Posts Tagged ‘death penalty’

Bus segregation was not the first issue that grabbed the attention of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when the young pastor moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. His first campaign in his new home focused on a sentence of death for Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old black boy convicted of raping a white woman, which512px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_6-wikicommons became his first civil rights campaign in his new home. Reeves had confessed under duress, but later recanted, a claim widely believed in the black community. King joined the NAACP’s efforts to save Reeves’ life.

So did Claudette Colvin, like Reeves a student at Booker T. Washington High School. Colvin, who the next year would be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing, recalled, “Jeremiah Reeves’s arrest was the turning point of my life. That was when I and a lot of other students really started thinking about prejudice and racism. I was furious when I found out what had happened.” [1]

“In the years that [Reeves] sat in jail,” Dr. King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, his book about the Montgomery movement, “several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the Grand Jury; none was ever brought to trial.” [2]

Reeves was found guilty by an all-white jury and put to death on March 28, 1958.

A week later King addressed a “Prayer Pilgrimage” rally in front of the State Capitol building. “The issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves,” King told a crowd of two thousand. “Even if he were guilty, it is the severity ad inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence.”[3]

Such gerrymandered justice was a well established fact of life in the South, going back to the days of slavery when blacks were commonly executed or lynched for crimes that drew less harsh punishment — or none — when committed by whites. This discriminatory pattern continued after emancipation, as Stuart Banner documents in his book, The Death Penalty: An American History. “In the first half of the [twentieth] century,” he writes, “the southern states punished many crimes by death only if they were committed by blacks, in the second half of LR&Mark11-14-12 019the century they accomplished the same result by delegating to all-white juries the discretion to choose capital or noncapital punishment.”

“The death penalty was a means of racial control,” observes Banner, a UCLA law professor.

Sadly, the role played by race in decisions about the death penalty persists. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, recent studies “add to an overwhelming body of evidence that race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. Race influences which cases are chosen for capital prosecution and which prosecutors are allowed to make those decisions. Likewise, race affects the makeup of the juries which determine the sentence. Racial effects have been shown not just in isolated instances, but in virtually every state for which disparities have been estimated and over an extensive period of time.”

New Hampshire is a case in point.

Michael Addison was charged with capital murder for killing Michael Briggs, a police officer, in 2006.

John Brooks was charged with capital murder for hiring three men to assist him in killing Jack Reid, a handyman, in 2005.

The trials took place in adjacent counties in 2008.

Addison, a poor black man with a prior criminal record, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Brooks, a white millionaire businessman, was found guilty but spared the death penalty.

Monica Foster, Brooks’ attorney, said of her client after the sentence was announced, “He’s not the kind of people juries routinely kill,”

Racial disparities in the use of the death penalty have been a focus of scholarly research for decades. According to Justin Levinson, Robert Smith, and Danielle Young, authors of a 2013 study, “The most consistent and robust finding in this literature is that even after controlling for dozens and sometimes hundreds of case-related variables, Americans who murder Whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who murder Blacks.” They note as well that “Black defendants are sentenced to death more frequently than White defendants, especially when the universe of studied cases is narrowed to include only those cases that result in aexecutejustice11-14-12 capital trial.”

What Levinson, Smith, and Young found ought to be a wake-up call for anyone interested in the fairness of our judicial system. After studying 445 jury-eligible citizens in six states where the death penalty is most actively used, they concluded that “implicit racial bias does have an impact on the administration of the death penalty in America.”

“We found that death-qualified jurors implicitly valued White lives over Black lives by more rapidly associating White subjects with the concepts of ‘worth’ or ‘value’ and Black subjects with the concepts of ‘worthless’ or ‘expendable.’ This finding could potentially help to explain why real capital juries impose death sentences more regularly for White victims: at least at an implicit level we value White lives more than Black lives, and thus, perhaps, we seek to punish those individuals who have destroyed those whom we value most.”

The implications of this finding go far beyond the death penalty.

As for Dr. King, it is worth noting that his comments on the prosecution, conviction, and execution of Jeremiah Reeves did not directly reject capital punishment, just “the unequal justice of Southern courts.” As King matured into the leader we honor today, his critique of injustice deepened and blended with a prescription for change.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” he famously said.

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence,” King told the world on the day he received the Nobel Peace Prize. “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

The realization of King’s vision is far off. Abolition of the death penalty would be an excellent step in the right direction.

To get involved, join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.


[1] Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009, p. 23-24

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves,” April 6, 1958

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Today the government of Iran executed 16 so-called “rebels” by hanging, reportedly in retaliation for the killing of 14 guards at the Pakistani border.  Barbaric, isn’t it?

Hanging is still a permitted method of execution in the State of New Hampshire, too.  Sound barbaric?  Think all forms of state-sponsored execution are barbaric?

If you said “yes,” then it’s time to join a growing campaign to wipe the death penalty off New Hampshire’s law books for good.  The New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty publicly launched its “Road to Repeal” this month with a statewide speaking tour by Kirk Bloodsworth and a State House news conference.  The news conference drew religious leaders, former police officers, lawmakers from both major parties, and the judge who presided over the state’s homicide trials during his tenure as Chief Justice of the state’s Superior Court system. 

Bloodsworth, the first person freed from death row based on DNA evidence that another man was responsible for the crime which nearly sent the ex-Marine to the gas chamber, delivered lectures at UNH Durham, Keene State College, ad Winnacunnet High School in Hampton.  He also met with hampton 10-11-13 003 reporters and lawmakers, many of whom said they were moved by his story of surviving death row. 

Bloodsworth was arrested in 1984 and charged with the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.  He always maintained his innocence, but it was not until he read a book about the use of DNA to capture killers in England that he found a way to free himself after more than 8 years behind bars.  “What happened to me could happen to anybody,” he told everyone he spoke to.  Bloodsworth noted that of the 144 people exonerated from death row in recent , only 18 have used DNA evidence.  “How many more innocent people do we have in prison?” he asked. 

Regardless of guilt, though, Bloodsworth said “you can’t kill a person to say killing is wrong.”  That’s a sentiment that has the approval of Bishop Rob Hirschfeld of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and Bishop Peter Libasci of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, both of whom spoke to reporters, lawmakers, and repeal advocates in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building on October 24. 

“The death penalty neither deters others nor brings the perpetrator to

road-to-repeal understanding but validates the taking of a human life,” the Catholic leader said.  Bishop Hirschfeld called on everyone to “refuse to be contaminated by the sin of violence” and to resist the temptation to demand retribution for horrible crimes.

Ray Dodge, who served as Chief of Police for the Town of Marlborough, said “mistakes are inevitable” in our criminal justice system, no matter how skilled, experienced, and well-intentioned are the officers and prosecutors charged with bringing perpetrators to justice.  

Following the former chief, former Chief Justice Walter Murphy delivered a lengthy speech, drawing on his years in court and his more recent experience as Chair of a legislatively created commission to study the state’s death penalty.  “There is not one whit of evidence that the death penalty deters crime,” he said, and certainly no more deterrent effect than the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which is the statutorily mandated sentence for first degree murder. 

Murphy noted that the case of Michael Addison, convicted in 2008 for the 2006 slaying of Michael Briggs, has already cost the state more than $5 million “and I’m told it will be double that by the time they finish the appeals.”  Those funds press conf 1-24-13 could easily be put to better use, he said. 

Rep. Renny Cushing, the repeal bill’s prime sponsor, said this is a “moment in history,” pointing out the fact that the 2012 gubernatorial election featured two major party candidates who opposed the death penalty.  Governor Maggie Hassan, who prevailed at the ballot box in 2012, has indicated she opposes the death penalty on moral grounds and would sign a repeal bill as long as it does not undo the Addison sentence. 

The repeal bill is the first on the list of nearly 700 bills already filed for the 2014 legislative session.  Joining Cushing as legislative co-sponsors are an impressively diverse array of lawmakers, including liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, pro-choice and right-to-lifers, leading “free staters,” and three Representatives who lost their fathers to homicide.  Passage will require their hard labor, but also the work of citizens who agree it’s time for the death penalty to be repealed.  The best way to get on the road to repeal is to join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

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New Hampshire hasn’t executed anyone since 1939, but since Michael Addison was sentenced to death for the 2006 murder of Michael Briggs, there’s been a man on death row at the state prison in Concord.  Except “we don’t really have a death row,” William Wrenn, New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Corrections said this afternoon at a death penalty forum held at the UNH School of Law in Concord.  2-13-13 009

Neither does the state have a death chamber or anyone with experience conducting executions, Wrenn said.

Several years ago the Department of Corrections solicited a design for an execution chamber and found out it would cost about $1.8 Million to build one.  So Wrenn doesn’t think he’d ever get authority to construct such a facility.  Instead, the state would convert a gymnasium or some other space to be a temporary execution facility, at least if it could be done without creating a problem for the rest of the prison.  

Wrenn was joined on the panel by former Phil McLaughlin, who supported the death penalty during his term as Attorney General but who now supports its repeal.  Other speakers were Chris Keating of the NH Judicial Council and Tina Nadeau, Chief Justice of the NH Superior Court. 

A second panel included Representative Renny Cushing, who also heads a national anti-death penalty group made up of relatives of homicide victims; Tim Anderson, who served as a jury member on a capital murder case in Connecticut and later became a repeal advocate; and David Rothstein, Deputy Chief Appellate Defender, who also heads up Michael Addison’s legal appeal.

The procedures to be used for an execution are spelled out in RSA 630:5, which says:

“The punishment of death shall be inflicted by continuous, intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultrashort-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent until death is pronounced by a licensed physician according to accepted standards of medical practice.”

It’s the Commissioner’s job to determine what mix of chemicals would be used to perform the killing, though the law also states that “if for any reason the commissioner finds it to be impractical to carry out the punishment of death by administration of the required lethal substance or substances, the sentence of death may be carried out by hanging.”

The law also gives the Commissioner the authority to determine who will perform the execution and spells out that “the person administering the injection need not be a physician, registered nurse, or licensed practical nurse, licensed or registered under the laws of this or any other state.”  No prescription for the drugs would be required. 

If he can’t find anyone in New Hampshire qualified – or willing – to do the job, he said, there are people in other states who could be hired.  “Their names and identifiers are kept very confidential,” he said.

Chris Keating headed the Public Defender program during the time of the Addison trial.  He pointed out that the agency conducts about 27,000 cases a year for a budget of about $18 Million.  The Addison case alone has cost the agency about $3 Million so far, he said.  And the tab is still running with an appeal process only just getting underway.  Fiscal realities certainly could figure in legislative judgment about whether the state should repeal the death penalty before another case gets launched.

Tim Anderson had to be “death qualified” in order to be admitted onto the jury for a 2-13-13 027 capital murder case following a horrific home invasion/murder in Connecticut.  In other words, he had to say he was willing to vote for execution if he felt the facts of the case warranted it.  Despite reservations, he ultimately joined the other jurors in a decision to hand out a death sentence in the case.  Now he believes the death penalty is “barbaric: and “corrosive.” 

“What I did was morally and ethically wrong,” Anderson said.  He hopes to speak in other death penalty states to “make sure that no juror has to do what I did.”

New Hampshire’s legislature will take up death penalty repeal next year, and Rep. Cushing is optimistic it will pass.  But meanwhile, William Wrenn  is working with the Attorney General’s office to determine the protocols the state would follow as the Addison case proceeds and what he would have to do “if and when I’m called upon to carry out the sentence.”  Given the length of the appeals process, he won’t be the Commissioner any more by then. 

The forum was put on by Law Students for Human Rights, the Diversity Action Coalition, and the UNH Law School chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

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NH Supremes Hear Addison Appeal

The New Hampshire Supreme Court building is made of cold granite and cold brick, with a cold, gold dome perched on top.  Some people might say that’s appropriate for a building dedicated to justice.

But today’s hearing on the state’s intent to execute Michael Addison for killing Michael Briggs seemed only abstractly related to “justice.”  Certainly the Court represents “law” and represents “order.”  But “justice?”  vigil@courthouse11-14-12

Inside the Court, lawyers were arguing arcane details of 22 arguments made by defense lawyers.  As one observer noted afterward, it was hard to tell they were discussing whether or not the State of New Hampshire should kill a human being.  The word “execution” was not uttered, she said.

Outside, in the warm sun for most of the day, a band of death penalty abolition activists conducted a vigil to summon forth a form of justice that goes beyond the realm of legal procedure.  About 30 people stood silently outside the Court from 8 to 9 am as participants and observers arrived for the Court hearing.  Another group of more than 40 people, mostly a different crew from those who had been there in the morning, stood vigil from 3 to 4 pm as the Court hearing adjourned. 

Unitarians, Episcopalians, Quakers, Catholics, even a person who identified herself  as being from the “Church of Witchcraft,” bore witness to the simple concept that the State should not take life in order to punish the taking of a life. 

Most noteworthy was the presence of John Breckenridge, a former Manchester police officer.  Breckenridge was the partner of Michael BrBreckinridge-interview11-14-12 014iggs and was with him on October 16, 2006 when they pursued two crime suspects through the dark streets of Manchester.  Michael Addison, one of the suspects, turned and shot Officer Briggs as he ran.  Briggs died from the gunshot wounds in the hospital.  Addison was soon caught and charged with capital murder, a crime for which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.  

Arriving shortly after the vigil’s start this morning, Breckenridge quietly took his place and stood silently facing the Court.  Although he did not seek publicity, reporters from WMUR-TV recognized him.  Speaking in a calm and straightforward tone, Breckenridge told them he is against the death penalty as a matter of his religious faith.   The story aired on the noon news.

New Hampshire’s death penalty could have been repealed years ago had it notexecutejustice11-14-12 been for the power of the police lobby.  With John Breckenridge joining the public ranks of death penalty opponents, the balance may have tipped.

Today’s vigils were organized by the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. As the sun went down, participants lit candles and continued their silent witness, knowing their presence outside the Court was just one step toward abolition.


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Rep. Phil Greazzo (R-Manchester), is the sole sponsor of HB 162, a bill that would give New Hampshire the nation’s most expansive death penalty by making all “purposeful” homicides eligible to be charged as “capital murder.”   The legislator’s stated objection to the status quo is that only some murderers can be executed under the state’s relatively narrow law.  He says, “If we have the death penalty, it should apply equally to death penatly - rick perry 10-28-11 002everyone or it should apply equally to no one.”

Now, he is giving legislators that choice.  Rep. Greazzo plans to introduce an amendment to his own bill that would repeal the death penalty entirely.    (You can see the text of his amendment by looking at the latest House Calendar and scrolling down through the list of “retained bills” scheduled for votes and past the “Member’s Notices” to the text of amendments.)

The debate over HB 162 is now scheduled for Wednesday, January 4. 

Representatives will get to vote on repeal first.  If the repeal amendment passes, the Senate will get a bill that would eliminate the state’s death penalty.  Such a bill passed both houses in 2000, but was vetoed by Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.  

If Greazzo’s repeal amendment fails, the bill as written will come up for a vote, barring other surprises. 

As I’ve said before,  if we don’t like the notion that the state’s limited death penalty gives the impression that some homicide victims are more important than others, the road to equal treatment is through getting rid of capital punishment altogether.

Rather than making the death penalty more fair, the expanded death penalty as proposed in HB 162 would expand all of its problems: massive expense, discrimination based on race and class, prosecutorial misconduct, and the potential for convicting innocent people.  An expanded death penalty would mean more victims’ family members would be dragged through years of hearings that will not bring back their loved ones.  An expanded death penalty means more family members of convicted murderers would join the list of victims.  

The Death Penalty Information Center’s end-of-the-year report showed that the actual use of the death penalty is losing favor in other states.  New Hampshire should get on board with this trend, not take it in the opposite direction. 

As the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says, “there’s no such thing as a fair death penalty.”  That’s why repeal is the only just option.  

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Expansion Bill Based on False Assumptions

You can call it a myth, a belief, an assumption, even a wish. But the notion that the death penalty “protects” people from homicide cannot be called a “fact” and should not be the basis for policy.

Sadly, this non-fact appears to be the principle behind Rep. Phil Greazzo’s bill to make it possible for the state to execute anyone who “purposely causes the death of another.” His proposal, HB 162, has received the endorsement of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which voted 11 to 6 to recommend its passage on October 20. The bill will come to the House floor in early January.

Under current law, the death penalty is reserved for those who commit one of a small category of homicides, such as murder of a law enforcement officer or murder for hire. As Rep. Greazzo sees it, the limit on the use of the death penalty violates the principle that everyone “should be protected equally under the law.”

Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor of criminology at th e University of Texas at Dallas, and co-author of “Does the Death Penalty Save Lives?,” would no doubt agree with the principle of equal protection. But when he testified before New Hampshire’s Death Penalty Study Commission, April 9, 2010, he said, “There may be other reasons to support the death penalty, but the belief that it deters murder should not be one of them.”

Not satisfied with the reliability of earlier studies, Kovandzic used complex computer models and data from 1977 to 2006 from both the FBI and Center for Disease Control to see if there any connection can be made between homicide rates and the death penalty. In a paper published in the scholarly journal, Criminology and Public Policy, Kovandzic and his co-authors said they had found “no evidence that presence of the death penalty or increases in any of nine execution risk measures studied reduce murder rates.” Acknowledging that some researchers have reached other conclusions, he told the Commission members, “You have to torture the data to come to a conclusion that there’s a deterrent effect of the death penalty.”

In other words, making more people subject to the death penalty won’t stop people from committing murder. The death penalty does not protect us.

Moreover, according to the Department of Justice, the two capital murder cases it has recently prosecuted have run tabs of more than $1.7 million each. Both cases are still on appeal, which means the tab is still running.

The expense of a capital case is far higher than the cost of a homicide case for which life imprisonment is the maximum penalty, even when the costs of imprisonment are added in. According to the Department’s analysis, “there were 8 murders in 2008, 10 murders in 2009, and 5 murders in 2010 that would have likely been charged as capital murders” had Greazzo’s proposal been in effect.

If we don’t like the notion that the state’s limited death penalty gives the impression that some homicide victims are more important than others, the road to equal treatment is through getting rid of capital punishment altogether.

Rep. Greazzo said as much himself. "I think if we have the death penalty it should apply equally to everyone or it should apply equally to no one," he stated. Let’s choose the second option and look for ways to reduce violence based on facts, not assumptions.

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rick perry 10-28-11 008

Fresh from signing official candidacy papers for New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Gov. Rick Perry waded through a couple dozen anti-death penalty activists rick perry 10-28-11 004on his way to a reception across the street from the New Hampshire State House.

The Texas governor declined an invitation to speak with the group.

The NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty holds a vigil on the fourth Friday of  every month.  In that sense, the Coalition’s presence was a coincidence.  But the group has recently started a project to raise concerns about the death penalty with presidential candidates, many of whom spend a considerable amount of time in the state.

According to Barbara Keshen, the Coalition’s chairperson, states spend ten times  more on homicide cases in which execution is possible than rick perry 10-28-11 006they do if life imprisonment is the most severe punishment.  That’s why it’s so hypocritical for candidates such as Perry, who claim they believe in fiscal responsibility and limited government, to be such avid death penalty supporters.

Anti-death penalty vigilers shared the sidewalk with others focused on saving Social Security. Both groups chatted with reporters, from as far away as Switzerland, who were covering the event.

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But will they listen?

If legislators are looking for an expensive, ineffective government program to 5-18-11 001 eliminate, they can start with the death penalty.  That was one point made by Dwight Haynes this afternoon before the NH Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering legislation to add homicide committed in the course of a “home invasion” to the list of crimes punishable by execution.  Most of the witnesses agreed.

Numerous speakers, including Sr. Helen Prejean and local clergy members, relatives of homicide victims, members of the Death Penalty Study Commission, Amnesty International members, civil libertarians and others drew on theology, psychology and fiscal responsibility to clearly outline why the legislation takes the state in the wrong direction.  

The minority viewpoint in the room was a loud one; the death penalty expansion bill is sponsored by Speaker of the House William O’Brien, who represents the town of Mont Vernon, where the horrific murder of Kimberly Cates took place.  The bill, HB 147, has already passed in O’Brien’s House.

Several speakers explained the problem of labeling certain crimes so heinous that the perpetrators should be killed.  Brutal and senseless as the Cates murder may have been, there’s really no objective standard for “heinousness.”  And if home invasion homicide gets added to the capital murder statute this year, another heinous murder in a category outside the scope of the capital murder statute could happen next year.   The murder of a child.  The murder of a firefighter.  “How will you ever know when to stop?,” asked Sister Helen.  

“The essence of the act is that we have now killed the person who killed another person,” she said.  After that, “ask what have we done?” 

Vengeance is not justice, many speakers explained.  And even vengeance doesn’t bring healing, or that pop psychology favorite, “closure.”  5-18-11 038

Margaret Hawthorne, whose daughter Molly was murdered in her own own last year, said Molly “would not want anyone killed in her name.”

Sen. Jim Luther, an evangelical pastor from Nashua, asked several speakers questions about the scriptural  basis of their claims that the death penalty is not theologically sound and the scholarly basis of their claims that the death penalty does not deter murder.  If he listened to the clear, thoughtful responses, and reads the material he will receive from death penalty opponents, perhaps he’ll conclude expanding the death penalty is not good public policy. His vote will be interesting one to watch.

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