Thursday, April 20, 2017


Beginning on the day after Easter, the State of Arkansas planned to execute eight people in ten days. Arkansas Plan. As of Wednesday, April 19, four of the inmates have received stays of execution. No one was executed Monday night, when Bruce Ward and Don Davis were scheduled to be executed. Both were granted stays by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The execution of Stacey Johnson, scheduled for April 20, was also stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The execution of Jason McGehee, scheduled for April 27, was stayed by a federal court after the Arkansas Parole Board recommended clemency for him. The other four executions are now subject to a stay based on a lawsuit by the provider of one of the execution drugs, who says the drugs were improperly sold to the state for executions:  “The company said it would suffer harm financially and to its reputation if the executions were carried out.” McKesson Lawsuit

 Meanwhile, a recent article sheds light on an aspect of the execution ordeal which is not often examined. Dr. Allen Ault, a former commissioner of the Georgia, Mississippi and Colorado Departments of Corrections, has written a piece in Time Magazine explaining the effect of executions on the people who must carry them out. This is an aspect of the death penalty that doesn’t get enough attention, and Dr. Ault’s views are worth considering. Dr. Ault presided over five executions. He was the man who instructed the executioners to go forward. After five executions, he resigned. The stress was too much. Interviewed in The Guardian, Dr. Ault expressed concern for the mental health of the men and women who would have to kill so many people so quickly. ““As the old saying goes,” he said, “you dig two graves: one for the condemned, one for the avenger. That’s what will happen to this execution team – many of them will figuratively have to dig their own grave too.” The Guardian

Dr. Ault explained how he felt when he conducted executions: “For me, unlike the ‘kill or be killed’ mindset of war or other forms of self-defense, carrying out executions felt very much like participating in premeditated and rehearsed murder. . . . It exacts severe mental trauma—even when done under the auspices of state law. As I have written before; I don’t remember their names, but I still see their faces in my nightmares.” Allen Ault, “Former Warden: Arkansas Execution Rush is Dangerous and Risky,” Time Magazine, March 28, 2017.

Dr. Ault is not alone. Two former execution workers in South Carolina, Craig Baxley and Terry Bracey, sued the state for pressuring them to assist in executions with little training or counseling. The suit was dismissed; the trauma remains. As Mr. Bracey put it, “Taking that plunger and pushing it in set me on a course I wasn’t prepared for.” Frank Thompson, the former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, told The Guardian, “There is absolutely no way to conduct a well-run execution without causing at least one person to lose a little bit of their humanity, or to start at least one person on the cumulative path to post-traumatic stress.” This is just another example of how the death penalty creates more victims.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


On Friday, January 29, 2017, at 4:42 p.m. Eastern Time, President Donald Trump issued his executive order concerning immigration. I found the timing interesting. I’m aware of anecdotal evidence that law enforcement officers like to execute arrest warrants on Friday afternoons because doing so often means that that the person arrested will be unable to post bond until Monday. That gives law enforcement time to elicit confessions before the person arrested has a chance to talk to a lawyer. I suspect that the timing of Mr. Trump’s order was not coincidental. I suspect that he and his staff hoped that implementing the order on Friday afternoon would mean that nothing would happen to stop it until Monday.

Preventing legal action against questionable executive acts is not a new idea. In fact, Shakespeare memorialized it in Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, Scene II, when his character Dick the Butcher suggested that when the rebels overthrew the lawful government and came to power, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” If lawyers can be kept from performing their responsibility to uphold the law, then the rule of law can be defeated.

But that is not what happened on January 29. Instead, as the Washington Post noted, “Hundreds of attorneys descended on U.S. airports all over the country this weekend to offer free legal help to the travelers and family members of loved ones detained under President Trump’s executive order.” And by Saturday night, many of the most oppressive aspects of the order were on hold, and refugees held at US airports and elsewhere were able to continue their journeys. I was really proud to be a lawyer that weekend. 

In addition to the willingness of lawyers to mobilize to use their skills to help people who had virtually no resources to help themselves, other aspects of modern law practice made this possible. The first is ease of communication. Various networks of lawyers communicated quickly and efficiently on Twitter, e-mail lists, and other social media. Getting the word out got the bodies there. Here are some of them at JFK airport:

Photo: Washington Post, January 29, 2017

The next reason this worked is the availability of online research and writing tools. When I began practicing law, most lawyers had a library full of books in their offices. The books mainly contained printed legal opinions in court cases, the backbone of the common law system. But there were also books called “digests,” which allowed the lawyer to look up a topic (“executive order”) and see what cases had been decided on that topic. The digest would give a sentence or two about the case and a citation which allowed the lawyer to find the right book and page to read the whole opinion. If the lawyer didn’t have the book with the right case, she would go to a local law library to read it. Maybe the library had good hours on Saturday night. Maybe it didn’t. And the process took a while.

Photo: New York Times, January 29, 2017

The others are probably sharing drafts of pleadings. Word processing means that documents, legal and otherwise, can be produced much more quickly and efficiently than in the typewriter era, or the handwritten era that preceded that. So those petitions that were filed in courts around the country could be written and edited very quickly.

Finally, electronic filing was indispensable. The cases could be filed in court from the airport. (There were likely people on the phone with the clerk’s office to make sure someone was watching the online filings.) But the availability of that technology meant that instead of having to wait until Monday morning to descend on the courthouse, the filing process could proceed with relative ease.

Lawyers tend to get a bad rap these days. Maybe that’s because they are perceived as having a lot of power and misusing it. But the weekend of January 29 demonstrated that when the government is out to get you, a lawyer with the right tools to act fast is the person you need.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


On January 10, 2017, a jury in Charleston, South Carolina sentenced twenty-two year old Dylann Storm Roof to death for shooting nine people in an African-American church. At his sentencing hearing, Mr. Roof represented himself, rejecting the efforts of lawyers appointed for him to present mitigating evidence on his behalf. In his closing argument, Mr. Roof said that it would not do any good for him to ask the jurors to give him a life sentence.

Mr. Roof was undeniably guilty, and quickly confessed. During the guilt phase of his trial (a trial involving the death penalty has separate phases concerning guilt and punishment), his lawyers referred to him as “abnormal,” “delusional,” and “suicidal.” Evidence was presented that his crime was motivated by hostility and fear of African-Americans.

Mr. Roof’s victims had varying opinions about what should happen to him. Some of them said they forgave him and asked that he be spared. Others thought the death sentence was appropriate, since Mr. Roof had killed others without justification. The Rev. Sharon Risher, daughter of one of the victims, expressed a poignant ambivalence. She was quoted in the New York Times: “I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I’m my mother’s child and with everything that’s happened sometimes I want him to die. . . . It’s like, you know what, this fool continues to just be evil. I’m just glad that they didn’t leave that decision to me.”

At the end of the guilt phase of his trial, Mr. Roof fired his lawyers and elected to proceed as his own counsel. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to counsel enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution includes the right to waive counsel, provided that the defendant is found competent to proceed and is informed of the disadvantages of representing himself. Mr. Roof’s lawyers argued that he was not competent, but the judge found otherwise and allowed the waiver of counsel. Mr. Roof then elected not to present evidence at the sentencing hearing.

Police officers sometimes speak of “suicide by cop,” a description of a situation where a person places himself in a position where officers will be forced to kill him. Mr. Roof’s actions could be described as “suicide by jury.” Since it is not possible, under our laws, for a defendant to agree to a death sentence without the action of a jury, Mr. Roof tried to make it easy for the jury to give him what he apparently wants—to be executed.

But by placing jurors in the position of having to carry out Mr. Roof’s will, we do them injury. The policeman who kill suspects who are committing “suicide by cop” do not emerge unscathed. As one expert puts it, “Officers involved in SBC incidents often feel a sense of powerlessness and manipulation, and this is typically reported to be an especially stressful and demoralizing form of shooting trauma.” Not surprisingly, jurors in capital trials also suffer emotionally, and those who impose death sentences suffer greater PTSD symptoms than those who impose life sentences.

If Mr. Roof doesn’t want to live, why should we care if he is executed? The answer, in my view, is that the justice system is the conscience of the community. Just as the victims, while entitled to express their opinion, cannot determine the sentence, so the defendant should not do so either. Both of them are too close to the issue to be appropriately objective and appropriately merciful. And if we are a nation of laws, we must make certain that even in horrible cases, we do not disregard our most fundamental principles, including the principal that human life is valuable.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Most people who enter the criminal justice system are guilty. And that is how it should be; our law enforcement system would not be worth much if it only arrested guilty people half the time, and the remainder of arrestees were innocent. When I was in law school, one of my professors opined that only half of the people who enter the criminal justice system were guilty of anything. I thought that was a low estimate of the number of innocent people in the justice system then, and still do. It is true that the advent of DNA testing revealed that there are more innocent people convicted than was previously thought. Conviction of the innocent is a serious problem. But so is oppression of the guilty. The question is, who are those guilty people, and how should we treat them?

I’ve learned a lot about who they are from dealing with them for almost 40 years of legal practice. The main thing I’ve learned is that most of the time, there but for the grace of God go I. They are just people. It is easy to think that someone who has killed another person, or robbed a bank, or burglarized a home, or sold drugs, or snatched a purse, must be a different species from me. But she is not. She is just someone who made a wrong choice or a mistake. He likes hot chocolate in the winter and swimming in the summer. He looks out the window of his cell and enjoys watching the farmer let out his cows. My clients worry about their families, their loved ones, even about me. “Drive safe!” they say as I leave the prison—and they mean it!

Prisons these days do little to rehabilitate those who inhabit them. But the one gift they can give is unstructured time, which can allow those who are so inclined to rehabilitate themselves through prayer, study, and consideration of those they have hurt. Given the lack of foundation many of them experienced in early life, that happens more often than I, at least, would expect.

So, why should we protect the guilty? Here are some important reasons.

1. If we want to enforce moral and legal imperatives, we should abide by them.

2. We are all guilty and all members of the human family.

3. If we take shortcuts to convict the guilty, we run the risk of convicting the innocent.

4. If the guilty feel they have been treated with fairness and compassion, they are more likely to be rehabilitated.

In future posts, I will examine each of these principles individually. But for the present, it is sufficient to say that the criminal justice system exists, and should function, to protect the guilty as well as the innocent.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Who are the victims of capital punishment? Not just the person executed. Not just his or her family and friends. Read on.

“Three minutes before Wellons was declared dead a nurse standing to his left was seen asking one of the corrections officers if he was ok, just before the officer fainted.” 
By all accounts, Marcus Wellons’s execution was routine, as those things go. He went to sleep and stopped breathing. But it was apparently not routine for the officer who fainted. The list of former prison wardens who, after retirement, talk about how painful it was to preside over executions, grows ever longer. For example, Don Cabana, who presided over executions in several states, eventually left prison work for academic life. “’There is a part of the warden that dies with his prisoner,” he often said.’” 
Asked to comment about the “botched” execution of Clayton Lockett, who died of a heart attack after prison personnel failed to insert an IV into his femoral vein, the retired prosecuting attorney said, “Did he get what he deserved? I don’t know, As I’ve gotten older, I’m a devout Christian, and I just have more and more trouble, honestly, of the question of ‘get what I deserve.’” 
Some of those involved in executions, then, admit their pain. For others, the execution seems to bring out the worst parts of their nature.
Recently, a Missouri prison employee told the lawyer for a prisoner facing execution that their client was in the top 1% of prisoners, and that he always obeyed rules and assisted new or weak prisoners to stay out of trouble. He would like to support clemency for him, but the prison administration discouraged him and started an investigation for “over-familiarity.” As a result, the employee withdrew his support.
Another troubling aspect of capital punishment is the response of victim families. A family member of the victims killed by John Ruthell Henry, recently executed in Florida, commented after watching the execution, “I actually feel good. I don’t feel sorry for him. . . . I wish it could've been different. I wish he could’ve died the way he killed them.” 
Or, as a victim family member who witnessed an Oklahoma execution where the prisoner, Scott Carpenter, “convulsed, clenched his jaw, made noises and his legs lifted,” put it, “Who knows whether he felt pain or not, but if he did endure a little pain again, so what? It’s in no way in comparison to what his victim felt.” 
These are a perfectly understandable responses, but, I submit, not particularly healthy ones. Does the fact that a loved one suffered pain really justify the desire to inflict pain on others?
Many victims long for answers from the person who killed their loved one; few get them. A man said that he watched the execution of his father’s killer, Scott Carpenter, “in hopes that he would make some comments or make some explanation. He robbed me of that as well. He was just quiet.”
Why do we persist in imposing a punishment that wounds us, troubles us, and brings out the worst in us?

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Reginald Clemons, a Missouri death row inmate, awaits a hearing on whether there is new evidence of his innocence. A recent news story, which can read at the link below, reveals that the Missouri Attorney General recently told the court handling Mr. Clemons’s appeal that physical evidence, some of which may contain DNA, has been discovered in law enforcement files. This evidence may not have been available to Mr. Clemons’s trial attorneys. Like most online news stories, this one drew many comments, some welcoming the inquiry into Mr. Clemons’s evidence, and some condemning it. One comment (not on the website listed below) was, “Why is this murderer breathing my air?”

A recent story on NPR concerned released prison inmate Felix Aponte, who donated his kidney to save the life of another man he met in prison. That link is below, too. Mr. Aponte explained, “I wanted to do something good in my life for the first time. All I've done is like, mischief.” This story generated a vigorous dialogue, with some people concluding that since the “hero” of the story was a convicted felon, his good deed should be discounted.
These news items and comments reminded me of a story in one of my favorite children’s books, Wayside School is Falling Down, by Louis Sachar. Myron, a student at Wayside School, feels trapped by school rules. After lunch, instead of going back to his classroom, he goes down to the dark, mysterious school basement. There, he meets a man who asks him, “Do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe?” He explains that if Myron wants to be safe, he’ll have to follow all the rules, go to school, brush his teeth. . . Or he can be free. “I want to be free,” says Myron. He signs a paper “written in some kind of foreign language.” Thereafter, Myron doesn’t have to do anything the teacher says, and there is nothing she can do about it.

Deciding to be free requires us to realize that the world actually does not revolve around us. The air we breathe doesn’t belong to me, or to Reggie Clemons, or to the man who commented on the story. Being free also requires us to realize that the world is uncertain, sometimes apparently written in a foreign language. It is easy to say, “Well, the jury convicted Reggie Clemons, or Felix Aponte, and the appeals court affirmed, so they must be guilty, and we can forget about them.” That is the safe way. But it is not the free way. Freedom requires us to let go of our prejudices and admit the possibility of uncertainty. Of course, even before Myron signed the paper, he didn’t have to sit in his seat and brush his teeth. He just had to accept the consequences if he didn’t. In the same way, if we let go of the notion that everyone convicted by a court is guilty and can never change, we will be faced with uncertainty. Sometimes the results will be good. Sometimes they will be bad. But that’s what freedom entails.

There are advantages to being safe. Life is predictable, not upsetting. Risks are avoided. And there are advantages to being free. Freedom brings adventure, expanded possibilities, new experiences. So, do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe?

Friday, February 19, 2010


Over two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog called “Addiction to imprisonment.” Now, with the economy in distress, some government and judicial leaders are looking at kicking the habit. Consider the statements of Judge William Ray Price, Jr., the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, at his recent “State of the Judiciary” speech:

“For years we have waged a “war on drugs,” enacted “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing laws, and “thrown away the key” to be tough on crime. What we did not do was check to see how much it costs, or whether we were winning or losing. In fact, it has cost us billions of dollars and we have just as much crime now as we did when we started. We have created a bottleneck by arresting far more people than we can handle down through the rest of the system. . . . It does no good to commit resources to law enforcement and to arrest criminals if you don’t know what you are going to do with them, or you cannot afford to do what you should with them, after they have been arrested. It does no good.”

Judge Price went on to address the crisis in the Missouri Public Defender System and the inequities in the prosecution of offenses in Missouri, both topics that deserve posts of their own. Then he went on,

“Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders. It is costing us billions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime. Listen to these numbers. In 1994, shortly after I came to the Court, the number of nonviolent offenders in Missouri prisons was 7,461. Today it’s 14,204. That’s almost double. . . . In 1994, appropriations to the Department of Corrections totaled $216,753,472. Today, it’s $670,079,452. The amount has tripled. And the recidivism rate for these individuals, who are returned to prison within just two years, is 41.6 percent. . . . [T]he simple fact is, we are spending unbelievable sums of money to incarcerate nonviolent offenders, and our prison population of new offenders is going up, not down -- with a recidivism rate that guarantees this cycle will continue to worsen at a faster and faster pace, eating tens of millions of dollars in the process. Missouri cannot afford to spend this much money without getting results. The problem is that we are following a broken strategy of cramming inmates into prisons and not providing the type of drug treatment and job training that is necessary to break their cycle of crime. Any normal business would have abandoned this failed practice years ago, and it is costing us our shirts.”

And, Judge Price proposed a solution: “We need to move from anger-based sentencing that ignores cost and effectiveness to evidence-based sentencing that focuses on results—sentencing that assesses each offender’s risk and then fits that offender with the cheapest and most effective rehabilitation that he or she needs.”

No one who follows the Supreme Court of Missouri would describe Judge Price as soft on crime. So when he shows signs of having awakened to the imprisonment addiction problem—aptly described as “anger-based sentencing—it gives me real hope that change is possible.

Judge Price’s proposals, although they suggest a major change in direction, are not radical enough. He seems to think that whatever we do to persons convicted of violent offenses is still all right. (“Violent offenders need to be separated from us so they cannot hurt innocent men, women or children, regardless of the cost.”) Actually, there have been recent advances in the treatment of violent offenders that show significant promise. In an Australian study of the effects of restorative justice programs, which allow crime victims to interact with the offenders, “In the first two years after arrest, violent offenders who participated in conferences had about 50 percent less reoffending than those who went to court.” (The study also noted positive effects for victims. For example, “Almost half of the court-assigned victims said they would harm their offenders if they had the chance, compared to only 9 percent of conference participants.”) Interestingly, restorative justice techniques seem to reduce recidivism more among violent offenders than non-violent offenders. That’s not an argument for locking up more non-violent offenders; it just means that other techniques may be needed for rehabilitation for them.

But the major good news here is the suggestion of a shift in focus back to rehabilitation from “anger-based sentencing.” That will have several salutary effects, if it occurs. It will bring marginalized persons back into the work force and into full participation in their communities. It will save money. And it will fulfill the admonition of Jesus that: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matt. 25:40, NIV.