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.
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.”
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.”
China today carried out the controversial execution of Jia Jinglong, a peasant who found a nail gun was his only avenue of redress.
Jia’s village home in the northern Hebei province was demolished three years ago at the order of a local Communist chief who subsequently balked the family of compensation. (They got a small apartment in a high-rise.)
Rapacious developers backed by the power of the state expropriating dwelling-places in an environment of weak legal protections make for one of the most deeply felt abuses in boomtime China, and it goes without saying that it’s a racket where the wealthy and powerful dip their beaks and the other 99% shift as they can and nurse futile grudges. According to the Associated Press, Jia’s village near the city of Shijiazhuang “is overwhelmed by a cacophony of drilling, pounding and jack-hammering coming from construction sites. More than a dozen cranes could be seen in the distance, adjacent to high-rise apartment towers still being built.” As if to add a literary flourish to the injury, Jia also lost the girl in the end as his fiancee, now deprived the prospective roof over her head, promptly called off the wedding.
“What he has experienced is what many are going through or will be going through,” Jia’s sister Jia Jingyuan told reporters. “Because my brother is part of this society’s underclass, he represents the lives of many ordinary people.”
That’s because Jia Jinglong didn’t allow his grudge to remain futile: he used a nail gun to murder the local party chief who wrecked his house and life. It is hardly the only time that a desperate common person has lashed back at the cruelties of state capitalism with the pleasurable self-destruction of personal violence.
While premeditated homicide with a power tool is surely your basic capital case in any jurisdiction keen on the death penalty, the story behind it brought most of China to Jia’s defense; even some state media editorialized for abating the sentence. That wasn’t only in a spirit of vicariously joining the man’s revenge: the severity of the law towards an ordinary citizen charged with slaying an official raised an obvious equal-treatment grievance when contrasted with the likes of the wife of disgraced party boss Bo Xilai, who had a British businessman assassinated but still dodged execution.
(In fairness to the People’s Republic, China has executed powerfulofficials and plutocrats in various other recent high-profile cases.)
Thanks to Twitter friends including @jewssf and @luimnea for tipping me this story.
This morning, Iraq hanged 36 men in Nasiriyah prison for a 2014 sectarian massacre perpetrated by the emerging Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).
After months’ gestation in the Syrian civil war, the Sunni ISIS in June 2014 burst out of its enclaves and in the course of a few jeep-racing weeks gobbled upper Mesopotamia. It publicly declared its border-straddling conquests the Caliphate on June 29, 2014.
Iraq’s army mostly melted away ahead of the onrushing threat that summer, abandoning weapons and fleeing while ISIS overran Mosul on June 10, then advanced another 200 km to snatch Saddam Hussein‘s birthplace of Tikrit the very next day.
On June 12, ISIS fighters proceeded out of Tikrit to the adjacent air academy Camp Speicher.* There they abducted only the Shia cadets, including about 400 from southern Iraq’s Shia Dhiqar province, and mass-executed an estimated 1,600 — atrocities they took pains to document in a nauseating propaganda video showing dazed and pleading youths trucked to a forlorn ditch where they are laid flat and fusilladed by the dozen, while others are shot from a gore-soaked pier into the Tigris. (The video is available here.)
“The executions of 36 convicted over the Speicher crime were carried out this morning in Nasiriyah prison. The governor of Dhiqar, Yahya al-Nasseri, and the justice minister, Haidar al-Zamili, were present to oversee the executions,” according to an Iraqi spokesman a few hours ago.
Jones was a prolific penpal correspondent who had won a worldwide following as he fought his death sentence over half a lifetime.
His accomplice Van Roosevelt Solomon was electrocuted all the way back in 1985 for the same convenience store robbery-murder;* as Liliana Segura recently noted in The Intercept, Jones’s case is heavy with the arbitrariness of capital cases — not only that Jones outlived Solomon by three decades, but also that in that span many other Georgians have committed homicides equal to his in tragic banality, served a term of years for it, and been released. It needs hardly even be said that Jones, like 54 of the other 60 people executed by Georgia since the 1970s, had a white victim: that’s a disparity that courts have washed their hands of even though it was one of the constitutional concerns that led a former incarnation of the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate death penalty statutes in 1972.
While Jones’s death is headline news, his case dates to the earliest years of what is dignified the “modern” death penalty period and as such might more closely resemble the preceding era than the one we inhabit today.
It’s almost a time capsule of the jurisprudence — and sociology — touching capital punishment, even including Jones’s unluckily-timed appeal victory that led to a new sentencing hearing during the gung-ho-to-execute 1990s. Even if the distance of time is extreme, more typical death penalty lags of 8, 10, 15 years mean that most present-day executions are ripples of receding public policy sensibilities — “zombie cases” in the words of Southern Center for Human Rights director Stephen Bright. People like Brandon Jones “almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today,” when prosecutors, judges, and juries all show growing reluctance to don the black cap. But it’s a very different story for those is already tangled in the coils of the system.
* A policeman happened to be arriving right to the same store on a coincidental errand when the crime went down, so the culprits were arrested before they made it off the parking lot.
Minutes before dawn prayers today, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain in Karachi Central Jail.*
He’s the latest casualty of Pakistan’s wild death penalty resurgence following last December’s bloody terrorist attack on a Peshawar school — leading Islamabad to break a moratorium on carrying out the death sentences that it was continuing to hand down.
And how! According to the BBC, today’s hanging brings to 193 the total of people put to death in the little more than half-year since; Pakistan could stop hanging today (it won’t) and easily rank among 2015’s execution leaders by the end of the year.
Though the first victims of the new policy were people previously death-sentenced for terrorism, and thereby at least thematically linked to the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan by March had dropped the distinction and commenced hanging prisoners by the fistful for ordinary crimes, too.
Shafqat Hussain’s name has repeatedly entered the news cycle during that time, as he has faced and then avoided multiple execution dates, most recently this past June 9. Some have gone to the very brink, and seen the young man reprieved moments from donning his hanging-shroud.
Hussain denied committing the crime laid at his door — the abduction and murder of a 7-year-old boy in the area where he worked as a watchman — but a confession “allegedly” obtained by torture doomed him. Guilt aside, the matter garnered worldwide headlines (and advocacy) largely on account of his youth: Hussain and his advocates say he was a minor of age 14 or 15 when arrested; Pakistani courts have found him to have been 23. (!) It is this dispute about the age that has been at the center of Shafqat Hussain’s recent heart-stopping cycle of appeals and stays.
Shortly before his execution, Shafqat Hussain put his byline to a compelling first-person testimonial for CNN about life on Pakistan’s death row and the experience of nearing an imminent execution date.
When the jailer tells me that my execution date has been set, he separates me immediately from the other prisoners. I spend all seven days by myself in a cell in the barracks for prisoners about to be executed. They conduct a physical exam every one of those seven days. They weigh me every day, take my blood pressure and temperature as well.
On the last two days they also measure my height, my neck and my body for the clothes I am to wear when they hang me.
One day before my hanging, they tell me about my final visit with my family and that I need to execute my will. I cannot really say what I am thinking in those last seven days. My brain is thinking all sorts of things.
* According to a brother, who told AFP that “there is a cut mark on his neck and half of his neck is separated from his body,” they did not hang him very well.
Moments after midnight today, Indonesia shot eight men for drug trafficking.
Coffins and grave markers for the condemned, readied prior to their executions.
Bitterly controversial in Australia and dominating headlines there at this hour, the execution’s most prominent victims were Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, condemned as ringleaders of an Australian drug-smuggling ring dubbed the Bali Nine. (The other seven members of the ring have prison sentences.)
Australia has reportedly withdrawn its ambassador to Indonesia to protest Jakarta’s turning a deaf ear to the many public and private appeals it has floated on behalf of its citizens.
The others shot early this morning were:
Nigerians Okwuduli Oyatanze, Martin Anderson, Raheem Agbaje Salami, and Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise
Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte
Indonesian Zainal Abidin
The party of eight was initially to be as many as ten. Frenchman Serge Atlaoui mounted a legal challenge that has for now delayed his execution; Filipina Mary Jane Veloso, who has claimed that she was completely unaware of the heroin hidden in her luggage when she arrived in Indonesia as an Overseas Filipina Worker, was spared just minutes before the execution at Manila’s urgent request when the woman alleged to have been her handler turned herself into police in the Philippines. But neither Atlaoui’s nor Veloso’s death sentence has actually been lifted, and both could eventually be shot to death
Chan’s and Sukumaran’s executions in particular are playing worldwide as a stark culture clash relative to a West that is more and more backing off the drug war,* especially given the widely advertised rehabilitation of Bali Nine duo. Chan found god; Sukumaran, a passion for painting.
Myuran Sukumaran’s ominous painting from just a few days ago: “Time is Ticking: Self-Portrait”
But one of the most self-evident readings of the affair is as a banal exercise in political expedience.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who hasn’t the firmest grasp on power in his country, has a surefire political winner in executing drug smugglers — plus a cherry on top for defying Australian meddling into the bargain.
Not that Widodo was ever likely to waver, but his southern neighbor’s great gnashing of teeth probably only strengthened his resolve to pull the trigger. If the intent of Indonesia’s death sentence is to scare prospective mules off crossing Indonesian soil, it was so much free advertising.
“This cannot be simply business as usual,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said — but both leaders know the score. Countries don’t undo statecraft for common criminals.
Feelings are sure to be raw for the immediate future, and matters might develop quickly for the still-ongoing sagas of Serge Atlaoui and Mary Jane Veloso. Live blogs at the Guardian have a fascinatingly wide spectrum of reaction (Twitter intervention by @AxlRose!) from the evening of the execution and its aftermath.
“They dressed him up in white uniform for the execution,” Hussain’s brother* told the press. “Then they asked him to write his last will. He wrote: ‘I am innocent. They want to hang me for a crime I have not committed, to save others who have been freed.'”
Shafqat Hussain’s family reportedly produced a birth certificate supporting its contention that Hussain was 14 when arrested. Pakistan has contended that he was 23.
* Some news stories are naming that brother as “Gul Zaman” which is also the name reported for one of the killers hanged today. I’m not sure if this is media sloppiness, or if there are two distinct people involved in the day’s drama who happen to share a name.
Repudiating its former death penalty moratorium with bombast, the government of Pakistan hanged 12 men today.
From 2008 to 2014, Pakistan while continuing to hand down death sentences had suspended their completion; a soldier condemned by court-martial and hanged in 2012 was the sole execution during that period.
Islamabad resumed executions almost immediately thereafter, explicitly as a response to that atrocity. Those were, at first, hangings of prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offenses — not connected to Peshawar per se but tit-for-tat in at least a thematic fashion.
Approximately 27 terrorists with pre-existing death sentences hanged over the ensuing weeks.
But in keeping with the tradition of our age, “just terrorists” was just the camel’s nose under the tent.
Earlier this very month, the Interior Ministry announced an end to the death penalty moratorium for all crimes — casting many more people under the pall of potentially imminent execution.
The execution of death sentences may be carried out strictly as per the law and only where all legal options and avenues have been exhausted and mercy petitions under Article 45 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been rejected by the president.
Pakistan has continued even during the moratorium to be one of the most active death-sentencing countries in the world, and has an estimated 8,000 “ordinary” condemned criminals. Because many — up to 1,000 — of those prisoners’ judicial processes and clemency appeals ran their course during the time of the moratorium, and because President Nawaz Sharif has shown an avidity in the three months since Peshawar for the hangman’s services, it has been feared that Pakistan’s execution toll this year could easily vault straight into the triple digits.
Different media outlets are giving slightly different rosters of the executed this morning, and Zafar Iqbal confusingly appears to be a name shared by two different prisoners — so this list (via the Pakistan Tribune) is offered only tentatively pending more definitive revisions. It appears to me that all or nearly all committed murder, often in the course of some other crime such as robbery or rape.
Multan (1) — Zafar Iqbal (another man there named Wazar Nazir was reportedly reprieved at the last moment)
Karchi (2) — Muhammad Faisal and Muhammad Afzal
Faisalabad (1) — Muhammad Nawaz
Rawalpindi (2) — Malik Muhammad Nadeem Zaman and Muhammad Jawed
Gujranwala (1) — Muhammad Iqbal
Jhang (3) – Muhammad Riaz, Muhammad Sharif, and Mubashir Ali (or Abbas?)
Mianwali (2) — Rab Nawaz and Zafar Iqbal
The hanged Muhammad Afzal’s shrouded body is received by his brother in Karachi.
A second man in Multan, named Wazar Nazir, was reported reprieved at the last moment, as was an Asghar Ali in Dera Ghazi Khan.