Feb. 2


Death Row 2018 with Trevor McDonald review - clear-eyed detachment from the veteran journalist----After his award-winning 2013 documentary, McDonald vowed never to make another prison series. He changed his mind, and the result is deeply affecting

In 2013, Trevor McDonald presented Inside Death Row, a harrowing, award-winning documentary in which he interviewed men locked up in Indiana's state prison, particularly men who were waiting for their "date and time", as they put it - the date and time they would be executed for their crimes. He found the experience of making it so difficult to shake that he told the Radio Times he would "never, ever do another prison series". But something changed his mind, and Death Row 2018 with Trevor McDonald (ITV) brings him back to the same place, and many of the men, 5 years later.

The timing is crucial. A number of death-penalty states are engaged in an ongoing and emotionally charged debate about lifelong incarceration and the death sentence itself. McDonald tours a brand new execution chamber, shiny white and fresh, with features his host describes blithely as "nice" - separate viewing rooms for family of the victims and family of the prisoner. But many companies will no longer sell their drugs to Indiana for the purposes of execution; they do not consider it to be a "medical practice". Nobody has been put to death in 8 years.

There are plenty of men still waiting in line, however. McDonald meets 2 of his former subjects and there's ample footage from the original documentary to offer side-by-side comparison of what 5 years of waiting to die looks like. Ben Ritchie, who shot and killed a police officer, has a dry sense of humour about it. Fredrick Baer, who killed a mother and her 4-year-old daughter after breaking into their house, will be isolated for as long as he lives, owing to near constant attacks from inmates. There is, it seems, a scale of murder, even among murderers.

McDonald's interview with Baer is particularly grim - he admits that, even though he personally opposes the death penalty, Baer's crime makes him understand why people call for it. Also haunting is an extraordinary conversation with William Gibson, a convicted serial killer who has never given an interview about his crimes. Gibson has been sentenced to death for the murder of 3 women, but admits that the authorities probably only know about a tenth of what he's done. "I don't believe I got any of that," he shrugs, when McDonald questions his humanity. He giggles when he recalls what he did. It is utterly chilling.

As distressing, though in a cooler light, is an interview with Paul McManus, who murdered his wife and 2 children on the night she asked him for a divorce. His death sentence was commuted, but he wishes it had not been. He seems to be saying that he felt at peace with the finality of the judgment he was given in the first place. Life without the possibility of parole is worse, he says. Whether that brings comfort or more pain to the families of those he killed is another matter.

You know what you're getting with a Trevor McDonald documentary. He offers clear-eyed detachment, and, though his own views simmer underneath the surface, he rarely lets them into the narrative. While Louis Theroux, who covers similar ground, is warm and relatable, McDonald is precise and earns trust through his authority; it's a more old-fashioned journalistic approach. But that's not to say it lacks emotion. His time with 72-year-old barber Rick, a one-time armed robber who has lost all hope of ever being released, is deeply affecting, as is the conversation he has with Ronald L Sanford's mother, Pamela. Sanford was given a 170-year sentence at the age of 15 for a horrific double murder he committed when he was 13; McDonald digs into their relationship for the only real sliver of redemption here.

This is a delicately balanced documentary. In McDonald's interpretation, there is deep respect for the victims of these terrible crimes, and also a lingering question about the point of vengeance without any prospect of rehabilitation, about punishments that can seem arbitrary, and dependent on time, place and circumstance. In his closing voiceover, McDonald talks of remembering "wasted lives and grievous deeds". He says that, once again, the people he has met here will remain with him. Perhaps this is the last time he'll ever do a prison series. But perhaps there will be more.

(source: The Guardian)


Iowa lawmaker: House death penalty bill can't advance

A key Iowa lawmaker says there's not enough support to advance a House measure that seeks to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa.

The Des Moines Register reports that Public Safety Committee Chairman Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, says there aren't enough votes in the committee to advance the bill. The proposal would allow those convicted of 1st-degree murder to be executed by lethal injection. Iowa abolished the death penalty in 1965.

Baudler's comments came after an emotional public hearing on the bill Thursday. More than a dozen people spoke, with most opposing the bill.

Baudler says he hopes a Senate version of the bill - which would apply the death penalty only to those convicted of kidnapping, sexually abusing and killing a minor - would find support in the House.

(source: Associated Press)


Legislators hold a hearing on the death penalty bill.

A bill that would reinstate the death penalty in Iowa has cleared initial review in the Iowa House, but its future is in doubt after the legislator assigned to guide the bill through debate says he's a "no" if it comes up for a vote in committee.

Representative Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison, said "conceptually and morally," he believes the death penalty is appropriate for certain horrific crimes.

"Yet practically, I arrived at a different conclusion than I expected," Holt said. "I have always believed that life in prison costs taxpayers so much money, yet I found out in researching this legislation it costs more to have someone on death row."

Holt said he's also struck by how many individuals have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row.

"As a result of DNA evidence, we're seeing that more and more today," Holt said. "And it really strikes me deep, the thought of executing someone who is innocent."

Holt said administering the death penalty fairly was something he struggled with the most.

"Statistics show, without a doubt, that those of lesser means are more likely to receive the death penalty than are those with greater assets and ability to hire the best attorneys, so my conclusion after researching this bill was not exactly what I expected," Holt said. "I support the death penalty in theory and believe it is absolutely morally o.k. based upon my faith, but I have great issues with its practical and fair application."

Holt's announcement came at the conclusion of a statehouse hearing on a bill that would allow capital punishment. The 1st to testify was John Wolfe of Clinton, the father of State Representative Mary Wolfe. 2 of his daughters who lived in Pittsburg were murdered 4 years ago and the man found guilty of the crime was sentenced to life in prison.

"The good thing about that is it ended it. It did not go on," Wolfe said. "...It probably takes 25 years for someone who is executed to go through everything involved in the process. This is over as far as we're concerned."

Many who testified were pastors. Dave Martin of the Faith Assembly of God Church in Marshalltown expressed support for the death penalty in rare circumstance.

"We have mixed feelings in this in our denomination. We believe, though, that the scripture shows us capital punishment under premeditated murder would happen in the Old Testament, carried over into the New Testament as well," Martin said. "...We need to pray for extreme wisdom as you go about doing your business...that God would help us find the right answer."

Reverend David Sickelka, senior pastor at the United Church of Christ in Urbandale, spoke against the bill on behalf of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.

"If the death penalty does not deter crime, is not applied equitably, saps our justice system of resources and cannot be reversed when there are errors, then it is not just. It is simply vengeance," Sickelka said. "I implore you to stop this legislation."

The Interfaith Alliance submitted a letter signed by 176 Iowa clergy who oppose the death.



Man to stand trial in shooting deaths of 3 in Omaha

A judge has ordered an Omaha man to stand trial in the fatal shootings of his parents and niece in a case that could see him facing the death penalty.

46-year-old John Dalton Jr. was ordered to stand trial Wednesday following his preliminary hearing. He is charged with 3 counts of 1st-degree murder and four weapon charges in the Dec. 26 deaths of 70-year-old John Dalton Sr., 65-year-old Jean Dalton and 18-year-old Leonna Dalton-Phillip. Police say another niece - a 6-year-old girl - hid under a couch and was able to identify John Dalton Jr. as the shooter.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine says his office still is looking at evidence to decide whether to pursue the death penalty.

Police say they arrested Dalton on Dec. 27 in Jackson, Tenn.

(source: Associated Press)


Judge upholds death penalty sentence for Rodney Berget

A Minnehaha County judge decided Thursday that a man who pleaded guilty to killing a correctional officer during an escape attempt does not have an intellectual disability and can face the death penalty.

Rodney Berget, 55, pleaded guilty in April 2012, to killing Ronald "R.J." Johnson in a failed prison escape attempt in April 2011 with fellow inmate Eric Robert. He was scheduled to face execution in May 2015, but his execution was stayed.

In a hearing this week, psychological experts and some of Berget's elementary school teachers and previous romantic interests testified about their experiences and opinions on Berget's functioning. A recording of an interview with a biographer interested in writing about Berget was played in court Wednesday.

Berget had tried to appeal the death penalty ruling, but later asked to withdraw the appeal against the wishes of his attorney.

Berget's attorney, Eric Schulte, told the judge he wanted to review Berget's functionality and mental capacity to see if he is even eligible for the death penalty.

Since then, attorneys have dug in deep to Berget's past to bring evidence on whether Berget has an intellectual disability.

Attorney General Marty Jackley has said since the appeal that he does not think Berget has an intellectual disability.

(source: Argus Leader)


Indy takes fight over Brauchler's office misconduct files to Supreme Court----What's at stake? The ability to assess the AG candidate's record prosecuting a death penalty case. And the public's ability to keep prosecutors and judges accountable.

The Colorado Independent has turned to the state Supreme Court for help in our fight to unseal records about prosecutorial misconduct in a death penalty case.

Earlier this week, we filed an emergency petition in response to a lower court's ruling that continues hiding from public view court records about wrongdoing in the 18th Judicial District Attorney's office. Retired Senior District Court Judge Christopher Munch gave no legal reasoning for his decision to keep sealing those documents, and we're asking the Supreme Court to require him to do so or to lift the seal.

For The Independent, the petition is a Hail Mary in our quest for details about misconduct by prosecutors under District Attorney George Brauchler's and his predecessor's watch in the case against Sir Mario Owens, a convicted murderer who is 1 of 3 men on Colorado's death row. The DA's office has been found by judges to have cut ethical corners in prosecuting Owens, and we're seeking the details, as well as records on file in the court in which prosecutors justified their actions. Based on those justifications, the judge to decide not to disqualify that office from proceeding with the case.

For the public, Coloradans' ability to hold prosecutors and judges to account pivots on the success of The Independent's petition.

"How can the public know that the criminal justice system is working like it should without access to court records, especially when those records involve something as consequential as a death penalty conviction?" says Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. "Access to court records is crucial for the public to hold the system accountable, and there must be compelling, well-articulated reasons for records to be sealed."

The records battle stems from the 2005 killings of Vivian Wolfe and her fiancee, Javad Marshall-Fields, son of Rhonda Fields, now a state senator from Aurora. The couple was gunned down just when Marshall-Fields was scheduled to testify against a suspect in a different murder case for which Owens ultimately was convicted.

Despite a strict requirement that prosecutors turn over evidence that could help a criminal defendant, the office - then under the watch of Brauchler's predecessor, Carol Chambers - failed to disclose facts to Owens' defense lawyers. Among them was evidence showing that, in exchange for a key witness' testimony, the office gave her a car, paid for other personal expenses, supplied her with sizable gift cards for groceries each month, and helped pull strings with authorities in other states so she could get her driver's license.

Based on that testimony and other evidence, Owens was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Brauchler, who replaced Chambers in 2013 and is now running for state Attorney General, kept the same two prosecutors working against Owens' appeal and they continued withholding evidence. Court records show they withheld witness protection files that should have been disclosed to Owens' defense counsel.

Owens' lawyers tried to have Brauchler's office removed from the case, citing rules of criminal conduct that say withholding evidence that could have swayed a jury against a guilty verdict amounts to prosecutorial misconduct. Under Colorado's capital punishment law, it's one of several reasons to disqualify a case from death penalty eligibility. When a life is on the line, the argument goes, rules of procedure matter more than ever. The District Court denied Owens' request to oust Brauchler's office from the case and to appoint a special prosecutor. In a court order in September, Judge Munch acknowledged DAs' misconduct by failing on at least 22 occasions to disclose or actively suppressing evidence that would have helped Owens. Still, Munch ruled that the cumulative impact of that misconduct wasn't enough to have infringed on Owens' right to a fair trial or to warrant lifting his death sentence.

Munch's order prompted The Independent to ask to see the court documents relating to prosecutorial misconduct. DAs blocked that effort , saying the records would "improperly serve as a reservoir of libelous statements for press consumption," and would embarrass Brauchler and harm his reputation. They asked the judge not only to deny our request to unseal the court records, but also to add yet another layer of secrecy by sealing their explanation for why he should do so.

Judge Munch handed down 2 orders earlier this month that, without citing any legal standards or analysis, granted the DA???s motion to seal the DA's new court filings and denied access to nearly all of the prosecutorial misconduct records, including the DA's responses and court orders. Though Munch's order recognizes The Independent's "legitimate interest in investigating the underlying facts and claims of alleged government misconduct," it doesn't say how or why he came to the conclusion that our "legitimate interest" is less weighty than what he refers to as Brauchler's "countervailing considerations." Again, those "countervailing considerations" are, too, shrouded in secrecy.

In response, The Independent submitted our emergency motion Monday asking the Supreme Court to force Judge Munch to either legally justify his decision or unseal the court documents. The petition begins with the following quote from the 1983 public records case, Cole v. Colorado: "A free self-governing people needs full information concerning the activities of its government not only to shape its views of policy and to vote intelligently in elections, but also to compel the state, the agent of the people, to act responsibly and account for its actions."

We're asking the Supreme Court to "clarify for trial judges throughout Colorado' that the public has a presumed right of access to documents on file in Colorado criminal cases, including documents related to prosecutorial misconduct. We're also asking justices to rule that the court records may not be sealed unless the government proves that secrecy is somehow necessary to protect an interest "of the highest order" and that it there are no "less restrictive" alternatives to do so.

The flap over the misconduct files mirrors similar struggles journalists and other members of the public have had inspecting court documents. There is a patchwork of varying policies and practices in - and even within - judicial districts throughout Colorado. And, all too often, access hinges on the personality and politics of the prosecutors and judges involved. The potential for embarrassment or political fallout shouldn't affect which court documents are accessible, watchdogs say.

"The district court judge's ruling demonstrates the need for a uniform, statewide standard for the sealing of criminal court files, one that is based on the public's First Amendment right to access those files," says Roberts of the Freedom of Information Coalition.

The group - of which The Independent is a member - has been urging the state judicial branch to adopt such a standard. As Roberts has reported, Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Jerry Jones aims to appoint a subcommittee to explore the idea.

(source: Colorado Independent)


Judge allows longer deadline for death penalty decision in Barrett case

A Laramie County District judge on Thursday granted prosecutors more time to decide whether to pursue the death penalty for a man accused of killing his girlfriend's 2-year-old son.

Thursday was the original deadline for which prosecutors had to notify the defense whether they planned to pursue capital punishment for John Barrett.

(source: Wyoming Tribune Eagle)


Sister of Seal Beach Massacre Victim Blasts Death Penalty During Panel

Bethany Webb took part in a Tuesday night panel discussion on the death penalty with a front page newspaper clipping about the 2011 Seal Beach mass shooting hanging down from her side of the table. Laura Webb Elody, Bethany's sister, was among the 8 victims pictured. Hattie Stretz, their mother, was also shot but emerged as the sole survivor of mass murderer Scott Dekraai's rampage at Salon Meritage.

"I paid a pretty big price to be up here," Webb said during the discussion. She recalled sitting down to watch General Hospital on the afternoon of Oct. 12, 2011 when breaking news about the mass shooting interrupted the program. "I have a moment where I can pinpoint where my life changed."

In a state where a majority of voters passed Prop. 66 in 2016 to speed up the death penalty process, it might seem reasonable to assume Webb to be among those favoring capital punishment, given what her family's gone through. But at the "Hey, Meet Your DA" event organized by the PEOPLE'S (People Enraged Over Prosecutors and Law Enforcement) Coalition at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim, she railed against executions by the state in no uncertain terms. "The death penalty is saying that...the only way we can feel better, the only thing that we can do to make justice is to kill this person," Webb said. "I reject that."

With the Dekraai case, Judge Thomas Goethals took the death penalty off the table last year citing the Orange County District Attorney's office and Orange County Sheriff's Department unwillingness to comply with his orders surrounding use of a jailhouse informant program in what's known as the OC Snitch Scandal. Goethals, who's since been promoted to the California Court of Appeal, previously moved to recuse the DA's office from the slam-dunk case. Instead of a date with death row, Dekraai was sentenced to eight consecutive life sentences. Webb took a stack of front page newspaper stories about the controversial murder trial and plopped them onto the table. She then lifted one with the picture of DA Tony Rackauckas, described as her "least-favorite person," prominently featured.

"Open and shut case and they cheated!" Webb said. "Why? Because that's what they do. They do it when they don't need to and when they do need to."

Tina Jackson, an activist with Angels for Justice Orange County, moderated the panel discussion. It also featured the insights of Geri Silva, founding member of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, and UC Irvine professor Keramet Reiter. Together they hit on key abolitionist viewpoints: that the death penalty is costly and ineffective as a deterrent. And, it's immoral to boot. "That just adds to it, being able to kill people 'legally,'" Silva said. "That pain doesn't go away."

With a yellow "Help wanted: Prosecutors to change the word" banner hanging from the table where panelists sat, professor Reiter honed in on that point in regards to the death penalty. "There's a real power imbalance with prosecutors and it's much harder to see," she said. "They have all the incentives in the world to keep winning these cases. Thinking about the way the system is structured is really important in making sense of it."

An American Civil Liberties Union of California fact sheet circulated at the event supported that contention with regards to OC by noting that the OCDA's budget for the last fiscal year checked in at $138.8 million while the Public Defender's Office, who take death penalty cases like Dekraai, is almost 1/2 the size with $74.1 million in funding.

Webb warned of a possible slew of executions in the year to come thanks to Prop. 66 while touting the DA candidacy of Democrat Brett Murdock. Before the night ended, she had one more damning criticism for Murdock's incumbent opponent and his zeal for the death penalty.

"When the Orange County District Attorney can stand up and say 'I want to start executing people quicker' and yet he knows that a dozen people going back as far as 18 years were innocent," Webb said, "I want you to tell me what separates that man from the man that killed 8 people the day that [he] killed my sister."

(source: ocweekly.com)
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