Living on Borrowed Time

September 4, 2007

News Update 09.04.07

North Carolina

The Greensboro News-Record wades into the “death penalty briar patch.”

James Thomas was supposed to be dead seven months ago. The News and Observer takes a look at Thomas and five other men whose lives have been extended by the current pause in executions. Some say it’s justice delayed. Thomas is just happy to have more time to spend mentoring younger inmates.

Elsewhere

In Georgia, the head of the Capital Defender’s Office has stepped down to protest the dearth of funding for capital cases and the refusal of the Public Defender Standards Council to acknowledge the problem and call for a halt to capital prosecutions.

The high court in Nebraska is considering whether the electric chair – the state’s sole means of execution – is a cruel and unusual punishment. If the court rules for Raymond Mata, Jr., the question will then become whether lethal injection is a constitutional alternative.

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights has started a blog to help spread the word about their organization and to reach out to people whose lives have been affected by lethal violence.


News Update 3.15.07

March 15, 2007

North Carolina

WRAL’s Amanda Lamb on her meeting with Allen Holman and his place in the death penalty debate.

NC Democrats unveil legislative agenda; plan for death penalty unclear.

Elsewhere

In Florida, a question of competency.

In Pennsylvania, the medical examiner thought it was an accident, the evidence disappeared, the witnesses were sketchy…and the sentence was death.

In Indonesia, questions about the constitutionality of capital punishment for drug crimes.

Even Iraq is thinking about abolishing the death penalty. Disturbing fact: over 1200 people have been sentenced to death by the US-sponsored Iraqi High Tribunal (AKA the Iraqi Special Tribunal or the Iraqi High Criminal Court) since its inception in 2003.


Choosing Death

March 9, 2007

Unlike most of us, Allen Holman knew in advance when he was going to die: Friday, March 9th, 2007, shortly after two o’clock in the morning. Almost ten years ago, Holman shot and killed his wife Linda in the parking lot of a convenience store. Ironically, Linda was a nurse at the prison where Allen Holman was scheduled to be executed, and the question of whether medical professionals should participate in lethal injections is what has put his execution on hold.

Allen Holman is a volunteer – someone who has willingly abandoned his appeals in order to expedite execution. Between 1977 and 2003, ninety-seven other death row inmates volunteered for execution. One study (John Blume, Killing the Willing: Volunteers, Suicide, and Competency, 103 Mich. L. Rev. 939 (2005)) found that 88% of those volunteers suffered from mental illness and/or substance abuse problems which may have contributed to their decision to die. Holman, 47, has a history of mental illness stretching back to his teen years, including at least five suicide attempts. This time, he had hoped to let the State do the job for him.

Suicide is no longer a crime in North Carolina. While there is technically no law prohibiting it, killing someone on their request would likely be prosecuted under the regular homicide statutes. (Dr. Kevorkian, for example, could be prosecuted under either the “murder by poison” or “premediated and deliberate” theories of first-degree murder.) When the State assists a suicide, as when it commits murder (death certificates of the executed list the cause of death as homicide), the legal penalties are not the same for those involved. But what is the moral cost?

How is executing the severely mentally ill or brain-damaged so different from executing the mentally retarded, which was recognized as cruel and unusual punishment by the Supreme Court in 2002? In its decision, the Court noted that the nature of mental retardation is such that the ends of retribution and deterrence are not served by executing the retarded. (For example, because the mentally retarded are less capable of engaging in logical reasoning than the average person, they are less likely be deterred from crime by the execution of others.) Without a valid penological objective, executing the mentally retarded was found to be a “purposeless and needless infliction of pain and suffering.”

Two days ago, a bill was filed in the General Assembly by Representatives Insko (D-Orange) and Harrison (D-Guilford) which would prohibit the execution of the severely mentally disabled. The bill would exempt the severely mentally ill and brain-damaged from the death penalty, but would not relieve them of criminal liability altogether. All other sentences, including life imprisonment, would remain possible.

The bill defines “severe mental disability” as a mental disability which significantly impairs a person’s capacity to do any of the following:

(1) Appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct;
(2) Exercise rational judgment in relation to conduct; or
(3) Conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.

A person who doesn’t know what they’re doing or who is unable to control themselves is clearly less morally culpable than a person who makes a cold and calculated decision to kill. When we choose to kill the mentally ill or brain-damaged, our own moral standing is in serious question.

Consider Ricky Ray Rector. Before his arrest, Rector attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. A large section of his brain was destroyed, but Rector survived. He was clearly severely disabled – Rector was frequently observed howling, barking, and dancing in his cell – but the law held no exception for someone in his situation. On the night of his execution, the guards asked Rector why he hadn’t eaten the pecan pie from his last meal. He replied that he was saving it for later.

Insko and Harrison’s bill is neither an excuse nor an easy way out. Built into the bill is a provision making clear that, “a mental disability manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct or attributable solely to the acute effects of alcohol or other drugs does not, standing alone, constitute a severe mental disability.” Furthermore, the defendant bears the burden of proving his or her disability status to the judge or jury by a preponderance of the evidence – the State has no obligation to prove anything.

A bill to prohibit the execution of the severely mentally disabled is not a radical proposition. It doesn’t undermine the death penalty, rather it recognizes the larger goals underlying capital punishment and strives for a system more consistent with those aims. Choosing death for the brain-damaged and mentally ill means doing what we fear most in the accused – killing for the sake of killing.

Learn more here, here, and here, then contact your representative and let them know that you oppose the execution of the brain-damaged and mentally ill.


News Update 3.09.07

March 9, 2007

North Carolina

Allen Holman was not executed this morning, and he is not happy about it.

The Warden’s notice to the court that he could not find an executioner has been posted online here. A copy of the Department of Corrections’ complaint against the Medical Board can be found here.

Elon University law students are teaming up with their counterparts at Duke and UNC to help the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence seek justice for the wrongly convicted.


This Just In (Holman)

March 6, 2007

This afternoon, a stay of execution was granted for Allen Holman. Also, the Warden of Central Prison, Marvin Polk, reported that he has been unable to find a doctor willing to participate in executions. The State is now suing the Medical Board.


News Update 3.06.07

March 6, 2007

North Carolina

More on the motion filed yesterday to stop the execution of Allen Holman. Although Holman has been allowed to drop his appeals, his former attorneys question whether he is competent to volunteer for execution, particularly when the method of execution may be violative of the Eighth Amendment.

The execution of Guy LeGrande, which was stayed due to concerns about his sanity (unrelated to the lethal injection controversy), is still in limbo.

Elsewhere

In Florida, death row inmates almost as likely to die of natural causes as they are to be executed.

In Ohio, can you execute when DNA neither inculpates nor exculpates?

In South Carolina, new trial for man sentenced to die in killing of fetus.

The National Law Journal on recent death penalty trends nationwide.


This Just In

March 5, 2007

Attorneys have asked for a stay of execution for Allen Holman. Holman previously fired his attorneys, so it remains to be seen whether the judge will allow them to intercede. More as the situation develops.


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