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Iran: The death penalty is an inhumane punishment for death row prisoners, their families and society as a whole

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"Whether guilty or not, the outcome of the death penalty is the same. In Iran, the death penalty is by hanging, and it takes from several agonising seconds to several harrowing minutes for death to occur and for everything to be over."

Every year several hundred people are executed by the Iranian authorities.
According to reports by Iran Human Rights (IHR) and other human rights groups, death row prisoners have often no access to a defence lawyer after their arrest and are sentenced to death following unfair trials and based on confessions extracted from them under torture. 
These are issues which have been addressed in IHR’s previous reports. The current report is based on first-hand accounts of several inmates held in Iran's prisons and their families. The report seeks to illustrate other aspects of how the death penalty affects the inmate, their families and, as a consequence, society.
How does a death row inmate experience his final hours?
Speaking about the final ho…

Harris County leads Texas in life without parole sentences as death penalty recedes

Texas road sign
Once known as the "capital of capital punishment," Harris County is now doling out more life without parole sentences than any other county in the state.

In the 12 years since then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the life without parole or "LWOP" bill into law, Harris County has handed down 266 of those sentences - nearly 25 percent of the state's total, according to data through mid-December obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"It's concerning, but this is like economics or engine performance, there's no free lunch," said Houston defense attorney Patrick McCann. "We have far fewer death cases than we used to. That's a tremendous win. But now we have a lot of LWOP sentences."

The county's reliance on the lengthiest sentence available in capital murder cases comes as the Houston area - and Texas as a whole - has shifted away from capital punishment. For the first time in more than 30 years, 2017 saw no new death sentences and no executions of Harris County killers. And although part of that downturn stems from the possibility of life without parole, some experts see possible drawbacks.

"There has always been speculation about whether that has encouraged prosecutors to file capital cases more than they otherwise would because what better leverage do you have in a plea bargaining situation than, 'Agree with me or I will kill you,'" said Scott Henson policy director with the non-profit Just Liberty, which advocates for reducing incarceration. "The government will literally kill you if you don't go for life without parole and there is no stronger bargaining chip than that."

District Attorney Kim Ogg, whose office has overseen less than 25 life without parole sentences since she took the reins last year, pushed back against that suggestion.

"We don't use the death penalty as a plea bargaining tool," she said.

Andy Kahan, the city of Houston's victim advocate, described life without parole as a "saving grace" for victims' families.

"Like it or not, there's some really evil people out there that commit some horrible atrocities that deserve to be locked up for life," he said. "In a utopian world it'd be great if we didn't have to have it but that's not reality."

While Harris County grabs the lion's share of the state's life without parole sentences, Dallas County came in right behind with 120, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data through Dec. 18. Tarrant County had 69 of the state's 1,067 total such sentences, while Bexar County had 47 and Hidalgo had 26.

Without more data to compare the percent of slayings charged as capital cases seeking death or LWOP in Harris County before and after the introduction of the law, it's difficult to evaluate whether the sentencing option has had any measurable impact on local death penalty charging practices, pointed out Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"The raw numbers may tell us something and what they tell us is not a surprise," Dunham said. "But the raw numbers don't tell us a lot."

Just over 17 percent of the state's population lives in Harris County, according to Texas Department of State Health Services population projections for 2016. That makes for an LWOP rate of 6 sentences per 100,000 residents, which is higher than in all but two counties with populations over 100,000.

In comparison to murder figures, the relatively large number of life without parole sentences looks less surprising. According to an analysis of DPS data, in 2016 Harris County accounted for 27.7 percent of the state's murders and 22.7 percent of the murders cleared.

And while Harris County accounts for a disproportionate number of total executions nationwide - more than any other county or entire state, except the rest of Texas - it has generated only a small fraction of the total life without parole sentences across the country, based on TDCJ figures and a 2017 Sentencing Project report.

"Where the corporate culture has changed is the willingness to seek death," McCann said, referring to local prosecutors. "Cases that ten years ago would have been death even with LWOP are now charged as non-death," McCann said. "But that doesn't mean that they've stopped charging the LWOP cases."

To some extent, Texas' relatively low LWOP use compared to national numbers may stem from the fact that prosecutors have only had the option for life without parole since 2005. Before that, the harshest choices were death - or the possibility of release after 40 years.

"Life without parole became an option because of a turnaway from the death penalty," said Elizabeth Henneke executive director of the Lone Star Justice Alliance. "It was considered a more humane option than the death penalty and increasingly juries seemed to be uncomfortable with death as the only option."

Death row cell, Polunsky Unit, Texas
Texas became the last death penalty state to adopt the option, after Harris County prosecutors dropped their opposition. Initially it only applied to capital murder, but later the law was expanded to include crimes like repeated sexual assault of a child.

From the statute's inception, Harris County was one of its biggest users.

"It's not surprising because Harris County is also the driver of the death penalty numbers and most juvenile commitments as well," Henneke said. "Across the board Harris County is the incarceration county."

Last year, one of the county's most high-profile life without parole sentences was handed down to Shannon Miles, the man who fatally shot Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth at a gas station during a brutal August 2015 ambush. After months of wrangling over competency issues, defense and prosecutors agreed to a controversial plea deal allowing the mentally ill man to avoid the death penalty.

Also in 2017, James Tinsley netted a life without parole sentence after he was convicted of fatally shooting three men at a northside car dealership. Another 19 defendants were given the state's second-harshest sentence last year as of mid-December.

Even though it could save convicted killers from death row, Henneke offered concerns about the medical costs associated with housing a growing cadre of elderly prisoners, especially given their relatively low recidivism rates.

"What it means is that one county is driving a statewide policy with statewide financial implication because the rest of the state is going to be paying for housing these extra long sentences," she said.

Unlike with death-sentenced cases, there's no automatic appointment of post-conviction appellate counsel and no punishment phase of the trial, which makes the whole process quicker and cheaper.

"Life without parole was an unintentional gift to major urban prosecutors' offices," McCann said. "It makes it very easy to dispose of a large number of violent and often youthful offenders without any more thought than one would need to toss away a piece garbage."

Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney and director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said his group doesn't have an official position on the matter.

"It kind of tickles me that defense lawyers are upset that prosecutors aren't trying to kill their clients," he said. "Even if the punishment was a minimum of 40 years on a capital life sentence, they still complained that prosecutors used the death penalty to get a guilty plea. That's not anything unique to life without parole."

Source: Houston Chronicle, Keri Blakinger, January 11, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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