Stay of Execution Issued in Missouri Death Penalty Case

In a display of courage and commitment to justice, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens halted the execution of Marcellus Williams mere hours before he was scheduled to be executed on Tuesday.  DNA testing raised questions about whether he had committed a murder during a 1998 burglary.

Williams’ attorney cited DNA evidence found on the murder weapon that matched another unknown person instead of Williams.  Greitens issued the stay of execution in order to appoint a Gubernatorial Board of Inquiry to look into Williams’ claims of innocence. The five-member board will “consider all evidence presented to the jury, in addition to newly discovered DNA evidence, and any other relevant evidence not available to the jury.”  News of the stay of execution was met with cheers by execution protesters outside of Governor Greitens’ office. Many attribute the stay to a very strong social media campaign.

 

In a released statement, Greitens said “a sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment. To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt.”  We commend the stand Greitens has taken, but firmly believe that there is no way to ever ensure “confidence” in a death sentence.  This case demonstrates the power of social media as a platform for change and reform.

North Carolina has not carried out an execution in 11 years, but still will not take the next logical step to abolition.  As activist, social media is a powerful tool to use in the fight to abolish the death penalty once and for all.  North Carolina legislators need to know that our state no longer wants or supports the death penalty.

No timeline has been set for this inquiry.  Learn more about this case here.

When Law and Justice Part Ways

At the time this piece was published, four people had been arrested in Durham for allegedly taking down a Confederate statue.  They allegedly broke the law.  Now let’s talk about justice.

History has painfully provided us with countless examples of how law and justice, though they are two related concepts, can be different.  Far too often, they are.  It is easier to denounce lawful injustice when we can hide behind decades of separation, so perhaps it can be useful to start with examples of individuals who fought for justice generations before us.

Many currently highly regarded activists of the past have broken the law in the name of justice, in the United States and elsewhere.  History has been kind to the activists of the Boston Tea Party.  Slave Rebellions were lead by currently widely celebrated heroes who not only fought for their freedom, but helped others escape slavery.  Civil Rights activists of the 1960s who compromised their personal safety to participate in sit ins and marches parted ways with the law in the name of justice.  And notably, they did not count on the law to be enforced in ways that would protect them.  Many of us are far too familiar with images and stories of protesters being spat on, beaten, and killed with impunity.

And then there is the present.  We cannot afford to lounge in complacency about what is happening in our country today.  We cannot simply rely on hindsight when we discuss the distinction between law and justice.  Hatred’s heroes have become much more visible, more powerful.  How far will the law take us towards justice?  Most importantly, what do we do when we feel that the law and true justice have parted ways?  Who has the power to achieve justice?

The Carolina Justice Policy Center, in keeping with a commitment to true justice, wants to hear your thoughts.  But more importantly, we want to hear what you are doing to enact your vision of justice.  If you are concerned about justice in your community and are planning to do something about it, we want to help you share your plans and call others to action.  Please consider writing for our blog by submitting your thoughts to thale@justicepolicycenter.org with the subject line “CJPC Justice Blog.”  Let’s talk about justice.  And then let’s make it happen.

Sincerely,

B. Tessa Hale

Associate Director

Carolina Justice Policy Center

Waiting to Die on North Carolina’s Death Row

By Amanda Witwer, UNC-Chapel Hill Public Policy Student

Apart from being an avid reader and a devoted Tarheel fan, my pen pal is an inmate who has spent the last nineteen years of his life on North Carolina’s death row. Out of respect for his privacy, I will refer to him with a pseudonym.

 
Tom* does his best to stay busy. In addition to attending weekly writing classes, he shoots hoops with his fellow inmates, leads Toastmasters club meetings and attends prayer services. But, try as he might, Tom cannot escape from the crushing uncertainty that rules his life and death. He could be executed in a week, or a month, or a decade. Neither he nor his family has any way of knowing.
 
The sad truth is that most prisoners executed in the U.S. spend over a decade on death row. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals who were executed in 2013 sat on death row for an average of fifteen and a half years.
 
The men and women currently on North Carolina’s death row have spent an average of eighteen years and eleven months awaiting their own executions and that agonizing wait stretches on year by year. Next month, Wayne Laws – the longest serving death row inmate in North Carolina’s history – will have spent a total of thirty-two years behind bars. Death row prisoners in our state are spending so long on death row, that some are passing away while waiting to be executed. Since 2006, twelve death row prisoners have died of natural causes.
 
Prolonged waits on death row may not be unusual in the U.S., but they are widely regarded as cruel. International human rights bodies, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, held that the psychological distress and anxiety caused by protracted periods in isolating death row conditions amount to torture (See cases 11.765, 11.815, and 12.275).
 
High courts in Canada and the European Union have refused to extradite individuals charged with capital murder in the U.S., not just out of opposition to the death penalty, but also on the grounds that the long wait the individual would face on death row would constitute “inhumane and degrading” treatment.
 
While the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the issue, several Justices have expressed doubt about the constitutionality of lengthy delays in capital punishment. In his dissent to Lackey v. Texas, former Justice John Stevens implied that a thirty-two year-long stay on death row – roughly the amount of time Wayne Laws has been on death row – was a violation of the Constitution. Dissenting to the 2015 case Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer asserted that, “excessive delays from sentencing to execution can themselves ‘constitute cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’.”
 
That Tom spends every waking moment in the shadow of death is nothing short of cruel. Subjecting those sentenced to death in North Carolina to decades of agonizing uncertainty in the confines of death row is a violation of our state’s values and principles and constitutes yet another reason why we should close the book on capital punishment once and for all.

A Lesson on Humanity: An Intern’s First Visit to Death Row

This month, Carolina Justice Policy Center Intern Olivia Pennoyer visited an inmate on death row.  She documented her experience in an essay:

This summer I met a man on death row. Usually when this fact finds its way into conversations with friends and family, they ask questions: Why? Were you scared? What did you say?

 To answer the first, this summer I had the incredible opportunity of interning with the Carolina Justice Policy Center and the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in downtown Durham. Both of these organizations are comprised of some of the most talented criminal justice reform attorneys in North Carolina. I chose to apply to these community partners because even as a freshman in college, I knew I wanted to learn more about the system. My life leading up to this work had been reading statistics about race, poverty, privatization and the law, but my research was only scratching the surface. In order to be truly informed, I had to dive head first into the work that would inevitably lead me to meeting a prisoner on death row.

In relation to fear, I felt none. Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina definitely is intimidating though. Located only a five minute drive from a busy intersection and a smattering of fast food restaurants, it’s funny to think I could have driven right by it and have never even known it was there. The buildings themselves are placed back behind barbed wire and high walls. Once I passed the initial guard’s post and walked up to the front doors, I was met with grim fluorescent lighting and a front desk with two more guards. I have heard horror stories from female attorneys in my office, but luckily, I have yet to experience any sort of guard harassment. Next, I climbed onto an elevator with no buttons. It was operated by a man watching me from behind a glass mirror. Those tense few seconds before the elevator doors opened were probably the only moments that scared me. I was genuinely worried someone would forget I was in there. Finally, I checked in again with three more guards and there, through the window, I could see several men in bright blood orange jumpsuits.

Now, I’m sitting across from him, and I have redacted his name to respect his privacy. There is a glass window between us that has to be more than 6 inches thick. And we talk. He tells me about his favorite NPR stations, delivers a few solid Trump jokes, discusses the most recent books he has read and tells me how eager he is for George Martin to finish Game of Thrones already! We sit for two and half hours. In this time, we have managed to cover everything from Led Zeppelin to Cesar Millan, and he has left me with a lot to think about.

He was convicted before I was even born as are many of the men on death row in North Carolina. He told me about his time in the military, and I think about how much respect is given to veterans in normal day to day life in my community. He asked me about iPods. As an inmate, he had never seen or used one. Our technological cultures are so different that it feels impossible to wrap my head around. There were aspects of our lives that overlapped in dramatic ways, and yet I left feeling that I had never met a man more isolated from modern life.

We, as a society, have a habit of treating people like they are disposable; this visit has solidified that to me. We imagine the men on death row as Jeffrey Dahlmers or Ted Bundys, but if you seek it out, you realize that is not who is there. The conversation I had with this inmate could have taken place anywhere. We could have been talking over dinner or run into each other at a shopping mall. He could have been a childhood friend of my dad’s who came over to visit. The truth is I genuinely enjoyed spending time with him, and he enjoyed talking to me as well. His attorneys have told me he receives visits few and far between and any human interaction is a positive one. In all honesty, I plan to visit him again on Monday. When we fail to face our humanity, we risk losing it all together.

Ohio Execution

On July 26, 2017, the state of Ohio executed Ronald Phillips.  This execution marked the first after a three and a half year moratorium.  It is yet another example of why death penalty moratoriums should not lull activists into a false sense of complacency.  To learn more about this execution, visit https://www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/tomorrow-ohio-plans-restart-executions-drugs-known-torture?redirect=blog/speak-freely/tomorrow-state-ohio-will-risk-torturing-man-death