Wednesday, February 29, 2012

MO Runs Risk of Executing Innocent Man

The flawed justice system of the United States is once again at risk of executing another potentially innocent person.

The case involves Reggie Clemons, who was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Julie and Robin Kerry. Clemons case represents a checklist of everything that is wrong with the death penalty, including poor legal representation, a “stacked” jury, racial discrimination, police coercion, lack of physical evidence, prosecutorial misconduct and questionable witnesses.

In April 1991, Thomas Cummins was with his two cousins, Julie and Robin at the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis. While there they countered Clemons, Antonio Richardson, Marlin Gray and Daniel Winfrey. According to reports, the two only spoke briefly before parting ways. Shortly after the two women plunged into the river to their deaths and were followed by Cummins who swam to shore. Cummins later told police that the four youths raped his two cousins, robbed him and forced them to jump into the bridge. After they were convicted, Richardson had his sentence reduced to life in prison and Gray was executed in 2005. Winfrey, who was the only white member of the group, plead to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony against the other three. Clemons still remains on death row and continues to maintain his innocence.

There is a lot of skepticism surrounding Cummins story. Despite being forced to jump from the bridge, police said his hair was dry and neatly combed. He also sustained no apparent injuries from the fall. Further doubt arose when Cummins failed a lie detector test. Finally, Cummins later admitted the Kerry sisters fell from the bridge after an argument, which was caused by Cummins making a sexual advance on one of them. He was then convicted of the murder, but later after meeting with prosecutor Nels Moss he identified Clemons, Richardson, Gray and Winfrey as the four youths he encountered on the bridge on the night of the murder. The four men were arrested and charges against Cummins were dropped.

Reggie Clemons was sentenced to death on April 2, 1993. On the same day, Thomas Cummins filed a police brutality lawsuit and said his original confession had been beaten out of him. The suit was settled out of court for $150,000. Clemons confessed to raping the two women, but denied any involvement in their deaths. However, he later retracted the statement and said police had beaten his confession out of him. Several witnesses said they saw Clemons with a swollen face after his interrogation, and the Judge who presided over his arraignment ordered Clemons be taken to a hospital. Despite this obvious evidence of police brutality, the confession was admitted at trial and used as evidence.

Clemons defense was far from adequate during the trial. His lawyer was suspended from practicing law after numerous complaints, and his co-council held a full-time job in another state while representing Clemons.

Racial bias was also evident throughout the case. Particularly in the sense that the two murder victims were white, the three convicted men were black and both primary witnesses were white. Also, a Judge ruled that six jurors were improperly dismissed at jury selection and that Clemons death sentence should not stand. However, the ruling was overturned because Clemons’ lawyer failed to properly preserve the claim for federal judicial review.

After the Supreme Court stayed his 2009 execution, a “special master” was assigned to the case to determine whether Clemons’ conviction is reliable and whether he should be put to death. Clemons has a hearing in March 2012, which will determine whether he is eligible for a new trial, whether he is taken off death row or if he remains at risk of being executed.

Based on the evidence, Reggie Clemons did not murder Julie and Robin Kerry in April 1991. His innocence is clear, but it must be made well known to the state of Missouri that executing Clemons would be another unforgivable mistake committed by the justice system of the United States.

To aid Reggie, write Governor Jay Nixon by filling at the form at:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Abolishing the Death Penalty in PA Could Save Millions

Common Please Court Judge Benjamin Lerner has recommended that Philadelphia spend an additional $340,00 on capital-case attorneys bringing the total to $540,000 per year. Meanwhile, states such as Illinois that have abolished the death penalty are saving $4.7 million per year since the death penalty was abolished. Based on the figures, which seems like a better option?

A recent study in Philadelphia by Judge Lerner concluded that the “compensation of court appointed capital defense lawyers in Philadelphia is grossly inadequate, both as to the dollar amount of compensation and as to the compensation schedule provided by the present fee system.”

As it is now, capital-defense attorneys in Philadelphia get paid less than any other county in the state. According to Judge Lerner, this low-pay system “unacceptably increases the risk of ineffective assistance of counsel in individual cases.” Because of this, Judge Lerner recommended a $340,000 increase to the $200,000 that was spent in 2010.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to save money yearly rather than spend more?

Illinois, who abolished the death penalty in March 2011, is saving $4.7 million yearly because of cutbacks made at the State Appellate Defender’s office.

While it is important that we make sure each defendant receives a fair trial with adequate defense, abolishing the death penalty in PA is undoubtedly the better option. Not only does it eliminate the risk of executing an innocent person, but it would save money that could be used elsewhere.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Racial Justice Act to be Introduced Next Week

Pennsylvania HB 1996, the Racial Justice Act will be introduced next week. The act recognizes that race has been shown to a factor in many capital cases. In fact, prosecutors in Philadelphia were trained on ways to eliminate racial minorities from juries in death penalty eligible cases. There's even a videotape detailing ways to avoid the appearance of racism in striking potential jurors. Jack McMahon, former Philly prosecutor, even explains why it's important to keep blacks from serving on juries.

HB 1996 isn't a Get Out of Jail Free card by any means. It simply allows an individual sentenced to death the opportunity to bring evidence of racial discrimination in front of a judge. The burden of proof is on the person appealing the sentencing phase of the trial. If the judge finds that race was a factor in that individual being sentenced to death, he or she may commute the sentence of death to a sentence of life in prison without parole. In Pennsylvania, a life sentence really is a life sentence and an individual sentenced to life will die in prison.

HB 1996 will be considered after the legislature comes back in session in March. Now would be a good time to call your PA House Representative and express your support for HB 1996 and request that he or she become a co-sponsor.

Stop back here often for updates or better still, follow our blog. You can also find breaking news and action opportunitties on our facebook page, www.facebook/ and on twitter where we're @padp_org.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Will Pennsylvania Supreme Court Consider U.S. Supreme Court Message?

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has the opportunity to consider the message from the US Supreme Court on the unreliability of eyewitness identification. Follow this link to read more from our friends at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

PA to follow NC in Addressing Racial Bias in Death Penalty

Racism has been a blemish on the record of the United States since the colonial era. Despite many laws, acts and movements to abolish racism, it unfortunately still remains prominent in society. Now, we claim that racial discrimination does not occur in our country, such as during a trial where a black male could be sentenced to death. However, many factors point to racist tendencies in the courtroom, but some states, such as North Carolina, are fighting back.

The first case involving North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act has concluded. It involves Marcus Robinson, who was convicted of murder in 1994. The RJA allows death row inmates to present evidence of racial bias to a judge, and if the judge rules that there was racial injustice present throughout the process that inmate’s sentence will be changed to life without parole. Robinson’s case is the first under the RJA that will hopefully set the bar for the 150 cases to follow.

Robinson’s defense is arguing that prosecutors did not allow African Americans to serve on the jury based on the color of their skin. A Michigan State University study showed that in more than 173 death penalty trials from 1990-2010 prosecutors struck black jurors more than twice as often as non-black jurors.

Philadelphia took a very proactive approach in preventing African Americans from serving on a jury. District Attorneys in Philadelphia underwent training sessions, during which they were taught how to effectively hide racial bias while eliminating blacks from the jury pool.  

Quotes from the tape include:
“Let’s face it, … there’s the blacks from the low-income areas[,] … you don’t want those people on your jury.”


“You know, in selecting blacks, you don’t want the real educated ones.”

Do you find it hard to believe that this sort of racism still exists in America? Watch the video for yourself:

Pennsylvania’s version of the Racial Justice Act, House Bill 1996, is scheduled to be introduced to the House next week. Although there is currently a study underway in PA regarding the death penalty, the House needs to pass HB1996 now to prevent anyone from being unjustly executed.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Many Exonerations Will it Take?

How many innocent people must we put on death row before we realize our system is flawed? How long should we run the risk of executing an innocent person before we abolish a system that has lost a considerable amount of support over the years?

The recent exoneration of Joe D’Ambrosio on January 23, 2012 marked the 140th exoneration since 1973. Of the 140, six have come from Pennsylvania, but 219 people still remain on death row in the state.

In 2011, Gussie Vann of Tennessee was the 139th exoneree when Senior Judge Donald P. Harris overturned Vann’s 1994 conviction. This was yet another example of ineffective assistance of council. In Vann’s case, the Judge ruled, in part, that the defense attorney’s inadequate preparation allowed Vann to be convicted based on ““inaccurate, exaggerated and speculative medical testimony."

If we have exonerated 140 people since 1973, how many of the 3,222 people currently on death row are innocent? And more importantly, how many of the 1,279 people were, in fact, not guilty of the crimes for which they were sentenced to die?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beccaria Kickstarter: A Note from Aja Beech

Hello Friends,
I am so excited to say that Beccaria was accepted for a Kickstarter Fundraising opportunity- now to raise the funds! Below is a link to the project where donations can be made and some more information about Beccaria, a chapbook of art and poetry on the death penalty. Donations can start at $1- and every little bit helps. We need to raise $750. Please consider making a small donation and make sure to pass this on.
Beccaria is a chapbook of poetry which brings awareness to the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The chapbook is a compilation of the art and poetry of murder victims' family members, current death row inmates and exonerated death row prisoners. The first printing of the chapbook was funded through a Leeway Art and Change Grant. This project is to fund the second printing. The chapbook in its entirety can be viewed here.

The Leeway Foundation site states the intention of the chapbook "is to make a powerful artistic statement that could potentially encourage those that read it to consider whether the death penalty truly serves the needs of victims or the community at large."

Read a review of Beccaria here

Beccaria contributers:

Delbert Tibbs, David Keaton, Mary DeWitt, Reginald Lewis, Jan Williams, Devon Williams, Elizabeth Johnson, Hasan Shakur, Aja Beech


Aja Beech