Dead Men Tell Many Tales

November 30, 2007

News Update 11.30.07

North Carolina

Alan Gell, who was freed from prison in 2004 after being sentenced to die for a crime he could not have committed, is back in prison. The News & Observer explores why. More information on Gell’s exoneration is available here.

In 2003, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that an attorney can be forced to reveal statements made to him in confidence by a now-deceased client, where that information would be useful in convicting a guilty person. In 2007, an attorney is facing disbarment for voluntarily revealing statements made to him in confidence by a now-deceased client, where that information would be useful in freeing an innocent person.


As mentioned here, here, and here, the issue of the death penalty was raised in this week’s CNN-YouTube Republican presidential debate. A young man from Tennessee, directing his question to Christian conservatives, asked, “The death penalty – what would Jesus do?” Mike Huckabee, being the only person on the stage to ever greenlight an execution or obtain a divinity degree, took the question. (Huckabee is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and approved the executions of fifteen men and one woman while serving as Governor of Arkansas.) Huckabee’s reply, “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office,” is discussed in the above-linked blogs.

I was given pause by another part of Huckabee’s answer. In talking about denying clemency, the Governor said, “Let me tell you, it was the toughest decision I ever made as a human being. I read every page of every document of every case that ever came before me…” Presumably Huckabee meant that he read whatever was put in front of him, not the entire case file. It seems to me that reading the condemned man’s clemency petition is the least a governor can do, and that there is no reason to be patting yourself on the back for taking this duty seriously. Clemency is the last chance to right wrongs that the courts may have overlooked, ignored, or been powerless to correct. (Innocence is one example; innocence alone is not grounds for relief in federal court.) If bothering to consider materials prepared in the last-ditch effort to save a man’s life is exemplary behavior, our standards of justice have fallen very far indeed.

Amnesty International asks, “To DNA test or not to DNA test – why is this even a question?” Tommy Arthur, scheduled to die next week in Alabama, may or may not be guilty. Often in murder cases, the perpetrator leaves no DNA traces behind, so it is hard to be sure. In Arthur’s case, however, there is a rape kit, hair samples, and bloody clothing, any or all of which could conclusively identify the killer. Amnesty is asking people to contact Governor Riley and urge him to order DNA testing. You can learn more about the case here.


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