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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…

Most on death row in India are first time offenders

A total of 241 persons out of the 385 death row inmates in India are 1st time offenders, new findings contained in the "Death Penalty India Report" released on Friday said. 

For the study, 373 of all the 385 death row inmates in India were interviewed from July 2013 to January 2015 by the Center of Death Penalty at National Law University, Delhi.

The study found that around 60 % of the prisoners did not complete secondary education and nearly 75 % belong to economically vulnerable sections.

Education levels affect the extent to which the death row prisoners are able to understand details of the case filed against them; lack of which results in alienation from the system.

Education level

Further, 3/4 of the prisoners sentenced to death belong to backward classes and religious minorities. While this finding does not imply direct discrimination, it reflects structural concerns which disempowers the marginalised, as explained below.

Prior criminal record

Pendency of legal proceedings greater than 5 years is considered a grave violation of speedy justice by the Supreme Court. While the median duration of trial for the death row prisoners was around 4 years, trials went beyond five years for 127 prisoners. Though lengthy trials happen to be a concern in general, it has more significance in the case of death penalty. The seriousness of charge forces the families to hire a private lawyer than rely on poor quality of free legal aid provided by the government. The report finds that while the high fee of private lawyers - opted by more than 60 % of the prisoners during trial and high court - deepens the economic vulnerability of the already poor families, it doesn't ensure access to competent legal representation. This makes it difficult for an accused to "navigate through the various stages of the legal process without sufficient socio-economic and political resources."

Trial duration varies with nature of the crime. Overall, 'murder simpliciter' or accidental murder constituted most of the cases, followed by 'rape with murder'.

The study found that median duration of trials and High Court proceedings in cases involving sexual offences is the lowest as compared to other cases. State-wise analysis also shows that trails were fastest in cases of sexual offence.

According to researchers, in a legal system beset with structural delays, it must be examined why the courts deliver faster decisions in cases of sexual offence when so is not the case for other offences. "While there certainly must be speedy trials, lopsided durations indicate a far deeper malaise", the report said. Note that for Supreme Court proceedings - later stage of the legal process - sexual offences cases have the longest median duration.

Social background

Access to legal representation is critical during interrogation and investigation phases. The report states: "We heard numerous accounts of the accused being tortured and forced to sign blank sheets of paper, followed by a staged recovery of facts that go on to become critical to prove the guilt of the accused during the trial." The study found that 185 of the 191 prisoners who shared information didn't have a lawyer during interrogation. Most of them claimed they had experienced custodial violence and were tortured in police custody. Even at the time of being produced before a magistrate - where legal representation has been recognised as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court - 169 of 189 prisoners who shared information didn't have a lawyer.

Alienation experienced by prisoners through lack of awareness of proceedings increased as cases rise in the appellate system. One of the prisoners, who was interviewed, said, "Whenever I would enquire, the lawyer would refuse to answer, telling me to mind my own business." Some were unable to meet or even get to know their lawyers. "These factors significantly contribute to raising serious concerns about the fair trial credentials of judicial proceedings in capital cases," the report said.

Nature of crime

The researchers conclude that the realities of criminal justice system in India are largely ignored and a misplaced confidence is constructed around it. While the research doesn't talk about abolition or retention of the death penalty, it makes a case for the debate to move beyond nature of the crime and the purpose of punishment to the structural concerns plaguing the criminal justice system.

Source: The Hindu, May 6, 2016


India's death row prisoners face horrific conditions, study finds

Interviews with inmates reveal routine torture, unfair trials and solitary confinement

Prisoners on death row in India are living in inhumane conditions, facing unfair trials and horrific acts of police torture, according to a new study released by the Death Penalty Research Project at the National Law University in Delhi.

The study is based on interviews with 373 of the 385 inmates believed to be on death row in India and offers a harrowing insight into the unbearable uncertainty the prisoners face and the horrific conditions they have to live in as they wait for judges to decide their fate.

Researchers said there was little reliable information about how the state handled death row inmates, and found it difficult to discover the simplest of details, including the exact number of people facing the death penalty.

Capital punishment has rarely been enforced in recent years and huge numbers of death sentences are later commuted to life in prison, though many prisoners spend years waiting for their fate to be decided. According to a report from the National Crime Bureau, 1,303 death sentences were handed out between 2004 and 2013, of which three led to executions. One man, Yakub Memon, convicted over his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bombings, was executed in 2015.

The study is a window into the lengthy, bureaucratic judicial process in India. It shows that for those currently on death row, there was an average of five years between arrest and sentencing.

Death sentences are handed down without consistency, forcing inmates into an endless system of appeals, during which they often have little information about the progress of the cases against them. Many are unable to meet their lawyers and are not informed about the status of proceedings.

Torture, solitary confinement and “violent investigation techniques” are also endemic and a host of social and economic factors can determine how a person is treated in jail and the sentence they get. Three out of four death row inmates were classed as “economically vulnerable” and 42% belonged to the “scheduled castes”, considered to be lower down in the caste system.

Click here to read the full article

Source: The Guardian, May 6, 2016

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