Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Death penalty not foreseen soon here

Death penalty not foreseen soon here
Despite referendum passing Tuesday

By Anita Weier

Though 56 percent of Wisconsin voters approved an advisory referendum asking for establishment of the death penalty, there is no chance that capital punishment will become law anytime soon.

"I am a realist. There is no prospect," said state Sen. Al Lasee, R-DePere, the author of the referendum and a longtime supporter of capital punishment. "The Democrats took control of the Senate and Gov. Doyle got re-elected."

Gov. Jim Doyle opposes the death penalty and could veto any bill enacting the death penalty, and Lasee rammed the advisory referendum through the Legislature when both houses were controlled by Republicans and he was president of the Senate.

"But we laid the foundation for the fact that Wisconsin citizens are interested in supporting the death penalty," Lasee said. "It will not pass this session or maybe next, but at some time the Legislature will come around to the thinking of Wisconsin residents."

However, Stacy Harbaugh, community advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin's Madison office, said the ACLU and other members of a coalition that opposed the referendum would continue to fight a death penalty bill every step of the way.

"This was introduced very late, and we did not have a lot of time to organize. We knew it would be a hard fight from the beginning, due to the biased nature of the question, with the DNA clause," Harbaugh said.

"The question makes it seem like an open-and-shut case, but this is a much more complicated issue."

The death penalty would require a costly infrastructure for a state with no death rows, Harbaugh said, and appeals are very costly.

"Once people realize how unevenly the death penalty is applied in other states, they tend to change their minds," she said. "In states that have the death penalty, a similar crime can be committed and one person gets the death penalty and the other does not. It has to do with the race and class of the person who committed the crime and the race and class of the victim. It has to do with how much money the defendant has. And it is up to the prosecutor to decide whether to seek the death penalty, so it is different from state to state and county to county."

Lasee still plans to introduce a bill that would restore the death penalty in Wisconsin after 153 years, though the measure would differ from the phrasing in the advisory referendum.

That question on the ballot asked whether the death penalty should be enacted in Wisconsin for cases involving a person convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, if the conviction was supported by DNA evidence.

Lasee said his bill would spell out what types of murders and make sure that all evidence, including DNA, would be included in the finding of innocence or guilt.

"It would apply to the more vicious, gruesome, brutal murders, such as those involving kidnapping, rape, murder and mutilation," Lasee said. " That is the way it is done in 38 other states. Not every murderer ends up on death row."

Published: November 8, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

Diverse clerics agree death penalty is wrong

Dolan, Jacobus, Berkson: Diverse clerics agree death penalty is wrong
The Capital Times

By Most Rev. Timothy Dolan, Very Rev. Russell Jacobus and Rabbi Marc E. Berkson

We are religious leaders from Wisconsin's Jewish, Protestant and Catholic faith communities. Though we speak from different traditions, we share a commitment to the common good of society and justice and compassion for all persons.

It is because of that commitment that we are united in opposing the death penalty.
On the November ballot, Wisconsin voters will confront an advisory referendum question that asks: "Should the death penalty be enacted in the state of Wisconsin for cases involving a person who is convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence?" We believe the answer to that question should be NO.

Accounts of murder arouse in us some of the strongest and most heated human emotions. We are angry at the evil that takes life. We grieve for the loss of innocent life, and for the suffering of families, friends and communities. And we fear for ourselves and our loved ones in a world where such violence is possible.

Such emotions are understandable. But we cannot let raw emotion determine our decision about how we, as a society, should respond to the willful and needless taking of a human life. Instead, we must look to our moral and spiritual traditions of respect for life, the pursuit of justice, and prudent acknowledgment of human fallibility. In doing so, we firmly believe that capital punishment serves neither the common good nor the ideal of equal justice for all.

Respect for life requires protecting society from those who would harm others. But respect for life also demands that, where we have a choice, we make use of non-lethal means to do so. In protecting society from those without regard for human life, we do have an alternative to capital punishment - life imprisonment.

Some argue that the death penalty shows the value we put on the victim's life. But can we teach that killing is wrong by killing those who have killed others? Is not the very idea self-contradictory? The solution to violence is not more violence.

Although we can do our best to remove error and bias, no human system of justice can be perfect. As long as there is capital punishment, there is the risk of executing an innocent person - an error that cannot be corrected. Many persons have been released from death row when errors that led to their wrongful conviction have been brought to light.

Even if a person is rightfully convicted of murder, the sentence imposed on that person may not be just or equitable. Some may feel that it is the most vicious or violent murderers who deserve the death penalty. But all too often, the wealth of the offender, the skin color of the victim or other irrelevant factors play a greater role in determining whether a person receives a sentence of death. We are grateful that Wisconsin has not had the death penalty for over 150 years. Wisconsin is a better place as a result. We pray it will remain so.

For these reasons, we urge all voters to say NO to the death penalty on Tuesday.

This column was submitted by the Most Rev. Timothy Dolan, archbishop of Milwaukee and president, Wisconsin Catholic Conference; the Very Rev. Russell Jacobus, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac and president, Wisconsin Council of Churches; and Rabbi Marc E. Berkson, president, Wisconsin Council of Rabbis.

Published: November 4, 2006

Friday, November 03, 2006

Go out and vote!

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Victims' Families Divided Over Death Penalty Vote

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin families who have lost loved ones to murder are split on next week's vote on whether the state should bring back the death penalty.

One Madison family said the issue boils down to the Ten Commandments and the rule against killing.

If killing is wrong, then the family reasons that state-sponsored killing is also wrong.

Hank and Sharon Starkey's son Mark was murdered in 1990, slain by a drifter who had been in Madison only a few hours.

"I don't believe in killing, and so if the person that killed our son, if he were put to death, would that end my grief for Mark? No," said Sharon Starkey. "In prison for life? Sure. I'm not sure I really want to see him walk the streets again, but I don't want to see him put to death."

"The man who killed Mark, his last words in court were he would do it again. Still, I do not wish him death," said Hank Starkey.

But other families, like the parents of Cora Jones, would like to see at least some murders put to death.

In 1994, their 12-year-old was one of two young girls abducted and killed by pedophile David Spanbauer.

Several years ago, when the death penalty was also being debated, Cora's father, Rick Jones, was featured in political ads.

"Uncivilized criminals can't be treated civilized. They're going to turn right around and kill someone else. It's almost like Wisconsin is attracting these people," said Rick Jones.

The Jones story is one of many horribly tragic cases Senate President Alan Lasee has cited as a rationale for reinstating the death penalty.

"I think if it were to pass by a substantial margin, 60 percent or more, I think legislators who probably would have voted 'no' will take a second look at how their district feels about this topic, and perhaps can come forward and say we support it," said Lasee, who was the catalyst behind next week's advisory vote.

But Dane County Assistant District Attorney Bob Kaiser said before that happens, lawmakers should take a hard look at what he sees as a severe shortage of state prosecutors. He said there are 10 fewer in his office than when he started 20 years ago.

"We have people running for office right now saying they're all in favor of fighting crime. How are you in favor of fighting crime if one of your platforms isn't to put more prosecutors in courtrooms? You can arrest all the people you want. I can't shoot them," Kaiser said. "The only thing I can do is convict them, and that's where we do it in the courtroom in front of jurors, and I and the other prosecutors in the state are the lawyers for the people. And if you don't have enough lawyers for the people, they can't do the people's business."

Prior to his arrival in Dane County, Kaiser worked death penalty cases in Illinois and said he knows the enormous time commitment they take.

"Give us the people, and we'll be able to do what needs to be done. But without the people, I don't know how it possibly can be done," he said.

Reposted from

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Innocent Man Released after 25 years in Prison

By ROBERT THARP / The Dallas Morning News

First the judge apologized, then the prosecutor. Finally, after 25 years in prison, 58-year-old Larry Fuller triumphantly walked out of the courthouse Tuesday a free man.

"There's no bitterness," he said. "This is what life is about – trial and tribulation."

But outside the courtroom, those who worked five years to secure the DNA testing that would prove his innocence had harsh words for the Dallas County justice system. They demanded that Mr. Fuller's exoneration become more than just the latest case of DNA testing righting a legal wrong from a generation ago.

With 10 such exonerations in the last five years, Dallas law enforcement should undergo a critical self-examination and embrace tighter standards when relying solely on eyewitnesses, said lawyer Barry Scheck, co-director of the national Innocence Project.

"Every time a case like Larry's occurs, we have to learn a lesson," Mr. Scheck said.

But police and prosecutors say they understand that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable and that they no longer operate under the practices that resulted in Mr. Fuller's wrongful 1981 rape conviction and 50-year prison sentence.

Dallas police have volunteered to be a test city to try out progressive new eyewitness identification techniques recommended by the Police Executive Research Forum. The proposed changes have been delayed until grant funding occurs, police officials said.

Mr. Scheck also asked that prosecutors review the 10 recent exoneration cases to determine how they occurred and make sure the same mistakes are not repeated.

Cases from 1980s

Assistant District Attorney John Rolater, who supervises the office's appeals for DNA testing, said the district attorney's office might consider Mr. Scheck's request if a specific proposal is presented to the office.

Mr. Rolater noted that all but one of the 10 exonerations date to the 1980s and involve four different police agencies and assorted prosecutors and courts.

And while Mr. Rolater acknowledged that any wrongful conviction is bad, he disputed that 10 exonerations are a cause for concern. Although the exonerations have occurred in the last five years, they represent prosecutions that date back 25 years and the office prosecutes about 20,000 cases a year.

"It doesn't seem like an abnormally high number to me," he said. "I don't think they've identified a systemic problem in our methods."

Mr. Fuller's case is typical of the nine other recent exonerations in Dallas County. He was arrested and charged with aggravated rape after a sexual assault victim picked him out of a photo lineup.

The victim in the case initially told police that she could not provide a detailed description of her attacker because the assault occurred in the dark. She later picked him as the suspect only after she was presented with two photo lineups in which he was the only person present in both lineups.

Roy Malpass, a psychology and criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said it was wrong for police to present the woman with a second photo lineup because she probably inadvertently recognized him from studying the first lineup.

"That's really scary for the cops to do that," Dr. Malpass said. "They have their answer after the first one – she couldn't make an identification. If they really believe it's him then let's find some other evidence. Eyewitness testimony is cheap, especially if you can cook them."

Dallas Assistant Police Chief Ron Waldrop said detectives rarely present a second lineup to a witness anymore.

Mr. Rolater said the 10 men exonerated so far would not have been prosecuted today because their evidence would be tested before they reached trial.

Mr. Scheck said DNA is not a panacea for the justice system because about 90 percent of crime investigations don't recover DNA evidence.

Eyewitness accounts

Although eyewitness accounts have long been the backbone of the justice system and are considered by juries to be more reliable than circumstantial evidence, numerous studies have found they are notoriously inaccurate.

Under the stress of an attack, witnesses' recollections can be distorted. Some experience "weapon focus," where they are fixated by the weapon they are being threatened with and remember little else.

"Wouldn't you look at the barrel of a .45, if it was pointed at your face," said Dallas forensic psychologist Bill Flynn.

Studies have also proved that witnesses of one race have trouble accurately describing an attacker of another race.

And after a crime occurs, memories can be influenced by how detectives mold their questions and the manner in which they present a photo lineup of possible suspects, Dr. Malpass said.

If Mr. Fuller's experience is like those of other recent Dallas exonerees, his release from prison is not a cure-all, and more struggles are almost sure to come. Greg Wallis, Billy Smith and Billy Miller, who all attended Mr. Fuller's hearing Tuesday, said they have had a hard time finding work and getting on with their lives since their release from prison.

They are eligible for up to $250,000 compensation for their wrongful imprisonment, but the money can take months to receive and is taxed heavily.

"I'm still struggling, trying to find a place to stay, employment, health insurance," said Mr. Smith, who served more than 19 years in prison. "I'm just out here, and I'm struggling."

Staff writer Jason Trahan contributed to this report.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Human nature can't be trusted with death penalty

Human nature can't be trusted with death penalty

Humankind does not deal in absolutes very well. Being flawed creatures,
we've never done anything perfectly. Being moral creatures, we've never
deliberately destroyed anything without a greater purpose in mind.

And because we're intellectual creatures, everyone will have a different
opinion on those two sentences and how they balance out in our world.
Experience tells us, however, that every endeavor that has involved a
human being no matter its ultimate success has had a mistake at some

That is why the death penalty is not needed in Wisconsin.

There are many arguments for and against capital punishment. Some studies
say it works as a deterrent as a crime, others say its effects are
unquantifiable. Some say it brings relief to victims' families, but some
victims' families are against it. Some say it serves as an equitable
punishment for heinous crimes, others say two wrongs don't make a right.
Everyone has a point. But there are two undeniable facts involved that
should cut moral and social debate short.

One is that death is irreversible. The other is that man is prone to
error. And the first time an undeserving person is put to death, it
undermines the validity of the entire process. We don't say "if," because
such a mistake is bound to happen. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but
eventually. That is human nature.

Advocates for the current proposal note the DNA provision; namely, that
irrefutable DNA evidence is needed to make a convict eligible for the
death penalty. This is surely a step in the right direction, but still far
from a guarantee. While DNA science itself is 100 percent accurate, every
step in the judicial process is not.

One honest mistake by a crime scene technician, laboratory analyst, police
officer, district attorney or expert witness is all that is needed to
corrupt the integrity of the evidence or its interpretation and, by
extension, the death penalty itself.

Capital punishment is an attempt to bring rationality to irrational
behavior, to make sense of senseless action, to bring order to chaos.
Understandable, but futile. The death penalty will not end or even
tangibly reduce horrific criminal behavior. Perhaps it will make us feel
better, but even that will be temporary.

Because eventually we will kill the wrong person, and every Wisconsinite
should fear that day.

(source: Editorial, Appleton Post-Crescent)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Another DA Questions Cost of Death Penalty

Portage County's District Attorney says he's afraid a death penalty case here would bankrupt the county."It's incredibly expensive to do a death penalty case. It taxes thesystem. They take much longer to go through the process," says D.A. Tom Eagon.

(source: WSAW News)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Pennsylvania Man Freed From Death Row

Dennis Counterman was freed from a Pennsylvania courtroom on October 18, 2006 after serving many years on the state's death row. Counterman had been convicted and sentenced to death in 1990 for allegedly setting a fire in his own house that resulted in the death of his three children. That conviction was overturned in 2001 because prosecutors had withheld evidence from the defense indicating that the oldest child had a history of fire-setting.

At Counterman's orignial trial, the prosecution witnesses said that a burn pattern was discovered that indicated an accelerant was used, even though no accelerant was found. At later hearings, however, an expert hired by the prosecution said that the prosecution's theory of how the fire started "is not properly supported by today's standards."

Rather than face the uncertainty of another trial, Counterman agreed to enter an Alford plea, that is one in which the defendant does not admit guilt but agrees that the prosecution might have been able to convince a jury of his guilt. The plea was to a charge of third-degree murder and carried a maximum term of 18 years in prison. Since Counterman had already served the maximum time, he was released immediately by Lehigh County Judge Lawrence Brenner. After his release, Counterman said, "I am more frustrated than angry. I spent all this time for something I didn't even do." (The Morning Call (PA), Oct. 19, 2006).


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