2017: Robert Pruett

4 comments October 12th, 2017 Headsman

Texas this evening executed Robert Pruett, a 38-year-old man who last saw the outside of prison as a 15-year-old boy … and who perhaps had no hand in either of the murders that defined his life and death.

He was sent to jail as a child under the “law of parties” for being present when his father stabbed a neighbor to death — an offense that caught him an unthinkable 99-year sentence before he was old enough to drive.

It’s claimed by way of justifying his death by lethal injection tonight that in 1999 he murdered a guard. Pruett has always denied this and has never been linked by physical evidence to the murder — a very late attempt at DNA testing yielded a frustratingly indecisive outcome — and the testimony against him consisted of prisoners whose status as wards of the state issuing the prosecution predictably compromises their evidence. Pruett never quite had conclusive proof of his innocence so his “merely” questionable guilt fits a depressingly frequent pattern: use the prosecutor’s muscle to get a conviction on the books, then ride procedural inertia all the way to the gurney.

Anti-death penalty nun Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame has a Twitter thread summarizing the case for Pruett beginning here.

Innocent or guilty, Pruett is — was — a man of unusual erudition. A blogspot blog last updated in 2007 has some fascinating reflections from a much younger man, years before he was a figure of interest for New York Times op-eds.

As I lie awake at night pondering my predicament, a feeling of futility envelopes me. The maxim that had once helped me develop an insatiable will wants to fade away. I waited too long to fight, says some voice that I hardly recognize as my own. It’s over. I should acquiesce to my fate … Yet there’s another voice from the depths of my soul rebuking the other, warning me against throwing the towel in. I’m not a quitter, it says, I can do this if I set my mind to it. That sounds more like the Robert I know. There’s still time to prove my innocence. It’s foolish to waste it with all the negative thoughts of defeat.

Just three days before Pruett’s execution, Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson wrote a captivating review of a nine-chapter autobiography of Pruett’s that demands a full read. I have not been able to locate a link to the actual autobiography itself and would be grateful for anyone who might be able to direct me; nevertheless, Robinson’s lengthy excerpts achingly humanize the late writer from his behind-the-8-ball childhood to his maturation under the executioner’s very long shadow.

It wasn’t until I got to death row that I realized my ignorant and hateful views on race were a reflection/projection of how I felt about myself, that I’d constructed a complex ideology totally rooted and parallel to the things I most disliked about me. I used to go on tangents about the criminality exhibited by the black youth of America, how it needs to be addressed and curbed, but the truth was that I was talking about myself the entire time and didn’t even realize it. It’s a truth that we project onto others the things we most hate about ourselves. Carl Jung said that our shadow selves, the part of our psyches that we store repressed emotional themes and the aspects of our personalities we dislike, is represented by what we hate/dislike in others. You are what you hate …

Somehow, I believe it took me coming here, living the life of extreme adversity that I have, in order to conquer my shadow and grow in the ways I have … I needed to have my life ripped away from me, to face a hopeless situation and experience great loss and pain in order to finally break through and spread my own wings.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA,Wrongful Executions

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2017: Ledell Lee

2 comments April 20th, 2017 Headsman

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 day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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2017: Seven in Kuwait, including a sheikh

3 comments January 25th, 2017 Headsman

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.

The Philippines was exercised over the fate of its national, Jakatia Pawa — a domestic worker condemned for stabbing her employer’s adult daughter to death. Kuwait is the sixth-largest destination for the vast expatriate labor sector known as Overseas Filipino/a Workers (OFWs).

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 day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kidnapping,Kuwait,Mass Executions,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Royalty,Women

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2017: Christopher Wilkins, straight talker

Add comment January 11th, 2017 Headsman

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.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Texas,USA

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