Tag Archives: capital punishment

Women Take the Lead as Abolishing the Death Penalty Gains Traction

When Sabrina Butler’s baby stopped breathing in 1989 she tried administering CPR but the baby died shortly after they arrived at the hospital. Police accused her of beating her baby. After aggressive interrogation the 17-year old signed a paper given to her by a hostile detective. Sent to a county jail she languished for a year awaiting trial without an attorney. During her trial, “the judge overruled everything my attorney said.” The jury convicted her of capital murder. Sentenced to die in 1990, the death sentence was overturned in 1992. But Sabrina languished in jail for three more years before a second trial proved her baby had died of a genetic kidney disorder. Finally, in 1995, Mississippi’s only female inmate on death row was exonerated.

Sabrina Butler Sabrina Butler

In 2009, Sabrina settled her case. Now she works with Witness to Innocence, “the nation’s only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.” She travels widely advocating against the death penalty. “It’s my calling,” says the spiritually motivated mother of three.

Sabrina’s story is not as unusual as it seems. According to the Bluhm Legal Center at Northwestern University’s School of Law, “Innocent women accused of heinous crimes face extraordinary challenges. In many cases, they are suspected of harming their children or other loved ones. As a result, when under investigation, they are coping with deep personal losses, rendering them especially vulnerable to high-pressure interrogation tactics that sometimes lead to false confessions or seemingly inculpatory statements.”

Nor are exonerees the only ones advocating the end of the death penalty. Take Sister Camille D’Arienzo, an activist with the Sisters of Mercy in Queens, NY. She became involved with the issue in 1993 when George Pataki was promising to restore the death penalty while running for governor of New York. Gathering a group of friends together to ask what they could do, they decided to use the Declaration of Life created by a former Mary Knoll priest to espouse their opposition to taking life “because it violates Christian principles.” The Declaration was sent to then-governor Mario Cuomo who immediately signed it. Thus began the work of a now 81-year old nun, who ministers to prisoners on death row.

Then there’s Bonita Spikes, whose husband was killed in a convenience store robbery in Maryland twenty years ago. Since then she has “reached out to other families who’ve suffered the traumatic loss of a loved one to murder.” Focusing on African American communities in Baltimore she knows people “who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss.” Still, she says, for most of them, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one’s murderer “isn’t even a remote thought.”

Joyce House worked equally hard to get her son Paul released from Tennessee’s death row. Wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1986, he languished in prison, ill with an untreated neurological disorder, until he asked Joyce if she’d ever heard of DNA. As a result of her research a semen specimen proved that he had not raped the victim. They still tried to convict him of murder. The media picked up the story highlighting the abuse Paul suffered by a corrupt legal system. In 2009 all charges were dropped, although he was placed under house arrest for a year so that he would be ineligible for financial reparations.

Delia Meyer has not yet succeeded in exonerating her brother, on death row in Texas for sixteen years. Charged with a triple homicide he did not commit, Delia says, “We’ve had a hard time getting out from under it,” in part because evidence was hidden or withheld. Now the Innocence Project is working on the case.

Photo credit: Flickr

These women work closely with organizations advocating an end to the death penalty. Sabrina Butler recently joined forces with the Kentucky ACLU where bi-partisan legislation is gaining traction. In Tennessee, where ten executions are scheduled between now and 2016, Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says since the legislature brought back the electric chair, more people are discussing death penalty failures.

Why are so many women in the forefront of the movement? “Because for the longest time women have been the standard bearers for our culture,” says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s because we have compassion and probably a much better ability for forgiveness,” adds Alicia Koutsouliereis, a volunteer with Amnesty International USA.

Women are clearly having an impact. Coupled with news of botched executions, pharmaceutical companies refusing to provide drugs, and increasing numbers of exonerees, there is growing awareness of the fatal flaws in the criminal justice system, and the inhumanity of state-sanctioned killing. During oral arguments at the Supreme Court earlier this year, a California federal judge declared that state’s death penalty system had violated a constitutional amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. He called California’s system “antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

Women working to end the death penalty have known this for years. Their fight to end the travesty continues.

Are We Really the Greatest Country on Earth?

Often politicians and others like to glorify American democracy, history, principles and actions. They wallow in soliloquies espousing the United States as the best, brightest and most innovative country in the world. They beg the question, why would anyone want to live elsewhere?

Well, besides our inability to stop gun violence, our treatment of the poor (many of whom are children), our crumbling infrastructure and inadequate cell phone service, our denial of climate change, the Koch brothers’ political power, our shameful maternal and infant mortality rates, our damaged educational system, and institutionalized racism, here are three reasons: capital punishment, torture, and now the betrayal of veterans.

State-sanctioned execution is legal in many states. While a 1972 Supreme Court ruling suspended capital punishment between 1972 and 1976, once it resumed in 1976 more than a thousand people were executed by 37 states where capital punishment was legal at the time. We are among the few countries that currently allow the death penalty, including China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. More than 140 countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. Together the U.S. and the four countries cited here constitute more than 90 percent of the total capital punishment executions in the world.

In a recent blog post on The National Interest Paul Pillar noted that “the United States is distinctly in a minority in regularly using death as a criminal punishment.” Texas proudly takes the lead in executions. Pillar quotes a Houston lawyer on the state’s efficiency: “I think Texas does it as well as Iran.”
To quote Amnesty International, “A wealth of mounting evidence proves that capital punishment does not work.” The death penalty here as elsewhere, the organization says, is discriminatory and used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. And the risk of executing innocent people has been dramatically highlighted by DNA testing and the release of wrongfully incarcerated individuals. We also know that the death penalty disregards mental illness even though international law prohibits executing “the insane.”

A recent botched execution in Oklahoma and the Missouri case of a stayed execution because the accused man suffered from a medical anomaly that would have meant an excruciating death by lethal injection have again raised the issue of capital punishment as an immoral act. A recent editorial in The New York Times pointed out that death by lethal injection became the standard method because hanging, firing squads and the electric chair were deemed too “barbaric,” not because the state was taking a human life.

The reality is that state executions take place in shameful settings, at night, behind closed doors. If Americans actually saw what happens they would be horrified. As the Times editorial said, “There are no clean executions.”
Capital punishment is not the only torture sanctioned and carried out by the U.S. Amnesty International and others have made clear that “in the years since 9/11, our government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “…the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering for purposes such as obtaining information or a confession, or punishing, intimidating or coercing someone.” Torture is always illegal. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CID) is also illegal under international and U.S. law. It includes any harsh or neglectful treatment that could damage a detainee’s physical or mental health or any punishment intended to cause physical or mental pain or suffering, or to humiliate or degrade the person being punished. Yet in the years since 9/11, the U.S. government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and CID in the name of fighting terrorism.

An argument can be made that the appalling lack of care for veterans by the Veterans Administration’s also constitutes CID. Recent news reports suggest that things are worse than we yet know. John Dickerson of CBS News said it best: “What makes the VA scandal different is not only that it affected people at their most desperate moment of need–and continues to affect them at subpar facilities. It’s also a failure of one of the most basic transactions government is supposed to perform: keeping a promise to those who were asked to protect our very form of government. The growing scandal points out more than just incompetence,” he wrote in Slate, referring to lies told by administrators.

That is perhaps the most frightening piece of the VA scandal and reveals its moral connection to capital punishment and torture. The common denominator is obfuscation, often coupled with contempt, carelessness, incompetence, and a total lack of compassion – all of which add up to cruelty and suggest that this may not be the greatest place on earth to live. At the very least it should give one pause to reflect upon serious flaws in American culture, including its incipient violence, whether by execution, torture or sheer neglect.