In the Syrian city of Raqqa on this date in 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) reportedly crucified two men in a posthumous public gibbeting, after executing them by shooting. (There were seven executions in Raqqa that day.)
Moments before his death warrant expired at midnight U.S. Central Time, after a last meal consisting only of communion, Ledell Lee was executed by the U.S. state of Arkansas.
Lee spent 24 years awaiting execution for the bludgeon murder of Debra Reese on February 9, 1993, but he was done to death in a rush that left unanswered some of the most fundamental questions in the case.
Trial is the forum designated for contesting this question, of course. At Lee’s, he was represented by an unwilling defense team that repeatedly sought its own removal from the case, citing an “intolerable conflict” with their client, a conflict that paled in comparison to that of the judge, who was having an affair with a prosecuting attorney. (Multiple separate rape cases were pending against Lee at the same time, and those same conflicting attorneys were removed from those cases.)
A quarter-century on death row suggests claims litigated to the point of exhaustion, but this is not how the death penalty game is played in America. The art of execution lies in expediting a conviction and then fighting hammer and tong to maintain that verdict as a fait accompli against any attempt on appeal to litigate issues that the jury never heard. Mostly, the clocks runs for years on useless waiting or epicycles of procedural do-overs that never reach the most salient topics. The Innocence Project reports that outright exonerees (not limited to condemned prisoners) serve an average of 14 years before winning release on their various evidentiary trump cards. (Arkansas’s most famous death row exoneree,* Damien Echols, waited 17 years.)
By the time one reaches the end of the glacial death penalty process, the very refusal of the law to probe the questions it never bothered asking will have become the fault of a prisoner’s own dilatory appeals, leading — in this instance — to victim’s kin at Lee’s clemency hearing “asking you and begging you to please let us have some closure.”
In the name of closure, end-state cases must also insist on renouncing one of the potential benefits of all that time-wasting, the perspective of passing years. DNA tests that were not available when Lee stood trial for his life — and the discredited “forensic evidence” of matching hair samples was invoked against him — could have been used to examine blood spots on Lee’s shoes.** Because the prisoner maintained his innocence in the case from the time he was arrested until the very end, one of his late appeals vainly implored Arkansas to test that DNA sample. There are many cases, death penalty and otherwise, meeting this description, and most U.S. jurisdictions compulsively resist any calls to revisit testable tissue in the light of emerging DNA science as so many affronts to the majesty of law.
So what has everyone been up to while not testing DNA all those years? The Fair Punishment Project report on Lee’s post-conviction road makes depressing reading.
Lee’s first state post-conviction attorney had substance abuse problems that left him “impaired to the point of unavailability on one or more days of the Rule 37 hearing.” The Arkansas Supreme Court noted several examples of his lawyer’s “troubling behavior,” including “being unable to locate the witness room;” “repeatedly being unable to understand questions posed by the trial court or objections raised by the prosecution;” “not being familiar with his own witnesses;” and “rambling incoherently, repeatedly interjecting ‘blah, blah, blah,’ into his statements.” Unsurprisingly, Ledell lost his state-post conviction petition. Eventually, the Arkansas Supreme Court recognized that Lee received grossly inadequate representation and withdrew its opinion, giving him new counsel.
Unfortunately, his new counsel were not much better. First, they missed the filing deadline for the appeal. Then, the Arkansas Supreme Court twice, sua sponte, ordered the attorneys to submit a new brief because their filings failed to comply with Court rules — the second time, the Court referred the attorneys to the Committee on Professional Conduct. The attorneys also appear to have refused to accept their client’s phone calls and ignored his letters.
At one point, Ledell received a glimmer of hope when the Arkansas court appointed the Arkansas Federal Defender to his case. They tried to litigate a claim that Ledell is intellectually disabled. In response, the state argued that Ledell — with all of his competent representation — had procedurally defaulted this claim by not raising it before.† But before the parties could complete litigation on the claim, the Federal Defender was removed due to a conflict.
In 2016, Ledell’s local habeas attorney moved to withdraw from the case because she was retiring. She made clear that in ten years, she had done little work on the case. “I have no file on [Ledell],” she stated, despite having argued at least one of Ledell’s appeals before the Eighth Circuit. “I have no working relationship with [Ledell]. I have not seen [him] for several years. I have no relationship with [his] present counsel and have not had any working relationship with them for some time.”
In June of 2016, one of Lee’s federal habeas lawyers, Gary Brotherton, voluntarily surrendered his legal license “to prevent possible harm to clients” because he was suffering from bipolar disorder with psychotic features and anxiety. One month later, the Missouri Supreme Court suspended him from the practice of law. So, just seven months ago, in the eleventh hour of his case, Ledell received yet another lawyer on his case.
All in all, a shambolic proceedings crowned by the indignity of Arkansas’s cramming Lee into a raft of eight proposed executions — many of them now stumbling on late appeals — slated together for the last days of April for the tawdry expedient of using up the state’s lethal injection drugs before their imminent expiry. It’s a very not normal situation, and yet, it is also all too normal.
Ledell Lee was the first person executed by Arkansas since 2005.
* As we’ve previously noted, Arkansas forced Echols to make an Alford plea as the price of his release, allowing it to claim on a technicality that it had not wrongfully imprisoned an innocent man for two decades.
** The crime scene was a bloodbath, so the supposition is that the murderer would certainly have imbrued his clothes with Reese’s blood.
† Reese’s alleged intellectual disability ought to have been raised by his unwilling defenders at the trial’s mitigation stage; it appears they barely investigated it.
On this date in 2015, in the Islamic holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia beheaded Indonesian domestic worker Siti Zainab after a very long wait.
Zainab, a maid, was condemned to death in 1999 for stabbing to death her cruel* employer. Her execution went on pause for more than 15 years until all of the victim’s children could reach adulthood and exercise their right to enforce or mitigate the death sentence; still, for all that lead time, Saudi Arabia irked Jakarta by failing to notify consular offices of her impending beheading.
In addition to the usual controversies Saudi Arabia’s aggressive headsmen engender when dispatching the kingdom’s widely abused migrant workers, Zainab’s case raised hackles over the condemned woman’s alleged “suspected mental illness.”
* Cruel according to Zainab and her defenders. Indonesian NGO Migrant Care argued that the murder was outright self-defense.
We stop. We are afraid. We don’t want to move an inch. Danger is a paralyzing force. In the face of certain death, Robert Ladd looked danger in the eye and shrugged. If we place our trust in God, we too can have such confidence.
Staring down whatever danger you face, I invite you to pray the last words of Robert Ladd:
(Ladd also wrote two letters to Gawker concerning his case and the mental disability that was at issue in his final appeals: 1 | 2)
A sheikh, and six others much less exalted hanged this morning in Kuwait.
Garnering most of the headlines, Sheikh Faisal Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah — the first Kuwaiti royal ever put to death — shot an equally royal nephew dead in 2010.
He was one of only two actual Kuwaitis among the seven hanged; the population of the oil-rich Gulf emirate is more than half comprised of foreign nationals at any given time. The other Kuwaiti was a woman, Nasra al-Enezi, who vengefully set fire to a wedding tent when her husband took a second wife. More than 50 people reportedly died in the blaze.
An Ethiopian maid, unnamed in the press reports that I have been able to find, was also convicted of murder, as were two Egyptians. The seventh to go to the scaffold today was a Bangladeshi man condemned for a non-fatal kidnapping and rape.
Human rights organizations were naturally aghast, with Human Rights Watch denouncing the mass hanging — on the heels of capital punishment resumptions in Jordan and Bahrain — as part of an “alarming trend in the region for countries to return to or increasingly use the death penalty.”
On this date in 2014, Ohio very clumsily executed Dennis McGuire for raping and stabbing to death an eight-months pregnant woman in 1989.
For no reason better than chance, McGuire‘s was the execution scheduled to arrive when Ohio bowed to the growing scarcity of lethal injection drugs by innovating a new kill-cocktail comprising midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller.
McGuire’s attorneys fought this procedure on the plausible (quite plausible, as we will see) grounds that using an execution as a vehicle for nonconsensual human medical experimentation was liable to end badly.
It did. A Dayton Daily News staff reporter who attended the execution gave the disturbint account
Prison officials say the drugs — a combination never before used in an execution — were delivered at 10:28 a.m.
His daughter cried uncontrollably.
McGuire waved with his wrist, his body strapped down to the table. Then he suddenly yelled out “I love you. I love you,” before his head lay back, his eyes rolled back in his head and he appeared to fall asleep at 10:29 a.m.
Minutes went by without McGuire moving, his family cried as the priest patted them on the back and attempted to console them.
“Oh my god,” his daughter [Amber McGuire] said.
“Don’t watch,” [wife] Missie McGuire said.
At 10:35 a.m. I first noticed McGuire convulse, then gasp. He snorted for air — a sound like a violent snore, a guttural inhale — and then sat still. Then gasped again. Sometimes his mouth just opened soundlessly. At 10:39 a.m. he snorted so loud his daughter covered her ears.
His family cried. “How could this go on for so long?” one of them asked. There was some discussion with the priest that accompanied them saying they thought it would only take five minutes.
(Here’s another (more heavily editorializing) eyewitness account of the event, by McGuire’s priest.)
Predictably, more lawsuits followed, cases that are still working their way through the courts. Just two weeks ago as of this writing, a federal suit filed on behalf of Ohio’s other death row inmates brought a member of Dennis McGuire’s execution team to the stand. Behind an anonymizing cardboard screen, “Team Member No. 10″ characterized the McGuire execution as unlike any of the others he had worked, and said that he “was wondering what was going on” as the prisoner heaved and choked his way to death.
Texas today conducted the first U.S. execution of 2017 with the lethal injection of droll drug murderer Christopher Wilkins.
Wilkins wouldn’t quite qualify for our “volunteers” tag and he fired away at his available appeals all the way to the end. But he also went out of his way not to throw up any barriers, legal or psychological, against putting him into the death penalty system. It has been well said that wretches hang that jurymen may dine, but in Wilkins’s case he mouthed friendly reassurances to teary-eyed jurors who had just condemned him to die.
“You’ve got a job to do. You tell the judge ‘get a rope’ or not,” he had said to them during his sentencing hearing, when a few well-chosen syllables might have made his life worth keeping in their eyes. “Look, it is no big deal. It is no big deal.”
There is — was — a disarming want of pretense in the man, “candid to a degree you don’t see” in the rueful words of his defense attorney. He chatted in that hearing openly about his white supremacist tattoos — just prison swag from his recent stint in the federal pen, he said — and his short temper — explicitly discouraging jurors from cutting him state-of-mind slack for his drug habit — and his dim future course in life. Would he ever change?, prosecutors asked him. “I believe it’s a little late,” the 39-year-old answered, justly.
Wilkins had shot Willie Freeman and Mike Silva dead after Freeman tricked him into buying “crack cocaine” that turned out just to be gravel. He’d continued using with Freeman for some weeks after this offense, but Freeman pissed him off by laughing to his face about the con. (Silva just happened to be with them at the time.) As he warned: a short fuse. It transpired that he had also murdered someone in a dispute over a pay phone.
“I know they are bad decisions,” the too-incisive Mr. Wilkins said, again to his jury. “I make them anyway.”
Despite (or because of) its strict sharia mores, Saudi Arabia has developed a national appetite for mind-altering substances. It’s an epidemic that the kingdom’s busy headsmen have been detailed to address on the supply side, although of course the treatment for foreign gofers like Sayed differs markedly from that of the many drug-addled royals who enjoy the product.
“Most of our shit originates in Afghanistan,” a Saudi drug dealer told Vice in 2013. “It’s a long chain of selling that starts with nomads in Afghani fields. They grow it, then it gets hidden between crates away from the mutawa [the religious police -ed.] and goes from seller to seller like a spider web.”
For hashish as well as heroin sourced to Afghanistan, Pakistani couriers play an essential role in that web — even if they are eminently disposable individually. They have had a growing prominence in Saudi Arabia’s frequent execution bulletins: Sayed was the 12th Pakistani drug mule executed in Saudi Arabia in a two-month span at the end of 2014; there have been (and continue to be) many more since.
(The first post-moratorium hangings actually took place on Friday, December 19: Aqeel Ahmad and Arshad Mehmood, both hanged at Faisalabad Jail.)
“We have started these executions by hanging two terrorists,” Anti-Terrorism Minister Shuja Khanzada said. “Today’s executions of terrorists will boost the morale of the nation, and we are planning to hang more terrorists next week.”
They were identified as Rasheed Qureshi, Zubair Ahmad, Ghulam Sarwar and Akhlas Akhlaq Ahmed. The last of these men was a Russian national, who protested in vain that he had not even been in Pakistan during the terror plot.
Jordan also ended an eight-year moratorium on executions on December 21, 2014 and did so in volume — hanging no fewer than 11 people at dawn for murders dating back to 2005 and 2006.
Out on probation for an armed robbery conviction, this avatar of the classic middle name robbed a convenience store at gunpoint, then shot and killed a deputy who pursued him.
Georgia somehow didn’t have a state public defender system until 2003, a system presenting to the counties who were supposed to appoint indigent defense counsel on a local and ad hoc basis a fine opportunity for callous graft dovetailing the interests of the prosecutor’s office in winning its cases with court’s interest in pinching its pennies.
Accordingly, Baldwin County stuck Holsey with a man to test appellate courts’ standards for minimal representation, an alcoholic attorney named Andy Prince* who was rock-bottoming during the trial to the gobsmacking reported tune of a quart of vodka every night. Prince was disbarred shortly after Holsey’s conviction for robbing another client of $100,000.
According to a tragic Mother Jones profile, Prince, who was white, also happened to get in a dispute around this same time with a black neighbor and hurled some racist invective, which doesn’t seem ideal when your day job consists of trying to keep a black defendant off death row.
The late Prince — he died in 2011 — told an appeals court in 2006 that he “shouldn’t have been representing anyone,” but appeals courts, which must generally find that such “shoulds” clearly “would” have changed the trial outcome, have much less scope to act on the determination.
It’s a massive systemic cheat still in widespread use, albeit not always in such egregious fashion: use some underhanded means to get a death sentence on the books, then argue to every higher court that the deficiency can’t be proven certainly decisive vis-a-vis what might have happened in a fair fight. Do you know Holsey wouldn’t have received a death sentence? He did shoot a cop in the course of committing a violent felony, after all.
There are many general reasons why a robust defense might mitigate a sentence, but the specific reason of interest in Holsey’s case — a reason not litigated by Prince, an omission that likewise foreclosed appeals avenues — was that Holsey was severely mentally disabled.
With a testing IQ around 70, just at the border of the conventional definition for so-called “mental retardation,” Holsey had at the minimum a very strong card for the mitigation phase of the trial — if not an outright bar to execution.** Prince failed to play that card … and as of this date in 2014, American jurisprudence and the state of Georgia determined themselves content to leave it permanently face-down.
* The Guardian article cited in this post calls him Andy Price. As all other media citations I find call him Prince, I’m going with that — but as it’s likely that everyone is copying from the last story instead of doing original reportage, I’m not completely confident that it isn’t Price after all.
** Georgia was actually among the first states to bar the execution of mentally disabled prisoners — although paradoxically its early standard thereafter became one of the nation’s weakest as other states implemented their own over the years. The Supreme Court theoretically bars executing the mentally disabled, but as it has enforced no coherent standard the executing states themselves generally get to decide who qualifies.