Criminal Justice News and VIews

Interesting items related to criminal justice

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I love teaching and sharing knowledge. The Internet is a free passage to an amazing amount of knowledge provided by some of the greatest minds of the day. MIT, Oxford and other universities are now sharing lecture notes with the public and allowing us to dip into the overflowing fonts of wisdom that abound. Yale is but one university that has put actual lectures on the web.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Not Criminal Justice but VITAL INFORMATION TO HAVE

You need to read this article and share it with the women you know.

It is deadly and my daughter-in-law has a friend who developed this

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Stereotyping can be Dangerous to Our Health and Security

This opinion piece in today's New York Times is written by a former Solicitor General and points out the danger of our thinking that (pick a racial or ethnic group) = (thieves, terrorists, etc.)

Well worth not only reading but thinking about. Although most people insist that they have absolutely no prejudices about anyone, a song in the Broadway show, Q Street, about racism sends the message that we often don't recognize our actions as what they truly are -- telling an ethnic joke as a tiny example has racist overtones because you are making fun of a specific group.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The High Cost of Murder

This series of three articles is eye opening. You will find the cost to society of a murder much higher than imagination would allow

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Real Protection of our Bill of Rights

Unlike the United States, the English constitution is unwritten. To eliminate our Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy would required that our Constitution be amended. Not so in England where double jeopardy has ceased to exist by legislative fiat.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

By JOYCE LEE MALCOLMJune 17, 2006;
Page A11

With Great Britain now the world's most violent developed country, the British government has hit upon a way to reduce the number of cases before the courts: Police have been instructed to let off with a caution burglars and those who admit responsibility for some 60 other crimes ranging from assault and arson to sex with an underage girl.

That is, no jail time, no fine, no community service, no court appearance. It's cheap, quick, saves time and money, and best of all the offenders won't tax an already overcrowded jail system.

Not everyone will be treated so leniently. A new surveillance system promises to hunt down anyone exceeding the speed limit.

Using excessive force against a burglar or mugger will earn you a conviction for assault or, if you seriously harm him, a long sentence. Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer jailed for killing one burglar and wounding another during the seventh break-in at his rural home, was denied parole because he posed a threat to burglars. The career burglar whom Mr. Martin wounded got out early.

Using a cap pistol, as an elderly woman did to scare off a gang of youths, will bring you to court for putting someone in fear.

Recently, police tried to stop David Collinson from entering his burning home to rescue his asthmatic wife. He refused to obey and, brandishing a toy pistol, dashed into the blaze. Minutes later he returned with his wife and dog and apologized to the police. Not good enough. In April Mr. Collinson was sentenced to a year in prison for being aggressive towards the officers and brandishing the toy pistol. Still, at least he won't be sharing his cell with an arsonist or thief.

How did things come to a pass where law-abiding citizens are treated as criminals and criminals as victims?

A giant step was the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act, making it illegal to carry any article for an offensive purpose; any item carried for self-defense was automatically an offensive weapon and the carrier is guilty until proven innocent. At the time a parliamentarian protested that "The object of a weapon was to assist weakness to cope with strength and it is this ability that the bill was framed to destroy." The government countered that the public should be discouraged "from going about with offensive weapons in their pockets; it is the duty of society to protect them."

The trouble is that society cannot and does not protect them. Yet successive governments have insisted protection be left to the professionals, meanwhile banning all sorts of weapons, from firearms to chemical sprays. They hope to add toy or replica guns to the list along with kitchen knives with points. Other legislation has limited self-defense to what seems reasonable to a court much later.

Although British governments insist upon sole responsibility for protecting individuals, for ideological and economic reasons they have adopted a lenient approach toward offenders. Because prisons are expensive and don't reform their residents, fewer offenders are incarcerated. Those who are get sharply reduced sentences, and serve just half of these. Still, with crime rates rising, prisons are overcrowded and additional jail space will not be available anytime soon.

The public learned in April that among convicts released early to ease overcrowding were violent or sex offenders serving mandatory life sentences who were freed after as little as 15 months.

The government's duty to protect the public has been compromised by other economies. Police forces are smaller than those of America and Europe and have been consolidated, leaving 70% of English villages without a police presence.

Police are so hard-pressed that the Humberside force announced in March they no longer investigate less serious crimes unless they are racist or homophobic. Among crimes not being investigated: theft, criminal damage, common assault, harassment and non-domestic burglary.

As for more serious crime, the unarmed police are wary of responding to an emergency where the offender is armed. The Thames Valley Police waited nearly seven hours to enter Julia Pemberton's home after she telephoned from the closet where she was hiding from her estranged and armed husband. They arrived once the danger to them had passed, but after those who had pleaded for their help were past all help.

To be fair, under the Blair government a host of actions have been initiated to bring about more convictions. At the end of its 2003 session Parliament repealed the 800-year-old guarantee against double jeopardy.

Now anyone acquitted of a serious crime can be retried if "new and compelling evidence" is brought forward. Parliament tinkered with the definition of "new" to make that burden easier to meet. The test for "new" in these criminal cases, Lord Neill pointed out, will be lower than "is used habitually in civil cases. In a civil case, one would have to show that the new evidence was not reasonably available on the previous occasion. There is no such requirement here."

Parliament was so excited by the benefits of chucking the ancient prohibition that it extended the repeal of double jeopardy from murder to cases of rape, manslaughter, kidnapping, drug-trafficking and some 20 other serious crimes. For good measure it made the new act retroactive. Henceforth, no one who has been, or will be, tried and acquitted of a serious crime can feel confident he will not be tried again, and again.

To make the prosecutor's task still easier, he is now permitted to use hearsay evidence -- goodbye to confronting witnesses -- to introduce a defendant's prior record, and the number of jury trials is to be reduced. Still, the government has helped the homeowner by sponsoring a law "to prevent homeowners being sued by intruders who injure themselves while breaking in."

It may be crass to point out that the British people, stripped of their ability to protect themselves and of other ancient rights and left to the mercy of criminals, have gotten the worst of both worlds. Still, as one citizen, referring to the new policy of letting criminals off with a caution, suggested: "Perhaps it would be easier and safer for the honest citizens of the U.K. to move into the prisons and the criminals to be let out."

Ms. Malcolm is professor of history at Bentley College and author of, inter alia, "Guns and Violence: The English Experience" (Harvard University Press, 2002).

This appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday June 17, 2006 and is copyright by them

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Should Juvenile Records Remain Sealed?

D.C. Police Chief Lobbies for Access To Youth Records

Local Coalition Criticizes Bill Introduced by Council Chairman

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, June 13, 2006; B02

Juvenile crime is rising in the District, and D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey spent yesterday afternoon trying to sell a D.C. Council committee on a controversial plan to help buck the trend.

Ramsey wants the case records of the most dangerous juvenile offenders -- information he says is often unavailable to investigators because of privacy laws -- released to his department.

"One out of every six juveniles arrested in D.C. today is charged with a violent offense, compared with one out of every 20 adults arrested," Ramsey said in testimony before the council's Judiciary Committee.

"Today, it is not uncommon for us to see packs of three or four or more juveniles, some of them armed, committing street robberies in our city."

After a weekend in which five homicides occurred, including the shooting of a 28-year-old man on his porch by four teenage assailants, Ramsey said his detectives need better tools to track underage suspects who drift in and out of the juvenile justice system below the official radar.

Ramsey spoke on behalf of a bill introduced by D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) that would give police access to criminal records of juveniles, home addresses of the juveniles and their family members and other sensitive information. Police would be able to find out, for example, about placements in group homes or juvenile detention facilities.

The records would be made available only for juveniles arrested three or more times or for juveniles accused of a single violent crime or unauthorized use of a vehicle, according to the bill.

The Justice 4 D.C. Youth! Coalition -- a group of parents, youths and community advocates -- criticized the bill as an unnecessary intrusion that could lead to police harassment. Other critics said they feared the confidential information would be leaked to the public, causing further harm.

Police can get the information they need on a case-by-case basis, said Joseph B. Tulman, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia law school.

The council hearing drew testimony from a group of youths who said the relationship between juveniles and police is already an uneasy one. The group said giving police access to their records could lead to harassment and prompt police to create lists of "good" and "bad" kids.
"Kids are supposed to get a second chance," said Larry Prescott, 16, a student at Caesar Chavez Public Charter School, who spoke along with other classmates .

Ramsey said police are talking about the youths who get fourth, fifth and sixth chances, because young offenders are usually on the street soon after being arrested, and they turn the juvenile justice system into a revolving door.

"The kids think it's a joke, and, quite frankly, it is," Ramsey said.

Police said the perfect case for the bill came up at the department's morning crime briefing yesterday. Officials discussed a juvenile who was arrested in January for stealing a car, in March for stealing another car, last month for robbery and last weekend for a more violent robbery, Executive Assistant D.C. Police Chief Michael J. Fitzgerald. Without access to records, "we wouldn't get to know where he is" once he leaves court, Fitzgerald said.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who heads the Judiciary Committee, said the earliest the bill could come up for a vote by the full council would be in the fall.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Time to Rethink Increased Incarceration?

No Support For "More Prisoners, Less Crime"

In FL Study increasing incarceration in Florida had no effect on the crime rate in 58 counties, says a study in the summer issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

In "The Effect of County-Level Prison Population Growth on Crime Rates," Professors Tomislav V. Kovandzic and Lynne M. Vieraitis, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, found "no support for the more prisoners, less crime thesis."

From 1980 to 2000, the incarceration rate more than doubled in Florida, from just over 200 to over 450 inmates per 100,000 population.

The study found no statistically significant differences in the crime rates for homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft. The support for the "incarceration reduces crime thesis" is based on the belief that if criminals are locked up in jail, they cannot commit another crime and on the deterrent effect of spending a long time in jail may have on potential offenders.

The authors contend their findings suggest that Florida policy makers should explore alternative crime-control strategies "in light of the tremendous financial and social costs of imprisonment as compared with its benefits."

Criminologist Todd Clear of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, editor of the journal, said that approaches that need to be emphasized are community-based crime prevention, reduction of teen-age pregnancy, reducing school drop-out and truancy, and improved economic prospects in the poorest neighborhoods.

Everyone Can use a Helping Hand

June 13, 2006
A Fresh Start Needs Hands Willing to Help
GREGORY PEREIRA had plenty of drug convictions and the prison sentences that went with them. They were usually short stretches — a year here, 18 months there — and they finally got Mr. Pereira to realize that life on New York's margins had not worked out. "I wasn't," he said with ample understatement, "that good a criminal."
He turned his life around. First, he managed to stay out of prison. Eventually, he kicked his drug habit. He went to school and earned a bachelor's degree. "I don't know if I had a spiritual awakening or reckoning or what," Mr. Pereira said, "but I realized I had to give something back."
He began to do just that. He managed H.I.V.-prevention programs. And he continued his studies. Now 46, he is getting a master's degree in public administration from Metropolitan College of New York, on Varick Street, where the students are typically well above traditional college age.
There are many ways Mr. Pereira could have taken note of this latest passage. He chose to celebrate the other evening with a dozen men and women who are also receiving degrees this spring from colleges in the city and its suburbs. They had that achievement in common. That, and one other thing:
They were all former convicts.
It is sometimes easy to forget, in this get-tough-on-crime era, that the bad guys eventually get out of prison, or most of them anyway. It is even easier to forget that some are no longer bad guys. They seek redemption. But maybe they need a hand to find it.
Mr. Pereira did. So did the other onetime inmates gathered with him in celebration in an auditorium of the City University Graduate Center.
All belonged to a program called College and Community Fellowship, created six years ago to help former inmates pursue college studies, in most cases while they also hold full-time jobs. More than 100 people have taken part so far. At some point along the way, all had been written off as hopeless lowlifes, even no-lifes. Now they are graduating from college, some with advanced degrees.
And not one, the sponsors say, has landed back in jail.
Participants receive some cash, $600 a semester, to ease the pain of tuition a bit. Perhaps more important, they get mentoring and encouragement and, as the program's name says, fellowship.
"The money helps, but it's really the camaraderie and the hope," said Aracelis Turino, who did 10 years in federal prisons on a drug-related conviction. At 37, she is getting her bachelor's degree in social work from Lehman College, in the Bronx. "We sit together," Ms. Turino said, "and discuss who's having issues, and the barriers we all face, and the stigmas."
FOR sure, this is not the only program in the city for onetime criminals ready to change their lives. The need for such a helping hand should be self-evident. Every now and then, though, a situation comes along to bring the point home.
A good example is the case of a man named Marc La Cloche. He appeared in this column more than once. Mr. La Cloche was a Bronx man who, during an 11-year stretch in New York prisons for first-degree robbery, learned to be a barber. He loved cutting hair. After he was freed in 2001, he sought the state license required to pursue his new craft.
Time and again, the office of New York's secretary of state, Randy A. Daniels, made sure that he didn't succeed. His criminal past, state officials said, proved that he lacked the "good moral character" to be a barber. Ultimately, Mr. La Cloche was beaten down. He died last October at 40, a lonely man not given a shot.
In his attempt to get a license, he had taken Mr. Daniels to court. When Mr. La Cloche died, so did his case. Justice Louis B. York of State Supreme Court in Manhattan signed a formal dismissal order on June 1. But in his ruling the judge did not hide his "outrage and despair" over what the state officials had done, over "the inhumanity exhibited by human beings with power over one person without power."
At least Mr. Pereira, Ms. Turino and the others got a chance to start over. So they celebrated together at the Graduate Center. They heard speeches of encouragement, and they performed a short play of their own about life behind bars and, more hopefully, the road ahead.
There was a printed program for the evening, designed by Mr. Pereira. Its dominating feature was an illustration of a phoenix.

Copyright The New York Times

Truth Can be Stranger than Fact

Ex-Judge Likely to Testify in Case Accusing Him of Indecent Exposure
Kelly Kurt
The Associated Press

Once considered one of Creek County, Okla.'s most powerful men, Donald Thompson struggles these days just to show his face in the hometown where he's accused of showing much, much more, his lawyer says.

But if necessary, the former district judge will testify in his own defense in a trial that began Monday on charges he exposed himself during court proceedings, attorney Clark Brewster said.

"These kind of allegations are so humiliating, so sensational," he said, calling Thompson a "quiet and humble man" who has been driven deeper into privacy by scandalous and false accusations.

Thompson served for more than two decades on the bench in eastern Oklahoma before his retirement in 2004 amid allegations he had exposed himself by using a sex toy during courtroom testimony.

After repeated court delays, the 59-year-old married father of three adult children was ordered in January to stand trial on four felony counts of indecent exposure, as well as a misdemeanor alleging he had lewd photos of himself and a woman on a state-owned computer.

I's rare for criminal charges to be filed against a judge, especially for a crime alleged to have taken place while the judge was on the bench, said Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics at the American Judicature Society.

A West Virginia circuit judge resigned in 1997 and pleaded no contest to battery charges for biting the nose of a defendant.

A municipal judge in New Mexico was convicted in 2003 for rape and charges he used his power as a judge to cause a woman to perform sexual favors in exchange for judicial leniency in a traffic case.

And every year, Gray said, a few judges face drunken driving charges. Most misconduct allegations, however, are handled by judicial disciplinary commissions, she said.

Thompson's longtime court clerk testified in his preliminary hearing that she saw the judge use a device called a penis pump" during several trials, including the murder trial of a nman accused of shaking a toddler to death. That case ended in a hung jury.

Foster said she was afraid to go to police and told her story only after being subpoenaed. She became tearful when she described learning in September 2003 that police had found a pump and were investigating the judge, who was well-known and well-liked in the small town where he had grown up. "

Ttrial has been moved to Bristow, 20 miles west of the courtroom where Thompson served.

But choosing a jury to hear the highly publicized case likely will be difficult, said special prosecutor Richard Smothermon. "I think it will be a relief to everybody to resolve this case," he said, referring to the repeated trial delays.

Concerns that the allegations against Thompson would touch off a wave of appeals from defendants alleging he didn't pay attention during their trial has not been realized. The issue has been raised only in the case of convicted murderer Darrin Lynn Pickens, whose death sentence was voided by a state appeals court in December.

The appeals court, however, based its ruling on Pickens' claims
of mental retardation. The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office doesn't believe a conviction in Thompson's case will automatically bring more challenges, said spokeswoman Emily Lang.

"They would have to prove he was incompetent," she said, "and we think we could fight those.

Thompson denies the charges and has said the pump seized in the case was a gag gift from a friend. He fired Foster after the investigation began and she later sued over her termination.

"They would have to prove he was incompetent," she said, "and we think we could fight those challenges."

If convicted, Thompson faces up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine on each felony charge and would have to register as a sex offender upon his release. The $7,489.91 he draws each month in retirement benefits also would be jeopardized by a conviction.

Thompson refuses to consider a plea bargain, Brewster said, "because the allegations are completely false."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Scotland Also Has Criminal Justice System Problems

The Sunday Times – (Scotland)
June 4, 2006

Comment: Gillian Bowditch: Justice takes a vacation

Conclusive proof that travel narrows the mind comes courtesy of Kilmarnock Sheriff Court where “floating” Sheriff Donald Ferguson has relaxed the bail conditions of a 16-year-old youth charged with murder in order to let him go on holiday to Bulgaria.

Talk about taking the Pliska! The teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is one of four accused of punching and kicking to death Bryan Drummond, 51, from Ayrshire. The youth, who denies the charges, is currently tagged and confined to his home between the hours of 7pm and 7am.

Understandably, there is outrage. Sheriff Ferguson, it has been implied, is not so much floating as completely detached from reality. In mitigation it should be pointed out that the Crown inexplicably failed to oppose the change to the bail conditions. And, from a completely pragmatic point of view, Sheriff Ferguson may have decided it was in the community’s best interests for the accused to spend a fortnight in Bulgaria with his family rather than a fortnight home alone.

But even without the “bail or jail” debate raging in Scotland, it was a decision nuttier than a pistachio plantation. If you want to make a complete mockery of the justice system, what better way to do it than to equip those accused of the most heinous of crimes with a passport and a ticket to the sun and wave them bon voyage? If the stooshie in the parliament is anything to go by — and Jack McConnell has ordered an urgent review of the situation — Sheriff Ferguson can expect more than a postcard through his letter box.

As ever, I find myself two outrages behind everybody else. The Bulgarian incident is jaw-droppingly surreal but at the risk of sounding naïve, what floors me is the idea of a gang of teenagers kicking to death anybody in the streets of a small Scottish town. The accused in this case are, of course, innocent until proven guilty, but the death of Bryan Drummond is not an isolated incident.

We seem to have become inured to the casual but extreme violence taking place throughout our once thriving towns and villages. For 40 years Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange was withheld from cinemas because of its horrific content, but every week in Scotland incidents similar to those chronicled in Anthony Burgess’s novel occur.

Young thugs and hooligans appear before the courts day-in and day-out charged with the most appalling acts. But apart from a few well-chosen words from the judge at the time of sentencing, they are processed in a moral vacuum, free to avoid confronting the true nature of their crimes.

That our legal system, once a model for the free world, is under strain is not in doubt. Scotland’s most senior judge, the lord president, Lord Hamilton, is reportedly being treated in a private psychiatric hospital for a stress-related illness.

The Glasgow Bar Association, the largest group of court lawyers in Scotland, last week voted to refuse to represent people accused of sexual offences in a row over legal aid fees that could throw the courts into chaos and allow criminals to walk free.

Senior judges, sheriffs and advocates have in the past few weeks voiced concerns that the Scottish executive’s proposals to place the control of all Scotland’s courts under one person, the lord president, will undermine judicial independence. This is of huge importance. We may be on the brink of losing one of the most important assets of our democracy.

Even if these fears, which are widespread among the legal profession, are not realised, the executive’s plans, far from protecting the acknowledged superiority of the Scottish legal system, will make it a pale imitation of the English one. Is this really what devolution was designed for?

Serious though these concerns are, there is a more fundamental flaw at the heart of our criminal justice system: its failure to reflect the views of the electorate.

The late Lord Denning said that in order to maintain respect for the law, it was essential that punishment adequately reflected the views of the majority of citizens. The “vacation bail” row shows just how far we have strayed from this ideal.

What ministers fail to appreciate is that voters are outraged not simply at the idea of the courts casually amending the bail terms to allow an accused a fortnight of sun in Sofia, but at the concept of somebody accused of murder being out on bail at all. It is true that the criminal proceedings bill will tighten up the law on bail, but when the sound of thundering hooves is echoing throughout the land, it is a bit late to be discussing the merits of locks on stable doors.

When a crime is committed against the ordinary citizen, he has little expectation of its being satisfactorily investigated, which is why, according to an ICM poll, one in seven victims of crime no longer bothers to report it. The sentencing of serious criminals is a concern, but the non-sentencing of lesser criminals is an equally worrying problem.

If the alleged perpetrator of a crime as serious as murder can be treated by the courts in such a cavalier manner what hope can victims of lesser offences have of seeing justice done?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Helping Victims

Legal system compensates crime vicitms

June 3, 2006

To learn more
For information on the Crime Victims Reparations Program:
In Bossier Parish, call the Bossier sheriff substation at (318) 747-8600.
In Caddo, call Pamela Dixon with Caddo Parish sheriff's office community programs at (318) 681-0870.

By Mary Jimenez

In the midst of Cora Savannah's grief following her husband's murder Aug. 11, her family got a knock on the door.

Pamela Dixon, of the Caddo Parish sheriff's Crime Victims Reparations Program wanted to help. The program offers financial compensation for victims of violent or personal crimes. Dixon told Savannah they could help with her husband's funeral expenses and offer her family counseling.

"I met my husband in ninth grade and we were married for 29 years. You never get over something like that, but just the thought that someone was concerned helped," said Savannah, who is unable to give any details on her husband's murder with the case currently in court. "We'd never heard of the program and if they hadn't come by, we'd probably still never have known about it."

Established in 1982, Louisiana's Crime Victims Reparations Fund and program are administered by a state Crime Victims Reparations Board and usually managed by a member of each local sheriff's office.

The fund is a part of a national victims' rights program available in every state and pays out close to $450 million annually, according to the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards. The money comes from offender fees and fines rather than taxpayer dollars with about a third of the money coming from the federal Victims of Crime Act fund.

It's a fairly unknown or unused benefit, said Dixon, who runs the program in Caddo Parish.

"Sometimes when I hear about a crime, I'll go ahead and contact the victims to tell them about the program," said Dixon, who helped Caddo award $144,519.01 to 101 victims in 2005. "There is a cap of $10,000, but believe it or not, that goes a long way. If they have substantial personal injury, they can get up to $25,000."

Bossier Parish also has a victim compensation program managed by the sheriff's office. Spokesman Ed Baswell said the program awarded $53,769.06 to 39 victims in 2005.

"Sometimes they're just shocked to know that it exists," Baswell said.

Typically, crime victim compensation programs pay primarily for medical care, mental health counseling, lost wages and support and funerals, but there are miscellaneous expenses that could also be covered.

"We had one case that a husband burned down his wife's house and she was compensated for that," Baswell said.

Most applications submitted are approved, Dixon said, but there are some requirements and those with a felony conviction are not eligible.

The five basic requirements are the victim is a Louisiana resident, they must have reported the crime within 72 hours, the application for compensation must be filed within a year (unless there is an acceptable reason for not doing so) and the victim must have cooperated fully with law enforcement officials in the investigation.

Dixon likes her job, although it does force her to follow many sad stories.

"But when I see the program is helping a family, that's a comfort for me," she said.

Savannah received $4,000 toward her husband's funeral expenses and feels she received much more than just financial help.

"When I see the sheriff department, I see them in a different way now," said Savannah, who still receives calls from Dixon. "They call to see how we're doing and told us there's counseling available if we need it."

The gratitude Savannah has for the program has made her want to return the favor and spread the news of the program to other victims.

"I want to give my time, helping all those families in crisis. If they need me to hand out fliers, I'd do it for free," said Savannah, who has a message for other victims of crime. "There is help and there is hope."

©The Times (Shreveport, LA)
June 3, 2006

Friday, June 02, 2006

Insane enough to live or sane enough to execute

June 2, 2006

Judging Whether a Killer Is Sane Enough to Die


HOUSTON, June 1 — Scott Panetti, a death row inmate in Texas, understands that the state says it intends to execute him for the murder of his wife's parents.

But Mr. Panetti, 48, who represented himself in court despite a long and colorful history of mental illness, says he believes that the state's real reason is a different one. He says the state, in league with Satan, wants to kill him to keep him from preaching the Gospel.

That delusion has been documented by doctors and acknowledged by judges and prosecutors. It poses what experts call the next big question in death penalty law now that the Supreme Court has barred the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded: what makes someone too mentally ill to be executed?

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, recently said Mr. Panetti was sane enough to die. The full court will soon decide whether to hear the case.

Mr. Panetti, in prison now almost 14 years for the killings in 1992 in the quaint Hill Country city of Fredericksburg, has long seemed to exemplify madness, addressing himself to the jury in his trial in 1995 as "the born-again April Fool," a schizophrenic healed by God.

In and out of mental institutions 14 times and addicted to drugs and alcohol since he almost drowned as a child and was nearly electrocuted by a power line, Mr. Panetti wore cowboy costumes to court, delivered rambling monologues, put himself on the witness stand and sought to subpoena the pope, Jesus and John F. Kennedy.

Jurors were clearly alienated and took little more than an hour to reject his insanity defense.

They found that Mr. Panetti knew right from wrong and so deserved the death penalty. That is a separate question from whether his mental illness should bar his execution.

Two decades ago, the United States Supreme Court in Ford v. Wainwright ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of the insane. Since then, lower courts have struggled to find a way to apply that principle in practice.

The state and federal courts that have heard Mr. Panetti's case have said that a bare awareness of the fact of impending execution and the stated reason for it is enough.

"In Texas," said Greg Wiercioch, a lawyer with the Texas Defender Service who has consulted with Mr. Panetti's defense, "if you cast a shadow on a sunny day, you're competent to be executed."

Other courts require more. Relying on a concurring opinion in the Supreme Court decision, they say the inmate actually has to perceive the connection between the crime and the punishment.

The three-judge panel in Mr. Panetti's case acknowledged that he was mentally ill with what has been diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder and that he thus might lack a rational understanding of his fate. But the panel nonetheless ruled that he was competent to be executed because he was able to understand the stated basis for his execution.

His new lawyers dispute that.

"He completely scoffs at the notion that it's the State of Texas trying to execute him," said Keith Hampton, a lawyer from Austin who filed the latest appeal with a co-counsel, Michael C. Gross of San Antonio. "He thinks it's the demons and evil ones."

Legal and medical experts estimate that hundreds of people with schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses are on death rows around the nation.

Courts have spared the lives of seven inmates based on the 1986 decision, the Texas Defender Service said.

David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has met more than 75 death row inmates, visited Mr. Panetti at his lawyers' request. "Of all the people I have met on death row, he's the gold-medal-crazy winner," Professor Dow said.

On Sept. 8, 1992, Mr. Panetti broke into the home of his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, and shot them to death in front of his estranged second wife, Sonja, and his 3-year-old daughter, Amanda, known as Birdie.

Taking on his defense, and calling himself as a witness, he argued that he had been taken over by an alter ego he called Sarge Ironhorse.

"Sarge boom boom," Mr. Panetti testified. "Sarge is gone. No more Sarge. Sonja and Birdie. Joe, Amanda lying kitchen, here, there blood. No, leave. Scott, remember exactly what Sarge did. Shot the lock. Walked in the kitchen. Sonja, where's Birdie? Sonja here."

Prosecutors, their medical experts and the courts agreed that Mr. Panetti suffers from mental illness. Judge Sam Sparks of Federal District Court in Austin found in 2004 that Mr. Panetti's illness was characterized by "grandiosity and a delusional belief system in which he believes himself to be persecuted for his religious activities and beliefs."

Judge Sparks said that was not enough to spare Mr. Panetti.

Others agree.

Robert Blecker, a law professor at the New York Law School and a cautious supporter of the death penalty, said Mr. Panetti's execution could serve the goal of retribution.

"He knows what he did," Professor Blecker said. "He knows what the state is about to do to him, and why. For the retributivist, the past counts. It counts for us, and for us to be retributively satisfied, it must also count for him."

Prosecutors made the same point in a brief to the Fifth Circuit last year.

"All that is required to avoid the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is that the petitioner factually understand the reason for this punishment," the prosecutors wrote.

Executions of inmates who exhibited signs of madness are not unusual. In 1992, Arkansas executed Ricky Ray Rector not long after he put aside the dessert of his last meal to eat later.

In March, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., split, 7 to 6, over whether Percy L. Walton could be executed, notwithstanding his delusional belief that after his death he would "come back as a better person" and "get a Burger King." A majority said this was proof that Mr. Walton understood he would be executed.

"That a person believes that he will have an 'afterlife,' however strange his views of that 'afterlife' may be," Judge Dennis W. Shedd wrote, "necessarily suggests he believes his existing life will end."

The laws of most states, based on English common law, have long banned the execution of the insane.

"The reasons for the rule are less sure and less uniform than the rule itself," Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in the 1986 case.

Some judges say the "miserable spectacle" of such executions simply offends humanity. Others say retribution is not served by executing someone who cannot understand why he is being put to death. Still others point to the inability of the insane to assist their lawyers in last-minute litigation. In the Middle Ages, it was thought that madness was its own punishment.

Mr. Hampton, who filed the latest appeals brief, said that from the trial on he was revolted by the Panetti case.

"I thought there was no way, no way, no matter how bad things in the state of Texas got, that it would allow someone in the full flower of schizophrenia to represent himself," he said.

But in repeatedly calling himself insane — "I went nuts," Mr. Panetti told the police officers after the killings, "well, I am nuts" — Mr. Panetti seemed to have run into his own Catch-22, leaving jurors skeptical of anyone so eager to establish his insanity.

Now the courts, taking one last look at Mr. Panetti, must decide whether he is sane enough to die.

Ralph Blumenthal reported from Houston for this article, and Adam Liptak from New York

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company