do with what Dekraai did and the fact that Dekraai
deserves the death penalty. The AG made an independent decision to seek the
death penalty when the OCDA was recused and should be able to proceed forward
because Dekraai would have received a fair trial.
The article above was released by the Orange County District Attorney. Orange
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer also released a statement - one that sounded
more like a campaign speech, since he's running to replace OCDA Tony
Most American Indian tribes opt out of federal death penalty
In a heinous case on the Navajo Nation, an 11-year-old girl was lured into a
van, sexually assaulted and killed. The tribe did not seek to have the man who
recently admitted to killing her put to death.
American Indian tribes for decades have been able to tell federal prosecutors
if they want a death sentence considered for certain crimes on their land.
Nearly all have rejected that option.
Tribes and legal experts say the decision goes back to culture and tradition,
past treatment of American Indians and fairness in the justice system.
"Most Indian tribes were mistreated by the United States under past federal
policies, and there can be historical trauma in cases associated with the
execution of Native people," said Robert Anderson, a University of Washington
law professor and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa
Tribe. "This allows tribes to at least decide in those narrow circumstances
when there should be a federal death penalty or not."
In the Navajo case, Ashlynne Mike's body wasn't found until the next day. Her
death in May 2016 renewed discussions there about capital punishment.
Ashlynne's mother has urged the tribe to opt into the death penalty,
particularly for crimes that involve children. The tribe long has objected to
putting people to death, saying the culture teaches against taking a human life
For years, Theda New Breast has seen the effects of domestic violence, drug
addiction and poverty on her Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The healer helps
those who suffer from the associated trauma. But regardless of the nature of
the crime, the 61-year-old is staunchly against capital punishment.
"Our beliefs, that I was raised with, say that no one has a right to take away
a life except the Creator. Period," New Breast said. "End of story."
Congress expanded the list of death-penalty eligible crimes in the mid-1990s,
allowing tribes to decide if they wanted their citizens subject to the death
penalty. Legal experts say they are aware of only one tribe, the Sac and Fox
Nation of Oklahoma, that has opted in.
Tribal leaders there hoped the decision would deter serious, violent crimes on
the reservation in east-central Oklahoma, said Truman Carter, a Sac and Fox
member, attorney and tribal prosecutor. "The tribal leaders have said yes over
the years, and they left it alone," he said.
No American Indian has been executed in any case from the Sac and Fox
Still, the ability of tribes to decide on the death penalty doesn't completely
exempt Native Americans from federal death row. According to the NAACP Legal
Defense and Education Fund, Inc., 16 Native Americans have been executed since
capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. The executions were for crimes
occurring off tribal land or in the handful of states where the federal
government does not have jurisdiction over major crimes on reservations.
That was the case earlier this year when a California jury imposed the death
penalty for Cherie Rhoades. The former leader of the Cedarville Rancheria Tribe
was convicted of fatally shooting 3 people and trying to kill 2 others.
Modac County District Attorney Jordan Funk said he didn't consult with the
tribe and wasn't required to before deciding to pursue the death penalty. He
said Rhoades expressed no remorse for the killings at a tribal meeting where
officials were considering her eviction from the tribe.
"If they would have told me they don't want us to execute her, I would have
done it anyway," Funk said.
Tribes also don't have a say over the death penalty when certain federal crimes
like carjacking or kidnapping resulting in death, or killing a federal officer
occurs on reservation land. Those carry a possible death sentence no matter
where they happen.
That's how Lezmond Mitchell, a Navajo man, became the only American Indian now
on federal death row. He was convicted in a 2001 case of killing a fellow
Navajo tribal member and her 9-year-old granddaughter who were driving to see a
medicine man. Their beheaded, mutilated bodies were found in a shallow grave on
the reservation. Mitchell stole the woman's car and later robbed a trading post
in Red Valley, Arizona.
? The Navajo Nation government objected to the death penalty on the murder
charges. It had no choice on the charge of carjacking resulting in death.
Tamera Begay, a Navajo woman, has studied the Mitchell case and agrees the
tribe should steer clear of the death penalty. "There's so much federal
jurisdiction, that's worrisome," she said.
Laura Harris, executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity and member
of the Comanche Nation, said her tribe sees banishment as a much worse
punishment than death because it cuts off a person's ability to be part of the
She said tribes also recall how the death penalty has been used against them.
In December 1862, for example, 38 Dakota men who were at war with settlers in
Minnesota were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. An annual
horseback ride is held to commemorate the men, ending at the site of the
hangings in what's now Reconciliation Park.
Today, the death penalty is more likely to be carried out in the case of a
white victim than a victim of color. Native Americans make up less than 1/4 of
1 % of victims in cases that result in executions, according to the NAACP Legal
Defense and Educational Fund. For whites, it's 75 %, for blacks 15 % and nearly
7 % for Latinos.
"It's not surprising you'd see a distrust of the judicial process similar to
the distrust you see in the African American community," said Robert Dunham,
executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "When you look at
who is executed, you see that there are a class a favored victims and a class
of disfavored defendants."
Melissa Tatum, a research professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson,
said most tribes believe the criminal justice system in Indian Country doesn't
work, "not in a sufficient way that they would opt into the death penalty, and
the statistics bear that out."
Pursuing the death penalty in a federal case isn't taken likely, said Kevin
Washburn, a University of New Mexico law professor and member of the Chickasaw
Nation. A U.S. Department of Justice panel has to review the case.
Tribes also can't decide on a case-by-case basis, Washburn said.
"You can't have a murder that happens today and have the Navajo Nation
authorize the death penalty tomorrow and have it apply to the murder that
happened today," he said.
Ashlynne's family is looking toward future change. The Navajo man who recently
admitted to killing her, Tom Begaye Jr., cannot get the death penalty at his
upcoming sentencing. He faces life in prison without the possibility of release
under a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
After Ashlynne's death, Navajo leaders met with medicine people and talked for
at least 2 hours about the tribe's general position on the death penalty and
decided to maintain a position against it, Tribal Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates
"Navajos see life as precious, good or bad, and so we don't pick and choose,"
he said. "All life is precious."
Pamela Foster, Ashlynne's mother, has been gathering signatures online to
convince the tribe to change its mind.
"If traditional teachings are squarely against the taking of human life, WHY
are we allowing it to happen?" Foster wrote in an online post.
(source: Minneapolis Star Tribune)
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