Feb. 13


Solitary confinement for death row inmates debated amid lawsuit

In Harrisburg, Pa. at Graterford and Greene state prisons, 5 inmates on death row have sued, challenging the policy of solitary confinement. They were assisted by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Studies Project and 3 law firms. The inmates involved in the suit are Ronald Gibson (49), Jermont Cox (46), Anthony Reid (50), Ricardo Natividad (49) and Mark Newton Spotz (46). All of the aformentioned inmates have spent between 15 and 27 years on death row. The lawsuit requests the prisons terminate mandatory solitary confinement. This ruling could affect the 156 men currently on death row at the prisons.

Only 3 people have been executed by Pennsylvania since 1976, and these 3 individuals gave up their appeals voluntarily.

As of now, according to the lawsuit and prisoner testimony detail, death row inmates are kept in cells the size of a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day. They change cells roughly every 3 months. The Morning Call's Mark Scolforo notes, "The men may not participate in prison vocational, recreational or educational programs, nor can they join in any communal worship." Additionally, outdoor exercise is permitted for no more than 2 hours.

The case argues that the current conditions of solitary confinement for death row inmates violates the 8th and 14th amendments. The 8th amendment concerns cruel and unusual punishment. The 14th concerns equal protection under the law.

The lawsuit says the following about the current policy: "The devastating effects of such prolonged isolation are well known among mental health experts, physicians and human rights experts in the United States and around the world. It is established beyond dispute that solitary confinement puts prisoners at risk of substantial physical, mental and emotional harm."

Scolforo says the Corrections Department spokesperson "said officials have begun making changes that will let death row inmates have more time outside of their cells. She said all death row inmates with serious mental illnesses are currently permitted time out of their cells to receive therapeutic treatment services."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that the lawsuit says the following: "These restrictions, taken in [total], deprive death-sentenced prisoners of virtually all meaningful human contact. Indeed, on weekdays when no exercise is permitted and on most weekends, a few words exchanged with an officer as a food tray is delivered or removed may be the only human contact that a death-sentenced prisoner experiences - if he experiences even that."

Governor Tom Wolf (D) has placed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state of Pennsylvania 3 years ago. He said he felt Pennsylvania had "a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive." This moratorium will remain until a study of capital punishment commissioned by the state senate is finished. The Philly Inquirer staff writer Samantha Melamed feels that the future of the death penalty will be a factor in the governor's race, citing that York County's Scott Wagner (R) has promised, "within 48 hours," to reverse the moratorium. The Abolitionist Law Center's Bret Grote said, "They didn't begin their time in solitary with mental health issues, but now are on the mental health roster. It's a trajectory of despair and hopelessness."

Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Witold "Vic" Walczak said, "These folks have been sentenced to death. They haven't been sentenced to a lifetime of psychological torture."

Walczak continues, "We stand by the description of conditions in the complaint. Whatever the [Department of Corrections] may be doing is either in the planning or not-yet-operational stage. Any lessening of restrictions is welcome, but this is one of the most severe systems of isolation in the country so they've got a long way to go."

(aouexw: Halle Nelson is a 4th-year student majoring in communication studies with minors in deaf studies and English literature----The Quad)


Donald Smith trial Monday: What to expect

The Donald Smith trial begins in earnest Monday. After a long week of jury selection, a panel of 12 jurors and 4 alternates will hear opening statements in the death penalty case. It is the start of what they have repeatedly been warned is a horrific, "gut-wrenching" parade of facts.

Smith is charged with 1st-degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping in the June 2103 death of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle. He has pleaded not guilty.

The 1st phase of the trial, called the guilt phase, is expected to take about 4 days. If the jury finds Smith guilty, the trial will move to a penalty phase, which would take another 3 days.

Under Florida's new death penalty law, it is up to jurors alone to decide whether he deserves life in prison or a sentence of death. A death verdict must be unanimous.

So who are the jurors? They are predominately minority and overwhelmingly female. First Coast News is electing not indicate which panelists are actual jurors, and which are alternates since they themselves do not know, but here are some general notes on the panel of 12:

6 have children -- mostly adult children, but 2 have children under the age of 10.

They range in age from 30 to early 60s

They are largely working class

Several have heard about the case, but none followed it. Most say they don't watch local news.

Asked to rank their support of the death penalty on a scale of 1-5, most gave it a 2.5 or 3. One described the death penalty as "unfortunate but necessary," another as "a necessary evil." All 12 said they could issue a death verdict, if warranted.

1 woman said the jury selection process alone had caused her thinking to evolve, and that she believed she could determine a just punishment for Smith.

"At first I didn't think I could, but during this process, I've found in myself that I could. I have a different take just being here. I was able to see him as a human being."

(source: First Coast News)


Prosecutor will seek the death penalty if Westerville shooting suspect survives

The man identified by police as the suspect in the killing of 2 veteran law enforcement officers was prohibited from having a weapon by law, records show.

Incident reports released by the Westerville Police Department show 30-year-old Quentin Smith's wife, Candace, 33, had told police in November her husband carried a "gun all of the time."

Officers Anthony Morelli, 54, and Eric Joering, 39 arrived at the Smith residence on Crosswind Drive at 12:10 p.m. and were "immediately met with gunfire," Westerville police Chief Joe Morbitzer said at news conference Saturday.

Joering, a 17-year police veteran, was pronounced dead at the scene. Morelli was taken to the hospital, where he later died.

Smith was formally charged in Franklin County Municipal Court with 2 counts of aggravated murder on Sunday.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said he would pursue the death penalty for Quentin Smith if he survives his injuries.

"It would be a death penalty case," he said. Smith was convicted of burglary in 2008 and spent time in prison. This conviction barred him from legally being able to carry a gun.

In a report from Nov. 29, Smith's wife reportedly told officers she knew her husband was not allowed to have a gun.

"He gave money to a friend of his and the friend purchased (the gun) for him," she told police, according to the report.

When police located Smith a short time later, they searched both him and his vehicle and found no gun.

Smith's criminal history is concentrated in his home county of Cuyahoga, near Cleveland.

Records show Smith lived in a suburb of Cleveland and was arrested in 2007 and charged with felonious assault, however, that case was later dismissed.

In 2008, Smith was charged with aggravated burglary and felonious assault. He ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of burglary and domestic violence.

Smith had also been charged on at least 2 other occasions with domestic violence, however, both of those cases were dismissed, according to records.

Smith and his wife also filed for bankruptcy in 2017, listing more than $100,000 in debts. In the filing, a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun is listed as being owned by the couple.

Police have not said what type of gun was used in the fatal shooting.

Piecing together what happened

Chief Morbitzer during a Sunday morning news conference told residents to expect cruisers from other departments "all patrolling our streets to give our folks a break and time to process."

"The Columbus team that's investigating this murder of 2 officers, they were diligent in their investigation to ensure we get a prosecution," Morbitzer said.

In police radio traffic released to the media Saturday, dispatchers say 3 officers responded to the scene, knocked on the door, then heard shots fired that resulted in two officers down.

Charles Sellevaag, a neighbor of the Smiths, on Sunday told The Enquirer he saw an officer drag his colleague out of an apartment building.

"He ripped open his shirt and started screaming officer down," said Sellevaag, 49.

In 911 audio, Candace Smith told a dispatcher she was hiding in bushes outside the residence and her daughter was still inside with Quentin Smith. Police radio traffic indicated officers found the child on a couch while holding Quentin Smith at gunpoint.

Quentin Smith's status and location remain unclear. Officials at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center first said he wasn't a patient, then said he was at nearby Mount Carmel Saint Ann's. Saint Ann's referred reporters back to OSU.

As of Sunday afternoon, Quentin Smith was not booked in the Franklin County Correction Center.

(source: cincinnati.com)


Ending death penalty could help solve cold cases----The money saved on death penalty trials is better spent to investigate unsolved murders and rapes.

When I heard that a Senate committee in Washington's Legislature voted to end the death penalty recently, I felt a sense of hope mixed with cautious optimism.

I have been an unlikely supporter of an end to capital punishment in Washington for nearly 15 years. My brother, Robert Kerr, was found brutally murdered in Snohomish County in 2003, and his murder remains unsolved to this day. My hope is that the money the state saves by ending the death penalty can be re-directed to work on unsolved violent crimes.

When I first learned of my brother's death, I expected justice to be swift and certain. His body was found on the side of the road by a Sunday paper delivery truck driver. He had been severely beaten and strangled. His wallet was missing; his credit cards were stolen, his bank accounts emptied.

For the next few years, I was in regular contact with the Snohomish County Sheriff's detective assigned to the investigation of his murder. Most of that time we simply waited, while the crime lab worked its way through a backlog of evidence. Work on the evidence in Bob's murder and other pending cases was subject to interminable delays.

I couldn't understand why the process was taking so long. Bob's killer was out on the streets, and there seemed to be no justice in sight. When I inquired about the delays, I was told there was not enough funding to support another crime lab, so evidence in many cases was delayed or simply not processed at all, while high profile capital cases took precedent.

Today, I still stay in contact with and have great respect for the detectives in Everett. My family still waits for Bob's killer to be identified, prosecuted, and sentenced, but I don't have much hope. Several years ago, I heard that the King County Sherriff's Office's would shut down its cold-case squad indefinitely because of a lack of resources. At the time, there were 228 cold cases in that county waiting to be solved. This kind of news brings only sadness to families in my position, and should outrage all citizens.

This is why I have consistently supported ending the death penalty in Washington state. While the state continues to waste millions of dollars each year prosecuting a few high-profile killers, hundreds of cold cases go unsolved, and perpetrators walk the streets.

One recent study by Seattle University found that death penalty cases cost at least $1 million more than murder cases in which life without parole is sought instead. All of that extra money is spent to execute someone who is already safely behind bars. Yet, there is no realistic way to make the death penalty process cheaper due to the risk of wrongful conviction and execution.

In Washington state, there have been at least 47 wrongful convictions for serious crimes, including one man who was wrongfully sentenced to death. This makes it clear that human error will never be eliminated; wrongful execution is not an option at any price. The only way to prevent an execution of an innocent person is to eliminate the death penalty altogether.

My desire for swift justice in Bob's case evaporated many years ago, but repealing the death penalty and re-directing the resources to Washington's unsolved rapes and murders may bring justice for many other families that have suffered like mine.

Ending the death penalty can make the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of victims and survivors of violent crime. I hope the Legislature finally takes this opportunity to end the death penalty once and for all.

(source: Commentary; Judy Kerr is a retired nurse----heraldnet.com)


Charges expected that could tie MS-13 gang to Columbus killings

More indictments are expected in a case targeting a violent international street gang, MS-13, that could connect members to local homicides, sources confirmed to The Dispatch.

Those indictments could open the door for the U.S. attorney general's office to request the death penalty for members of the notorious Salvadoran gang who have been active in central Ohio for more than a decade and continue to aggressively recruit young members.

"It is a group that wants to grow, and is growing, in Columbus and elsewhere," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Martinez, who is prosecuting the case in the Southern District of Ohio.

The investigation is advancing as President Donald Trump cites the gang as "one of the most violent and vicious gangs anywhere in the world," and as an example of the need for immigration reform.

"We've really never seen anything quite like this - the level of ferocity, the level of violence, and the reforms we need from Congress to defeat it," Trump said at a roundtable discussion at the White House with law-enforcement officials last week.

The 1st series of indictments of MS-13 members in the Southern District were issued in July, charging them with extorting money from businesses and people to launder back to the gang's headquarters in the Central American nation of El Salvador. Additional indictments followed in December containing counts of money laundering and extortion, plus weapons- and drug-related charges, bringing the total number of members and associates charged to 14. The members are part of the organization's East Coast program.

2 defendants face charges of illegally re-entering the country, according to an indictment.

The 14 people indicted are from either El Salvador or neighboring Honduras, and only 1 entered the country legally, according to prosecutors. Trump announced plans last month to end the humanitarian program for Salvadorans who were allowed to come to the United States after earthquakes in 2001. Before that, the status was granted decades earlier during a civil war in the country.

"At least 1 of the individuals in there has had temporary protective status," Martinez said. "That's sort of in flux, too."

John Cronan, who is the acting assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's Criminal Division, said at the roundtable: "The Department of Justice will be surging," and "hundreds of federal prosecutors (will be sent) to the field, with specific directions to focus on violent crime and immigration."

Despite the strong rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, the MS-13 investigation in the Southern District began in 2015 during former President Barack Obama's administration, according to prosecutors.

"I think the current administration is more vocal about this particular gang, but the level of support has been the same," Martinez said. "People are very supportive of this case, and it's an important one to do."

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman of the Southern District of Ohio said prosecutors are "not allowed to say what we're recommending" regarding seeking the death penalty.

60 crimes, including murder and narcotics offenses, qualify for the death penalty.

"MS-13 members and associates in Ohio and elsewhere engage in a wide range of criminal activity, including but not limited to racketeering, murder, attempted murder, robbery, extortion, money laundering, drug trafficking, assault, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, weapons offenses and immigration-related violations," according to an indictment.

The last gang that federal prosecutors in the district identified and prosecuted was the Short North Posse. 20 members were indicted, and of those, 1 died awaiting trial, 13 pleaded guilty and the other 6 went to trial and were sentenced to life in prison.

"We showed we can do it, and that's knowledge we can use moving forward," Glassman said.

Some local slayings have the hallmarks of MS-13's brutal style: Machetes or similar bladed weapons were used to stab or hack the victims. Prosecutors declined to discuss the number, or specific homicide cases, when asked.

The Dispatch reported at least 2:

- In 2015, the body of a 17-year-old male was found in a shallow grave in Innis Park. The body had been chopped 69 times in the head, neck and torso, and the upper left arm was severed. On the youth's lower back were tattoos reading "North Side" and "Hecho en El Salvador."

- The body of a 38-year-old male was found nearby in a shallow grave and had stab wounds in the torso. The level of decomposition required Ohio State University's anthropology department to examine the remains, according to a coroner's report.

MS-13 is the only gang that has been dubbed by federal authorities as a "transnational criminal organization." More than 10,000 members and associates are in the United States, and they operate in at least 39 other states in addition to Ohio. Federal officials said about 3,000 members are in the Washington, D.C., metro area and elsewhere in northern Virginia.

To provide context, Martinez said that's 20 to 30 cliques, or smaller organized cells. In Columbus, 1 clique has been identified. Prosecutors declined to say how many documented members and associates are in central Ohio.

(source: Columbus Dispatch)


Some US Senators Want 2nd Chance at Death Penalty Cases----Senators want to give federal prosecutors a 2nd shot at the death penalty in capital cases.

In 2013 Officer Eric Williams was brutally murdered by an inmate at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Jessie Con Ui was convicted of the crime, and at the trial 11 of the 12 jurors voted to give Con Ui the death penalty for the crime. The hold out spared his life, and instead he received a life sentence without parole.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR.) stated: "I think its a complete miscarriage of justice and it essentially declares open hunting season on prison guards and prison employees." He points out that Con Ui was already serving a life sentence for another killing, and because of these says that William's murder essentially went unpunished.

On Wednesday, Cotton and other Republican Senators Filed a bill they're calling "Eric's Law" that would give prosecutors the option of picking a 2nd jury if the 1st cannot reach a unanimous decision on the death penalty.

Attorney Mark Macdougall, who has defended 7 death penalty cases, questions the bills fairness, stating, ""What the prosecutors are seeking is lets get a do over, lets try again and i think that would be viewed by many people as being inconsistent with our system of justice."

Advocates against the death penalty also say that the bill won't make federal executions more likely, but say it could prolong cases and make them more costly.

(source: arkansasmatters.com)

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