• Don Lichterman

Death Penalty Focus, Trump Admin & the DOJ & “The death penalty is about us” Sister Helen Prejean

“The death penalty is about us”: Sister Helen Prejean on humanizing death row prisoners

For over three decades, author and activist Sister Helen Prejean has accompanied prisoners on death row and advocated against the death penalty across the U.S.


Her story is portrayed in the award-winning film adaption of her first book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States” about accompanying prisoners facing the death penalty, which she has always been driven to do out of her belief that “everybody is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”


Prejean spoke with us about meeting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted Boston Marathon bomber, five times over the course of 2015 and testifying on his behalf.


"All of the words I could get before the jury were, ‘he is a human being and he felt sorrow for what he did.’ I showed why I could say that … because I had met him.” #DemocracyNow


In the wake of several deadly shootings in the past few weeks, the Trump Administration is calling for a speeded-up death penalty for mass shooters and those who kill law enforcement officers.


The call comes on the heels of an announcement that the government plans to begin executing federal prisoners again after a 16-year hiatus.Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died late last month.


After his retirement from the high Court Stevens revealed his opposition to the death penalty.


DPF filed an amicus letter last week in support of a motion in the California Supreme Court asking the Court to halt death penalty charges while the moratorium is in place.


Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a brief in the PA Supreme Court maintaining that the death penalty is unconstitutional, joining an increasing number of DAs in death penalty states calling for an end to the death penalty.


A sociology professor explains why he’s convinced the death penalty is dying in spite of the Trump Administration’s zeal for capital punishment.


You’ll find all that, plus a quick rundown of death penalty developments around the country, and a few reading suggestions below.


But first, we also wanted to let you know about a special event we're hosting next month. Please join us for a reception for Sister Helen Prejean in celebration of the release of her new memoir, River of Fire, at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 5.


Sister Helen is the author of the seminal book Dead Man Walking, and has spent decades campaigning against the death penalty. Click here to purchase tickets. For more information email yoko@deathpenalty.org, or call 415-243-0143. We hope to see you there!


DOJ to restart federal executions; speed up death penalty process

The “machinery of death” will shift into high gear in the next few months if the Department of Justice gets its way.


On Monday, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice will propose legislation to speed up death penalty trials for defendants accused of mass murder, or the killing of a law enforcement officer. “There will be a strict timetable for judicial proceedings that will allow the imposition of the death sentence without undue delay. Punishment must be swift and certain,” Barr told a law enforcement conference in New Orleans, according to CNN.


This announcement came on the heels of Barr’s disclosure late last month that DOJ plans to resume federal executions after a 16-year hiatus. The AG says the government will execute five men over a five-week period beginning December 9 and ending January 15. The Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to use a single drug, pentobarbital, replacing the three-drug procedure it has previously used.


Both announcements were met with surprise and dismay.


Reason responded to the call for a speeded up death penalty process by noting that, “Not only should the wrongfully convicted have a right to appeal, but the slower-paced process already has a slew of institutional problems that could only be exacerbated with less review . .


. . . An expedited death penalty reduces the chances that an innocent prisoner will be exonerated in time.”


The subhead to the Reason article was “Politicians never hesitate to exploit a tragedy,” and that is exactly what this president is doing. He is exploiting a tragedy. Statistics prove the death penalty will not curtail the scourge of mass killings. Texas and Ohio actively engage in the practice of the death penalty. And, in Texas and Ohio this weekend, the death penalty did nothing to deter the bloodshed.


Earlier this month, USA Today published an illustration demonstrating the increase in mass killings in the United State since 1966. What the graphic shows – and what few death penalty supporters acknowledge – is that all shootings of 10 or more, except for the 26 killed at Sandy Hook, occurred in states which practice the death penalty.


The announcement that the state is planning to begin executing federal prisoners again brought an even more outraged response.


“As a lifelong conservative, I believe this is a step in the wrong direction. The problems that have plagued the death penalty at the state level — the risk of executing the innocent, arbitrariness and bias, high costs, a lack of deterrence and the failure to deliver ‘closure’ to victims’ families — exist at the federal level too,” wrote Wyoming Rep. Jared Olsen (Rep) in the New York Times.


And in the Washington Post, Allen L. Ault, who has served as a commissioner in several state departments of correction, said of the resumption of the federal death penalty, “Psychologists have described the impact of executions on correctional staff as similar to that suffered by battlefield veterans. But in my military experience, there was one major difference: The enemy was an anonymous, armed combatant who was threatening my life. In an execution, the condemned prisoner is a known human being who is totally defenseless when brought into the death chamber.” So, imagine that experience repeated five times over a period of just over five weeks. And imagine a team that hasn’t executed anyone in 16 years, if ever, doing it over and over again.


At a time like this, Bryan Stevenson’s always-relevant question is more pertinent and urgent than ever: “The question of the death penalty is not, ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?’ I think the threshold question is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?’ “


Former SCOTUS Justice John Paul Stevens dies

The former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was 99, came to the Court in 1975 as a supporter of capital punishment but evolved to believe it was unconstitutional. Read More


DPF files amicus letter in support of motion to halt death penalty prosecutions

DPF has filed an amicus letter in support of a motion arguing that while the moratorium is in place in California, prosecutors should be prohibited from seeking the death penalty. Read More »


Philly DA says state death penalty is unconstitutional

“Anyone who claims to believe in the sanctity of life, truth, or justice cannot seriously defend the application of the death penalty in Pennsylvania,” Philadelphia’s DA told the state Supreme Court. Read More


From Oregon to Ohio, death penalty states continued to tinker with the machinery of death in the past few weeks. Read More


While we’re on the subject ...A piece in SCOTUSblog by Alabama’s solicitor general on how the U.S. Supreme Court is indicating it will “defer to the states’ judgments about how the death penalty should be carried out and who should be subjected to it,” and a book about the 2015 Charleston church massacre and its aftermath are just two of our reading suggestions this month. Read More


Voices: Michael Radelet

University of Colorado Sociology Professor Michael L. Radelet is convinced “capital punishment is in decline, and eventual abolition is inevitable.” Read More

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