1996: Richard Townes, Jr.

Add comment January 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1996, the executioners of Richard Townes, Jr., mucked about for 22 minutes looking for a vein before sticking the lethal injection needle into his foot. (Source)

The Vietnam veteran’s last words were murmured to the prison warden, an assertion of innocence in the execution-style murder of convenience store worker Virginia Goebel in 1985.

He didn’t have a lot of takers; even the de rigueur anti-death penalty protesters outside the prison were reportedly nowhere to be found.

Townes’s clemency push turned on a once common issue now largely passe: his trial jurors were concerned that the alternative “life” sentence might put the killer back on the street before his dotage. The panel asked the judge to clarify the matter, and in 1985, the judge wasn’t allowed to answer the question — even though the real answer was a reassuring “life means life.” In most jurisdictions, jurors are now entitled to know that information.

Once they got off the jury and found out the answer, two of Townes’s jurors regretted the death sentence sufficiently to sign affidavits opposing Townes’s execution.

“I would not have sentenced Mr. Townes to death had I known that a life sentence meant that he would have really served a life sentence and not been eligible for parole,” juror Ethel Keith said in an affidavit. “In fact, I do not believe any of the jurors would have sentenced him to die under those circumstances.” (Virginian-Pilot, Jan. 23, 1996)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Virginia

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2009: Khristian Oliver, Bible basher

32 comments November 5th, 2009 John Temple

(Thanks to John Temple, author of The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates and journalism professor at West Virginia University, for the guest post. -ed.)

Barring a last-minute stay of execution, Khristian Oliver will be put to death late this afternoon.

(Update: Khristian Oliver has indeed been executed as scheduled. His likeness lives on in an altarpiece made by his father, an artist.)

In 1998, Oliver, now 32, shot and killed a man whose home he was burglarizing. Oliver’s guilt isn’t being questioned. The argument his attorneys and supporters are using to stave off his upcoming execution has to do with how the jurors in his case handled his sentencing.

An Oct. 15 story in The Guardian described the scene in the jury room this way:

A clutch of jurors huddled in the corner with one reading aloud from the Book of Numbers: “The murderer shall surely be put to death” and “The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer.”

Another juror highlighted passages which she showed to a fellow juror: “And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, the murderer shall surely be put to death.” (Apparently one of the same passages, Numbers 35:16, in fuller context.)

Juries debating this most difficult decision often reach for Biblical guidance, and there are no shortage of verses that relate to capital punishment, including the famous “eye for an eye” passage(s). Courts have ruled this improper, not because the Bible is a religious document, but because it is extrinsic evidence, meaning it was not properly introduced as evidence.

The same issue arose in the central case in my new book, The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates.

To write the book, I shadowed a North Carolina legal team for four and a half years as they fought to overturn the death sentence of a man named Bo Jones. The attorneys crisscrossed the back roads of North Carolina to track down and interview most of the jurors from the trial, two of whom chased them off their property. In the end, the attorneys found one woman who claimed that a Baptist minister on the jury had brought a Bible into the room and quoted passages from it.

In the end, this claim didn’t help Bo Jones. A federal appeals judge threw it out, saying his lawyers hadn’t proved that the Bible-quoting had influenced the jury’s verdict. But Jones’s attorneys had plenty of other arguments up their sleeves, while Oliver’s supporters seem to be putting most of their emphasis on the Bible argument.

It remains to be seen whether this will bewas not enough to spare his life.

Update: Prolific death penalty defense attorney David R. Dow (author of Autobiography of an Execution) on his client, Khristian Oliver.

On this day..

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

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