IHT : U.S. moving to clear backlog of executions

Saturday, May 03, 2008

U.S. moving to clear backlog of executions

By Ralph Blumenthal | May 3, 2008

HUNTSVILLE, Texas: Here in the nation's leading death-penalty state, and some of the 35 others that practice capital punishment, execution dockets are quickly filling up.

Less than three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ended a seven-month halt in lethal injections, at least 14 execution dates have now been set in six states between May 6 and October. The first, on Tuesday, is in Georgia of a man who killed his companion and another woman.

"The Supreme Court essentially blessed their way of doing things," said Douglas Berman, a professor of law and a sentencing expert at Ohio State University. "So in some sense, they're back from vacation and ready to go to work."

Experts say the resumption of executions is likely to throw a strong new spotlight on the divisive national - and international - issue of capital punishment.

"When people confront a new wave of executions, they'll be questioning not only how people are executed but whether people should be executed," said James Acker, a historian of the death penalty and a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany.

Texas leads the list with five people now set to die here in the Walls Unit, the state's death house, between June 3 and Aug. 20. Virginia is next with four. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also set execution dates.

Some welcome the end of the moratorium.

"We'll start playing a little bit of catch-up," said William Hubbarth, a spokesman for Justice for All, a Houston-based victims rights group.

"It's not like we have a cheering section for the death penalty." Hubbarth, an Austin lawyer, said. But he added: "The capital murderers set to be executed should be executed post-haste. It's not about killing the inmate. It's about imposing the penalty that 12 of his peers have assessed."

More inmates whose appeals have expired are certain to be added to execution rosters soon, including, in all likelihood, the oldest of the 360 men and 9 women on Texas' death row (though hardly a row any more, but an entire compound): Jack Harry Smith, 70, who has been under a death sentence for 30 years for a robbery-killing in a Houston-area grocery.

"If it's my time to go, it's my time to go," said Smith, who maintains his innocence and was delivered by guards for a prison interview in a wheelchair.

So far, at least nine others elsewhere, including Antoinette Frank, a police officer convicted of a murderous robbery rampage in New Orleans, have been given new execution dates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that opposes capital punishment and puts the latest death row census at 3,263. Dozens more are likely to get execution dates in coming months, but most under death sentences have not exhausted their appeals.

Public support for capital punishment may be dwindling in the United States. Death sentences have been on the decline, and a poll last year by death penalty opponents found Americans losing confidence in the death penalty.

"There will be more executions than people have the stomach for, at least in many parts of the country," said Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, a leading death penalty litigation clinic that opposes capital punishment.

Last year Texas accounted for 26 of the 42 inmates executed nationwide. That includes the last two people executed before the Supreme Court signaled a moratorium on executions while considering whether the chemical formula used for lethal injection in Kentucky inflicted pain amounting to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. The justices ruled 7-2 on April 16 that it did not, while allowing for possible future challenges.

The resumption of executions comes as prosecutors and juries have been turning away from the death penalty, often in favor of life sentences without parole, now an option in every death-penalty state but New Mexico.

Since 1977, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, death sentences nationwide rose from 137, peaking at 326 in 1995 before falling steadily to 110 last year.

"We're seeing a huge drop-off," said Bright, attributing the decline to the time and trouble of imposing death sentences, and a recent wave of exonerations after DNA tests proved wrongful conviction.

Close to 35 people have so far been cleared in Texas alone, including, just days ago, James Lee Woodard, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit in 1980.

The first inmate now set for execution, as early as Tuesday, is William Earl Lynd, 53, of Georgia who was convicted of shooting his companion, Ginger Moore, in the face during an argument, shooting her again as she clung to life, and a third time, fatally, when she continued to struggle in the trunk of his car. After burying her body, he attacked and murdered another woman he stopped on the road.

Two other Georgia death row inmates with expired stays were also eligible for execution but required more notice before dates could be set, said Russ Willard, a spokesman for the state's attorney general, Thurbert Baker. "At least we'll have clearance of the backlog," Willard said.

Virginia - which has executed 98 people since 1976, second only to Texas with 405 - has the next scheduled execution after Georgia's: a May 27 date for Kevin Green, 30, for the slayings of Patricia and Lawrence Vaughn in their convenience store in 1998. Three other Virginia inmates also have been given dates in June and July.

Louisiana has set a July 15 execution date for two inmates, including the former police officer, Frank, 30. She was convicted of killing a fellow officer, Ronald Williams, and brother and sister Vietnamese workers, Ha and Cuong Vong, at their family's restaurant in New Orleans during a robbery in 1995.

But appeals may force a delay, Pam Labord of the Louisiana Department of Corrections said. A stay was also called likely for the second inmate, Darrell Robinson, convicted of killing four people.

South Dakota, which has recorded only 15 executions since 1889, set a week's window of Oct. 7-13, for the execution of Briley Piper, 25. He pleaded guilty to the murder of Chester Allan Pogue, 19, who was forced to drink hydrochloric acid and then stabbed and bludgeoned to death in 2000. One accomplice was executed last year and another is serving life without parole.

The first Texas inmate now rescheduled for death, on June 3, is Derrick Sonnier, 40, convicted of stalking, stabbing and strangling a woman, Melody Flowers, and her baby son in 1991.

Sonnier, who turned down a request for an interview, had forbidden his trial lawyer from calling family members as mitigating witnesses, costing him a chance for life in prison without parole, said his appellate lawyer, Jani Maselli.

In another of the five latest scheduled Texas executions, a July 22 date was set for the seventh-longest-serving death row inmate, Lester Bower, 60, convicted of killing four men in 1983 while stealing an airplane from a hangar.

Smith, the oldest death row inmate, lost his Supreme Court appeal in February and said he was resigned to an execution date soon as well.

"I'd hate to go before my time," he said, a gaunt figure in prison whites seated in a wheelchair and a speaking by phone behind glass in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, where the condemned are held until the day they are driven to Huntsville to die.

An admitted troublemaker since childhood, he had served time for robbery in the 1950s and was paroled from a life sentence for assault in 1977 only to be charged with the holdup murder the following year. He contended that he was framed by an accomplice.

Asked if the prospect of an end to his confinement came as any relief, Smith said, "In a way it does, in a way it does."

"Death is death," he said. "If they stick a needle in your arm or shoot you in the head, it's cruel and inhuman punishment, taking a human life."

Yet, he said, "A life sentence is a whole lot worse - it's torture."