Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pennsylvania’s Lethal Injection Fiasco

Despite having the fourth-highest death row population in the country, Pennsylvania isn’t terribly good at carrying out the ultimate penalty. A third of the 184 inmates now on death row there received their sentences more than two decades ago, and at least 24 have died of natural causes before their sentences could be carried out.

Legal experts, including the American Bar Association, blame the poor state of inmate representation in capital cases.

For years there were no pre-qualifications for an attorney to handle capital cases in the commonwealth. And Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that provides no post-conviction financial support for defense appeals, meaning defendants are typically required to turn to county services and the aid of less-than-able court-appointed attorneys. As a result, cases are often wildly mismanaged. Nearly as many death convictions are overturned in Pennsylvania as are handed down each year, the majority of them due to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Most Pennsylvanians now support a moratorium on capital punishment until its efficacy can be determined. Opponents of the death penalty see the state’s drug problem as a sign that that time has come.

“The mere fact that it’s so difficult to score these drugs spotlights how isolated we are from most of civilized society in our obsession with executing people,” said Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “I doubt that any governor would want his or her legacy to be a torture session like those we’ve had recently in states like Oklahoma and Arizona.”

Source: The Daily Beast, Christopher Moraff, Sept. 18, 2014

Five Public Executions in Iran

Shiraz, Iran, September 18, 2014
The execution wave continues in Iran. According to the official and unofficial reports, in the last 30 days at least 95 people have been executed in different Iranian cities. This is an average of more than 3 executions everyday. Iran Human Rights urges the international community to condemn the execution wave in Iran.

Iran Human Rights, September 18, 2014: Five people were hanged publicly in the cities of Shiraz and Sardasht (Province of Fars, Southern Iran) early Thursday morning September 18., reported the Iranian state media.

According to the Young Journalists Club (YJC), a news website close to the Iranian security forces, four of the men were hanged in the “Azadi (Liberty) Square” of Shiraz. These men were identified as: “Bahram”, “Edalat” and “Mohammad” charged with kidnapping and rape, and “Jahanbakhsh B.” charged with “corruption on the earth” and armed robbery.

One man identified as “Hossein Sh.” was hanged publicly in Sardasht. He was charged with “Corruption on earth” and armed robbery, said the report.

Pictures of the public executions in Shiraz shows children watching the executions.

Source: Iran Human Rights, Sept. 18, 2014

Texas executes Lisa Coleman

Lisa Ann Coleman
Lisa Ann Coleman becomes the 1st Tarrant County woman put to death in more than 3 decades

Despite a flurry of last-minute appeals, the execution of Lisa Ann Coleman proceeded on Wednesday night at the Texas State Penitentiary Huntsville Unit.

She was pronounced dead at 6:23 p.m. local time.

Coleman is the 1st woman put to death from Tarrant County since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982.

She was convicted in 2006 of starving her girlfriend's 9-year-old son Devontae Williams to death.

The dead boy's mother, Marcella Williams, later pleaded guilty and received a life sentence.

Coleman's former defense attorney Fred Cummings said the case serves as a good example of why capital punishment needs reform.

"Williams had a long history with CPS; she was the boy's mother. She was as culpable in the death of Devontae Williams as my client, and that is what seems unfair," Cummings said.

Cummings, who was once a prosecutor, told News 8 in a recent interview that he remembered the case well.

The defense team tried to convince jurors that Coleman didn't deserve to die, but that proved difficult when they saw graphic photos of Devontae weighing only 35 pounds and severely emaciated.

"The photographs of this poor child were so overwhelming, we couldn't overcome that with the jury," he said. "What more could I have done to keep this from happening? And that is going to be something I will always think about."

Cummings also noted that Coleman had a prior criminal history, while Williams only had a record with Child Protective Services.

The Coleman family declined to comment through their current attorneys.

An appeal filed with the 5th Circuit Court this week was denied. A certiorari petition and stay request was submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole has also voted against clemency in the case.

Dixie Bersano, who helped prosecute Coleman in 2006, told News 8 in a statement:

This 9-year-old child suffered a horrific death at the hands of Lisa Ann Coleman. Davontae died of malnutrition, a slow and cruel process. There was not an inch on his body that had not been bruised or scarred or injured. The jury assessed the appropriate punishment.

According to court documents, when paramedics responded to Coleman and Williams' Arlington apartment in 2004 they found Devontae "clad only in bandages and a diaper [and] so 'emaciated and underweight' that it was 'shocking.'" The boy weighed only 35 pounds when his body was found in July, 2004.

Source: WFAA News, Sept. 17, 2014

Texas set to execute Lisa Coleman for gruesome murder of child

Holding cells at Huntsville Unit, Huntsville, TX, where
inmates spend their last moments before being put
to death in the chamber at the far end of the corridor.
Woman convicted of murder in death of Davontae Williams to be only the 15th woman in the US executed since 1976

When emergency services arrived at the home Lisa Coleman shared with her lover they found the bruised and emaciated dead body of nine-year-old Davontae Williams clad only in bandages and a diaper.

Ten years later, Coleman is set to be executed in Texas for her role in the boy’s death. Barring the unlikely success of a last-minute appeal to the supreme court, on Wednesday at 6pm CT, the 38-year-old will become only the 15th woman put to death in the US since capital punishment was restored in 1976.

Though women commit about one in 10 murders in the US they account for only 1% of executions. But the jury in Tarrant County was persuaded to hand down the ultimate punishment after hearing testimony at Coleman’s trial that detailed the gruesome treatment the child suffered at a low-rent apartment complex a short drive south of the Dallas Cowboys’ NFL stadium.

A pediatrician identified more than 250 wounds on his corpse, which weighed less than 36 pounds, the typical weight of a child roughly half his age. He appeared to have been hit with a golf club. A doctor found that injuries to Davontae’s hands, arms and ankles suggested he had been bound repeatedly and concluded that the cause of death was malnutrition with pneumonia. The defence claimed that he accidentally drowned in his own vomit.

Coleman was in a relationship with the boy’s mother, Marcella Williams, and they lived together at the apartment. Davontae was known to Texas child protective services, who had repeatedly investigated Williams and removed him from her custody for a period in the 1990s. But his mother sought to keep him hidden from the authorities and avoided bringing him to a doctor, fearful he would be taken away. First responders were called to the apartment on the morning of 26 July 2004, after a report that he was having trouble breathing.

In June 2006, Coleman was convicted of capital murder despite her lawyers’ attempts to argue her background made her an unsuitable guardian but not a deliberately violent killer. According to court documents she has bipolar disorder and endured a deeply troubled upbringing. Her mother became pregnant with her aged 13 after being raped by a family member. Coleman was physically and sexually abused by family members and grew up in foster care, where she may also have been sexually abused.

Her mother rarely visited her in care and gave her the nickname “Pig”. She was knifed in the back by a cousin aged 11, shortly after she learned through the taunts of several cousins that she was born as a result of rape. By the age of 16 she had used drugs, started drinking and had given birth to a child of her own. Before Davontae’s death, she had a criminal record for burglary and a drug-related offence.

Coleman’s latest appeal hinged on the technical question of whether Davontae could be considered kidnapped inside his home. The legal “aggravator” that raised the charge to capital murder was the court’s conclusion that the child had been confined in his house and kept away from others, meeting the definition of a kidnapping even though there was no element of transportation.

Her lawyers contend that her original legal team failed to properly challenge this counter-intuitive interpretation and that they have uncovered witnesses who say they often saw Davontae outside and that he was not hidden from visitors. As a result, they claim, Coleman did not kidnap the child and is not eligible for the death penalty. The federal fifth circuit appeals court rejected this argument on Tuesday.

“The state singled Lisa out and figured some way to get her the death penalty because she was black, a lesbian and an easy target … it was a slam dunk,” said one of her attorneys, John Stickels. “The facts of the case were horrible,” he said. “We are not asking for her to be released, we are just asking the state to be fair and follow the law.”

Dixie Bersano, one of the trial prosecutors, said in a statement: “This nine-year-old child suffered a horrific death at the hands of Lisa Ann Coleman. Davontae died of malnutrition, a slow and cruel process. There was not an inch on his body that had not been bruised or scarred or injured. The jury assessed the appropriate punishment.”

Coleman will be the third American woman given a lethal injection since September 2010, when Virginia caused an outcry by putting Teresa Lewis to death for hiring hitmen to kill her husband and stepson for an insurance payout. Lewis was only narrowly above the intellectual disability threshold, while the two gunmen were given life sentences. Since then, 159 men have been executed.

Last year, Texas executed Kimberly McCarthy, who had the dubious distinction of being the 500th prisoner put to death by the Lone Star state since it resumed the practice in 1982. Suzanne Basso followed last February, also at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, 70 miles north of Houston.

Only 10.5% of homicides from 1980-2008 were committed by women, according to US Department of Justice statistics. Less than 3% of current Texas death row inmates are female: eight out of 275 people.

“This does feel different going into this execution than other executions,” said Brad Levenson, director of the Austin-based Office of Capital Writs, which since 2010 has worked with indigent defendants sentenced to death in Texas, including Coleman. “We as an office have only had one other female client,” he said. “I don’t know what the statistics bear out, I would only be surmising that perhaps jurors have a more difficult time giving the death penalty to a woman than a man, it also could be that the state doesn’t pursue as vigorously the death penalty in females as males.”

Some 14 women in seven states have been executed in the modern era, compared with 1,374 men in 34 states. “If anything gender might play a role that might be more favourable to women although there’s not really statistical proof of that because there’s relatively few cases,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“It’s not just whether a murder’s been committed but whether it’s an aggravated murder, usually a murder accompanied by physical abuse or another crime such as robbery, kidnapping or committed by someone with a history of violence. To begin with, women commit fewer murders – and they certainly commit fewer of these murders that society considers more heinous in the sense of being accompanied by other acts. Women are almost always killing someone they know, not a stranger, and it may be their only violent crime in their life.”

Marcella Williams was tried after Coleman, pleaded guilty and was given a life sentence. While the couple’s gender made them unusual suspects in a capital murder case, their contrasting treatment despite ostensibly similar roles is common.

“A lot of crimes involve more than one person and it’s what we call a race to the courthouse or a race to the prosecutor’s office: who will plead guilty and then be the one cooperating with the prosecution? Only one person gets the deal,” said Dieter.

Source: The Guardian, Tom Dart, September 17, 2014

DPN: "Almost all my [Death Penalty] clients should have been taken out of their homes when they were children. They weren't. Nobody had any interest in them until, as a result of nobody's interest in them, they became menaces, at which point society did become interested, if only to kill them." -- David R. Dow, Texas Public Defender Service attorney

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sudan: Killers of Chinese oil workers hanged

Sudan has hanged 2 people convicted over the killing of Chinese oil workers and damaging an oil pipeline in troubled South Kordofan State 6 years ago. 

The Sudanese ministry of Justice confirmed in a statement on Tuesday that the management of the Federal Kober Prison in Khartoum has executed the death penalty on the 2 convicts. 

They were fighters of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) found guilty of killing the Chinese workers who were working at the Abu Dafra oil field in West Kordofan in 2008. 

17 others Chinese workers were freed after spending a long time in captivity, the ministry added. 

JEM has strongly condemned the execution of the convicts whom he described as freedom fighters claiming none of its ex combatants were involved in the death of the Chinese. 

JEM spokesman Jibril Adam Bilal described the trial of the pair as politically motivated. 

On 18 October 2008, nine Chinese oil workers and a Sudanese driver were said to have been abducted from the Abu Dafra oilfield. 

The bodies of 5 Chinese workers were found a few days later near the area where they were abducted. 

Source:, Sept. 17, 2014

Darfur rebels convicted of murder executed 

On Sunday, the management of the federal Kober prison in Khartoum North carried-out the death penalty of 2 rebels, accused of killing Chinese workers in West Kordofan. 

The members of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) were sentenced to death on charges of murdering the 5 Chinese who were working at the Abu Dafra oil field in West Kordofan in 2008. 17 others were acquitted. 

On 18 October 2008, a group of 35 JEM rebels kidnapped nine Chinese oil workers and a Sudanese driver at the Abu Dafra oil field. The bodies of 5 workers were found a few days later. 

JEM strongly condemned the execution of the "freedom fighters" in Kober prison, stressing that "no JEM combatant had anything to do with the assassination of the Chinese in Abu Dafra". 

Jibril Adam Bilal, the spokesman for the movement, told Radio Dabanga that the trial, in which the two were convicted, was politically motivated. "It was directed by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and has nothing to do with the judiciary in the country." 

He stressed the need to investigate and document "this crime committed against innocent people" by human rights organisations. 

Source:, Sept. 17, 2014

Iran: Prisoners hanged in Qom and Uromiyeh

(file photo)

As the wave of executions in Iran continue unabated under Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian regime henchmen hanged a prisoner in city of Qum on Tuesday. Another prisoner was hanged in city of Uromiyeh in north western Iran on Monday. 

The prisoner hanged in the main prison in city of Qum was identified as Q.S., state-run news agency IRNA reported. He had been arrested on drug related charges. The execution in Uromiyeh prison has not been covered by the media. 

On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's said in his annual report to the General Assembly expressed alarm at the recent increase in executions in Iran. 

The report said: the promises made by Hassan Rouhani "have not yet led to significant improvements, and restrictions on freedom of expression continue to affect many areas of life." 

He also criticized Tehran for carrying out death sentences on juveniles. "According to information gathered from reliable sources, more than 160 juveniles are currently on death row and at least 2 have been executed in recent months for crimes that they committed when they were younger than 18," Ban's report said. 

Under so-called 'moderate' Hassan Rouhani the country has faced highest number of executions in a year compared to any Iranian regime's president for the past 25 years. 

Source: NCR-Iran, Sept. 17, 2014

The “Death Row Dinners” Restaurant In London

The people behind a death row-themed pop-up restaurant that planned to open in east London are “considering their next steps” after a huge online backlash.

Death Row Dinners’ website had a series of black-and-white images of death row inmates with menus around their necks. Alongside the photos, it said, “Eat like it’s your last meal on earth,” and asked, “What would your last meal be?”

The £50-per-head restaurant experience hoped to let Londoners enjoy the idea of their very own last meal, “without the nasty execution bit”.

Under the “why?” section of the site, there is a description of the history of last meals, with a light-hearted reference to the fact that the ritual still exists in the countries that practice the death penalty.

Source: BuzzFeedNews, Sept. 16, 2014

DPN: Stupidity knows no limits.

Related articles:
- 'Last Meals', a series of oil paintings by death penalty artist Kate MacDonald, September 2011
- Big picture: Death Row Prisoners' Last Meals, April 2012

Bangladesh court commutes death sentence of Islamist political leader

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladesh's Supreme Court commuted on Wednesday the death sentence of an Islamist political leader whose conviction last year for war crimes during the nation's 1971 war for independence sparked deadly protests.

Delwar Hossain Sayedee, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, must remain in prison "for the rest of his natural life," Chief Justice Muzammel Hossain said.

The judge did not explain his reason for reducing the sentence.

Jamaat-e-Islami called for a daylong general strike for Thursday to denounce the verdict, saying Sayedee was innocent.

A war crimes tribunal convicted Sayedee in February 2013 on eight counts involving mass killings, rape and atrocities committed during the nine-month war against Pakistan in 1971. His death sentence touched off days of clashes that killed at least 70 people across the country.

Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, campaigned against the independence war but denies committing any atrocities. Bangladesh says the war killed 3 million people and forced millions more to flee to neighboring India.

Source: Mail Online, September 17, 2014

Texas: Lisa Coleman's execution set for Wednesday

Lisa Coleman
An Arlington woman who abused and starved the 9-year-old son of her live-in girlfriend is set to be executed Wednesday, the 1st Tarrant County woman to be put to death since executions resumed in Texas in 1982.

Lisa Ann Coleman, 38, was convicted in 2006 in the death of Davontae Williams, 1 of 3 children of Marcella Williams.

Davontae's body was found July 26, 2004. He had been beaten and bound, weighed 35 pounds and his body bore more than 250 scars, according to evidence presented at trial.

Initially, both Coleman and Williams were charged with capital murder.

Coleman's appellate attorney, John Stickels, filed a clemency application on Aug. 27, arguing that Coleman is not guilty of capital murder and requesting that Gov. Rick Perry commute her sentence to life in prison. The board voted unanimously on Monday not to recommend commutation or a reprieve of Coleman's sentence.

The clemency petition states that Coleman may be guilty of causing Devontae's death but not guilty of capital murder.

Stickels said Coleman was punished with death because she had the temerity to take her case to a jury. Prosecutors never offered Coleman a plea bargain as they later did Williams, Stickels said.

"What she's really guilty of is being a black lesbian," Stickels said. "If she is executed, it will be because of her sexual orientation. Her sexual orientation played a role in the state choosing to seek the death penalty and in her getting the death penalty.

"I have hope that I can save her."

After Coleman was sentenced to death, Williams pleaded guilty to capital murder in exchange for a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in July 2044, when she is 66.

If Coleman is executed Wednesday, she will be the 6th woman put to death in Texas since 1982, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.

Case based on kidnapping

Coleman was charged with capital murder before the Texas statute changed in 2011 making the killing of a child age 10 or younger a capital crime. In Coleman's case, prosecutors used kidnapping as the underlying charge justifying the death penalty.

Prosecutors argued at her trial that Coleman did not allow Davontae to have visitors, kept him from visiting others by restraining him and told people he was not at the apartment when he was there, in effect saying that using such restraints and keeping Davontae's location a secret was kidnapping.

Stickels' clemency petition is based on the assertion that Coleman is not guilty of kidnapping and therefore cannot be guilty of capital murder. In the appeal he recently filed in the federal court system, Stickels contends the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals referred to the idea that Devontae had been kidnapped in his own home as "counterintutive."

It was only the kidnapping component of the prosecutors' capital murder case that made Coleman death penalty eligible, Stickels said. In his filings, he says that the federal court or Perry should take the time to consider new evidence about the kidnapping component, Stickels said.

"Of the claims made by the state, the court found that the kidnapping case was the weakest," Stickels said.

The appeal also claims that at least four people saw Davontae Williams playing with other children a week or less before his body was found, Stickels argued. The evidence showed that Davontae Williams was restrained with his mother's permission no more than twice and only then for his own safety, Stickels said.

A Tarrant County district court denied Coleman's appeal last week. Stickels appeaed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which has not responded.

'Nothing new' in appeal

A Tarrant County jury deliberated about 3 hours in June 2006 before recommending the death penalty.

"This 9-year-old child suffered a horrific death at the hands of Lisa Ann Coleman," said Dixie Bersano, one of the Tarrant County prosecutors who presented the state's case. "Davontae died of malnutrition, a slow and cruel process.

"There was not an inch on his body that had not been bruised or scarred or injured. The jury assessed the appropriate punishment. Court testimony during Coleman's trial showed that she had a leading parental role and was the decision-maker on how Davontae should be treated."

Tarrant County prosecutors in the appellate office maintain that the execution should be carried out as scheduled.

"Our position on this is that all of these issues have been fully litigated in state and federal court," said Steven Conder, Tarrant County's chief of post-conviction writs. "There is nothing new in these petitions that have not already been considered by the courts."

Death penalty unfair

Coleman's aunt, Tonya Brown, said her niece does not deserve to die. The courts are skewed in favor of the people with the most money, Brown said. Brown said evidence of the system's unfairness is as recent as the case of Ethan Couch, a white teenager who received a sentence of 10 years probation and psychiatric treatment after driving drunk and killing 4 people.

Brown also said the court acted unfairly when it decided to give Davontae Williams' mother a life sentence and Coleman death.

"If you don't have money, you cannot get good representation," Brown said. "She's given her life to Christ and she's trusting in His grace and mercy and believing that God will work it out."

Fred Cummings, one of Coleman's defense attorneys during the capital murder trial, said her attorneys sought a plea agreement but never got an offer from the Tarrant County district attorney's office. Cummings, who said he has been a prosecutor, a defense attorney and a police officer, said the death penalty is unfair in the way it is administered and nearly impossible to fix.

Had Coleman's trial been in a smaller county, it is likely the district attorney's office would not have had the money to pursue a death penalty trial, Cummings said. Or, if Coleman's trial been more recent, after the law changed to permit a sentence of life without parole, prosecutors might not have sought the death penalty, Cummings said.

"The DNA exoneration are illustrative of the fact that we often don't get these right," Cummings said. "There are confessions, eye witness testimony, that juries often rely on that turn out to be wrong."

Davontae's death was one of several cases cited in 2005 when the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, that overhauled the state's protective services agencies.

Child Protective Services first investigated Williams in 1995 when she was 14 and Davontae was 2 months old. Caseworkers investigated her 6 more times until 2002 when they lost track of the family.

Source: Star-Telegram, Sept. 16, 2014

Court Declines To Stop North Texas Woman's Execution

A federal appeals court has refused to stop this week's scheduled execution of a North Texas woman for the starvation and torture death of her lover's 9-year-old son a decade ago.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected appeals Tuesday from lawyers for 38-year-old Lisa Coleman.

She's scheduled for lethal injection Wednesday in Huntsville.

Paramedics responding to a 911 call from an apartment in Arlington found Davontae Williams on a bathroom floor and first thought he was about 3 to 5 years old. He weighed only 36 pounds.

Evidence showed the 9-year-old had been restrained repeatedly, kept in a closet away from food and suffered more than 250 distinct injuries.

His mother and Coleman's partner, Marcella Williams, took a plea deal and is serving a life prison term.

Source: Associated Press, Sept. 16, 2014

Colorado cinema shooting: Judge allows fingerprint evidence

James Holmes and lawyer
A judge presiding over the murder case of Colorado cinema shooting suspect James Holmes will let fingerprint evidence linking him to the mass shooting be used at trial, a ruling made public on Monday showed.

Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour denied a motion by lawyers defending the former neuroscience graduate student that sought to exclude the evidence, arguing that fingerprint comparison is a subjective, inexact science.

Public defenders also had made a similar argument challenging the reliability of firearms analysis, which Samour also rejected earlier this month.

Holmes, 26, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to opening fire inside a suburban Denver movie theater during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises." 12 moviegoers were killed and 70 were wounded in the July 2012 rampage.

Prosecutors have charged Holmes with multiple counts of 1st-degree murder and attempted murder, and have said they will seek the death penalty for the California native if he is convicted.

The defense challenged the reliability of fingerprint analysis testimony, citing the 2004 train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people. An FBI investigation initially said fingerprints found at the Madrid scene matched those of an American lawyer, who was arrested but later released after the error was discovered.

But Samour said in his ruling that despite occasional mistakes, fingerprint evidence has been deemed reliable in U.S. courts for more than a century.

"The fact that fingerprint examiners make false positive identifications is more directly related to the competency of the practitioners, not to the reliability of fingerprint comparison as a methodology," he said.

Prosecutors plan to call a police analyst and an FBI agent who matched Holmes' fingerprints to prints lifted from the theater's emergency exit door, firearms, and other items recovered from his apartment, which was rigged with explosives.

The trial is set to begin with jury selection in December.

Source: Toronto Sun, Sept. 16, 2014

Oklahoma Lawmaker Suggests Nitrogen as Alternative to Lethal Injection

The most common method of executing condemned prisoners in the U.S. - lethal injection - has suffered a mountain of setbacks in recent months. Most notably, executions using relatively untested drugs have not gone as intended in several states, including Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma.

But 1 Oklahoma lawmaker thinks he might have a potential solution to the lethal-injection crisis: nitrogen gas.

Rep. Mike Christian, a Republican from Oklahoma City, is slated to present the idea Tuesday to the state legislature, inviting its members to take up a broader study on the issue.

According to a story by a local television station:

[Rep. Christian] wants to use nitrogen gas. . . . The process is officially called Nitrogen Asphyxiation, a fancy term for the process of slowly replacing oxygen with nitrogen. Those who have studied the process say it causes no pain and can kill a person within a matter of minutes.

A message left with Rep. Christian wasn't immediately returned. But he told NewsChannel 4 that "if you deplete oxygen it's within 8-to-14 seconds, up to no more than 20 seconds that they pass out. And then, within a few minutes, up to 8 minutes, probably less, that they would be pronounced dead." According to the Oklahoman, nitrogen has likely never been used for an execution. But Mr. Christian told the paper that the approach seems humane. "Some who have received an accidental excess of the gas have even said the effect was mildly euphoric," according to the story.

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization largely opposed to the death penalty, said "a lot more study" would be needed before a state adopted such a proposal. "This is just more experimenting with human lives," he told Law Blog.

In the wake of problems with lethal injections, several states have revisited bringing back older techniques. Tennessee in May passed a law allowing for use of the electric chair in situations in which lethal-injection wasn't possible. This week, lawmakers in Wyoming moved a bill forward that would authorize the state to use a firing squad to execute inmates on death-row if prison officials fail to obtain drugs for lethal injections.

Source: Wall Street Journal, Sept. 16, 2014

12 Nigerian soldiers sentenced to death for mutiny: court martial

12 Nigerian soldiers were on Tuesday sentenced to death for mutiny after shots were fired at their commanding officer in the restive northeast city of Maiduguri earlier this year.

A 9-member military tribunal, sitting in Abuja, convicted the soldiers following the incident on May 14 when shots were fired at the commanding officer of the Nigerian Army's 7th Division, which is tasked with fighting Boko Haram insurgents.

Court president Brigadier General Chukwuemeka Okonkwo said the sentences were subject to confirmation by Nigeria's military authorities but added there was no doubt about the gravity of the offence.

The panel considered "its likely effect on the counter-insurgency operations in the northeast as well as its implications on national security", he told the court.

- Equipment shortage -

Nigeria's army has been under pressure to end the bloody five-year insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives, made tens of thousands of others homeless and seen the militants make territorial gains in the northeast in recent weeks.

Front-line troops have frequently complained of a lack of adequate weapons and equipment to fight the rebels.

Residents in towns raided by the Islamists have said the insurgents are often armed with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft weapons mounted on trucks and, in some cases, armoured personnel carriers.

Soldiers by contrast have at times reportedly lacked ammunition and been sent out to the bush to fight without basic communication equipment.

Last month, dozens of Nigerian soldiers refused to deploy for an offensive to try to retake the captured Borno town of Gwoza, which the Islamists claimed as part of an Islamic caliphate.

Soldiers' wives also demonstrated at the gate of a military base in Maiduguri trying to stop their husbands from heading to Gwoza without proper equipment.

One of the protesting soldiers, who set up camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, said at the time: "We are being killed like chickens by Boko Haram because we are not given the required weapons to fight. We say enough is enough."

The country's military spokesman Chris Olukolade denied the troops had mutinied and told AFP that Nigerian soldiers were "too disciplined and patriotic to indulge in this dangerous offence".

The military has also rejected claims that hundreds of troops shouldered arms and fled their posts in border towns overrun by Boko Haram.

President Goodluck Jonathan has asked lawmakers to approve a $1 billion (750 million euros) foreign loan to upgrade the capacity of the military, which was seen as a tacit acknowledgement that troops were being out-matched.

- Unruly protest -

The court martial heard that on the day in question, the soldiers from 101 Battalion opened fire at a convoy containing the 7th Division commander General Amadu Mohammed at an army medical centre in Maiduguri.

The soldiers had demanded that Mohammed speak to them after a number of their colleagues were killed in an ambush on the way back from the Borno state town of Chibok.

The previous month, Boko Haram fighters kidnapped more than 200 girls from their school in the town, triggering global outrage.

Witnesses said the soldiers became unruly and threw stones at an officer when he arrived and shots were fired into the air. Mohammed then had to take cover as they trained their guns on him but he was not injured.

"The soldiers succeeded in shooting at his staff car, thereby causing bullet impressions at the right rear door where the GOC (general officer commanding) sat," Okonkwo told the court.

"He said thank God for the staff officer who rushed him into his car and the fact that the staff car is an armoured plated vehicle."

Eighteen soldiers in total, ranked from private to corporal, were charged with mutiny, criminal conspiracy, attempted murder, disobeying orders, insubordination and false accusation.

12 were sentenced to death for mutiny, 1 was given 28 days' hard labour on another count and 5 were acquitted. All pleaded not guilty.

Source: Agence France-Presse, Sept. 16, 2014

Saudi Arabia Beheads Syrian Drug Trafficker

A Syrian convicted of drug trafficking was beheaded in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, the interior ministry said.

Mohammed Ismail al-Jammus had been charged with smuggling a large quantity of amphetamines into the country, a ministry statement reported by state news agency SPA said.

His decapitation takes to 54 the number of people beheaded in the ultra-conservative Gulf nation so far this year, compared with 78 people in all of 2013, according to an AFP count.

Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery, homosexuality and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Saudi Arabia's strict version of Islamic sharia law.

Human Rights Watch expressed alarm last month at a surge in executions, which saw 19 people beheaded between August 4 and 20 alone.

HRW said 8 of those executed had been convicted of non-violent offences such as drug trafficking and "sorcery", and described the use of the death penalty in their cases as "particularly egregious."

Source: Agence France-Presse, Sept. 16, 2014

Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim speaks of her prison ordeal for the first time

Meriam Ibrahim and her husband
The Sudanese mother who was sentenced to hang for refusing to give up her Christian faith has spoken about her ordeal for the first time, saying she never once considered giving in and that she made her stand on behalf of all those facing persecution around the world because of their religious beliefs.

Nearly two months after finally being allowed to flee her native country and taking refuge in the United States, Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, 27, said she had been subjected to intense daily pressure while in prison to accept conversion to Islam but that she consistently refused to give in to her captors’ demands.

Ms Ibrahim, a Christian, revealed that following her arrest on charges of apostasy last year – abandoning Islam – she had been given three days by the authorities in Khartoum to succumb and reconvert and that she had refused.

Pregnant at the time of her sentencing, she was refused access to proper medical care for the baby’s birth. “I was supposed to give birth at a hospital outside of prison but they denied that request as well,” she said.

“When it was time to give birth, they refused to remove the chains from my ankles. So I had to give birth with chains on my ankles.”

Meanwhile, the attempts to force her to convert were relentless, she revealed. “While I was in prison, some people came to visit me from the Muslim Scholars Association,” she said. “These were imams that created an intervention by reciting parts of the Koran for me. I faced a tremendous amount of pressure.”

Under Sudan’s strict Islamic penal code women are forbidden from switching faiths. It also states that a woman’s faith is determined by that of their father.

Source: The Independent, Sept. 16, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Inmates Aren’t the Only Victims of the Prison-Industrial Complex

Death Row, Polunsky Unit, Texas (more photos here)
If you live in Livingston, a town of little more than 5,000 an hour north of Houston, you’re either employed in the timber industry or by the prison. Dave was a truck driver for thirteen years, but when his employer shut down because of the flagging economy after 9/11, he trained as a corrections officer. There’s more money in logging, he says, but corrections provides steadier employment. “Prisons are recession proof,” he says.

But serving as a cog in a machine whose ultimate aim is to destroy human life takes a toll. After eight-and-a-half years working on death row, Dave started having nightmares. He suffered from high blood pressure. “Even the younger guys get high blood pressure working there,” he says. “There were times I’d get to the entrance [of the prison], go through screening and do an about-turn, go back into the parking lot and call in sick.” So Dave transferred from death row.

Prison-reform groups tend to focus on the plight of inmates—their conditions under incarceration, getting them access to legal counsel. One is not naturally inclined to feel sympathy for the enforcers in this draconian system. But working in a crushing environment where violence is the norm, guards are victims as much as victimizers.

“Prison functions in entirely the opposite way from the small, healthy family or community,” says Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist who sat on the panel that went on to define post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the 1970s and who has served as an expert witness for countless inmates on death row. “It does to a human being what a zoo does to a wild animal.”

More than 25 percent of prison guards suffer from PTSD compared with 3.5 percent of the general population, according to a study by the Desert Waters correctional outreach center in Colorado. Corrections officers commit suicide at more than double the normal rate. They are collateral damage in a system that embodies one of the most devastating uses of state power.

Dave recounts the harrowing story of a fellow officer on death row who five years ago was working a night shift at the Polunsky Unit. During his break, he walked out into the parking lot, climbed into his car, pulled a gun out and killed himself. “He went undiscovered for an hour even though he was in the front row [of the parking lot] at the end spot practically at the entrance to the gate house,” Dave says.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will only confirm that on December 4, 2008, “a correctional officer assigned to the Polunsky Unit was found deceased inside a private vehicle from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

Source: The Nation, Alex Hannaford, Sept. 16, 2014

Mississippi Death Row Case Faults Bite-Mark Forensics

In one of the country’s first nationally televised criminal trials, of the smirking serial murderer Ted Bundy in Florida in 1979, jurors and viewers alike were transfixed as dental experts showed how Mr. Bundy’s crooked teeth resembled a bite on a 20-year-old victim.

Mr. Bundy was found guilty and the obscure field of “forensic dentistry” won a place in the public imagination.

Since then, expert testimony matching body wounds with the dentition of the accused has played a role in hundreds of murder and rape cases, sometimes helping to put defendants on death row.

But over this same period, mounting evidence has shown that matching body wounds to a suspect’s dentition is prone to bias and unreliable.

A disputed bite-mark identification is at the center of an appeal that was filed Monday with the Mississippi Supreme Court. Eddie Lee Howard Jr., 61, has been on death row for two decades for the murder and rape of an 84-year-old woman, convicted largely because of what many experts call a far-fetched match of his teeth to purported bite wounds, discerned only after the woman’s body had been buried and exhumed.

The identification was made by Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who was sought out by prosecutors across the country in the 1980s and 1990s but whose freewheeling methods “put a huge black eye on bite-mark evidence,” in the words of Dr. Richard Souviron, a Florida-based dental expert who helped identify Mr. Bundy in 1979, in an interview last week.

Since 2000, at least 17 people convicted of murder or rape based on “expert” bite matches have been exonerated and freed, usually because DNA tests showed they had been wrongfully accused, according to research by the Innocence Project in New York. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases.

Source: The New York Times, Erick Heckholm, Sept. 15, 2014

Belgian Murderer and Rapist Serving Life Sentence Granted Request To Die After Years Of Mental Anguish

BRUSSELS, Sept 15 (Reuters) - A Belgian murderer and rapist serving a life sentence is to be allowed to have doctors end his life following a ground-breaking ruling under laws in Belgium permitting people to request euthanasia.

Frank Van Den Bleeken had argued that he had no prospect of release since he could not overcome his violent sexual impulses and so he wanted to exercise his right to medically assisted suicide in order to end years of mental anguish.

"Over recent years, he has been seen by several doctors and psychologists and their conclusion is that he is suffering, and suffering unbearably," his lawyer, Jos Vander Velpen, told state broadcaster VRT.

The judicial ruling was the first involving a prisoner since the euthanasia law was introduced 12 years ago.

It was not clear when the medical procedure, to be conducted in a hospital, would take place, the lawyer added. Because he was a prisoner, his client's request had been dependent on the consent of the justice ministry. Belgium, like the rest of the European Union, does not have a death penalty.

Van Den Bleeken, aged about 50 and in prison for nearly 30 years, had complained of a lack of therapy provided for his condition in Belgium and therefore he preferred to die.

"If people commit a sexual crime, help them to deal with it," he said in a television documentary. "Just locking them up helps no one: not the person, not society and not the victims."

Predominantly Roman Catholic Belgium is not the only country in Europe to provide a right to die but it has pioneered the application of the law beyond the terminally ill.

Source: Huffington Post, Sept. 16, 2014

Afghan Court Confirms 5 Death Sentences in Rape Case That Led to Outrage

KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan appeals court confirmed death sentences on Monday against five of the seven defendants in a notorious robbery and rape case, despite their claims that their confessions were extracted through torture.

For the other two defendants, the court found insufficient evidence to justify the death penalty, so it reduced their sentences to 20 years’ imprisonment.

The seven men were accused of dressing in police uniforms and stopping a caravan of cars returning from a wedding in the Paghman district, less than half an hour’s drive from Kabul; robbing the occupants; and raping four of the women by the roadside.

The Kabul police department was under enormous public pressure to solve the case, which prompted national outrage and revulsion.

Almost from the start, questions have been raised about whether the suspects were being railroaded by the government. President Hamid Karzai promised to approve the death penalty against the men even before their two-hour trial on Sept. 7.

The entire case against them rested on their confessions and on their identification by victims at a police lineup. But all seven men said that they had been severely beaten by police officers until they confessed to the rapes, and that the police had told the victims whom to identify in a lineup that included no one other than them.

Source: The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lawyers agree on jury process in Marathon trial

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have reached an agreement on the process for selecting a jury in the terrorism case.

In order to pick 12 jurors and 6 alternates, the lawyers want the court to issue jury summonses to 2,000 people about 6 weeks before the trial, which is currently set for Nov. 3.

The 2 sides then hope to pare that list down to 800 people who will be asked to fill out questionnaires in person. Then, with the judge's approval, they will further whittle down that list to 70 qualified jurors.

Tsarnaev is accused of detonating 2 bombs at the 2013 marathon along with his now-deceased brother, killing 3 people and injuring about 260 others. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Source: Associated Press, Sept. 14, 2014

Oklahoma: Death row inmate worries he’ll suffer a sloppy execution

Oklahoma Death Chamber
OKLAHOMA CITY — Since July, Richard Glossip has been listening to renovations inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The noise is a constant reminder that his days are numbered.

Glossip, 51, is scheduled to be the second inmate executed under new procedures for lethal injections in Oklahoma, and in a newly renovated chamber.

Convicted in a murder-for-hire plot, he lives on death row in a small cell that he says is beneath the execution chamber.

The state’s execution policies are so new that they are still being drafted, and prison officials haven’t been trained yet. Glossip writes that he can only speculate what his last days will be like under the new rules and how he’ll die come Nov. 20.

“They have moved the execution table … so that they could put a window in the door where the person administering the drug’s, so that if an inmate starts flopping they can give them a little more muscle (relaxant) to stop it,” he wrote in a July 24 letter to a reporter. “They think it makes it better, but that is not true, even though your muscles are relaxed, you will still be suffocating and will still feel it.”

Death row has been on a media lockdown with in-person interviews prohibited since the clumsy execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29. Corrections officials explain that the blackout was necessary pending the investigation, ordered by Gov. Mary Fallin, into why it took Lockett about 40 minutes to die by lethal injection.

The investigation by the Department of Public Safety ultimately found that an IV tube, meant to deliver deadly drugs, had become dislodged from Lockett’s groin area.

In the meantime, Glossip has communicated by letters, attempting to get his story told and convince others of his innocence.

Glossip’s execution is one of three being scheduled by the state, starting in November. He’s been on death row since 1998, when he was convicted in a plot that killed Barry Van Treese, a motel owner, the year before. The convicted hit man, Justin Sneed, is serving a sentence of life without parole.

Click here to read the full article

Source: Muskogee Phoenix, Sept. 14, 2014

Inside Oklahoma's execution chamber: What happens in the small, dark room

The room where Oklahoma's 3 executioners have carried out their lethal duties since 1992 is the size of a walk-in closet and so dimly lit they are provided a flashlight to see, according to court records.

Cleaning supplies have been stored in the "drug room," where executioners administer the lethal drugs. A small window in the door provides only a partial view of the inmate being executed. If something goes wrong, the executioners stick colored pencils through holes in the drug room wall to communicate with the doctor and others in the death chamber.

Depositions by Department of Corrections officials and affidavits by attorneys who toured death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary describe in detail the cramped, dark and isolated conditions inside the execution chamber. The documents are part of past legal challenges to the state's lethal injection process.

The Department of Corrections is renovating the execution chamber to address issues raised following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29. The agency also is revising its lethal injection protocols to comply with recommendations made by a Department of Public Safety investigation of Lockett's 43-minute execution.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson said in a Sept. 4 press conference that the state has had no previous problems with its executions.

"For almost 25 years, 110 consecutive times, it did work. This time, obviously, it didn't work this time, or we wouldn't all be sitting here today," Thompson said.

However, records indicate that several past executions have not gone as expected.

In an affidavit for a federal challenge to the state's death-penalty process, an attorney with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System described her visit to the prison on June 8, 2006. The attorney, Janet Chesley, stated she was waiting at the entrance to H unit, where death row is housed, to visit with clients.

"While I was waiting, I saw the guard at the entrance to H-Unit point to a spot on her desk and ask the trustee to clean the spot because she believed it to be blood from a recent execution," Chesley's affidavit states.

"The guard said to me that she thought the blood was left over from the movement of a body after a bad execution," states Chesley, who is no longer with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.

One week earlier, Oklahoma had executed 74-year-old John Boltz, the oldest inmate put to death in state history, according to news reports. Boltz had argued in appeals that Oklahoma's lethal injection protocols were unconstitutional and would subject him to "a significant risk of excessive pain and suffering."

A federal judge ultimately rejected those claims, as judges have done following other challenges to the state's lethal injection process.

Boltz's execution was delayed an hour because the medical team had trouble inserting an IV. Records show Boltz was executed using a single IV placed in his femoral vein, the same kind that was improperly inserted into Lockett's body.

During a hearing in Boltz's legal challenge, Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Marty Sirmons testified that the doctor carrying out the execution had difficulty establishing an IV. The doctor was not "completely familiar" with operation of the IV supplies provided by the prison, Sirmons testified.

'Disturbing' events

The Department of Public Safety investigation into Lockett's execution found that the doctor did not have properly sized needles to start a femoral IV. The report found "minor deviations" from Department of Corrections protocol during the execution but does not detail them or hold anyone accountable for them.

Problems with an IV also were documented in the 2001 execution of Loyd LaFevers, who witnesses said repeatedly convulsed during the 6 minutes it took him to die.

In an autopsy, an investigator with the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner's Office stated that LaFevers' IV "infiltrated after the 1st drug was administered."

"A prison unit manager had sent two letters to the clemency board stating that this inmate needed to die," the autopsy report states.

"The family of (LaFevers) is accusing prison officials of diluting the execution drugs or gave it (sic) in the wrong order to make this inmate suffer."

A state law prohibits release of information identifying doctors and other medical personnel taking part in executions. The identities of the 3 executioners and the pharmacist who provides the lethal drugs is also secret under the law.

In 1992, it took inmate Robyn Parks 11 minutes to die, during which he remarked, "I'm still awake."

Witnesses said his body began bucking under the straps as he spewed the air out of his lungs. A Tulsa World reporter who witnessed the execution described it as "overwhelming, stunning, disturbing."

Parks' execution was the first held in the current execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Death row prisoners were moved into the newly constructed death row unit in November 1991.

The chamber is actually 4 connected rooms: the execution chamber itself, a smaller room where 3 executioners are stationed, a room for relatives of the victim separated by 1-way glass from a room where witnesses from the media, government agencies and the inmates' family sit.

Chesley's affidavit describes the executioners' room as 4 feet by 5 feet and lit by a single florescent light with a green cover.

"I found it hard to believe that three people could fit in the room without jostling one another," she states. "Even with the door to the execution room open, the room was dim."

Sirmons testified that executioners are provided a flashlight but said the room has enough light to enable them to read labels.

In a 2007 deposition, a Corrections Department deputy warden said he used a flashlight in the executioners' room "to make sure that all the drugs are in the right order."

The deputy warden also described how executioners communicate with those in the death chamber: by sticking colored pencils through holes in the wall, where 2 IV lines feed into the inmate's body.

"If you saw red, there might be possible problems," the official stated.

Rachel Peterson, a former reporter for the McAlester News-Capital, witnessed 13 executions while working for the newspaper.

"There was one time where they said, 'Let the execution begin,' and the prisoner was awake for a lot longer than expected. ... Then I saw this little red plastic-looking thing; it poked in and out and then not too long later I could start seeing liquid flow through the tube. There was clearly a technical difficulty," Peterson said.

Room 'absurdly small'

The Department of Public Safety investigation found that "current communication methods used during the execution process are antiquated and require unnecessary multi-tasking from key personnel in the execution chamber."

The report recommends that the Corrections Department explore ways to modernize communication between the execution chamber and the executioners' room.

"The current processes, including the use of color pencils and hand signals, could be used as a contingency if other modern methods fail," the report states.

Communication between Department of Corrections officials and the Governor's Office should also be improved, the report recommends.

"DOC should research and implement methods to modernize the communication link that would allow direct, constant contact between the personnel in the execution chamber and the Governor's Office," the report states.

Because DOC Director Robert Patton was not inside the execution chamber, information had to be relayed by phone from the chamber to Patton outside, then to Gov. Mary Fallin's general counsel, Steve Mullins, who then called Fallin.

Patton said last week that "major reconstruction" of the execution chamber is underway.

DOC spokesman Jerry Massie did not answer questions from the World seeking additional details about the reconstruction. Records show the agency has spent $11,000 on new doors and windows for the execution chamber. DOC notified the state Department of Central Services that it purchased custom-made, detention-grade doors and window frames from a vendor under a state law allowing agencies to waive bidding in emergencies.

DOC's July 22 letter states the agency "must complete renovations to the execution room in order to meet the necessary timelines to carry out the next mandated execution."

"The execution room at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is currently under construction and the need for custom metal fabrication for two doors and window frames in an extremely short period of time has given rise to the emergency declaration," states the letter from DOC General Services Administrator Ernest Lamirand.

Oklahoma's next execution is scheduled for Nov. 13, when Charles Warner is set to be put to death. Warner was to be executed 2 hours after Lockett but received a stay after Lockett's execution went awry.

Lockett was put to death for the 1999 killing of Stephanie Neiman, 19, of Perry. Warner was sentenced to death for the 1997 rape and murder of Adriana Waller, his roommate's 11-month-old daughter.

During a press conference last week, Patton said DOC planned to be ready to carry out Warner's execution as scheduled but would request additional time if needed. The agency must revise protocols, receive input from the Attorney General's Office and then train employees, he said.

While it is unclear whether the renovations include expanding the executioners' room, attorneys who have seen the room say they were disturbed by conditions there.

Kim Marks, an investigator with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, accompanied Chesley on the 2006 death row tour. Marks described the executioners' room as "a walk-in closet."

"I remember it being absurdly small. I remember it had cleaning chemicals stored inside. ... I could see how 3 petite-sized people could squeeze in, but I do not see how three average or larger people could."

During Lockett's execution, a paramedic was also in the room with the executioners, the Department of Public Safety report shows.

Marks said the drug room lacked air circulation and was "definitely dark."

"The lack of circulation and restricted movement would not be ideal," she said.

"The main thing I recall thinking is there's absolutely no way to preserve the integrity of what's happening in that closet. We have no knowledge of what they (executioners) are told or instructed. They can do anything."

Source: Tulsa World, Sept. 14, 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

California: Support for death penalty falls to 50-year low, Field Poll shows

California Death Chamber
Support for the death penalty among registered voters in California has dropped to 56 %, the lowest level reported in nearly 50 years but one that still indicates a considerable majority in favor of capital punishment, according to a Field Poll released Friday.

The survey, conducted from Aug. 14 to Aug. 28, found 34 % in favor of abolishing the death penalty and 10 % with no opinion.

In 2011, the same poll found 68 % in support of the death penalty and 27 % opposed. The current majority is the lowest on record since 1965, when 51 % of the state's registered voters said they favored capital punishment.

The poll numbers may actually understate public opposition, in view of the narrow defeat of a 2012 ballot measure that would have repealed California's death penalty and replaced it with life in prison without parole. More than 47 % of those who went to the polls supported the proposal.

A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which backed the 2012 initiative, said the latest survey is a further indication that capital punishment is losing support.

"I think that the public is becoming very aware that the California death penalty is broken beyond repair ... that we're spending millions on a system that fails to deliver the promise of justice, is wildly unfair, doesn't deter crime, and it will always risk (taking) an innocent life," said the spokeswoman, Daisy Vieyra.

Tired of waiting to fix

Death penalty backer Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the poll shows that public support remains strong but that some are tired of waiting for solutions to problems in California's death penalty system. The state, which has more than 750 inmates on death row, has not had an execution since 2006, when a federal judge found multiple flaws in lethal injection procedures and staff training.

"I think if the people had a choice between fixing (the system) and abolition, they would vote overwhelmingly to fix it," said Scheidegger, whose organization proposed an initiative this year that would have limited the right to appeal death sentences and sought to speed up the review process. The measure failed to qualify for the ballot, but Scheidegger said it will be circulated again in 2016.

The Field Poll also asked voters about a federal judge's ruling in July that declared California's death penalty unconstitutional because of delays of 25 years or more in carrying out executions, which the judge said have led to an arbitrary and irrational system.

Asked how the state should respond, 52 % said it should speed up the execution process, 40 % said it should replace the death penalty with life without parole, and 8 % voiced no opinion.

Support for the death penalty varied by age, gender, religion, region and political ideology.

The poll said 51 % of voters aged 18 to 29, and 50 % of those 65 and older, were in support, compared with majorities of 57 to 61 % for other age groups.

Men were more likely to be pro-death penalty than women, by 59 to 53 %, while both Protestants and Catholics favored death sentences by 60 % or more, about 15 % higher than the support from members of other religions and nonbelievers.

Lowest in Bay Area

Regionally, support for capital punishment was lowest in the Bay Area, at 51 %, and highest in the Central Valley, at 64 %. It was also highest among those who described themselves as strongly conservative, at 78 %, compared with 29 % among self-described strong liberals.

The Field Research Corp. said its telephone survey of 1,280 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 12, 2014

Field Poll: Death penalty support slips in California

Support for the death penalty in California is at its lowest point in nearly 50 years, although more than 1/2 of the state's registered voters still favor it, a new Field Poll has found.

The poll found 56 % still believe the death penalty should be kept as a punishment for serious crimes, with 34 % opposed and 10 % undecided.

The findings come as states nationwide are grappling with a shortage of drugs used for lethal injections and critics who say some recent executions have been botched and left inmates suffering as they died. They also come after a July ruling by a federal judge in Los Angeles that found lengthy delays in executing California inmates have made the death penalty unconstitutional in the state.

Support for the death penalty in California has been eroding steadily for years, falling from a high of 83 % in 1985 and 1986 Field Polls to its current level, the lowest since a 1965 survey found only 51 % approval. The last Field Poll done on the issue, in 2011, found 68 % in favor of keeping the death penalty, compared to 27 % opposed.

"To me, it's interesting that a small plurality is continuing to support the death penalty," said poll director Mark DiCamillo, who noted that the Field Poll has asked the same question of voters since 1956, when support for the death penalty was 49 %, the only year it has fallen below 50 %.

But opponents and supporters still differ sharply over whether the latest figures mean the state can expect a successful effort to ban the death penalty, as a handful of other states have done in recent years. Both sides say they expect to see ballot measures in 2016 over the issue.

"I think the trend is going to be in the direction of 'Let's abolish it' for the foreseeable future until it is abolished," said Sacramento attorney Don Heller, a 1-time supporter of capital punishment who campaigned 2 years ago for California to become the 19th state that does not allow for execution as a punishment option.

That effort, which would have voided death sentences for the state's 749 condemned inmates and replaced them with sentences of life without parole, failed 52 % to 48 %. But the close result encouraged death penalty opponents into believing they eventually can succeed in banning executions.

"I think with some of the things that have occurred around the country - screw-ups with executions, people on death row that were exonerated by DNA evidence - those are the things that cause reasonable people to say, 'Let's just abolish it and life without parole is a sentence that protects the safety of the general public,'" Heller said.

The 2012 campaign for Proposition 34 was well-funded and based on selling the public on the argument that maintaining the death penalty was wasting billions of dollars, especially in light of the fact that only 13 inmates have been executed since 1978, the last in 2006.

But death penalty supporters reject those arguments and say opponents have created the delays and added the expense of maintaining the system through endless court appeals.

"I don't think there's a real shift in the number of people who believed that the death penalty is right," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

Scheidegger conceded that there may be a "fatigue factor" among some supporters because of delays and skepticism over whether the system ever will see executions resume on a regular basis.

"I do think that it is important that we fix the problems and get it restarted," he said. "The best argument they have is that because they've been blocking it we should give up," he said. "There are people who believe that death is the just and correct punishment for the worst murderers, but who are just frustrated and fatigued."

The issue of continued delays led to pollsters crafting a new question for voters based on the federal judge's ruling that California's death penalty is so slow it is unconstitutional. That question asked what California should do in light of the ruling, and 52 % of respondents said the state should speed up the execution process. By comparison, 40 % said the death penalty should be replaced with life without parole, and 8 % had no opinion.

There were few surprises in which voters support keeping the death penalty and who opposes it, DiCamillo said, with registered Republicans and conservatives, as well as Protestants and voters living in the Central Valley the strongest in favor of maintaining capital punishment.

Those most likely to oppose death as an option were Democrats, liberals, Bay Area residents, voters under 30 and those who expressed no religious preference.

Source: Sacramento Bee, Sept 12, 2014