Thursday, March 29, 2012
By Michelle Brunet
Thomas Arthur was scheduled to be executed Thursday at 6pm. On Wednesday, luckily, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the stay granted to him by a federal appeals court last week. I say luckily because, not only has Arthur always claimed his innocence (which, lets face it, might be said by those who are guilty as well), but key factors have come to light since his original conviction that suggest he did not commit the crime. His defense team wants to foot the bill for a crucial DNA test that could affirm his innocence, but have so far been denied. It makes me question whether Arthur’s criminal past has been held against him causing a miscarriage of justice throughout all his legal and court system proceedings for nearly 30 years.
It may surprise you that the temporary suspension of Arthur’s execution has nothing to do with his possible innocence, but for the manner he was to be put to death. His defence attorneys requested a stay because of the cruel nature of the three-drug lethal injection process that was planned. Specifically, opponents to the controversial mode of lethal injection argue that when pentobarbital is injected first it does not effectively render the body unconscious thus leading to potentially high levels of torture and pain.
Arthur has avoided this fatal fate - a punishment sentenced to him when he was convicted for the murder of Troy Wicker - for at least the immediate future. In 1982, Wicker was found dead in his Muscle Shoals, Alabama home, with a gunshot wound to his right eye. Those who believe Arthur is guilty tell that he was hired by the victim’s wife, Judy Wicker, to carry out the murder. Judy had been convicted for her part in the murder which resulted in her collecting $90,000 in life insurance.
According to Thomas Arthur Fight For Life, Judy had been sentenced to life in prison, but was released after serving ten years for issuing a statement condemning Arthur. The website adds that in seven previous statements, she had not once implicated Arthur.
In 2008, Bobby Ray Gilbert confessed that he, not Arthur, murdered Troy Wicker. Gilbert stated that he had been having an affair with Judy and that she had told him her husband was physically abusive. Gilbert is currently serving life in prison for another murder.
Additionally, no physical or DNA evidence links Arthur to the crime scene where Wicker was found dead. Basic DNA tests were conducted on a wig, asserted to be worn by the killer, but the results were inconclusive and yet did not link Arthur or Gilbert. Arthur’s attorneys have asked to pay for a more specialized DNA test (a mini-STR analysis) on the wig to affirm their client’s innocence, but the State has refused the request.
At the time that Wicker was murdered, Arthur was serving time at the Decatur Work-Release Centre for a second-degree murder conviction. The State claims Arthur left the centre and drove the 45 miles to Muscle Shoals. Is it possible that Arthur’s past murder conviction led the prosecutors and the jury to convict him for a murder he very well may not be responsible for?
Earlier this week, Tom Smith (TimesDaily.com) did a piece describing Sherrie Stone’s fears that her father Arthur would be put to death Thursday. Since his 1983 conviction, he has been granted four stays but she felt that this time he would not be so lucky. “If a confession and DNA testing that doesn’t match him won’t work, I don’t expect it to be stopped this time,” Stone shared.
On Wednesday, Stone’s prayers were answered; but will her hopes, of the courts ruling out every doubt before executing her father, be realized? “If we are to continue executions in this country, laws must be put in place in which DNA testing must be allowed at all stages of the process. There is a chance we are executing innocent people. I know because my father is one of those people,” expressed Stone.
If you believe that the State of Alabama should allow for a more specialized DNA test in the case of Thomas Arthur, you can send a message to Governor Bentley directly from the Innocence Project.
Friday, March 23, 2012
Since March Madness is upon us, I think it's fitting to recall a moviescene from “Hoosiers.” It's my favorite moment from any sports movie. Coach Norman Dale's job is in jeopardy. The town has called a meeting to vote on whether he should be fired.
Here's how the scene goes, for those who haven't seen it:
"I've made some mistakes, but they're mistakes I take full responsibility for," Coach Dale said. "I was hired to teach the boys the game of basketball, and I did that to the best of my ability. I apologize for nothing. You may not be pleased with the results, but I am. I'm ver yproud of these boys."
Later on in the scene, the basketball star Jimmy Chitwood arrives.
"I don't know if it'll make any change, but I figured it's timefor me to start playing ball," he said.
The crowd erupts into applause.
The foreman of the meeting declares as he points to Coach Dale,"I told you once we got rid of him," Jimmy continues. "One other thing. I play. Coach stays. He goes. I go."
I wish I could say my writing abilities were on the level of Jimmy Chitwood's basketball talents, but that would be delusional and narcissistic. There is someone I know though who is close to Norman Dale.His name is Bill Moushey, and he is my professor in the Innocence Institute graduate level class I take at Point Park University. He teaches the game of journalism.
When I was in high school, I got in a passionate disagreement with Kevin Bastos, my media studies teacher. He said he wouldn't mind if one innocent man were in jail so long as 100 guilty men were there with him. I, as an idealist, took the counterpoint. I would rather have the guilty roam free so long as the innocent weren't punished. We didn't get along very well.
My college journalism teachers were more principled. My favorite teacher, Doug Cosper, taught me to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
He travels the world and teaches journalism abroad and in Colorado. He's someone who taught me a lot.
But the person I've met with the most experience, the most wisdom and the most fascinating stories about journalism is Bill Moushey.Up to this semester, my first in graduate school, I had never met a reporter who was once at the wrong end of a gun because of a story he wrote, nor had I met someone who used so many colorful anecdotes and analogies. He epitomizes what you think when you hear the term hard-nosed journalist. He's Pittsburgh's Pete Hamill.
So it was heart-wrenching to see him well up with tears this week. The organization he champions, the Innocence Institute, will no longer exist after this semester. The reason, as it always is with journalism schools, was financial in nature.
For those who aren't familiar with the Innocence Institute, it is an organization dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted men and women.Point Park is one of only three schools to be affiliated with the Innocence project. It has reversed 14 convictions.
Moushey is the antithesis of what my high school media studies teacher was.Though he knows firsthand from all the letters he receives from convicted pedophiles, rapists and murderers that you assume convicts are guilty, he also knows that innocent men get railroaded by unreliable eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct or by the withholding of evidence.Furthermore, he takes it upon himself and his students to correct injustice when it is done and to aggressively pursue the truth, however ugly it maybe.
I know I can't stand in front of the Point Park faculty and threaten to "not play." That would make no difference. But I want to bring this decision to the public so lawyers, journalists and community organizers can think about whether they want to write emails or letters to the School of Communication at Point Park to request that they continue this program.
Ultimately, whether or not an innocent man is in jail probably won't affect you unless you are that innocent man or if he's your brother or father. But I hope there are enough idealists out there to not let the Innocence Institute go so easily.
One of my favorite historical quotes expresses a principle that Bill Moushey embodies. Eugene Debs said it on Sept. 18, 1918. If you don't appreciate it, then you probably won't understand why the Innocence Institute is so noble."Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Prosecutors in the Stevens case deserve severe sanctions.
Something is very rotten at the U.S. Department of Justice. No other reasonable conclusion can be drawn from an independent report on the 2008 prosecution of then-Senator Ted Stevens (shown in photo taken in 2009).
According to the exhaustive study ordered by Judge Emmet Sullivan, government attorneys engaged in "systematic concealment" of "significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated Senator Stevens's defense and his testimony, and seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government's key witness."
Most damaging to Justice's credibility is that, three years after Judge Sullivan set aside the guilty verdicts against Stevens, the department still hasn't disciplined the men and women involved. Nor has it instituted harsher penalties for future abuses. Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee last week that a separate internal inquiry at Justice is almost done, but he would not promise to make all the results public.
Speaking of public scrutiny, you've probably never heard of Matthew Friedrich, Rita Glavin, Brenda Morris, Joseph Bottini, James Goeke or Edward Sullivan. But maybe more people should know them, and learn the various roles they played in a prosecution that not only trampled on the rights of the accused, but denied the people of Alaska a fair election and literally shifted the balance of power in the U.S. government.
The Justice lawyers were not all equally culpable—some withheld evidence; others failed to ensure that their subordinates honored the defendant's basic rights. And while prosecutors acknowledge the violation of Stevens's rights, they generally blame them on communication problems and other process errors rather than any intent to mislead the judge and jury.
Guilty verdicts against the Republican Stevens arrived less than two weeks before Election Day in 2008, causing the previously popular Senator to lose a close race to Democrat Mark Begich. Mr. Begich would go on to provide the 60th Senate vote to pass ObamaCare in 2009.
Virtually the entire case against Ted Stevens hinged on the testimony of the government's star witness, VECO Corporation CEO William Allen. To protect his credibility, prosecutors withheld from the defense evidence that he had suborned perjury in a separate criminal investigation. Nor did prosecutors say a word in court when, according to the report, Mr. Allen offered testimony that the prosecution knew to be false.
The government's seven-count indictment for false statements accused Stevens of accepting free home renovations from Mr. Allen's company and then not reporting these gifts on federal disclosure forms.
Mr. Stevens and his wife said they had paid $160,000 for the renovations and as far as they knew that was the total cost of the work. What the prosecutors learned in interviewing witnesses—but never shared with the defense—is that even the foreman on the job site shared the Stevens' understanding that they had been appropriately billed for all the work. Instead of sharing this evidence supporting Stevens's defense, prosecutors selectively quoted the foreman to make it appear as if he had said the opposite, and they used his comments to falsely attack Stevens.
Stevens died in a 2010 plane crash so he never learned the full story that was revealed this week, nor did he ever get a fair shot to win back his Senate seat.
The report found that the prosecutorial misconduct was "intentional," though it doesn't recommend criminal contempt prosecutions because at trial government lawyers were not specifically ordered to share all exculpatory evidence. They are of course already required to do so under the Supreme Court's Brady decision, and doing so ought to be a matter of basic legal ethics.
It would be nice to think these abuses were rare lapses. But we wonder what else we might learn if every DOJ prosecution was subjected to a review like the one Judge Sullivan wisely demanded.
What is certain is that Ted Stevens was not alone. Guilty verdicts against two Alaska state legislators were also overturned because Justice withheld evidence related to Mr. Allen. In recent years charges against executives at tech company Broadcom were also tossed out because federal prosecutors had improperly pressured and influenced key witnesses for the defense.
Americans hand prosecutors an awesome power—the power to destroy fortunes and futures, and in this case to reallocate national political power. We are seeing a pattern of abuse of this power, in order to win big cases. To help prosecutors remember that their job is to do justice and not simply to beat the defense team, there should be automatic and severe penalties for Brady violations. Prosecutors could also be required to turn over more raw data with potentially exculpatory evidence, except in cases where it threatens national security or endangers witnesses in a criminal case.
Mr. Holder claims to have addressed the problems in the Stevens case by expanding training programs and the like. But as the nation's chief law enforcer, he should know that harsh punishment is the appropriate response when anyone violates the rights of a citizen as badly as prosecutors did in the Stevens case.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
ON PAPER, Maryland courts are empowered to impose the death penalty in certain murder cases. In practice, the state’s death penalty is in remission. Five convicts remain on death row, and defendants can be prosecuted for capital murder and sentenced to death, but the state lacks any legal method of carrying out executions. No one has been put to death in Maryland since 2005.
That status quo seems acceptable to the power brokers in Annapolis, who would rather not add to a list of controversies that now includes legalizing same-sex marriage and subsidizing higher education for illegal immigrants.
But by ducking the issue, they are leaving in place a costly, inefficient, unjust and dysfunctional system that exacts a terrible toll on the families of murder victims. Rather than legislating and leading, state lawmakers are in denial.
Three years ago, an effort to abolish the death penalty narrowly failed in the General Assembly, which instead restricted it to cases where there is DNA evidence, a videotaped confession or video linking the suspect to a murder. But the legislature’s reform fixed nothing; if anything, it codified a system even more arbitrary than the one it replaced. Now the nature of the evidence, rather than the barbarity of the crime, is the critical factor. So a murder conviction based on DNA evidence might result in a death sentence, but not a Virginia Tech-style killing spree whose perpetrator is identified by multiple witnesses.
Nor did the changes in the Maryland law address the racial and jurisdictional disparities in the death penalty’s application. And there is no evidence that the death penalty is more effective at deterring murders than is a sentence of life without parole.
The broken system is particularly burdensome for the families of murder victims, who face years, even decades, of litigation. Three of the state’s five death-row prisoners were sentenced nearly 30 years ago; the others were sentenced in the mid-1990s.
Whatever moral convictions one holds about capital punishment — and we think it is wrong — Maryland has failed to find an evenhanded, just and fair-minded way to apply it. As a recent report by some of Maryland’s most prominent attorneys concluded, the state’s current law “is likely to increase the arbitrariness of the imposition of the death penalty because persons who commit the most heinous crimes — the ‘worst of the worst’ — are not necessarily the same people who will be eligible for the death penalty.”
A majority of the Maryland General Assembly favors an end to capital punishment in the state. Still, legislative leaders are reluctant to allow consideration of a bill that would repeal the death penalty and shift the anticipated savings in the state budget to programs to benefit victims’ families. The leaders would rather leave in place a system that is a disgrace to justice, and to Maryland.