Thursday, December 27, 2007

Connecticut Court Considers Banning State’s Death Penalty

By Jeff Deskovic

Background


On December 13, a Connecticut court heard arguments the State’s death penalty system was discriminatory.
The basis of this challenge was a study, paid for with taxpayer dollars, which showed that the death penalty was more frequently given to minorities who stood convicted of killing Whites, than the other way around.

Studies in other states, conducted by The American Bar Association, show similar results in Alabama,
Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

There are currently nine people on death row in Connecticut. Unfortunately there were a variety of
irregularities in the proceeding. Firstly, it was held on a basketball court inside of Northern Correctional Institution. Secondly, it allowed five of the nine prisoners who were a party to the litigation and part of the case to attend the hearing, which is unheard of in a postconviction proceeding unless new evidence has been received.
Their attendance was the reason that the hearing was held in Connecticut Court Considers Banning State’s Death Penalty the prison, because state officials decided that no courthouse in the state would be safe enough in their
presence.

The judge was seated at a regular desk with a chair and microphone. At half court were the lawyers for
the defense and the state. Behind them were the prisoners, who sat in handcuffs and leg shackles. Each
prisoner was separated by makeshift cubicles.

Context


There are very few things in life that happen in a vacuum. Instead, there is usually a context not only for
a specific given event or occurrence, but also a much larger general context. This issue is no exception.
Nationwide, support for the death penalty is waning. There have been many issues which have led to
this change of opinion: The death penalty poses a grave risk of executing innocent people. There have been many people executed who were later determined to have been innocent. The organization Death Penalty Information
Center’s website, deathpenaltyinfo.org, lists eight cases of innocent people who have been executed. Due to
public awareness of the 209 DNA exonerations nationwide, as well as the many other non-DNA exonerations,
the fact that innocent people are found guilty is not seriously disputed by anybody who is objective.

Those same problems which led to the wrongful convictions in noncapital cases are present in capital
cases. There have been 124 exonerations from death row. There is no telling what the true rate is at which
wrongful convictions occur because often the wrongfully convicted have poor lawyers, scant financial resources,
and DNA is only available in 10% of all serious felony cases.

It cost New York two hundred million dollars from 1995-2004 to have a death penalty on the books while
not even being used once. Those resources could be better spent on crime prevention, law enforcement,
and social programs.

Victim’s family members are speaking out more and more that they are against the death penalty, because every
time the condemned has an appeal, there is publicity generated, which hinders their healing process, and
places the emphasis on the accused, and not on the victim.

Where a crime takes place, along with the local District Attorney’s views on capital punishment, often
shape whether the death penalty is sought. Thus, rather than an objective standard being applied, it is instead
arbitrary.

If the District Attorney where the crime has taken place has political aspirations, they often see a death penalty
eligible case as an opportunity to solidify public perception of them as tough on crime so as to facilitate their
seeking of higher public office.

A defendant who is Black and is convicted of murdering a White victim is more likely to get the death penalty than the other way around. Other minority defendants are also more likely to get the death penalty than Caucasian defendants. Thus there is racism built into the system of death. Any penalty which is not evenly applied to all defendants regardless of their color and the color of their victim, can truthfully be said to be discriminatory.

When the government executes murderers or alleged murderers, it sets a poor example to its citizens. It sends the message that it is okay to kill people in a premeditated way, so long as there is a justification. When executions are performed, they are not broadcast so all can witness it, based on the fact that it is considered too ghastly, in and of itself a tacit admission that it is wrong.

As I reported in the Sept 20, 2007 issue of The Guardian, the New York Court of Appeals on Sept. 10, 2007
heard the last death penalty case in New York. At issue was whether the court would let stand its previous
ruling in People v. LaValle, in which the court ruled that the statute was Constitutionally defective due to it’s
jury charge, or if it would reverse it and thus reinstate the death penalty judicially. In a 4-3 decision, the court
upheld its decision on October 2007 thus judicially ending the death penalty in New York.

New Jersey has recently made history by legislatively repealing the death penalty. Gov. Corzine assembled a blue
ribbon panel consisting of law enforcement officials, victim family members, religious leaders, legal experts who studied the death penalty.

That committee recommended that it be repealed. The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill to repeal it, and
Gov. Corzine signed it into law on Dec 17, 2007, thus making history as the first time that the death penalty
had been legislatively abolished. Nationwide, executions are on hold as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a case regarding the Constitutionality of Kentucky’s lethal injection procedure. Many states have the same protocol, so that decision will impact upon cases nationwide.

The Thomas Arthur case in Alabama has attracted some national attention, as Alabama wants to execute Arthur without allowing him a DNA Test, which could show his innocence or guilt. The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to review his case, thus leaving all of his appeals exhausted, with only the ability of Gov. Bob Riley to order the test standing between him and death. The governor has refused thus far to order testing, and refused
to discuss the matter with The Innocence Project, which offered to pay for the test. And only months prior
executed Darryl Grayson without allowing him to have a DNA Test. Ironically, while they refused to halt the execution so that DNA testing could be performed, Arthur’s execution has been halted until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Kentucky case.

In Conclusion

I would first like to comment on the venue of the Connecticut hearing and how the prisoners were
treated. As noted earlier, it is rare that in a post-conviction proceeding not involving new evidence, that
prisoners are permitted to attend. I believe that any time someone is challenging their conviction or sentence
they should be allowed to attend. Why should all of the parties to a litigation - the judge, lawyers for the defense and the state, and any interested spectators, be allowed to attend whereas those whose lives will be immeasurably affected by the outcome are not?

Therefore, I salute the judge on this issue. Where I have a problem, however, is how the prisoners were
treated, and where the proceeding took place. The idea that no courtroom was safe enough and therefore
the hearing warranted being held on a basketball court of a prison - as if desperados were going to burst into
the courtroom, guns blazing, in an all-out effort to free one or more of the defendants, a la Wild, Wild West
style, is ridiculous. Further, there are security protocols on the bottom floor of any courthouse. There are metal detectors which all must pass through, and plenty of security should any unruly people show up.

That normally secure environment could have been further beefed up by simply paying a few hours overtime
to have more personnel work that day who ordinarily would have been off. In terms of extra security inside
the courtroom itself, stationing two bailiffs, carrying side arms as is normally the case, standing behind each
defendant, is enough security. Requiring the prisoners to be full of manacles while in a court proceeding is inconsistent with the dignity that should be attendant in court proceedings, and is, in my view, a violation of human rights.

If the case is decided against them, their punishment for their alleged crimes is that they will be executed; it is not, nor should it be, that they are mistreated while in court. I can speak from personal experience as to how degrading and inconsistent with human dignity it is to enter a courtroom with handcuffs on.

Regarding the issue of whether or not the Connecticut Death Penalty discriminates, the answer is an unequivocal yes. It discriminates in every state, including Connecticut. Putting aside my views on the death penalty as a whole, which are well known considering all of my advocacy against it, I will say that any penalty whose application is applied in a discriminatory manner is dangerous. It sends a message to society that there are two systems for justice in place: one for minorities and one for Caucasians. This only fans the flames of distrust on race-consciousness, as opposed to the ideal which our courtrooms almost always fall short of: that Lady Justice, as depicted with the blindfold on, is blind to who it is that is before her and that everybody is treated the same.
Connecticut, along with all of the states of the Union, should abolish the death penalty.

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