February 21, 2014

Huffington Post: A Final Farewell to Greg Wilhoit, Who Survived Oklahoma's Death Row

America's community of death row survivors bids a farewell to another one of its own.  Gregory R. Wilhoit, who had spent five years on Oklahoma's death row after being wrongfully convicted for the brutal murder of his wife, died in his sleep on February 13.


December 11, 2013

Mandela death leads to criticism of Reagan's South Africa policy


From theGrio:

Who would’ve thought that the death of Nelson Mandela would help dig up Reagan’s horrible record on South Africa?  The passing of the African nation’s former president has caused Reagan’s policy of coddling the apartheid regime in the 1980s to be re-examined and amplified.
This renewed criticism of Reagan is resonating with people, and all this unwanted attention is worrying some on the right, as it should, particularly at a time when another country’s first black president—Barack Obama, that is— is experiencing a low point in his popularity.  Presumably, from a strictly Machiavellian realpolitik point of view, the right would want to capitalize on President Obama’s historically low poll numbers, given that attacking the president is what they do best — it’s just about the only thing they do, in the absence of any useful legislative proposals.

November 13, 2013

Twitter's diversity problem

As Twitter went public with its I.P.O. (or Initial Public Offering, its first issuance of stock to the general public), the company has received negative publicity for its diversity problem.  Critics note that the Twitter board of directors consists entirely of white men; while women and people of color are wholly excluded from the decision-making positions in the corporation.
African-Americans are not represented in the senior ranks and the executive team, while Latinos are nearly nonexistent throughout company staff.  The only executive officer who is not white and not a man is Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s newly hired general counsel—a woman of Indian descent.
Otherwise, Twitter faces its critics who believe the diversity problem is reflective of the larger high technology industry.  

November 7, 2013

In theGrio: The GOP’s unprecedented blocking of Mel Watt

Senate Republicans are looking for a fight with the president.

This much was clear when they used the power of the filibuster to block the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt (D-North Carolina) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

The blocking of Rep. Watt is significant because it speaks volumes about Republican opposition to President Obama.  This just does not happen to sitting members of Congress.  Although the FHFA is not a cabinet-level position, no lawmaker has been blocked for nomination to a cabinet post since 1843—that’s 170 years ago.

In 1843, the enslavement of black people was still the law of the land, and Sojourner Truth began her career as an abolitionist.  Roger B. Taney—the jurist who wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott decision—was Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  And 1843 witnessed the introduction of the first blackface minstrel show.

Click HERE for more.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn Must Pardon Randy Steidl Now

Gordon "Randy" Steidl is a survivor and a hero.

He survived 17 years in the Illinois prison system, 12 on death row, for a crime he did not commit.  That is something few of us can fathom.  Now he is fighting against the death penalty as the board chairman of Witness to Innocence, the national organization of exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.  Randy helped bring about the repeal of the death penalty in his home state of Illinois, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed an abolition bill into law.

Now all Randy is looking for is a pardon from the Governor.  And he's been waiting for an answer for 11 years, since he first filed his petition.  Is it so much for an innocent man to ask?

Steidl and co-defendant Herbert Whitlock were convicted and sentenced to death for the 1986 double murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads, a newlywed couple in Paris, Illinois, in the rural Southern part of the state.  The couple had been brutally stabbed to death in their bedroom.

Meanwhile, the miscarriages of justice plaguing Randy's case provide us with clear reasons as to why the death penalty is a problem.  In essence, Randy Steidl was framed by the police and the prosecutors.  His wrongful conviction was secured through the "creation" of two sketchy witnesses, who came forward years after the fact to claim they witnessed the murders, and later recanted.  There was fabrication and suppression of evidence.  In fact, no physical evidence linked the men to the crime.  Further, Randy suffered from an inexperienced lawyer who couldn't get the job done, didn't ask the right questions, and failed to look into the prosecution's manufactured case against his client.

Randy was resentenced to life in 1999 based on an ineffective defense counsel claim.  And in 2003, a federal judge overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial, stating it was "reasonably probable" that a jury would have found him not guilty if provided with all the evidence.  In 2004, he was a free man, the 114th innocent person released from America's death row since 1973.  Whitlock was release four years later. Randy's story was featured in the British film project One For Ten, a series of documentaries on innocence and the death penalty.

In 2002, Steidl filed a petition for a pardon when George Ryan was governor. His petition has been pending through successive administrations, and is now the longest pending pardon awaiting a decision from the current governor, Pat Quinn.  Recently, lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School and the People's Law Office wrote a letter to the governor requesting a pardon for Mr. Steidl.

"Certainly, there is enormous public support for Randy's pardon based on innocence.  Governor Quinn, this matter has lingered for far too long. Please do the right thing now, and allow this innocent man to clear his good name," the letter said.

"At a bare minimum, please do Randy the honor of sitting down with him, face to face, and explain to him why you have decided so many other pardon petitions during your tenure in office -- including 65 grants of clemency this past Friday -- but have repeatedly passed over his," the October 16 letter continued.

Randy Steidl is an innocent man, this is certain, and Governor Quinn has the power to grant him a pardon today.  Nothing can erase what Randy has experienced, and nothing can return to him all he has lost.  But let the man officially clear his name and his record, something which is curiously difficult for many among the wrongfully convicted.  What else is there to discuss?

October 9, 2013

Jimmy Dennis and Pennsylvania's Grave Miscarriage of Justice

Jimmy Dennis has been on Pennsylvania's death row for two decades, and a federal judge calls it a "grave miscarriage of justice" by the Commonwealth.
Dennis was convicted of murder for the October 1991 fatal shooting of Chedell Ray Williams, 17, a student at Olney High School, at a SEPTA stop over a pair of $450 earrings. He was sent to death row in 1992.
Granting Dennis' habeas petition, Judge Anita Brody threw out his conviction and death sentence, and ordered the state to retry him within 180 days or set him free.
In a scathing and damning 46-page opinion, the judge concluded that Dennis "was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit." Brody noted that Dennis had no criminal history, other than a single conviction for possession of a controlled substance.
His defense counsel provided a paltry defense, and didn't interview a single eyewitness -- including a witness who pointed the finger at Dennis, and whose felony assault charges against his pregnant girlfriend in another case were miraculously dropped. And a girl who was with the victim said she knew the killers and their nicknames.
The prosecution failed to disclose evidence pointing to his innocence, including statements implicating three other men in the murder, and evidence undermining the reliability of the police investigation.
"Dennis' conviction was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications from three witnesses, the testimony of another man who said he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder, and a description of clothing seized from the house of Dennis' father that the police subsequently lost before police photographed or catalogued it," the judge said.
According to Judge Brody, the prosecution of Jimmy Dennis was based "on scant evidence at best." As a result, the Commonwealth covered up evidence that pointed to someone other than Dennis. "It ignored Dennis' own explanation for where he was at the time of the murder. ... It allowed a witness who saw Dennis on that bus to give incorrect testimony about what time that interaction occurred. Police never recovered a weapon, never found the car that witnesses described, and never found the two accomplices," she added.
The jury deliberated fewer than five hours, with only over three hours for the presentation of evidence in the penalty phase of the trial.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who has not decided whether he will appeal, said he was disappointed in Judge Brody's "acceptance of slanted factual allegations" and "a newly concocted alibi defense."
Death row exonerations are far more common than one would think. Jimmy Dennis would become the 143rd innocent person in the U.S. released from death row since 1973, and the seventh in Pennsylvania. With 1,348 people executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one innocent person has been freed for every nine that have been executed. The stakes are so high -- literally life and death -- and yet the error rate is so high as well. Certainly a factory would be shut down if every ninth or 10th product coming off the assembly line was defective. And we're not including the countless innocent people who may still languish on death row, or even worse, were already executed.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Witness to Innocence, the only national organization of exonerated death row survivors in the U.S. On October 8, in WTI's home base of Philadelphia, Sister Helen Prejean and Danny Glover will help the organization celebrate a decade of leading the charge against the death penalty. And the death penalty is costly, arbitrary, unjust and unevenly applied, with prosecutors exercising broad discretion to seek death, with accountability only to the voters.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Philadelphia County has the third largest death row population in the nation. Yet, it ranks lowest in the state in paying attorneys who represent death row inmates. According to a new report from DPIC ("The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties produce Most Death Cases At Enormous Costs to All"), a small percentage of counties in the U.S. -- only 2 percent -- account for a majority of America's death row population and recent death sentences.
Only 15 percent of the counties have provided all state executions since 1976, and the 3,125 inmates on death row come from a mere 20 percent of the counties.
Further, those counties with the most death penalty usage -- such as Philadelphia -- suffer the most reversals and abuses. For example, Maricopa County, Ariz., which had four times the number of pending death penalty cases per capita as Los Angeles or Houston, recently had its district attorney disbarred for misconduct. And when a particular New Orleans prosecutor was in charge, four death row prisoners were exonerated due to misconduct in the D.A.'s office, resulting in repudiation from four U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Meanwhile, more Jimmy Dennises are created when bad lawyering, human error and malfeasance prevail, all in the name of rushing people to their deaths. The exonerated death row survivors of Witness to Innocence have called on the Philadelphia D.A. to issue a moratorium on new death penalty prosecutions. After all, you can release an innocent man or woman from prison, but not from the grave.

August 15, 2013

In theGrio this week: Holder on sentencing reform, and civil rights families in shambles

Check out my two contributions to theGrio this week, including a report on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement on sentencing reform for low-level drug offenses, and a commentary on the sad state of affairs with the children of civil rights families.

August 2, 2013

A civil war rematch over voting rights

Today in the Guardian I discuss the current Republican war on voting rights taking place in the South.  

Nearly 150 years after the end of the US civil war, the South and the federal government are poised for a rematch over the voting rights of black Americans, and ultimately over the fundamental rights of all Americans. Once again, the former Confederate states are determined to defend their traditions and way of life, while the Union forces in the North – the federal government – are positioning themselves to defend justice and equality.
But this time, in an ironic twist, two black men – President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder – are leading the charge.
Click HERE for more.

This week: No Ray Kelly for Homeland Security, and California prison strike

A criminal justice double header this week:

In theGrio, my thoughts on why Obama should NOT tap NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly for the head of Homeland Security (hint: racial profiling).  Click HERE for more.

And in McClatchy-Tribune News Service, a look at the mass hunger strike taking place in California's prison system.  Click HERE for more.

July 31, 2013

Ohio wants guns in church and daycare, and why my car was riddled with bullets

This week I have two companion pieces on the issue of gun violence.  First, in theGrio, my commentary on bills introduced in the Ohio legislature which would replicate Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, and permit guns in churches, daycare and schools (link).  It sounds like satire, but I couldn't make this up if I tried.

Finally, check out my piece in Huffington Post (here) and Black Commentator (here) on my personal experience with gun violence last week in Philadelphia.