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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

India: Most on death row are poor, from backward caste groups, minorities

The Death Penalty Research Project, undertaken by researchers at the National Law University in Delhi, found that over 80 per cent of prisoners facing capital punishment had not completed school and nearly half had begun working before the age of 18. 

The first comprehensive study of the socio-economic profile of prisoners serving the death sentence in India has revealed that most are from economically vulnerable sections, backward communities and religious minority groups.

The Death Penalty Research Project, undertaken by researchers at the National Law University in Delhi, found that over 80 per cent of prisoners facing capital punishment had not completed school and nearly half had begun working before the age of 18.

Besides, it found, a quarter of the convicts were either juveniles or between the age of 18 and 21 or above 60 years when the crime was committed. Dalits and Adivasis constituted 24.5 per cent (90 prisoners) among those on death row, whom the study gained access to, while members of religious minorities were over 20 per cent (76 prisoners).

The two-volume report, based on a study conducted from July 2013-January 2015, was released on Friday by the law university at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. 

Speaking on the occasion, Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur said: “There is a huge problem with our criminal justice system. It not only needs procedural reforms but also substantive reform. Legal aid in India is nothing but a joke… nobody has faith in the legal aid system. I don’t think we have a jurisprudence philosophy on imposing death penalty, whether it is a deterrent, reformation or retribution.” 

Justice Lokur added that he was “optimistic” that “reports like this can make a huge difference”. The report has revealed major structural flaws in the criminal justice system, including access to legal services. For instance, less than five per cent of death sentences awarded by trial courts between 2000 and 2015 were confirmed by the Supreme Court. In a total of 1,486 cases, only 73 persons were on death row at the end of the appeal process. 

According to the report, the trials of 127 prisoners (34 per cent) of the 373 interviewed lasted more than five years while those of 54 (14.4 per cent) continued for more than 10 years. 

The purpose of the study was to develop a “body of knowledge that will enable us to have a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the manner in which the death penalty is administered in India”. Said Anup Surendranath, lead author of the study: “The report demonstrates that we rely on a completely broken criminal justice system to administer the death penalty in this country… the real question in this context is whether we should be relying on such a criminal justice to administer a punishment like the death penalty.” 

Surendranath added: “It is evident from our study that burdens imposed by our criminal justice system while handing out death sentences are incapable of being met by the economically and socially vulnerable sections. As a result, you see the death penalty disproportionately affecting those who have the least capabilities to negotiate the criminal justice system.” 

Besides generating a large body of data regarding the socio-economic status of the prisoners, the nature of their crimes and the legal process, the study also documented the experiences of prisoners during the trial process. The findings are significant because the study claims there are no official records maintained by any ministry or agency — even about the total number of prisoners India has executed since independence. 

The researchers were able to gain access to 373 of the 385 prisoners, including 12 women, who were serving death sentences during the period of the study. The Tamil Nadu government refused permission to interview 12 prisoners and of the 373, 17 could not be interviewed for various reasons.

Watch video (YouTube): The Death Penalty Report

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Source: The Indian Express, May 7, 2016

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