Voices for Death Row Inmates to stage second, bigger London event

It’s great to know that coordinated support is growing in the UK for the abolitionist cause. The UK group Voices for Death Row Inmates are organising their second peaceful protest in London this year, this time to coincide with World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10th October 2010, whose primary focus this year is the USA.

The Facebook event page invites you to sign up to attend if you know you can definitely make it – and more details will become available closer to the day.

The October protest will build on the April event, which was supported by Abolition UK and speakers from overseas.

“The day was a fantastic success. Many friendships where formed and it was a highly emotional day.

To coincide with World Day Against the Death Penalty, Voices for Death Row Inmates will be holding another protest outside the US Embassy to show the US authorities that we do not agree with them murdering other men and woman as a punishment. We will stand in solidarity with others who do not agree with this outdated, cruel and unusual punishment”

Confirmed speakers are:

Michael O’Brien – wrongfully conflicted of murder, spent 11 years in jail.
Juan Melendez – spent 18 years on Florida’s death row.
Jo Berry – Jo talks about forgiveness. Her father was killed by the IRA in Brighton.
Connie Wright – Connie sat and watched as her husband was executed by the state of Texas.
Bente Hjortshoj – witnessed her good friend executed by the state of Texas.
Gabi Uhr – Gabi has witnessed two executions.
Susanne Cardona – Chairperson of the German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Sandie Blanton – witnessed the execution of her fiancée Reginald Blanton

Please join the action on 10th October and lend your voice to help support those living in intolerable circumstances in the USA, facing execution, often for crimes THEY DID NOT COMMIT. Taking a life for a life is always reprehensible, but not only are there significant risks in the USA of miscarriage of justice, but in many cases – such as that of  Jeff Wood – the sentence of death was brought KNOWING the defendant did not commit the crime, but under Texas’ capricious and extreme Law of Parties.

Other things you can do:

Voices for Death Row Inmates Ceramic Mug

Don't be a mug - visit the VfDRI website

Please visit the merchandise pages for Voices for Death Row Inmates and make a donation or buy an item. Money raised from merchandise sales are used to help fund the expenses related to mobilising speakers and continuing to raise the profile of the cause.

Visit Abolition UK’s pages and perhaps support or attend their summer events. Jo Royston, founder of Abolition UK, travels to summer Green fairs and Peace fairs to promote the cases of several prisoners facing execution. She (and others amongst us) can also be booked to speak at student and other events about the facts behind the death penalty.

Join The Optimism Club Facebook Group and see events and causes posted there – and feel free to add your own or contribute to discussions.

Greg Wright: Peter Bellamy speaks out in memoriam in London

The following is the text of a speech made by Peter Bellamy on the occasion of the protest against the death penalty outside the US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London, on Friday 30th April 2010, organised by Voices for Death Row Inmates.

Peter Bellamy speaks outside the US Embassy, London UK

*     *     *

The date October 30th 2008 will forever live in my memory. It was the day my friend, Gregory Edward Wright, was wilfully and wrongfully executed by the State of Texas, USA. His final words to me were:

“I sure did not want to be writing a letter like this to you. If you are reading this, then you know the State of Texas has killed me. I am going to the other side of the door with my head held high. I know I am innocent, and the people killing me will suffer, when their time comes, for the crime against me. Thanks Peter for all of the help and the support. I hope I will be able to see you again.

With brotherly love, much respect, big hug, Greg.”

My correspondence and support of Greg lasted approximately three and a half years, from Spring 2005 to the day of his execution in October 2008. We exchanged hundreds of letters in that time, and I was able to speak with him on the telephone from Dallas, when he was having his DNA test and taking a polygraph; also, minutes before the execution. We became good friends and I came to understand the deficiencies of his trial and the broken system of US justice in respect of the death penalty. Gregory Edward Wright was innocent of murder.

In a polygraph volunteered by Greg, and paid for by his supporters, he protested his innocence. The conclusion of the polygraph expert was:

“After 3 test charts and a number of stimulus tests were administered, an analysis of the polygraph charts was made, and in my professional opinion Mr Wright is being truthful in all his answers to the relevant test questions.”

The story

Greg was accused of the murder of a woman in DeSoto, on the edge of Dallas. John Adams was separately tried and convicted of the same crime. Donna Vick, the victim, was in fact a friend, a good Samaritan, who offered Greg accommodation in exchange for help around the house and in the grounds outside. They became good friends in a very short time and Greg was able to get to grips with life again after time on the street following the temporary loss of his licence for a minor traffic offense. He was a long-distance truck-trailer driver. Donna and Greg identified a job opportunity for him nearby, but it required two people, and Greg remembered another homeless person, Adams, whom he thought would also be interested. Greg and Donna picked Adams up from Dallas with the idea that he would stay overnight with them in Donna’s home, and then set off early to try to get the jobs. During the evening, after a disagreement between Donna and Adams, the murder was committed while Greg was in the bathroom. He is deaf in one ear and thought the noise was coming from the TV. By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late to help Donna. It was at that point that Greg made his mistake – and it cost him his life in turn. Because Adams had pulled an assailant off him in a fight some weeks earlier, he thought he owed Adams a favour and didn’t report the murder. Over the next 24 hours, Adams decided he was likely to be identified as the killer from the evidence left in Donna’s stolen car. So he set Greg up to take the blame by planting the jeans and murder weapon in and close to the hut where Greg was sleeping out. In fact they had both shared the hut for a time. Adams made two 911 calls to the police, or rather the first was made by a businessman who reported Adams first confession. Then after wandering off, Adams made a second call himself. Greg’s defence attorneys were never told of that first 911 call until minutes before the start of the trial. And then they said the tapes could not be produced because they had been lost, in spite of the evidence that they had been delivered to the Prosecutor’s office. Because the tapes could not be produced, the evidence of Adams confession was deemed by the trial judge to be inadmissible in court. The jury never heard of it before making their judgment.

The trial

The indictment against Greg was as the sole killer. During the trial the prosecution tried to hedge their bets implying that even if the jury was unconvinced that the evidence proved he committed murder, they could convict on the law of parties. At that time the judge ruled they could not use that claim. However, the jury heard it, and was undoubtedly influenced by it. Also the 5th Circuit Federal Court of Criminal Appeals, in their final rejection of Greg’s appeals, used that same claim.

During the trial, the prosecution committed other inexcusable and illegal strategies to ensure Greg’s conviction. They hired an out-of-State ‘forensic expert’ to testify that he could identify a fingerprint taken at the scene as belonging to Greg. That, in spite of rebuttals of such possibility, both from State forensic officials and an independent forensic expert found by the prosecution, told the jury that he could not demonstrate by any means how he came to his conclusions of a match to Greg, but they would have to take his word for it. In other words, he was using ‘junk science’ to give the prosecution what they wanted. The defence attorneys failed to protect Greg’s constitutional rights in respect of this evidence, and it could therefore not be effectively challenged later by more competent appeal attorneys.

Prosecutorial games

Greg was denied DNA testing until the final months of his life, and then I and other supporters were obliged to pay for it. The prosecutors and trial judge then chose to interpret the inconclusive results against Greg, in spite of the fact that Adams DNA was found on the jeans, claimed by the prosecution to have been worn by the killer. Adams always denied having ever worn the jeans. Greg had admitted having tried them on once, as they had been included in a package sent to him by his family. But they were too small for Greg as was evidenced by physical measurements taken of his at the time of his arrest. In contrast, the jeans were the correct size to fit Adams. There was other evidence that Greg had been seen wearing jeans of a different colour and character, earlier on the day of the crime. In its final conclusions to the final appeal by Greg, the 5th Circuit Federal Court of Criminal Appeals, on the 29th October 2008, one day before Greg’s execution, said this:

“The recent [DNA] profile match clearly favours Wright to some degree, as it renders it more probable that Adams wore the jeans [used by the killer] at some point. However, even assuming that Adams wore the jeans at the time of the murder, there is still substantial evidence that Wright actively participated in the stabbings. In sum, the cumulative effect of the DNA testing and Adams’ letters cannot possibly amount to clear-and-convincing evidence that no reasonable jury could have convicted Wright of the murder. Wright has failed to make the threshold showing of innocence necessary to file a subsequent application pursuant to clause 2244 Accordingly, we need not consider the merits of Wright’s underlying claims for habeas relief.”

This verdict was described by his Defense Attorney as ‘legal fraud’ since Greg had never been on trial under the unique and much criticized Law of Parties, still employed in Texas. Also the ‘substantial evidence’ referred to by the court had already been shown by the defence to have no credibility of fact – including as it did the disputed fingerprint, unreliable evidence from a drug dealer suspected of having been given an undeclared deal of immunity, and evidence of other prosecutorial misconduct including the withholding of the 911 tapes and the confession made in them by Adams.

The confession

Finally, Adams himself had written letters of confession in the weeks just before Greg’s execution. Although later in court he had withdrawn his confession, which specifically absolved Greg of any complicity or function in the killing of Donna Vick, it is inconceivable that he would have made such multiple confessions, taking the risk that it would have been accepted as valid by the court. Especially since he had already gained a court order for the review of his own sentence. Had his confession been accepted as true then that sentence review would have almost certainly failed to alter his own sentence of death. Hi subsequent denial of the substance of his confession was then, motivated by the need to save his own life. As an addendum to the written confession, Adams specifically made this statement:

“My name is John Wade Adams. I want the record clear that Greg Wright is innocent of the crime he’s here on death row for. If you kill him you are killing an innocent man. Greg Wright was used as a scapegoat. I’m doing this because I’m tired of seeing innocent people being killed for murders they’ve not done. The statement I made is a lie, the one I made at the time of our arrest. Greg Wright is innocent! I was there and I know better. I set him up.”

He went on to say:

“If the District Attorney and Judge can’t accept [this confession] then his murder is on their hands. I set Maverick (Greg’s nickname in prison) up for the crime. Now here’s my fingerprint seven times. If they can’t get this right then they are dumb!”

Final words

Can I end by reading to you the statement Greg made from the gurney moments before the lethal drugs were pumped into his body?:

Greg Wright

“There has been a lot of confusion on who done this. I know you all want closure. Donna had her Christianity intact when she died. She never went to a drug house. John Adams lied. He went to the police and told them a story. He made deals and sold stuff to keep him from going to prison. I left the house, and I left him there. My only act or involvement was not telling on him. John Adams is the one that killed Donna Vick. I took a polygraph and passed. John Adams never volunteered to take one. I have done everything in my power. Donna Vick helped me; she took me off the street. I was a truck driver; my Commercial Driver’s License was still active. Donna gave me everything I could ask for. I helped her around the yard. I helped her around the house. She asked if there was anyone else to help. I am a Christian myself, so I told her about John Adams. We picked him up at a dope house. I did not know he was a career criminal. When we got to the house he was jonesin’ for drugs. He has to go to Dallas. I was in the bathroom when he attacked. I am deaf in one ear and I thought the TV was up too loud. I ran into the bedroom. By the time I came in, when I tried to help her, with first aid, it was too late. The veins were cut on her throat. He stabbed her in the heart, and that’s what killed her. I told John Adams, ‘Turn yourself in or hit the high road.’ I owed him a favour because he pulled someone off my back. I was in a fight downtown. Two or three days later he turned on me. I have done everything to prove my innocence. Before you is an innocent man. I love my family. I’ll be waiting on y’all. I’m finished talking.”

An innocent life was taken that day. Greg rests in peace, but the United States should hang its head in shame. Please, abolish the death penalty.

Peter Bellamy

http://www.freegregwright.com

Letter to Austin

At the suggestion of Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network , I wrote an email today to Mike Martinez. Scott asked

Mike Martinez on Austin City Council

“For those of you who live in Austin, we are meeting with Austin city council member Mike Martinez on Monday to get his support for a city council resolution for a moratorium on executions. If you live in Austin, send him an email letting him know that it is important to you that the City of Austin endorses a moratorium…. The Austin Human Rights Commission has passed our resolution twice, most recently last Fall. The HRC wrote a letter asking each city council member to support a city council resolution. So, now we are lining up support on the council to pass a resolution.

If you don’t live in Austin, but you have connections to Austin, like you went to school here or used to work here, etc, then you can write too. Mention that you like to visit Austin, and you would like it even more if Austin would take a stand on the death penalty.”

Here’s what I wrote. I don’t apologise if it sounds patronising or naive. Texans need to know that the world thinks they are bonkers. The good councillors of Austin probably possess a degree of rationalism above the rest so I wish Scott and his team the best of luck in their continued endeavour.

Dear Mayor Pro Tem Martinez,
I understand you are meeting with Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network on Monday. As a UK citizen and global traveller, who has had the pleasure of visiting Austin on more than one occasion, I was delighted to hear that you have agreed to accommodate this meeting on a topic which continues to be contentious across Texas, the United States and the rest of the world. I am privileged to reside in Europe, where death is no longer an acceptable form of punishment, and I am confused over the chaotic criminal justice system which seems to be perpetuated in Texas.

Through the work of Scott and his associates, linked with campaigning organisations and Human Rights activists worldwide, Texas’ stance and record on capital punishment continues to be exposed on the global stage as a bizarre anomaly. It seems quite at odds with the advances being made in the United States in arts and culture, business and technology innovation, welfare reform and so on. On a personal level, I enjoy visiting the United States and have done so many times for both work and pleasure, but I have to admit that this crazy reluctance to consider reform of the capital punishment system has me questioning whether I want to visit the State on business again. I know that Austin has a fantastic reputation for its great quality of life, its arts, sports, entertainment, level of education and relative progressiveness. It would mean a great deal to visitors to the City to know that the Council have the courage to make a contrarian call on this most significant matter in the field of Human Rights. Please give open consideration to what Scott and his colleagues will discuss with you and lend your support to the matter of raising a moratorium on capital punishment within the Austin city boundaries. I am confident we will see change in this area in the coming decade; it would be so good to know Austin was one of the first districts willing to take a step in the right direction.

Thank you for giving this email your attention. Though not a citizen, I do have the interests of your citizens at heart.

With kind regards

Kathy

Hope it helps :-S

Hank Skinner: What should we hope for next?

It became clear on Wednesday night, as we celebrated (“crying AND doing the Happy Dance” as my friend Carol Crowe-Leonard said on Twitter), that there was a lot of remaining confusion about exactly WHAT had been granted to Hank Skinner and what that actually meant. It was a relief to see this clarification posted by Change.org. I urge everyone to read it. It looks like there are still a number of weighty ‘Ifs’ between Wednesday’s indefinite stay of execution and freedom for Hank.

Governor Rick Perry and smiling fans

Smiling Perry and fans

So – if the worst happens and the treacle of the American justice system becomes too thick for reason to prevail at the next phase – what chance remains for a reprieve? Well let’s not forget that even if the Supreme Court denies review, there is the final recourse to Governor Rick Perry to continue the stay for an additional 30 days, and to just TEST THE DNA. Would he give the instruction do so? Well, just as the Texas Board of Paroles is a closed and secretive body, it’s hard to read Governor Perry. Instinct would say it’s unlikely. He’s the beloved figurehead of the ‘Hang ‘Em High state’ after all, and he’s busy fighting the corner of his hardcore Republican fanbase on the matter of the healthcare reform bill right now amidst cries of ‘Lead us into secession, Governor Perry, save us from Washington!’. But those cries also mingle with the ones saying ‘Please, Governor Perry, run for President!’ Looking at his snakeoil charm and devout, if misguided, following, and coupling that with the past form of Texas Governors in acceding to the Presidency*, it’s entirely possible that his unstated ambition is that of one day becoming POTUS. And if so, could he in years to come enter into that race knowing that everyone in the Western world had watched him deny a man his last, earnest chance to clear his name?

Opponents of the death penalty tend to look upon Texas as an almost unassailable mountain to climb – it does after all hold the record as the State with most executions under its belt, by a long way – but I can’t help but feel that whatever the outcome for Hank, we have turned a small corner. Perry is in a difficult position, the rationale of the TBPP has again been called into question, and the entire machinery of the capital justice system, which would allow a man’s life to be callously terminated while exculpatory evidence remains, MUST be under increased scrutiny…

So we need to hope that SCOTUS reviews the case for civil appeal. We need to hope that they agree that a constitutional right exists for Hank to have access to the DNA evidence thus far denied. We have to hope the DNA is conclusively in Hank’s favor. And we have to hope that the evidence of his innocence concludes rapidly with a full pardon and release. Above all, we must hope that everything that has happened in Texas since long before Tim Cole and Cameron Todd Willingham, right up to the present day, will be ringing loud and irrepressible alarm bells in courtrooms and police stations across the land.

That’s a lot of hope. I think we’re up for it!!!

Here’s a video interview with Hank’s daughter Natalie soon after we had news of the stay.

* Governor George W. Bush notoriously once claimed that not one innocent man had been executed on his watch.

Protest the planned execution of Hank Skinner on March 24th!

Sandrine and Hank Skinner

Here for the benefit of those not on Facebook is the substance of today’s plea from Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner. With only a few days remaining for the Board of Paroles and Pardons and Governor Perry to grant a stay of execution so that critical DNA materials can be tested, it’s important to do whatever you can to petition the State and secure a chance for Hank.

Too many death row prisoners have been exonerated upon DNA proof of innocence. Too many people have been executed on unsafe grounds. The criminal justice system is not perfect. Please – Help give this man the chance for life he deserves.

*     *     *     *

Hank’s clemency petition is seeking a commutation of Hank’s death sentence to life in prison in order to enable him to prove his innocence and seek a pardon.

WRITE, FAX OR CALL GOVERNOR RICK PERRY

Governor Rick Perry
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428
Fax: 512-463-1849

Main number: 512-463-2000
Website email contact form/ http://www.governor.state.tx.us/contact/

or use the online letter signing page set up by the Innocence Project here:
http://www.change.org/innocence_project/actions/view/order_dna_testing_for_hank_skinner

THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR SUPPORT!

All the details of the case are available on the website, however, here are some of the points you can raise:

  • Hank was sentenced to die on the basis of a perjured testimony and circumstantial evidence
  • The accusation theory relied on that one witness, who later recanted and explained how she was threatened to make a false statement to the police and give a deposition at trial which was based on a script supplied by the district attorney’s office
  • Both the State’s star witnesses (Andrea Reed & Howard Mitchell) have testified that they believe Hank to be innocent
  • The little forensic analysis done before his trial excluded him as the killer
  • The additional and minimum testing done during his post conviction appeals excluded him too
  • The available scientific evidence proves his physical incapacitation at the time of the crime
  • The significant quantity of evidence remaining to be tested is essential to reveal the truth about his innocence
  • His motions for DNA testing have been denied although he has always offered to pay for the costs
  • The state of Texas has a very poor record in terms of wrongful convictions and DNA exonerations
  • The interest of justice is to find out the truth and to not execute an innocent
  • The state is withholding the untested evidence that can prove Hank’s innocence
  • All three of the previous D.A.s have publicly stated that they believe the evidence needs to be tested
  • The D.A. has admitted in Ch 64 DNA pleadings that the evidence is in a condition making testing possible, that the chain of custody has been maintained, that the evidence is capable of providing a probative result and identity is an issue in Hank’s case
  • Texas should not execute a man it does not know for a fact to be guilty. After Andrea Reed’s recantation, according to the state’s own experts, the remaining evidence does nothing to prove guilt at all. The A.G has stated through his spokesman that it would violate the constitution to murder someone who is innocent – that has got to apply equally to someone they do not know for a fact to be guilty

Both petitions (commutation and reprieve) as well as three statements attached to the petitions can be dowloaded in the “legal documents” section of the website.

http://www.hankskinner.org

Event: Voices for Death Row Inmates – London, UK, April 2010

Please see the Facebook Event Page.

On the 30th April Voices for Death Row Inmates have organized a day of action. This involves London, Ohio, Australia and Texas all confirmed with other locations awaiting location confirmation.

At the London event we will have several guest speakers and hopefully an exonerated former death row inmate. We are proud and honoured to announce that Gilles Denizot has confirmed that he will be there to speak about his life working to end the death penalty.

We are holding this peaceful event to show that the world have not forgotten the inmates who sit awaiting their state sanctioned murder. We urge the U.S to abolish the death penalty. They need to be heard and we are their voice.

So make the 30th April available in your diary and get yourself to London, we all fight for the same thing and so join us in solidarity.

This WILL be a day of success and will be the first of many events held by ”VOICES FOR DEATH ROW INMATES”

Venue: Outside US Embassy, London (tbc)

Justice for Victims – perspectives from Geneva, 2010

The theme of victims’ rights was a common, distinct thread across all three days of the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva. It cropped up in different guises and from different angles in both open plenaries, in the workshops and roundtables, and came into its own during the incredibly moving ‘Words of Victims, Voices of Experience’ theatre evening.

Renny Cushing of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights told us that many speak of the death penalty as a way for those left behind to achieve healing, justice and closure, when in fact many of the bereaved reject the notion of ‘closure’ completely. Coming to terms with loss is one thing, retribution is quite another. Having sought opinions widely on this matter, Renny has been given many reasons which emphasise that the death penalty is the wrong solution for the victims.

Murder Victims Families for Human Rights parade with banner

Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights parade with banner

‘Having someone murdered by the State does not give me what I need,’ people say. ‘It would be better if the resources spent on maintaining the instruments of capital punishment were to be spent on other things: assistance for victims’ families and close friends, better crime prevention, resourcing for police, DNA testing to help solve unclosed cases.’ Now THAT is justice – diverting dollars away from needless vengeance and into resolution, and perhaps even more importantly, into reparation. Many people do not consider the burden cast on the families of those murdered. Renny himself recalls how, after his father was shot dead at point blank range, in his own home, his elderly mother, who had witnessed her husband’s killing, received an invoice in the post for the cost of the ambulance to take her husband’s body away to the morgue.

‘I can’t believe I have to pay for my husband’s murder,’ she said at the time. In short, there is little or no understanding of victims’ pecuniary needs after murder. There is the cost of the funeral to bear, the loss of income both from the victim and from the grieving family, and no form of compensation. To rub salt into the wound, it often seems like the State does not blink at the expense involved in an execution; yet gives no thought to the needs of those who have been harmed emotionally, pyschologically and financially by the wrongdoing. Renny, for one, believes the USA has this all wrong, when the (often very extensive) emphasis is on the death of the perpetrator, rather than the dignity of the victim and his or her family.

James Abbott, the New Jersey Chief of Police, agrees with him. ‘There is no way to fix the Death Penalty and make it right,’ he affirms. His sympathies in murder cases have always been squarely with the families of victims. The stress of the protracted appeals system does not in any way bring closure; it just gives almost celebrity-level attention to the perpetrator. ‘Just stop and think how many high-profile murderers you can name. Now name their victims,’ he says, and we nod in agreement.

And then there is the cry for compassion: ‘My loved one(s) has/have already died. Why add to the death toll and create a world of suffering for someone else’s family?’

These are powerful messages coming from the mouths of people who have suffered the worst anguish imaginable. Fortunately, they have had an impact in New Jersey, where the death penalty was abolished in 2007. Chief James Abbott was part of the commission set up to report on whether the state should abolish. At the outset, he was personally pro-death penalty. He admits, he still has views which would favor it for certain crimes; but now he knows that capital punishment is not a workable form of criminal justice. Often, he is asked ‘But what if it were a police offer who was killed?’ His answer is still that execution is not the answer. He would not want any officer’s family to suffer the way he knows others have, forced to be reminded through a protracted and flawed appeals process of their tragedy, while simultaneously being ignored in the aspects where it matters. Instead, a system which guarantees that the guilty party is behind bars for life, and which provides support for the family of the victim, is a far better solution. LWoP (Life without Parole), he adds, is fairer on a socio-cultural basis, prevents the risk of wrongful execution and assists families to recover.

 John Van de Kamp

John Van de Kamp, former Attorney General of California "Redemption opportunities exist"

John Van de Kamp, former DA of Los Angeles and Attorney General of California, has always been an opponent of the death penalty, but spent many uncomfortable years in prosecution, condemning many to death. Today, he is free to state his mind. He knows that in California, popular support for the death penalty is high, but his experience shows that this is largely down to society’s fear of recidivism.

‘People don’t believe that Life without Parole truly means life. And yet there are no examples of LWoP prisoners being released, other than as a result of exoneration.’

Polls show a huge drop in favor of executions when people are offered the alternative option of ‘guaranteed real life’ (LWoP). This is even higher when LWoP + work-based restitution is an available choice (i.e. make convicts work to earn their keep and deliver compensation to victims’ families).

But what about other countries, where vengeance is de rigueur? We heard in Geneva from Toshi Kazama, a Japanese photographer, and survivor of a murder attempt in which he was left for dead and was unconscious for three days. Toshi had already been responsible for photographing victims’ families, inmates, execution chambers in the USA and has met many families who have shown compassion to perpetrators. This, says Toshi, helped him to get through his own experience. However, if he were at home in Japan, reconciliation  through compassion would be nigh-on impossible.

‘There, as with many Asian communities, it is a collective society,’ explains Toshi. ‘You have to fit the accepted framework. You must HATE the perpetrator.’

In Japan, it is most unusual to support the perpetrator and ask for clemency, and it leads to the victim becoming an outcast; indeed a victim twice over. Those who do not seek vengeance against wrongdoers are treated as outcasts, and become subject to bullying and intimidation. Often families are forced to separate so as not to have one person’s desire for clemency reflected in punitive social actions being meted out against those closest to them. Voicing free opinion and compassion is simply taboo, having a contrarian view in capital punishment goes against culture. Although many victims will say in private that they do not want the death penalty brought in their case, they continue to argue it in principle. It is a similar story in Taiwan and in China, where the same issues arise from the collective nature of society. So it is virtually impossible for individuals to find peace through open forgiveness, as this would almost certainly lead to their own victimisation.

Toshi believes education is very important in this respect. He take victims’ families groups, including Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) to Japan and Taiwan. In 2010 a further tour is planned, during which Toshi hopes to tell many people ‘It’s OK – the victim’s family can react how they want to react to handle their pain. They don’t have to adhere to the framework and norms.’

Elsewhere more sympathetic measures are being taken to help victims on the road to healing. Mariana Pena of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) spoke to us of victims’ rights at the international level. In France, victims have a legal right to act in partnership with law enforcement and criminal justice elements to bring about justice for their case and seek reparation. Reparation can include both restoration – coming to terms with what has happened, often via reconciliation with the criminal; and satisfaction, meaning the honouring of the victim. Opportunities are increasingly given for the victim to participate in justice, and this is important because it impacts the victim on many levels: emotional; psychological and financial. In too many countries, the victim is ignored. Acknowledgement of suffering can help with the psychological healing process although it can be very traumatic for the victim… and requires psycho-social assistance from the state or NGOs.

Retribution: the need for vengeance is primal, a gut reaction to being hurt or seeing a loved one harmed. Many, many victims know this is not the solution to their grief. However in some countries and regions, vengefulness is seen as the norm; here, it can be difficult for a non-conformist to ever come to terms with loss. FIDH hopes that advocacy for legal reforms at international level will lead some countries to replace the death penalty with more reparation and support for victims.

Rehabilitation and Redemption: both James Abbott and John Van de Kamp spoke of the need for opportunities for offenders to seek redemption through work and rehabilitation. One such way would be for reformed LWoP prisoners to undertake to assist in education programmes for young people.

Reparation, satisfaction, restitution and compensation, remedy and redress: these are all things that the justice system could help to achieve for the victim’s family.

Restoration and reconciliation: we heard in the previous post how Bill Pelke of Journey of Hope has found peace through forgiveness. Restorative justice clearly has a role to play here and it will be intersting to see whether the success which some countries have seen in this area, particularly with young and first-time offenders, might ever have an effect on the scale of murder and life imprisonent. It would be nice to have a chance to find out, but we’re going to have to ditch the death penalty first!

Say No to the Death Penalty! Geneva, Day 2, Evening workshop

Elaborating arguments to convince public opinion

Influencing public opinion was acknowledged across the 3 days of the World Congress to be a key challenge facing the abolitionist movement. In some countries, and States of the USA, even those which are currently without the death penalty, point-in-time polls have revealed staggering public support for executions. There are some massive caveats around this which we’ll revisit in other posts in coming days, however the point is that some governments are hiding behind ‘the will of the people’ to refuse to even begin to negotiate on terms for abolition. Furthermore, we mustn’t forget that even in Europe, where we are lucky to have almost total rejection of capital punishment at statutory and constitutional level, this remains an emotive topic; so popular that it’s not inconceivable pressure could increase to reinstate it in some regions ‘for the worst crimes’. Of course in Europe this would never in all likelihood gain traction given the steadfast position of the European Union on Human Rights; but it remains important to consider, as a general theme, arguments which we can draw on to remind people or persuade them that the death penalty is a bad thing. So it was useful to hear in this session about two very personal perspectives which campaigning groups are drawing on to attempt to remind the public at large why the death penalty makes no sense.

Wrongful conviction, exoneration and enlightenment

In this workshop we heard from Joaquín José Martínez, a former death row inmate of Florida, now exonerated and living in Spain, and from Bill Pelke, co-founder of  ‘Journey of Hope’, whose grandmother was murdered. The panel was moderated by David Lindorff, a freelance journalist and author of ‘Killing Time’, a report on the facts surrounding the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquín told us his story. He had once been an arrogant upstart, a supporter of the death penalty and blessed with a good upbringing and education. He used to say things like ‘Why wait to execute ’em?’ He was a successful business man in his early twenties with two young daughters, and already going through a somewhat acrimonious divorce. Now, he looks back and knows, from what happened to him, and from what he witnessed while he was on death row, just why he was so wrong.

In 1996 a double homicide in Tampa, Florida, occurred. There was a huge public outcry to find the killer and see justice served, augmented by the fact that the victim was the son of a local sheriff. Altogether 12 suspects were arrested in connection with the killings, and Joaquín was one of them – but why? It transpires that his estranged wife decided to incriminate him out of spite, perhaps not fully cognisant of the potential outcome. She told police that he had given her information which would appear to implicate himself, and that she had it on tape. In short, Joaquín was convicted on the basis of an alleged confession, and one way or another the police managed to stitch him up completely with ‘lost’ evidence, inaudible recordings and the unreliable testimony of his embittered ex-wife. In his arrogant naivety, and given the lack of any evidence anyway, Joaquín had not really believed that he would come badly out of his trial and had engaged his personal business lawyer to defend him, rather than spend decent money on a fully competent lawyer.

Subsequently, in 1997, Joaquín ended up on death row. Even as recently as that, the default method of execution in Florida was the electric chair. Joaquín tells how the prison would test the chair every week, and the effect that had on the inmates. The row would be quiet and still; he recalls hearing inmates crying as the lightbulbs dimmed along the block. Is this not mental torture?

Eventually, with the help of his parents and family back in Spain, Joaquín managed to raise enough money (about $1 million) for a ‘proper’ defense and his case was eventually appealed and overturned. Through the love of those who believed in him, he managed to gain the support of senators, press, and a retrial at which the maximum sentence available would be life in prison. But he was freed.  He now lives in Spain, but stays in touch with his daughters, speaking to his ex-wife daily.

Joaquín understands the emotions that someone feels when you lose someone to violent crime. Hate, rage, desire for vengeance, these are all things he himself had the misfortune to endure when his own grandfather was later killed. But he acknowledges that he could have seen the perpetrator electrocuted a hundred times over and the pain of loss would not be lessened. Today Joaquín tours, speaks and campaigns against the death penalty.

Forgiveness vs revenge

Bill Pelke pointed out that exonerees are not saved by the system, but in spite of it. He said the death penalty is cruel and it is unnecessary, not just to the condemned, but to their families as well.

‘As long has human beings make decisions, they will make mistakes,’ he said. ‘But people will listen to other people’s stories, it’s very compelling.’

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Journey of Hope knows that if you can touch people’s hearts you can change their minds. So it is murder victims’ family members who lead the association, which also includes families of the condemned, of the executed, exonerees and general activists. They undertake speaking engagements and tours to reach out to communities, schools and other groups, to help them to understand that there are no number of retaliatory deaths that can replace a loved one. He quoted that the death penalty is nothing more than the ‘animal instinct for gut-level, bloodthirsty revenge.’

Bill and his colleagues believe  that  love and compassion is the answer. Healing is what victims need, not revenge. Bill himself lost his grandmother to murder… And knew that she would have been horrified to think her murderer would perish in turn. Forgiveness is what has helped Bill to heal.

Bill told us about his grandmother’s killer, Paula Cooper. She was only 15 in 1985 when the murder occurred, but this was prior to the introduction in the USA of legal prohibition of the execution of minors, and so she was sentenced to death. At first, Bill was glad, and wanted nothing more than to see his gentle grandmother’s killer executed; but then upon reflection he came to realise that his grandmother, a Bible teacher, would have wanted compassion. After her conviction, news of the young girl being condemned reached Italy, and a campaign was begun there to petition for Paula Cooper’s life. Bill could scarcely believe the strength of compassion coming from abroad, as in his home state of Indiana everyone wanted the girl dead, and as soon as possible. Ultimately, the state legislators were extremely embarrassed by the international attention and raised the age limit for death eligibility to 16; but no mercy for Paula. Eventually, with Bill speaking out at every turn to say he did not want the girl to be executed, the sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.

In 2014 Paula Cooper will become eligible for parole. She committed her crime and was condemned at 15. Upon release she will be 44 and a completely different person. Bill has remained in close touch with her over the years, and knows she will need tremendous support and rehabilitation to re-enter the outside world.

‘On the day Paula is released, I will meet her at the gates,’ said Bill. ‘She has already agreed to come with me wherever I want to go. “You saved my life,” she tells me’.

Bill has plans to take Paula touring with him and Journey of Hope to continue telling their story of violence, hurt, lives lost and lives saved, and the reconciliation that has ultimately enriched and directed Bill’s own life.

So in conclusion, the theme of the session was to set the scene for an elaboration on a few of the reasons why the death penalty needs to be abolished, via a pair of extremely close-up and poignant perspectives.

  1. The innocent man condemned, who escaped death, and has learned to forgive and completely turned his youthfully ignorant views on their head.
  2. And the victim’s family member who not only forgave his grandmother’s killer, but was instrumental in saving her and is a role model for reconciliation and restoration.

Say No to the Death Penalty! Day two in Geneva – afternoon plenary session

A daily blog from the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, Geneva, Switzerland

OK – this is a long post – it was a long session!

International and Regional Organizations: commitments to abolition of the death penalty

The afternoon session at the Centre International des Congrès de Genève was a large-scale plenary session with a series of panels. The purpose was to give a ‘state of the world’ overview of where we are at, globally speaking, with the death penalty, and what instruments are at our disposal with regards to both opportunities and challenges/obstacles. This post does get rather long-winded – but please take a moment to read through as there were some very revealing anecdotes and useful points of view given.

First up were representatives from major civil bodies: the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. 

Examples of Instruments at Europe’s disposal

  • Instruments available for Human Rights within Europe include money for funding  – some £8 million is set aside annually for the management of around 16 abolitionist projects around the world.
  • Specific sanctions: internal EU rules prohibit the trade in tools of execution and torture: gallows, guillotines, automatic drug injection systems such as those used in the lethal injection procedure, for example.
  • The Council of Europe has added articles to European Law aimed at human rights and capital punishment is a priority. The Russian Federation is the only state in the Council of Europe not to have adopted this but it has at least set up a moratorium, and no executions have occurred since 1997. Russia is now committed to a path leading to eventual abolition.
  • Additionally, protocol 13 of the Treaty of the Council of Europe has also now been ratified prohibiting executions in wartime.

The Shame of Europe

Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe – it would not sign to the requirements and so was kicked out. It is the sole European state to retain the death penalty.

Staying on-message in Europe

Other things that have been done: lobbying; the Council of Europe organized an international Day against the death Penalty. There is a consciousness that in spite of progress in Europe, the death penalty is still a popular and emotive subject (and potential vote-winner). States require constant persuasion that it is wrong, doesn’t work, and should remain abolished. This, the panellists acknowledged, is a constant struggle.

Observation and intervention in non-member states.

The Council of Europe has a role to intervene in individual cases in the USA and Japan to argue for stays and/or clemency

Next, panellists were asked about current obstacles to abolition. The following were notes I took on the responses

  • Russia and South Africa demonstrate how quickly change can happen. Just a few years ago they both maintained that the death penalty was ‘very popular’ domestically and said they had the high crime rates to warrant it (!.) Today, each of them have either abolished or committed to abolish the death penalty.
  • Anecdotally, Ireland recently hosted a re-introduction debate; which was ended with immediate effect when they realised they would have to leave the European Union. So – international law works.
  • A later panellist told a similar story about a recent visit to Albania, where a discussion about ending culture of blood feuds descended into a positing that re-introducing the death penalty would solve it (because family members would not have to seek vengeance if the state did it for them when a loved one was murdered). Reminding Albania that this would mean having to leave the EU and Council of Europe put a swift end to the argument.
  • This niggling to reinstate the death penalty is a common theme. Individuals respond to heinous crimes by saying we need to bring back the death penalty. This is something which needs to be addressed across Europe at the popular level. The arguments are clear:
    • The death penalty is NOT a deterrent
    • All sorts of practices which once were considered acceptable and normal are today inconceivable in modern culture and for decent people: slavery; restricted franchise for women…
    • DNA advances mean that proof of innocence is increasingly being shown for the wrongfully condemned. Laws of averages imply that this is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider how many wrongfully convicted inmates are still on death rows or worse, have been executed.
  • This popular sentiment obstacle could be overcome in part by creating allies for the cause amongst the business world: corporate social responsibility could include refusal to invest in countries or states where the death penalty exists.

Note – nobody on the panel mentioned educating the young; this however, did come up more than once in the evening session hosted by Journey of Hope  , campaigning organisation run by families of victims, and Joaquim José Martinez , an exoneree (next post).

Human Dignity and the Right to Life

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture gave an interesting presentation summarising his recent report to the UN on the right to human dignity.  This right is written all across International Law and Codes, and includes treatment of slavery, torture, cruel and inhumane punishment. He made the point that in 1950, only 8 countries had abolished for all crimes, and only 11 more for ‘ordinary crimes’.  At that time, corporal punishment was also practised. Today, corporal punishment is widely considered CIDP (Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Punishment).  So our understanding of what constitutes degrading punishment has evolved.

Today, 138 countries (two-thirds of all states) have abolished the death penalty. Some states continue to separate CIDP from the ‘right to life’ element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its flavours in constitutional law. e.g. The USA – they do not condone CIDP and yet they do not recognise the right to life. This ‘separate’ interpretation is no longer compelling though – by extension, if every other form of physically injurious punishment is degrading, how can capital punishment not also be cruel?

Nowak believes the UN needs a fresh look at the relationship between human dignity and the right to life to reinforce the connection.

The OSCE (Organisation for Security and C… Of Europe)

This body includes ALL European states and the USA. Of this group, only the USA and Belarus are retentionist. There is no OSCE ‘commitment’ against the death penalty as this requires a consensus – and the USA and Belarus will not agree. But, states have committed to some things, such as making information public. So – the OSCE is able to publish the facts and this increases pressure on the non-conformists to some degree. They are also subject to peer ridicule: the matter of the death penalty is raised at weekly meetings with these states – again this increases pressure on them from outside to abolish.

African nations – summary of approach

First off, it was noted that African nations do comment that the USA still carries out the death penalty, while they are all being asked to sign moratoria – and this sends out an inconsistent signal.

The context in Africa is one of believing that “we cannot afford to keep incorrigible, dangerous individuals in society” so we need to kill them.

The world is divided between retentionists and abolitionists. In Africa this division is serious: culture, history, colonialism have all taken their toll in creating strong pro-death-penalty views. On the other hand, human rights organisations have been able to make some headway putting the opposite case. Efforts across the African nations are focussed on two areas:

  1. How do we disentrench capital punishment from penal codes?
  2. Attempting to embed the ‘right to life’ in national constitutions.

Across the Arab-African world, the only nation to have abolished the death penalty is the smallest – Djibouti. It can’t help but be noticed that most countries across the entire Arab and African region which have the death penalty are Muslim. Islam plays a key role here. Despite many discussions with Sharia Islamists about the right to life, they still promote the death penalty for

  1. Murder
  2. Apostasy (rejection of the Muslim faith)
  3. Adultery

Tales from Asia and the Middle East

Philip Alston of the UN Human Rights Council admits he gets nowhere with the Middle East. In Iran, persistent execution of juveniles is unquestionably against international law. They have no compunction whatsoever about this in Iran. It’s the same in Saudi Arabia. Neither country responds to UN HR Council correspondence.

[Note there was no opportunity ( or time) to ask questions during the course of the afternoon panel. I would have liked to know whether the UN could recommend or enforce further economic sanctions against these countries to force them to talk about Human Rights.]

In the Philippines, the death penalty has been abolished. In effect this is because the Philippines is a great exporter of labour, and they were finding that a lot of its migrant workers were being executed with impunity in the Middle East. So they were forced to get rid of the death penalty themselves in order to get that ‘off their books’.

Singapore: the judge is obliged to sentence a person to death for drug possession, even the smallest amount. There is zero tolerance. This contravenes international law as no due consideration is given to potential extenuating circumstances. Singapore’s reaction to Philips’s attempts to visit is complete rejection. However that said, Singapore’s execution rate has reduced in recent years.

In Indonesia there is currently a stated commitment to the death penalty but ongoing pressure both internal and external to abolish [no opportunity here to ask question about the recent introduction of Sharia Law to national penal code]. Interestingly, in Indonesia there is an inexplicably high number of foreigners on death row. It is unclear whether this is down to police or court discrimination, because obviously it is not just foreigners who handle drugs. But discrimination is surely indicated.

In Thailand there are some 757 currently on death rows in Bangkok alone. These convicts are hungry for information as they are kept completely in the figurative ( and possibly physical) dark. They are permanently shackled, crowded, share cramped dormitories, and have little access to medication and food.

China, India, Pakistan – no invitation to visit is ever extended to Philip: they simply will not countenance meeting with a UN rapporteur for the death penalty and torture. They will however meet with other rapporteurs for ‘softer’ human rights issues. Philip made the point that while abolition is important, we mustn’t lose sight of other wins we can achieve in these geographies, e.g. Question of ‘transparency’. In China, we are told they perpetuate the death penalty because ‘public opinion wants it’. The UN’s response is ‘ does the public know how many citizens are executed, where and why?’ The answer, as we know, is that of course they don’t. The public information is based on no information. Meanwhile, due process was recently introduced in China whereby the central court needs to confirm every single death sentence. This makes it harder for regional courts to be profligate with their  executions. Also of importance, in China the range of ‘serious crimes’ warranting the death penalty, while more rangy than most other retentionist nations, is nonetheless shrinking.

This question of ‘what are the most important crimes?’ is a very sensitive one. In Nigeria for example, it is believed that sodomy destroys the very fabric of society, and is therefore the worst possible crime and must be punished by death.

Say No to the Death Penalty! Geneva, Day 2 – Morning Session

 A daily blog from the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty

[Please note, hoping to add some photos later on…]

Today, Tuesday 24th February 2010 is a date that resonates for two reasons.

  • It is the day Hank Skinner was due to be executed in Texas (stay of four weeks granted …)
  • It’s the day the world came together at the United Nations in Geneva to celebrate progress and promote further action against the death penalty.

It was an early start: we’d been advised to turn up in good time to the United Nations building in order to get security-cleared and to guarantee a seat in the main hall. This room is grandly titled ‘Room XX of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations, at the Palais des Nations’, and you’d recognise it from TV – the huge, artistically designed domed ceiling, the circular seating with personal deskspace at each, and comprehensive audio assistance. So exciting! The setting certainly created the atmosphere for a serious gathering of world-class speakers, and it quickly became obvious that there were some genuine icons in human rights present in the room.

 We heard welcoming words from dignitaries from around the world. Countries represented were Switzerland (our hosts), the USA, Benin, France, Argentina, Italy, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain.  Highlights from the morning included:

Bianca Jagger, Goodwill Ambassador for the death penalty on the Council of Europe. Bianca spoke in detail and with great passion about the gross injustice of the death penalty and admitted that the USA and China’s stance sickened her. She drew particular attention to specific current cases in the USA. She also reminded us that some 42 cases of lethal injection since 1992 have gone horrendously wrong, with inmates insufficiently anaesthetized. 

‘This is not an execution it is a murder. I was stunned and very sad that SCOTUS ruled the lethal injection ‘humane’ in 2008.

 ‘There is a shocking lack of access to executive clemency in USA. Bush is renowned for having said “I am confident that every person executed on my watch was guilty”.  State-sanctioned murder has no place in the modern world. America must get its house in order. ‘

Gry Larsen, Norway’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs spoke eloquently about progress being made, particularly in Europe.

‘The global shift over last 20 yrs shows us it IS possible to choose to abolish,’ she said. ‘Those countries who have abolished have not suffered poor consequences with respect to stability or serious crime. Countries are free to choose and Norway says “The door is open now for greater freedom to choose not to take lives”.  The balance has tipped. In 2008 only 25 nations carried out executions. We have seen rising respect for human dignity. We need more!’

Jean  Asselborn, Foreign Affairs Minister for Luxembourg explained that we have to convince humanity in media, schools, parliaments and through collaboration and he hopes for enlightened public debate at national levels across retentionist states. He congratulated the political courage of Mongolia, Burundi and Togo in abolishing, and additonally hopes that other US states will follow the example in 2009 of New Mexico. He reiterated Bianca Jagger’s insistence that the USA should lead by example.

Robert Badinter, former French Minister for Justice and author of French abolition – France was the 35th country to go the distance in 1985 – and there are now 138 worldwide.

‘Consider Europe’s bloody past and realise what a huge step it is that European states are now forbidden under law to execute!’ he said.

Abdou Diouf, Former President of Senegal, a rare African nation to have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. He also spoke inspirationally.

‘Death rows are rows of shame,’ he stated. ‘Man is the remedy to man.’

We also heard from Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish President. Although unfortunately I couldn’t get an instant translation for his speech. But never mind, it was on message for sure, given the applause…