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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Oregon's oldest death row inmate Mark Pinnell denied compassionate release, dies in custody

Mark Allen Pinnell
Mark Allen Pinnell
Mark Allen Pinnell, Oregon's oldest death row inmate, died in custody Monday morning, about two months after the governor denied his request to spend his final days outside of prison in hospice care.

Pinnell, 67, died of natural causes about 10:55 a.m. in the Two Rivers Correctional Institution's infirmary, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.

He'd been suffering from severe chronic pulmonary disease, his lawyer said.

In mid-October, Gov. Kate Brown denied Pinnell's request to move off death row and spend his last days in hospice outside of prison. He cited his deteriorating condition.

In a letter typed a day later, Brown wrote that an immediate commutation of Pinnell's sentence wasn't warranted.

"The power to grant executive clemency is a responsibility that I take very seriously,'' Brown wrote. "I believe that a Governor's clemency power should be exercised sparingly. The separation of powers inherent in our system of government and respect for the workings of the judicial system require that the Governor's clemency power be used in only the most extraordinary of circumstances.''


Pinnell and co-defendant Donald E. Cornell both robbed and killed 65-year-old John Wallace Ruffner in his Tualatin apartment in 1985. Cornell is a free man, having left prison in 2011 after serving nearly 26 years behind bars.

Most recently, Pinnell had been at Two Rivers' infirmary, receiving palliative care, said Betty Bernt, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

He was placed in his own room that's larger than a cell, with a hospital bed and walls with murals, Bernt said. He had access to immediate health care, but security was present anytime anyone was in the room with him, she said. The prison's superintendent and medical services manager were monitoring his situation weekly, she said.

Kitzhaber in February denied Pinnell's clemency request, saying he was unable to review Pinnell's application before the end of his term. Pinnell renewed a clemency request to Brown in August, and her office responded that a review could take up to six months.

Pinnell's August request for clemency, titled "Mercy for a dying man,'' noted that he was rushed to Salem General Hospital twice in July for extended stays. His lawyer provided the governor's office with medical records that reflected his dire prognosis and argued that the prison was incapable of providing the "escalating care and equipment'' that Pinnell's condition required.

In his own letter to the governor on Aug. 5, Pinnell wrote, "I am a weak, old man. I pose no threat to society. I am very ashamed and sorry for what I did. I'm asking for mercy. Please release me from prison so that I can spend my last days near my family rather than at the Oregon State Penitentiary.''

Source: oregonlive.com, Maxine Bernstein, December 15, 2015


North Carolina: Williams dies on death row

James E. Williams
James E. Williams
RALEIGH — A death row inmate convicted of the 1991 murder of a Trinity woman has died of natural causes.

According to a press release from the N.C. Department of Public Safety, James E. Williams, 53, died Friday in Central Prison in Raleigh after being hospitalized for several weeks. He was convicted in Randolph County in November 1993 and sentenced to die for the Feb. 14, 1991, murder of Elvie Rhodes of Trinity.

The case made headlines after Rhodes’ badly-beaten body was found in a thicket near Farmer.

Williams became a suspect when investigators talked to his mother, Julia Brooks, a friend and co-worker of Rhodes. An autopsy determined the cause of death as strangulation.

A woman characterized as Williams’ girlfriend was also convicted of robbery and murder in connection with the case. Bernice Nobles Sikes was found guilty but, because of her testimony during Williams’ trial, was not sentenced to die.

Sikes testified that she had been outside Rhodes’ home while Williams was inside. After hearing a thump, Sikes said, she knocked on the door and Williams pulled her inside.

“I saw Mrs. Rhodes laying on the couch,” Sikes said. “Her face was all bloody and her eyes were swollen shut.

“He went down the side of her face with his hand, and then he licked the blood off his fingers,” Sikes continued. “Then he kicked Mrs. Rhodes in the side and he slapped her.”

Sikes also described Williams “beating Rhodes with his hands and a wooden stick.” She accused Williams of stomping on Rhodes before using a drape cord to strangle her.

The couple then wrapped Rhodes’ body in a quilt, put it in the trunk of her car, stopped at a Hardee’s drive-thru to order breakfast, then dumped the body in a thicket of briars and honeysuckle in the Farmer community.

Williams received the death penalty. He was one of eight men from Randolph County on death row.

Source: The Courier-Tribune, Larry Penkava, December 15, 2015

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