Death Row in the Media

While the death penalty is always a controversial issue, it seems like things have been pretty quiet in the mainstream media regarding death row in recent years. Executions have continued along with little coverage, and the death penalty has slipped from public consciousness. But all of a sudden, executions are making headlines and stories about the death penalty are becoming more and more frequent. In fact, questions about death row are at the center of a presidential campaign, which hasn’t happened in years. Rick Perry has made the death penalty a hot issue again, as his treatment of the Todd Willingham case comes under fire and another controversial Texas execution is looming. The last time I can remember the death penalty getting so much coverage in a campaign is in 1988 when Michael Dukakis’s opposition to the death penalty during a presidential candidate debate caused his poll numbers to drop from 49% to 42% in the span of one evening.

Perry is at the center of the latest media resurrection of the death penalty issue and is facing significant criticism of his handling of the Willingham case. And speaking of Todd Willingham, I watched an excerpt this morning from a documentary about the case called Incendiary. The film looks quite lovely and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it is released. What is interesting about the documentary is that it is not a documentary about the death penalty. The filmmakers had this to say about the work:

The death penalty is a component of the film, but we always knew it wasn’t the focus. For us, the real story was about science and the law and the astonishing way they don’t mix so well, even in 2010. Texas is a scientific powerhouse in many areas — economically, science is valued. The use of it in defense of Willingham or in his exoneration is somehow controversial. The film illustrates that to a degree rarely seen…We were completely uninterested in making a movie that we had already seen, or that would resonate only as an “issue” film.

If  you’d like to take a look at the preview, you can view it here. I’d highly recommend it; it’s an interesting story and beautifully filmed.

In addition to Willingham’s case, there is another execution causing Texas some problems. On Thursday night, Duane Buck was set to become the 235th person executed in Texas under Perry’s leadership, when he received a last minute stay from the U.S. Supreme Court. Buck’s innocence is not being called into question, but his sentence is being examined because of the role race-based testimony played in his receiving the death penalty. A psychologist testified that Buck’s race (Buck is black) made him a greater threat to society and that blacks were more likely to be violent again in the future than white criminals.To obtain a death penalty sentence in Texas prosecutors must prove a level of “future dangerousness,” and the testimony was cited in the prosecution’s closing arguments. Lead prosecutor in the case, Joan Huffman,  defended asking the psychologist the racially charged question, saying, “I have absolutely no concern whatsoever.”

There have been seven cases in Texas that had racially charged testimony like Buck’s and all of them except Buck’s have been reexamined. As I mentioned in an earlier post, even one of the prosecutors in the case is fighting to get Buck a new sentencing hearing. What’s surprising about the fact that Buck got a stay is that the Supreme Court rarely reviews cases where the defendant’s guilt is not in doubt. It’s good news for Buck, who was found praying in his cell when he got the news. It was two hours into the execution window and he had already eaten what was supposed to be his last meal. It’s not clear when a judgement will be made on Buck’s case.

But it’s not just Texas that is popping up in the media for their executions. One death row story that is getting nationwide media attention right now is that of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis. There’s a great summary of Davis’s case on Huffington Post that you can read here. Davis has been on death row since 1991 and is scheduled to die in less than a week. Davis was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer. MacPhail was shot to death while coming to the aid of a homeless man being beaten in a parking lot. There is a lack of physical evidence tying Davis to the crime, so the case mostly rested on eyewitnesses. However, seven of the nine prosecution witnesses have since either recanted or significantly altered the testimony they gave.

“I am not proud for lying at Troy’s trial, but the police had me so messed up that I felt that’s all I could do or else I would go to jail,” one key eyewitness told Davis’ attorneys in an affidavit.

The lack of physical evidence, the hearsay in the original trial and the recanting of many witnesses had lead to grave doubts about Davis’s guilt. William S. Sessions, a former federal district judge in Texas wrote:

“Serious questions about Mr. Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion, and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction.”

But what is so interesting about the Davis case is the massive effort that is underway to save him from his fourth execution date. The campaign to save Davis from the needle has become one of the most prominent death row campaigns in recent history, with nationwide marches today, hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions to save Davis, and a litany of people from Jimmy Carter to 51 members of Congress asking the Georgia parole board to grant clemency. One petition alone gathered more than 660,000 signatures, which were boxed up and delivered to the parole board in a dramatic media event. The activists supporting Troy Davis have used the internet and social media to make the case an issue that is mainstream news across the nation and worldwide. As Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights told the New York Times, “it tells the State of Georgia that the whole world is watching.”

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