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“River of Fire”: In New Memoir, Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Decades of Fighting Executions

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The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. This week Attorney General William Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases, and last month ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963 — the last being in 2003. The death penalty is widely condemned by national governments, international bodies and human rights groups across the world. Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. We speak with Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death-penalty activist who began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. …

U.S. Supreme Court overturns death sentence of Billy Joe Magwood

June 24, 2010: The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Billy Joe Magwood, ruling that Magwood can argue that Alabama retroactively changed its laws to make his crime qualify for the death penalty.

Magwood, 59, black, was convicted for the murder of then 51-year-old Sheriff C.F. “Neil” Grantham, whom Magwood targeted after he served time on drug charges. Magwood became convinced that Grantham jailed him without cause and vowed revenge.

On the morning of March 1, 1979, he parked outside the jail and waited for the sheriff to arrive. When Grantham got out of his car, Magwood shot him and fled the scene.

Magwood was sentenced to death June 2, 1981. The conviction and death sentence were upheld by the state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1985, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama also upheld the conviction, but required a new sentencing hearing for the consideration of additional mitigating circumstances.

Magwood was again sentenced to death in 1986 and the sentence upheld by the state appeals court.

Another appeal begun in 1997 before the U.S. District Court eventually resulted in Magwood's sentence being vacated on April 9, 2007. Judge Myron Thompson ruled that Magwood’s death sentence violated due process and had to be overturned.

Thompson contended that at the time Magwood murdered Grantham, the highest penalty applicable for the crime was life without parole. He also ruled that Magwood’s death sentence had to be vacated because of the ineffectiveness of counsel.

On Jan. 23, 2009 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned judge Thompson’s decision, and reinstated the death sentence for Magwood.

Today the Supreme Court agreed with judge Thompson, and reinstated his decision.

Sources: Courthouse News, Project Hope, Hands Off Cain, June 24, 2010

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