Firing Squads for Death Row Inmates?

I read a few days ago in The Root that Trump is trying to push through a plan to perform executions by firing squad and the electric chair, and I was incensed. This is the most unconscionable … it is something I expect in Somalia, not in the U.S.! I hadn’t yet written about this latest abomination, but this afternoon, our friend Jeff has, and he has done such a great job that there is no need for me to re-invent the wheel! Thanks Jeff! 52 days and counting …

On The Fence Voters

A Fitting Swan Song for This Administration

Justice Department rushing to expand execution firing squads for federal death row inmates: CNN headline. November 28, 2020.

Of course, they are. Surprising nobody, it looks like the current loser president wants to end his reign of horror – with even more shock and awe. Because, as we’ve seen for most of his term, cruelty is the point, not the exception.

According to the CNN piece, there are some scheduled executions set to take place in the last days of the administration, and they’re doing everything they can to make them happen by rushing through changes to rules through an approved amendment to the “Manner of Federal Executions.”

That rule change gives federal prosecutors a wider variety of options to avoid delays if the state in which the inmate was sentenced doesn’t provide other alternatives. The rule was pushed forward by none…

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Good People Doing Good Things — Richard Miles

Today I would like to introduce you to Richard Miles of Dallas, Texas. Richard-MilesWhen he was a teenager, he was arrested and convicted of murder … a murder he did not commit.  On August 25th, 1995, at 20 years of age, Richard was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The facts of the matter:  Deandre Shay Williams and Robert Ray Johnson were shot through the open sun roof of a parked a car at a Texaco station near Bachman, Texas, on May 16, 1994. Johnson, the driver survived but Williams, sitting in the passenger seat died.  An eye-witness claimed that Richard Miles was the killer.

More than a decade later, an organization called Centurion began investigating Richard’s case.  Centurion, much like the Innocence Project, works to investigate cases of people who have been wrongfully convicted in order to attain an exoneration.

In Richard’s case, it turned out that the Dallas Police Department had failed to disclose two police reports containing possible exculpatory information, and the eye-witness came forth and recanted his testimony, saying that the prosecutor in the case had instructed him to lie.

And so it was that on October 12th, 2009, Richard Miles was released from prison and three years later was fully exonerated.  Now, you’re wondering what makes Miles a good person, deserving of an entire post, aren’t you?  Wait for it.

For two years, Miles struggled to get back on his feet. Ultimately, he found a job, a home, and today is married with a child.  But that struggle was the impetus for what Miles went on to do.

“I was overwhelmed. I was 34 years old in age, but I was 19 from society standpoints. I had not dealt with the world, and I was literally scared. I didn’t know about taxes and employment. The world was totally different.”

A lot of people would be angry and bitter at having lost 15 years of their life in such a manner, then having such a hard time re-entering society. But Richard took a negative and turned it into a positive.  He decided to help people coming out of prison to navigate their return to society.  He founded a non-profit called Miles of Freedom that helps people transition and stay out of prison.

“I saw firsthand these points of despair for people coming home from prison. Yes, they committed a crime, but a lot of them wanted to do better, and they were just not in a space to do better.”

Miles received compensation from the state upon his exoneration in 2012, and he used a large portion of that to start Miles of Freedom.  Operating in South Dallas, the nonprofit assists individuals returning home from prison by helping them obtain identification, enroll in college, and secure housing. The group also provides computer and career training, financial literacy programs and job placement.

The Miles of Freedom Lawn Care Service provides temporary employment for men and women in the program. Miles also offers a shuttle service that takes family members to see their loved ones who are incarcerated.

The stated mission of Miles of Freedom is …

To equip, empower, and employ individuals returning home from prison and provide support and assistance for families and communities impacted by Incarceration.

Simple enough but imagine what a big thing that is to someone just leaving prison with no idea how to get back on his or her feet.  This year, Richard Miles is one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2019.  Below is snippet from an interview between Miles and CNN’s Allie Torgan …

CNN: In addition to the support and job training programs, what else do you offer?

Miles: We take a deep dive into financial literacy, which is taught by Frost Bank. We also have a nine-lesson curriculum that deals with the soft skills, diversity and change in the workplace, sexual harassment—and all this stuff gets our participants ready for employment, which is very key. Because they’re coming from an institution that did not provide these skill sets to maintain employment.

We also have a youth program. We have high schools across the street where we go in and talk about going to prison, challenges, making the right choices. We host different community events, back to school events, where we’re able to talk with kids and family members about incarceration, staying out of incarceration and needs for education.

Richard-Miles-2Good people come from all walks of life, and their good deeds may be as small as rescuing a puppy, or as big as paying off student loan debt for an entire graduating class.  Some choose to help the environment, others help the poor or the disabled, others take on caring for a community or knitting sweaters for the elderly.  Mr. Miles has taken on helping a set of people who most others wouldn’t bother with, most would write them off as a loss.  Who knows what good some of the people Mr. Miles is helping might go on to do with their own lives because of the help they received when they most needed it?  I give two thumbs up to Mr. Richard Miles!  👍👍

Good People Doing Good Things — Bryan Stevenson & EJI

Most often this feature focuses on ordinary people doing little things to help others and to make the world a bit better place.  Today, however, I wish to focus on a very big thing, a big man and his organization, Mr. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  A friend & reader, Ellen, pointed me to this organization and thought I might be interested.  I was absolutely fascinated, and I hope you will be too.  Thank you, Ellen … I owe you one!

Bryan StevensonBryan Stevenson grew up in the shadow of segregation and racism in school, on playgrounds and at the local swimming pool.  After graduating from Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, he received a full scholarship to Harvard Law School.  It was during his tenure there that he found what would become his life’s work.  As part of a class on race and poverty litigation, he worked for Stephen Bright’s Southern Center for Human Rights. It represents death-row inmates throughout the South. Stevenson knew  immediately that he had found his career calling.

After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Stevenson moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and joined the Southern Center for Human Rights full-time.  The center divided work by region and Stevenson was assigned to Alabama. In 1989 he was appointed to run the Alabama operation, a resource center and death-penalty defense organization that was funded by Congress. He had a center in Montgomery, the state capital.  Then, in 1994, the republicans gained a majority in Congress and one of their first moves was to eliminate funding for death-penalty defense for lower income people.

Not one to accept defeat, Stevenson converted the center and founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery.  He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship Grant, 100% of which he put toward supporting the goals of EJI.  He guaranteed a defense of anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty, as it was the only state that did not provide legal assistance to people on death row. Alabama also has the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing.

In 2005, Stevenson was instrumental in convincing the Supreme Court to consider the death penalty to be unconstitutional for persons convicted of crimes committed under the age of 18 in the case of Roper v Simmons.

Now a bit about EJI.  Their mission statement on their website:

“The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

Diane-Tucker

Diane Tucker

In 2015, EJI won the exoneration and release of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row after being wrongfully convicted of capital murder based on a faulty bullet match, and Beniah Dandridge, who spent 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted based on a faulty fingerprint match.  EJI won the release of Diane Tucker, an intellectually disabled woman wrongfully convicted of murdering an infant, after obtaining medical evidence that proved the baby never existed.

There are many stories on their website of people whose lives have been saved by EJI … far too many for me to relate here. As of 2016, EJI had saved 125 people from the death penalty. In addition, it has represented poor people, defended people on appeal and overturned wrongful convictions, and worked to alleviate bias in the criminal justice system.  Let’s take a look at one of the cases EJI took on …

Trina GarretTrina Garnett, a 14-year-old mentally disabled girl, was charged with second-degree murder after setting a fire that tragically killed two people in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was tried in adult court and sentenced to die in prison.

Trina was homeless and had suffered severe abuse, trauma, and mental illness. Her trial judge had no choice but to impose a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole, although he remarked “it is a deplorable situation that the state does not provide facilities where young people such as Ms. Garnett can receive help while learning in a secure environment.”

EJI took on Trina’s case as part of its work challenging life-without-parole sentences imposed on young teens. In 2012, EJI won a landmark ruling from the United States Supreme Court barring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children.

Bryan Stevenson, now age 58, has dedicated his life to helping people. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for over 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.  Mr. Stevenson has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge the legacy of racial inequality in America, including major projects to educate communities about slavery, lynching and racial segregation.

Mr. Stevenson has won so many awards that I cannot name them all, but they include:

  • The National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union after he was nominated by United States Supreme Court Justice John Stevens
  • The Olaf Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden for international human rights
  • The SALT Human Rights Award
  • The NAACP William Robert Ming Advocacy Award
  • The Roosevelt Institute Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Fear Award

Charity Navigator, an organization that rates non-profits based on accountability and transparency has ranked EJI 100% in all areas for the last 3 years, and they have had a four-star rating (the highest possible) since 2012.

The accomplishments of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are so many that it would take me a dozen or more posts to highlight them all, but I urge you to take a tour of their website, read some of the stories, explore the sections on ‘Racial justice’, ‘Children in prison’, and more.

Mr. Bryan Stevenson is a man with a heart, a man with a fighting spirit who spends every day of his life helping the people who most need help.  In this country, the poor and minorities are not treated as equals, are not valued by society.  Mr. Stevenson is working to change that, one life at a time.

A Life Restored?

Shaurn Thomas

Shaurn Thomas with his mother

Yesterday evening, a man named Shaurn Thomas was released from prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania.  Mr. Thomas had spent 24 years in the Frackville State Correctional Institution, having been sent there in 1993 after being convicted of the November 1990 murder of Domingo Martinez.  Only problem was, Mr. Thomas was innocent … he wasn’t even in the area when Mr. Martinez was shot and killed, yet through a series of judicial bungles, he was convicted. He was 19 when he entered prison, and he is 43 now … the prime years of this man’s life were spent behind bars for no reason.

The murder:

Martinez, 78, was a prominent businessman who owned three North Philadelphia travel agencies and was active with civic groups in the Latino community. On the morning of November 13th, 1990, he had gone to a Mellon Bank branch in Center City about 9 a.m. and withdrawn $25,000 in cash. After he drove away from the bank, his car was struck by another car, and someone in the other car got out, fatally shot Martinez and took the money.

The alibi:

The night before the murder, on November 12, 1990, at about 11:30 p.m., Shaurn Thomas was arrested in Philadelphia for attempted theft of a motorcycle.  Shaurn was held in police custody until sometime around dawn November 13, 1990, when his mother came to the station and signed for his release.  Shaurn and his mother then went straight to the Youth Study Center on the Parkway for an intake interview at 9:00 a.m. After the interview, Shaurn signed a subpoena and was released.  His sister had to come get him, and they both arrived home sometime in the afternoon of November 13, 1990.

The bungles:

The bungles are many, but in the interest of brevity, I will list only the most egregious.

At least four witnesses described the car that struck Martinez’ car and from which the murderer(s) emerged as white with a red top.  Police impounded a blue 1977 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, claiming it was the car used in the murder.  None of the four eye witnesses testified at trial.

A man named John Stallworth confessed to his participation in the murder, naming his brother, Mr. Thomas, and three other individuals.  The confession was quickly proven false, as one of the men he named was in prison at the time of the murder, yet police continued to rely on the confession.  Ultimately, Stallworth testified against Mr. Thomas in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.

The subpoena that Mr. Thomas signed at the Youth Study Center, along with all records of he and his mother being there that morning, mysteriously disappeared and could not be presented in court.  Mr. Thomas’ mother and sister were not allowed to testify, nor was the court administrator who had met with Shaurn that day.

The exoneration:

Figorski

James Figorski

Enter the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and James Figorski.  Mr. Figorski spent more than two decades working narcotics for the Philadelphia police force, while at the same time earning his law degree. When he retired, Figorski joined the big Philadelphia law firm Dechert, and he also offered his services to the Innocence Project.  In 2009, shortly after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project was formed, Shaurn Thomas sent them a letter proclaiming his innocence and asking for help.  Mr. Figorski happened to be the one to open Shaurn’s letter and has spent the last eight years working pro-bono to help prove Mr. Thomas’ innocence.  He interviewed witnesses who had been interviewed by police, but never asked to testify at trial. An associate interviewed Stallworth’s brother in prison, who admitted that he had lied about seeing Mr. Thomas at the murder scene.  Convinced of Mr. Thomas’ innocence, Mr. Figorski finally met with a prosecutor from the district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit in November 2016.  Members of the unit began reviewing the case and found 36 pages of witness statements that had not been turned over to the defense during Thomas’s trial.

Innocence Project legal director Marissa Bluestine, who worked closely with Mr. Figorski on the case says, “At every level, Shaurn was failed. By his lawyers, by the prosecutors, by the courts. Ironically, it took a former police officer to dig in and prove he’s an innocent man.”

“It happened because he had no money or power,” Figorski said. “They had a cold case they wanted to solve. And they had somebody willing to say [Shaurn] did it.”

innocence-1

All’s well that ends well, right?  But what about 24 years of a man’s life?  What about the botched investigation and trial? Shaurn Thomas is only one of many who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit and spent years of their lives in prison.  Granted, no system of justice can be perfect, but in so many of these cases we see blatant discrepancies, witnesses ignored, coerced or intimidated, evidence altered or ignored … all in order to close a case.  Although Mr. Thomas received a sentence of life in prison, some who are innocent are sitting on death row today.

After spending more than half his life in prison, Mr. Thomas says he is not bitter:

“Life’s too short for that. I just move on forward. It’s a tragedy that happened to me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.”

But he may not find it so easy to “just move on forward”.

“Deprived for years of family and friends and the ability to establish oneself professionally, the nightmare does not end upon release. With no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is rarely cleared despite innocence, the punishment lingers long after innocence has been proven. Despite their proven innocence, the difficulty of reentering society is profound for the wrongfully convicted; the failure to compensate them adds insult to injury. Society has an obligation to promptly provide compassionate assistance to the wrongfully convicted.”The Innocence Project 

The federal government, the District of Columbia, and 32 states do have compensation statutes of some form. Pennsylvania does not, so Mr. Thomas will receive no compensation or assistance from the state and is left right about where he left off 24 years ago at the age of nineteen.  My hat is off to this gentleman who is not bitter, for I believe I would be.  Would you? Think about it.