Est. May 2008

20 July, 2014


Charles J. Ogletree Jr. writes:
In its ruling in Hall v. Florida in May, the court — with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the helm — reminded us that the core value animating the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments clause is the preservation of human dignity against the affront of unnecessarily harsh punishment. Hall, which prohibited a rigid test in use in Florida for gauging whether a defendant is intellectually disabled, was the most recent in a series of opinions in which the court has juxtaposed retribution — the idea of vengeance for a wrongdoing, which serves as the chief justification for the death penalty — with a recognition of our hopelessly complex and fallible human nature.

What was important about Hall is the way Kennedy described the logic behind exempting intellectually disabled individuals from execution: “to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being” because the “diminished capacity of the intellectually disabled lessens moral culpability and hence the retributive value of the punishment.” Though the court previously barred imposition of the death penalty upon intellectually disabled people, as well as juvenile offenders, Hall marked the first time that it went so far as to claim that imposing the death penalty upon offenders with these kinds of functional impairments serves “no legitimate penological purpose.”
From this, he concludes:
This is why I see an end coming to the death penalty in this country. The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows. A new study by Robert J. Smith, Sophie Cull and Zoë Robinson, published in Hastings Law Journal, of the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits.
The ‘insanity’ and ‘diminished capacity’ pleas have been used for quite a while in order to get clients either reduced sentences or acquittal; IMO, this decision has opened up a great big Pandora’s Box from which we will see these two pleas used more and more often.

The author cites three cases in which he believes the convicted should not have had to suffer the death penalty.  And in jumping to the links the author provides, I have a hard time imagining he read through those articles before he decided they would be helpful to his case.
For example, the Texas Department of Corrections determined that Elroy Chester had an IQ of 69. He attended special education classes throughout school and never functioned at a higher level than third grade. The state had previously enrolled Chester into its Mentally Retarded Offenders Program.
From the author-provided link:
Elroy Chester, a man who confessed to killing five people during a six-month crime spree in southeastern Texas 15 years ago, was put to death Wednesday for the fatal shooting of a firefighter.

Chester said he confessed to killing firefighter Willie Ryman III because "you should know who killed your loved one."

Ryman, a decorated Port Arthur firefighter, was killed in February 1998 when he interrupted Chester as he sexually assaulted Ryman's two teenage nieces during a break-in at their home. Chester, who was on probation at the time, was arrested soon after and subsequently pleaded guilty to killing the 38-year-old firefighter.

DNA evidence tied Chester to the rapes. Ballistics tests matched his gun to the slayings of Ryman and four others. The gun was stolen in one of 25 burglaries in Port Arthur attributed to Chester.

Chester also confessed to killing 78-year-old John Henry Sepeda and Etta Mae Stallings, 87, during burglaries. He told police he stalked Cheryl DeLeon, 40, then fatally beat her with his gun as she arrived home from work. And he admitted to shooting his 35-year-old brother-in-law, Albert Bolden Jr.,in the head.
For example, for more than 40 years, Florida’s own psychiatrists found that John Ferguson suffered from severe mental illness. Ferguson had a fixed delusion that he was the “Prince of God” who could not be killed and would rise up after his execution and fight alongside Jesus to save the United States from a communist plot.
Again, from the author-provided link:
Ferguson, a killer of eight and at one time responsible for the largest mass slaughter in Miami-Dade history, was pronounced dead 6:17 p.m.

His execution caps a legacy of violence dating back to 1977

Prosecutors convicted Ferguson of the July 1977 shotgun murders of six people in Carol City during a home-invasion robbery. At the time, it was considered the worst mass murder in Miami-Dade history.

Ferguson was also convicted separately of murdering Worley and Glenfeldt, both 17-year-old Hialeah High students, in January 1978. The two had gone for ice cream, then parked at a field known as a popular lover’s lane.

Police said Ferguson tried robbing the couple, shooting Glenfeldt behind the wheel of his mother’s 1974 Pontiac LeMans, while Worley’s body was discovered a quarter-mile away; she had been raped and shot.

Ferguson was also convicted of attempted murder in the robbery of another couple at a lover’s lane.
Many other executed offenders endured unspeakable abuse as children. Consider Daniel Cook, whose mother drank alcohol and abused drugs while she was pregnant with him. His mother and grandparents molested him as a young child, and his father physically abused him by, for example, lighting a cigarette and using it to burn Daniel’s genitals. Eventually the state placed Daniel in foster care, but the abuse didn’t stop. A foster parent chained him nude to a bed and raped him while other adults watched from the next room through a one-way mirror.
And yet again from the author-provided link:
Cook was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Carlos Cruz-Ramos, 26, and Kevin Swaney, 16, in northwestern Arizona, together with an accomplice, a roommate named John Matzke. All four worked together at a restaurant in Lake Havasu City.

Cook was sent to the state's death row for a brutal crime spree that authorities say began on July 19, 1987, when he stole money from Cruz-Ramos, who was also his roommate, then tied him to a chair in their apartment before he and Matzke began beating Cruz-Ramos with their fists and a metal pipe.

Cook cut Cruz-Ramos with a knife, burned him with cigarettes and raped him before he and Matzke lethally crushed Cruz-Ramos's throat with the pipe, according to court documents. The ordeal lasted some six hours.

Swaney, a dishwasher at the restaurant, arrived the next morning at the apartment, where he had been staying as a guest. He was tied to a chair and raped by Cook before he was strangled with a bed sheet by Cook and Matzke together, court records say.
Apparently, the mental capacity of the first two guys wasn’t so diminished they were unable to hide their involvement in the crimes for as long as they did, was it?

And I do sympathize with the third guy, but come on, there are stories coming from all and sundry about how they were abused as children – people who’ve become famous, are fully capable of functioning in society, and are often hard-working individuals – and none of them ever took a knife or a gun to another person.

So exactly whose dignity is the death penalty incompatible with?  Can’t possibly be the victims – they’re beyond caring.  Can’t be the families and friends of the victims – their feelings don’t seem to count these days.

Oh, it must be the dignity of the blood-soaked men and women on Death Row – those folks who didn’t give a preacher’s damn about the dignity of the people they butchered.

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