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April 21, 2011

Christian Longo's Plea: "After you execute me, please harvest my organs."

Christian Longo is on Oregon's death row, convicted of brutally murdering his wife and three small children.  A healthy man aged 37, Longo has made an interesting humanitarian proposal.  He will drop his appeal of the death sentence.  This will save the state a lot of money. He will also agree to donation of his healthy organs after he is executed.  Since Oregon has waiting lists of people desperate for organ transplants, Longo's proposal could save many lives.

"Yes" to Longo's proposal sounds like a no-brainer.  It sure would to me if I were in need of a transplant.  But Oregon and most states are totally opposed.  Jeffrey Orlowski, executive director of the non-profit Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, is worried about taking advantage of people like Longo: "As a country, we have a high ethical and moral standard that we shouldn't do things to people no matter how disadvantaged they are." What?  Our country's high moral standards allow for executions, but not for organ donations?  Give me a break!

Undoubtedly practical problems exist when carrying out death row inmates' wishes to become organ donors after death.  But moral and ethical problems?  Much better to find a way to provide for "Oregon" transplants!

March 18, 2010

Memorial Videos in Death Penalty Cases

Memorial videos are a new form of victim impact "testimony" in death penalty cases.  A prosecutor may present a memorial video in the penalty phase of a death penalty trial, in an effort to convince a jury that a convicted murderer should be sentenced to death rather than to life imprisonment.

A typical memorial video portrays events in a murder victim's life.  It may begin with a photo of the victim as a baby or young child, and after a photo montage lasting about 15-20 minutes conclude with the victim's casket being lowered into the ground.

The ostensible purpose of a memorial video is to impress on jurors that underneath all of the legal formalities is a living being whose life the defendant took.  But if you think back to similar videos you may have cried through at weddings, anniversaries and other happy events, you'll realize that memorial videos can easily appeal to jurors' passions rather than their reason.  For this reason, judges have to carefully balance the probative value of a memorial video against the risk of unfair prejudice to the defendant.  For example, a judge might exclude a video of inordinate length, or one that unduly emphasizes the victim's demise and funeral.   

February 2, 2010

With Friends Like This....

Frank Spisak was convicted of horrific murders and sentenced to death in Ohio. But you might forgive him for wondering which side his defense attorney was on.  During the penalty phase of the trial, when the jurors had to choose between life or death, Spisak's lawyer told the jurors that:

1. The murders were gruesome, and he recounted the awful details.

2. Spisak was undeserving of their sympathy.

3. Spisak had not done any good deeds and never had good thoughts.

4. Spisak is demented, he will never be any different, and he has threatened to commit future crimes.

Despite its conclusion that the defense attorney's remarks were "constitutionally inadequate," the U.S. Supreem Court upheld the death sentence.  The reason was that a better argument wouldn't have produced a different result.  As Justice Stevens remarked, even Clarence Darrow wouldn't have been able to save Spisak from a death sentence.

Maybe so, but I bet Darrow would not have sounded like he wanted to cast the first ballot for death.


January 15, 2010

Death Sentences in California

In 2009, 29 convicted defendants were given death sentences in Califonia. This was up from the 20 people sentenced to death in 2008, and was more than the number of death sentences handed down in Texas and Florida in 2009 combined.

Despite the increase in the number of death sentences, California has not carried out an execution in 4 years and probably will not execute anyone in 2010.  As a result, San Quentin's death row houses 697 prisoners, about 20% of the nationwide total.

Many of these prisoners have undoubtedly committed horrible crimes.  But in an era when the state is too broke to spend money on law-abiding students and people who can't afford medical care, spending millions of extra dollars to convict and house "the worst of the worst" seems a terrible waste of public money. LWOP sentences (life without possibility of parole) are a far cheaper alternative that protect society as well as death sentences do.   

January 11, 2010

Rodney Alcala- Will Trial No. 3 prove that he's a serial killer?

Rodney Alcala has twice been convicted of killing 12 year old Robin Samsoe in Huntington Beach (CA) in 1979.  Each time he was sentenced to death.  But both convictions were reversed, so here in Jan. 2010 Alcala is again on trial for killing Robin Samsoe.

Robin has plenty of company this time around.  As Alcala remained in prison, DNA testing linked him to the deaths of 4 other late-1970's CA murder victims.  So Alcala now is charged with 5 murders.

Ironically, Alcala's first conviction was reversed because the trial judge allowed the prosecution to offer evidence of Alcala's violence towards girls other than Robin. Now that evidence rules have changed and Alcala is charged with other crimes, Jury # 3 will hear plenty of evidence suggesting that Alcala is a serial killer.    

Alcala has chosen to represent himself.  That's less of a gamble than it seems.  He is now 66 years old, so even if he is convicted and the conviction is upheld, the chances that he'll be executed are virtually nil.


November 19, 2009

Robert Lee Thompson- Life or Death?

Robert Lee Thompson was convicted and sentenced to death for participating in a convenience store robbery that culminated in a store clerk's death. As Thompson's execution date nears, Texas Governor Rick Perry has to decide whether to follow the recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that Thompson's sentence be reduced to life imprisonment.  

Gov. Perry, the right thing to do is to follow the parole board's recommendation.  Thompson's co-participant in the crime, Sammy Butler, was the clerk's killer and yet he was given a life sentence.  Thompson actively participated in the robbery and unsuccessfully tried to kill a second clerk.  Society needs to be protected from him.  But it's not fair to punish an accomplice more harshly than a killer.  Society does not need Thompson put to death.    

POSTSCRIPT: Gov. Perry refused to follow the parole board's recommendation.  Thompson was executed on Nov. 19, 2009.

September 2, 2009

Death Penalty: Popular Support Continues to Decline

A recent study commissioned by the National Jury Project indicates that support for the death penalty in California continues to erode. Two decades ago, about 80% of respondents supported capital punishment; support dropped to 66% in the recent poll. When respondents were given a sentencing alternative of Life in Prison Without Parole, support for the death penalty plunged to 26%.    

The decline is consistent with the sustained national dropoff in the number of executions.  For example, 71 people were executed in the US in 2002; that number dropped to 37 in 2008. 

Here's an even longer term trend.  In 1800, England had more than 200 capital crimes on the books.  By 1900, only 4 crimes carried the death penalty.  (I found these figures in a lecture given by a Dr. Odgers, included on p. 242 of Roscoe Pound's thrilling 1927 book, Readings on the History and System of the Common Law.) In the mid-1960's, England abolished capital punishment.

I generally have little sympathy for the "worst of the worst" who commit the horrific crimes that result in death penalties.  But eventually, I suspect that the risk of executing innocent people, the damatically higher costs that the death penalty entails, the availability of Life Without Parole, and the randomness in sentencing will result in most US states abandoning capital punishment.

May 19, 2009

Skillicorn and the Death Penalty

Dennis Skillicorn is scheduled to be put to death in Missouri on Wednesday, 20 May 2009.  But the likelihood that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon will cancel the execution and even declare a moratorium on its use has grown now that even Missouri legislators who support the death penalty have admitted to having second thoughts about executing Skillicorn.

Skillicorn has an ugly and violent history: He was sentenced to death for participating in the 1994 robbery/murder of Richard Drummond, though Skillicorn was not the actual killer.  Skillicorn also participated in at least two other murders, though again, his accomplices carried out the killings.

Evil though his past may be, Skillicorn's situation still raises questions about the fairness of the death penalty. If he did not personally kill anyone, is he really among the "worst of the worst?" Is he deserving of mercy because he has been a model prisoner who has been of service to other prisoners as well as prison officials?  Is the sober Skillicorn still the same person as the apparently drug-addled younger man who committed the awful crimes?     

Whether Skillicorn is executed as scheduled or allowed to live, the fact that even death penalty supporters are debating questions such as these seems to herald a future in which the death penalty ceases to exist in the United States.

March 25, 2009

New Mexico Abolishes Capital Punishment

New Mexico has abolished capital punishment, effective July 1, 2009. With its abolishment, LWOP (Life Without Possibility of Parole) becomes New Mexico's maximum punishment.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed the law even though he personally supports capital punishment. Richardson concluded that though the death penalty may be warranted for the worst crimes, he believed that the criminal justice system cannot fairly distinguish those murderers who should die for their crimes from those who are allowed to live. He was also influenced by statistics showing that nationally, about 130 death row prisoners have been shown to be innocent-- mostly through DNA evidence. 

For capital punishment opponents, the symbolic value of the state's decision may outweigh its practical impact.  New Mexico currently has only 2 prisoners on death row, and the state has executed only 2 people since 1960. Yet its abolishment adds to a growing sense that like all European countries, the United States will eventually ban capital punishment. The number of death senetences handed down and carried out in the United States has dropped for each of the last 5 years. The decision of New Mexico's legislature to abolish capital punishment, and in particular Gov. Richardson's reasons for accepting the decision, is another signal that the country will eventually hand capital punishment a death sentence of its own.

January 6, 2009

Life Sentences for Juvenile Criminals?

In the case of Roper v. Simmons (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty cannot be imposed on juvenile offenders. The next logical issue is whether juvenile offenders can be given an LWOP sentence -- that is, a sentence of Life Without Parole.

LWOP sentences for adult offenders are routine.  The availability of LWOP, and the realization that LWOP sentences are strictly enforced, have undoubtedly contributed to the reductions in the number of adult offenders sentenced to death in recent years.

But should teenage offenders, even those who have committed heinous crimes, have to spend the rest of their lives in jail?  In Roper, the Court emphasized that youthful offenders are less blameworthy than adults because they lack maturity and are more subject to negative peer pressure than adults.  Should these same factors lead to a conclusion that LWOP sentences are as invalid as death sentences for juvenile offenders?  International law and a handful of states already forbid LWOP sentences for juveniles.  Surely it won't be long before the U.S. Supreme Court is confronted with deciding the issue.