Friday, May 13, 2005

Stop her before she tries to kill again!

Could this be the end of the line for Lynne Abraham, the nation's Deadliest DA of Philadelphia? The Philadelphia Inquirer has endorsed challenger Seth Williams, a former assistant DA, while the Daily News has endorsed Abraham.

Nearly every article that the Abolitionist has read on this race includes a mention of Abraham's zealous pursuit of death. When the Inquirer endorsed Williams, it included this line:

"America's Deadliest D.A." is nationally known for her penchant for seeking the death penalty, but it's not clear whether those high-cost capital prosecutions have any deterrent effect on shootings in Philadelphia.

Even while endorsing Abraham, the DN included this note:

To arrive at that bottom line required a difficult calculation: Abraham's negatives include her bashing of judges, her penchant for over-charging and a too-frequent seeking of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, in the midst of doing some research, the Abolitionist came across an interview from 2000 with Jeff Garis, former executive director of PA Abolitionists, in the Revolutionary Worker Online. The interview included this from Garis (click here for the entire interview):

RW: Philadelphia concentrates a lot of the abuses with the death penalty--a lot of people don't get adequate legal representation, there's widespread prosecutorial misconduct, perjured police testimony, forced confessions. In the 1960s people used to talk about "Mississippi justice" and everybody knew it meant you couldn't get any justice in that state. "Philadelphia justice" is a story most people don't really know about. Could you get into this more?
JG: I think it would be hard to find a city much worse than Philadelphia in terms of its justice system for a whole host of reasons....

Then you go to the prosecutors in this city, where there is aggressive pursuit of death sentences. Why? Well, it's not simply just to get people sentenced to death. It is because if you are seeking a death sentence, you can automatically strike from juries anybody who has qualms about the death penalty. So right away you get to screen out people who might be more reasonable, people who might be more likely to question--you know, well the police said this but something doesn't sound right about it.

If you've got people who are very poor or if you get people who are not extremely rich who get charged with a crime and they face the death penalty, you end up with them having a court-appointed attorney. Their attorney's not getting adequate resources to do the kind of testing that should be done to establish whether or not the person was even there.

You've got a defense attorney who may very well say to you, "Look we can fight this if you want to, but the reality is you're African-American. They're going to stack the jury against you and this jury will probably be ready to sentence you to death. If we plead guilty to second degree murder and plea bargain--even if you're innocent--you can come away with at least keeping your life, even if it's behind bars for the rest of it."

Innocent people get sentenced to death and in order to avoid the risk of getting a death sentence innocent people plead guilty to things that they haven't done and accept life in prison or extremely lengthy prison sentences.

Until about four years ago, the way that the county of Philadelphia handled representation when a person was facing a death sentence was different than if they were facing any other charges. Normally you would have gotten somebody from the public defender's office who was trained in criminal defense, who was getting paid something, and who had some standards and accountability to the people they work for. But if you're facing a death sentence you don't get somebody from the public defender's office. You get a "court-appointed" attorney who may or may not have any experience in criminal defense, let alone capital defense. And it historically has been a system of political patronage, people who are hack lawyers who couldn't actually practice law and make a living at it on their own are connected with some figures in the city government and so they get these little jobs thrown to them. And you don't have to do a good job. You just have to show up and you get your money. After a lot of lobbying, the city finally said OK, we'll let the public defender's office take 20 percent of the representation for people who are facing death sentences. In the last four years, exactly zero people have been sentenced to death when they were represented by the public defender's office. They haven't had anybody end up on death row yet. So you've got a system like that that plays into "Philadelphia justice," as we call it.

Prosecutors have used perjured testimony. And you have prosecutors who have become quite adept at how to violate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Batson case which said that you could not strike people from juries on the basis of their race. There's a videotape that was used in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, a training session for new prosecutors coming in where a senior ranking prosecutor in the DA's office explained how you can strike people on the basis of race--you just have to come up with some means to cover it up. Because they've been able to strike people from the jury pool you end up with juries that are much more likely to convict.

You've got a lot of really bad judges in this city, judges like the infamous Sabo. Sabo's got more people on death row than any other judge in the country by a long shot. But he's not the only one in this city. There are other judges like Latrone, who has sentenced 15 or 16 people to death. There are quite a few judges like that, and those judges run their courtrooms like their own petty fiefdoms. And when you've got a judge there who is essentially a prosecutor in robes and who controls what information the jurors are going to be allowed to hear, you end up with a system that is rife with injustice.

And then if you want to talk about appealing it, you'd better be ready to face people on the state Supreme Court bench like Ron Castille who used to be the district attorney in Philadelphia and did not feel that the fact that he had been the district attorney should have given anybody pause to consider whether or not he was really unbiased when he cast a vote with the other justices on denying Mumia's appeal to the state Supreme Court.

I think that Philadelphia justice is anything but justice and in a country where we have all kinds of injustice riddling our so-called criminal justice system, Philadelphia may very well be one of the worst.

ACLU-PA steps up

Much love to Paula Knudsen, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, for today's letter to the editor. Here's the version that Paula sent to the paper:


In a recent article, Dave Arnold, who is a candidate for the Republican nomination for District Attorney in Lebanon County, suggested that the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania endorses his opponent, incumbent Deirdre Eshleman. As a non-partisan organization, ACLU-PA does not endorse candidates for office. Instead, we educate the public on issues related to civil liberties and, if necessary, file litigation on those issues. In a recent debate, Mr. Arnold raised two issues of concern to ACLU-PA, the death penalty and defense counsel for the poor.

Whether defending Japanese Americans unfairly interned during World War II or aiding in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the ACLU has always been at the forefront of the civil rights issues of the day. Regrettably, the death penalty in Pennsylvania has become a civil rights issue. The commonwealth’s death row shamefully houses the second-highest minority rate in the country at close to 70%. A majority of those sentenced to death in this state are from Philadelphia, and an incredible 84% of those defendants from Philadelphia are African-American.

In March, 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias released a report calling for a wide variety of reform. The committee felt that bias against minorities and the poor was inherent in the state’s system of capital punishment, so it called for a two year moratorium on executions in order to further examine the issue. The committee also noted that 9 of every 10 death row inmates were too poor to afford their own attorney at trial, and while many in our public defenders offices are hard-working, honest litigators, too often they are underpaid, overworked, and lacking the necessary resources.

ACLU-PA does not endorse political candidates. Our number one client is the Bill of Rights.

Paula K. Knudsen, Esq.
Staff Attorney
ACLU of Pennsylvania

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No need for Lebanon County to fire up the machinery of death

The following op-ed was submitted to the Lebanon Daily News on Sunday, May 8. It was not submitted in response to LDN's editorial since the Abolitionist just saw that editorial tonight. LDN has thus far opted not to print the column, at least not in its online edition:

In a recent debate between the two Republican candidates for district attorney in Lebanon County, challenger Dave Arnold suggested that county prosecutors should increase their pursuit of the death penalty. This is a shocking statement coming from an employee of the public defenders office. At a time when Americans’ doubts about the death penalty are ever increasing, it would be completely irresponsible for the county to buck national trends and fire up the machinery of death.

In each of the last six years, death sentences have declined in this country. Americans have awakened to the injustices surrounding the ultimate punishment, and while many may support the idea of a death penalty, they recognize that creating a fair, perfect system is impossible.

This new awakening is reflected not only in the decline in death sentences but also in polling data. Multiple polls have shown that when life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is available, as it is in Pennsylvania, the country is evenly split on the question of capital punishment.

The Catholic church is so encouraged by what is happening that the U.S. Conference of Bishops recently started the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. The church plans to ramp up its work against the death penalty and with good reason. A Zogby poll released earlier this year showed that Catholic laypersons are now split 48-48 when asked if they support capital punishment, which is a significant decrease in support from previous years.

How did this happen? Dr. Terry Madonna, a political professor at Franklin & Marshall College, once characterized the 1990s as the “hang ‘em high, hang ‘em often” period. How did we move from that mentality to where we are today?

Watching innocent people walk off of death row has jolted the American people into the realization that we have serious problems with the death penalty. Since 1976, 119 innocent people have been released from death row, including six here in Pennsylvania. The most recent exoneree in the commonwealth was Nicholas Yarris of Philadelphia, who spent a shocking 21 years in prison before being cleared via DNA evidence last year. Yarris is featured in the documentary film “After Innocence”, which will be released this fall.

Innocent people are sentenced to death for a wide variety of reasons. In March, 2003, the state Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias released a report calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. The committee raised concerns of bias in the capital punishment system against minorities and the poor. Pennsylvania’s death row minority rate is nearly 70%, which is the second-highest rate in the country and is a full 15 percentage points higher than the national rate.

The race of the victim plays an even greater factor in death sentences. Whites make up less than 50% of murder victims. Yet in more than 80% of capital cases the victim is white. A district attorney once told me that he believes that this is because jurors can more easily identify with those of the same race.

In addition, nine of every ten defendants sentenced to death in the commonwealth were too poor to afford their own attorney.

These are facts that are well-known in public defenders offices around the state, for our public defenders are on the front lines of this issue. By and large, these attorneys are hard-working, honest, good-hearted people who are overworked, underpaid, and lacking the resources necessary to build a defense for their clients that will avert a death sentence.

As a public defender, Dave Arnold should know these facts, which makes it all the more shocking that he would suggest that Lebanon County should increase its pursuit of state-sanctioned homicide. There can only be two possible reasons for Arnold’s suggestion. Either he is oblivious to the problems with capital punishment or he is cynical about the people of Lebanon County and believes that he can use the death penalty as a political tool to gain votes.

Arnold has hung his hat on endorsements by two local lodges of the Fraternal Order of Police. At a state senate judiciary committee hearing in March, 2002, the FOP testified against a bill that would have ended the execution of the mentally retarded, a practice opposed by three of every four Americans. Three months later the United States Supreme Court ended this horrendous practice by a 6-3 vote, and a year later the state senate passed the bill that the FOP opposed by a 48-1 vote.

It has been 11 years since a Lebanon County jury sentenced a defendant to death. The people of this great county can be proud that they have chosen to err on the side of life, not on the side of death.

Standing up and being counted

The Lebanon Daily News ran an article last Friday on the Lebanon DA race and used quotes directly from the CPADP press release. This was surprising but OK since at the top of each release it does say "For Immediate Release". In my experience, the press release is usually a primer that leads into an interview with a reporter, but it's cool. I'm glad that LDN ran some of the quotes about what's wrong with the death penalty.

On Sunday, the editorial board commented that CPADP aided DA candidate Dave Arnold by speaking out against his comments at a recent debate. LDN agreed that Arnold's comments were a blunder but also felt that Arnold is aided by having an anti-death penalty group speak out against his comments.

That may well be true. The lead of the editorial is wrong, though:

Andy Hoover, who identifies himself as president of Central Pennsylvanians to Abolish the Death Penalty, probably thought he was harming the electoral prospects of district-attorney candidate David Arnold this week by sharply rebuking Arnold for hawkish comments he made during a candidates' forum Monday night.

As stated before, CPADP does not support one candidate or another. Of course, in private, each of us has candidates that we prefer. As an organization, however, our mission is to educate the general public on the issue of the death penalty toward its ultimate demise.

When that press release was written, I was well aware that I could be either hurting or harming either candidate. Lebanon County is a conservative area, so the LDN editorial board may well be right that it helps Arnold.

But here's the dilemma for those working to end capital punishment. Do we let candidates for public office get away with making irresponsible comments in the midst of campaigns? Why is it that those who are prudent in their support for the death penalty, like Ms. Eshleman, are the candidates who are on the defensive? Why is that those of who don't want to kill people have to answer for ourselves, as if we're the ones who have an indefensible position?

Do a Google search with the terms "impeach Anthony Kennedy". The vitriol against Justice Kennedy, particularly for his decision in the Roper v. Simmons juvenile execution case in March, is stunning, and much of it comes from people of so-called faith. That is not the Christianity that I grew up with. What follower of Jesus could say that he or she is OK with executing child criminals? WWJD?

(Mind you, according to polls even after the DC sniper case, only about 20% of the country supports juvenile executions.)

This episode has me thinking more about how to handle zealous pro-death comments from public officials. We've reached a point in this movement where we can no longer let the Dave Arnolds of the world get away with being irresponsible with death. President Bush has urged the country to err on the side of life, and the Abolitionist agrees.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Irony so thick.....

To follow up on the press release on the Lebanon County DA's race, there are two points about this situation that are filled with irony.

First, at the same time that Mr. Arnold is advocating for an increase in capital prosecutions, he is illustrating one of the major problems with the death penalty- ineffective assistance of counsel. Mr. Deitzler is too poor to afford his own attorney, and one of the attorneys appointed to him is publicly bad-mouthing him.

Second, did you ever think you would see the day when an anti-dp organization defends an incumbent District Attorney and blasts a public defender? (Mr. Arnold works in the PD's office.)

CPADP Press Release: Lebanon County DA race

May 4, 2005


CPADP raises concerns over Lebanon County DA candidate

Harrisburg- In a rare foray into electoral politics, local anti-death penalty activists today blasted Lebanon County District Attorney candidate Dave Arnold for his exchange with current DA Deirdre Eshleman over the death penalty at a Republican primary candidate forum Monday night.

During the dialogue, Arnold referred to “brutal murderers who have no value to society”, as reported by both the Patriot News and the Lebanon Daily News. Meanwhile, Arnold is the assistant defense counsel for Ralph Deitzler, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend. The trial started this week.

“As Ms. Eshleman correctly pointed out, it is indeed troubling that Mr. Arnold would call for increased use of the death penalty and would characterize defendants in this way at the same time that he’s defending a man accused of murder,” said Andy Hoover, president of Central Pennsylvanians to Abolish the Death Penalty. “In his zeal to ascend to the DA’s office, perhaps Mr. Arnold has forgotten that his client has a right to effective assistance of counsel.

“Certainly, Mr. Arnold’s ability to assist in this case is in serious doubt.”

In the debate, which was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and WLBR radio, Arnold lamented the lack of capital prosecutions in the county. Of the 221 prisoners currently on Pennsylvania’s death row, three are from Lebanon County and all three were sentenced in the early to mid-1990s.

“Ms. Eshleman should be applauded for not pursuing death like a zealot, for two reasons,” Hoover said. “First, if Mr. Arnold’s conduct is any indication, the state of defense for the poor in the county must be questioned. Second, studies have consistently shown that capital cases typically cost one to two million dollars more than non-capital cases, which, of course, comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

“We believe in protecting society and punishing those who commit terrible crimes. That can be done without the death penalty and without bankrupting our counties.”

In March, 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias released a report calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. One of the key reasons for the moratorium recommendation was the state of effective counsel for poor defendants.

Approximately 90% of those sentenced to death in the commonwealth were too poor to afford a private attorney.

CPADP does not endorse political candidates. Instead, the group educates the public on the issue of capital punishment, which includes the positions of candidates for elected office.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Remembering corrections officers this week

In case you missed it, the Guv declared this week Corrections Employee Week in Pennsylvania. This isn't new. It's the 20th year that it's been done. Certainly, our corrections officers deserve credit for doing a tough job.

In particular, it's important to take a moment to remember the DOC staff who are part of the execution team, not only in this state but around the country. Some activist chatter just a few weeks ago centered around the impact of state-sanctioned homicide on those who have to actually carry out the deed. It's not the jury that does it. If the juries had to actually carry out the sentence, there probably would be no death penalty. It's not the judge. It's not the governor or the state legislators who refuse to do anything about the horror of capital punishment. It's a group of anonymous guys who don't make a ton of dough, who work their tails off in a stressful job, who end up seeing the humanity in those our society considers throwaways, who have to deal with the strain of killing another person.

As the Abolitionist has heard it, those on the execution team are overwhelmingly anti-death penalty.

By the way, do you think the Guv is honoring Abu Ghraib guard and SCI-Greene guard Charles Graner this week?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Patriot News story offers anti-dp argument....if you look for it

On April 24, the Patriot News- Harrisburg's daily fishwrap- published the article "Death row loneliness lies ahead for woman". will only have this article posted until May 7, so if you're reading this after May 7...... you should be reading this blog every day. For those of you who haven't set The Central Pennsylvania Abolitionist as your homepage (yet), here's the lead:

Death row loneliness lies ahead for woman
Mother to join 5 others for her
hatchet murder of Lock Haven man, 83
Sunday, April 24, 2005
For The Patriot-News

MUNCY - Shonda Walter will most likely
never hug her daughter again.
In fact, the 25-year-old single mother could finish her life without ever touching another person, prison authorities say.

That's because Walter, who killed her 83-year-old Lock Haven neighbor by hitting him 66 times with a hatchet, joined an exclusive club last week.
She will be one of six women on death row in Pennsylvania.

Now, my first thought was, 'Wow, this will not win any converts to the cause.' Sure, everyone feels terrible for her daughter who will grow up, for all intents and purposes, without a mother, and Ms. Walter might win sympathy from a lot of people had she been abused, like many female criminals. (The article notes that no evidence of abuse was presented at trial.)

But, for crying out loud, the lady cut up an 83 year-old man with a hatchet and then sat there while he pleaded with her to call 911. This is the kind of story abolitionists run from.

Look deeper.

This article describes the isolation of death row. She will never hug her daughter again. She may never even so much as touch another human being. 22 hours per day are spent in her cell. Her toilet is just a few feet from her bed. Her two hours of outdoor time are spent in a cage with another prisoner nearby but separate.

With the death penalty, she'll live this way for maybe 10-15 years.

With a life sentence, she would live this way for 45 years. What's the average lifespan these days, 75? We'll knock off five years because living in prison is rough and guess that she would live to 70. 45 years of this isolation as punishment for murdering her neighbor.

Chew on that.

I'm not one who argues that life imprisonment is actually worse than the death penalty because, frankly, I cannot imagine living out either scenario. But 45 years (!) of near total isolation? That's heavy.

Anyone who argues that doing away with the death penalty would allow murderers to go "unpunished" (Mr. District Attorney, I'm talking to you) is a damn fool.