Three executions


The United States has scheduled three executions this week” Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia, Richard Glossip in Oklahoma and Alfredo Prieto in Virginia.

Gissendaner’s children are pleading for her life. They and others who know her say she epitomizes the prison system in that she has transformed herself behind bars. Gissendaner earned a degree in theology and ministers to fellow inmates. She is deeply remorseful for arranging the murder of her husband, Doug, in 1997. She doesn’t want freedom — she says she deserves a life in prison.

As I write this, a parole and pardons board in Georgia is meeting to reconsider an earlier decision to deny clemency.

Read my stories about Gissendaner here:

I spoke with Glossip in Oklahoma last January, days before an execution date was set back then. He has always maintained his innocence and told me he was afraid the state would botch his execution like they had Clayton Lockett’s. Read the story here:

Prieto  is a Salvadoran national who is lawyers say has an intellectual disability that would render his execution unconstitutional. You can read more about him here:

Here is the link to the Death Penalty Center:

Here is a pro-death penalty forum:

The United States is the only Western democracy that still has capital punishment. What do you think? Should we still have executions in this country?

‘Dead Man Walking.’ Live nun talking

On my last night in New Orleans, Sister Helen and I visited death penalty attorney Denny LaBoef at her home. Denny took this photo of us.

My journalism brings me face to face with all sorts of interesting people. Over the years I have met extraordinary men and women and ordinary ones who have extraordinary tales to tell.

Occasionally, I run into exceptional people, the kind who make me stop to reflect, respect and admire.

Sister Helen Prejean is one of them.

I’d known about her work for decades — I first learned about her ministry on death row when I, as a young reporter, began covering criminal justice issues in Florida. When her book, “Dead Man Walking” was published, I read it and immediately connected with her. She vomited after witnessing her first execution in the electric chair. So did I.

Last week, I was finally able to spend some time with her. She came to pick me up at the New Orleans airport. “Text me when eagle hits tarmac,” were her orders.

She was waiting patiently for me in her Toyota outside Delta baggage claim. Immediately, I got a first-hand experience of her lead-foot driving.

Over the next few days, I came to know a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the sisterhood, to the Catholic church, to the poor and disenfranchised. I also came to know a woman who is full of life and laughter and joy in her heart, despite the fact that she has been dealing with executions for 30 years. I could not get over her verve for life. I also gained a couple of pounds eating Oyster Po’ Boys with her. They were deelish.

My story on Sister Helen published today on Shortly after, I received another text from her — yes, she loves her iPhone.

“Moniiiiiiii!,” it said. “You amaze me. What a comprehensive, lively, piece. U r an incredible, encyclopedic, compassionate journalist. Even the parrot joke! I’ll call soon.”

I felt tears welling.

I’m raising a glass of Scotch in your honor tonight, Helen.

Sister Helen is perhaps America’s best known abolitionist. You and I may not agree with her position on the death penalty or other issues for that matter.

I was inspired not because she is a death penalty abolitionist but because she is a woman of courage, compassion and conviction. And a whole lot of strength.

Journalists often lose their sense of all the good in this world because we cover so much misery and suffering. Sister Helen gave me back a little bit of my diminishing faith in humanity.

Read the CNN story here:

Joy and Death

Two stories I have covered in the past came to resolutiontoday. Both involved international campaigns that urged freedom for whatsupporters called unjust imprisonment.
One ended in decided joy; the other the opposite.
The first was the reunion on an Omani tarmac of two youngAmerican men held in Tehran’s Evil prison for more than two years. Iranianauthorities finally released Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. They ran down thesteps of the jet that ferried them to freedom and into the arms of loved ones.
Among those anxiously waiting was Sarah Shourd, alsoarrested with Fattal and Bauer for crossing into Iranian territory when theywere hiking in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. Shourd, released on bail a yearago, is engaged to be married to Bauer.
She had not been able to savor her own freedom fully untilthis day. I know that from what she said about her ordeal on CNN last year.
Much closer to home, another drama unfolded. Authorities inmy home state of Georgia put to death by lethal injection Troy Davis, who hadbeen on death row for two decades for murdering an off-duty police officer,Mark MacPhail, in Savannah.
I first began writing about about the Davis case when it came beforethe clemency board three years ago. I spent time with his sister MartinaCorreia, who has fought from the very beginning for her brother’s release.Davis and his family have always argued that he was innocent and set up by thepolice to take the fall for MacPhail’s killing.
Later, I reported a deeper story with my colleague SonjiJacobs about the murder. After reading hundreds of pages oftrial transcripts and police records, I did not know what to think except thatthere was enough doubt in the case that a man’s life ought naught to be takenwithout further exam.
Here is part of that story that appeared in the AtlantaJournal-Constitution in November, 2007:
The police had nothing.

No fingerprints, tire tracks or murder weapon.The bullets extracted from MacPhail and empty shell casings found on the ground— all from a .38-caliber pistol — provided the only physical evidence.

Soon, though, police would tie the shooting ofMichael Cooper at the pool party, where Davis and Collins had been earlier thatnight, to the killing of MacPhail. The weapon in both, they said, was a.38-caliber gun.

A cop was dead and “there was a lot ofpressure to get somebody, ” recalls Louis Tyson, who was on the Savannahpolice force and knew the Davis family.

Detectives began to interview people in theBurger King drive-through lane, in the parking lot by the bus station, acrossOglethorpe Street at the Thunderbird Inn.

Their accounts of what happened varied. But onedetail was critical: Witnesses agreed that one of the men gathered around Youngwore a white shirt; the other, yellow. And it was the man in white, they said,who first struck Young with a handgun, then shot MacPhail.

At 7:55 p.m. that day, police got a break. Coles,accompanied by his lawyer, walked into the Criminal Investigation Bureau officein Savannah. Coles told police that he saw Davis with a .38-caliber gun at thepool hall and that he had used it to hit Young on the head.

Immediately, police focused their investigationon Davis. They added a color Polaroid of him to a photo lineup. In the next fewdays, they tracked down Davis’ family and friends and searched the homes of hismother and sister.

News of the manhunt appeared on television and innewspaper articles. Davis’ trial attorneys would describe it as the “mostintensive investigation probably done in the history of this county.”

They would also argue that police had fallen forColes’ statements “hook, line and sinker.”
And another excerpt:
On Aug. 19, 1991, exactly two years afterMacPhail’s murder in a downtown Burger King parking lot, Davis went on trial atthe Chatham County courthouse.

The prosecution put on the stand nine witnesseswhose testimony, they said, proved beyond a doubt that Davis was the killer. 

Fairly consistently, witnesses said a man wearing a white T-shirtpistol-whipped a homeless man, Larry Young, and then shot MacPhail beforefleeing the scene.

Perhaps most damning was the testimony of Young’sgirlfriend, Harriet Murray. She said a man wearing a white T-shirt pointed hisgun at MacPhail and shot him before the police officer could pull his gun outof his holster. MacPhail was down on the ground when the man shot him two orthree more times, Murray testified.

She pointed in court to Davis, identifying him asthe person wearing the white shirt that night. “He had a little smile onhis face, a little smirky-like smile, ” she said.

Dorothy Ferrell, who was across the street fromthe Burger King, identified Davis in court and said: “I’m real sure,positive sure, that that is him, and you know, it’s not a mistakenidentity.”

Antoine Williams, who had just arrived to workthe graveyard shift at the restaurant, also identified Davis as the shooter.Davis’ neighbor Jeffrey Sapp testified that Davis confessed to the killing justhours after MacPhail died.

When Coles took the stand, he admitted arguingwith Young but said Davis hit the homeless man. He said he had already turnedaround to run from the parking lot when MacPhail was shot.

Questioned about why he sought out lawyer JohnCalhoun the day of the murder, Coles told the jury he had worked for Calhoun”off and on.”
The attorney had accompanied Coles to the policestation, where he told officers that he saw Davis with a .38-caliber gun justbefore the murder.

“Why didn’t you just go straight to thepolice?” asked defense attorney Robert Falligant.

“I don’t know, ” Coles said.”That’s what I chose to do.”

What Coles had not told police was that he, too,owned a .38-caliber gun. He later would admit it and say he had stashed the gunin some bushes before going to the Burger King. Coles had been convicted of carryinga concealed weapon and could not legally carry a gun.

During the trial — and since — Davis’ variousattorneys have repeatedly asked why Coles and another man at the scene, Daryl”D.D.” Collins, weren’t ever considered suspects by police. Why wasn’tColes’ house searched after they learned he was carrying a gun that night —the same type as the murder weapon.

Police never recovered a murder weapon — orColes’ gun or the one he said Davis owned. 

An expert on ballistics, however,testified that shell casings found near MacPhail’s body matched those found inthe subdivision where another man, Michael Cooper, had been shot earlier thatnight at a pool party. Davis was linked to both locations.
And later in the story:
Davis was convicted and sentenced to die. But ashe aged on Death Row, witnesses changed their stories:

Murray said in a statement signed in 2002 that itwas the man following Young who hit him and shot MacPhail.

Murray said: “The man following Larrystarted digging in his pants for a gun and slapped Larry in the side of theface with it . . . I saw the man who was arguing with Larry . . . and whoslapped Larry shoot the police officer.” Coles had testified that he wasthe person following and arguing with Young.

In 2000, Ferrell signed an affidavit saying thatshe was on parole in 1989 and feared she would be locked up again if she didn’ttell police what they wanted to hear. “I don’t know which of the guys didthe shooting because I didn’t see that part, ” she said in her statement.

In his affidavit, Williams said: “I wastotally unsure whether [Davis] was the person who shot the officer.” AndSapp said: “I told them Troy confessed to me. None of it was true.”

Three others — Anthony Hargrove, Shirley Rileyand Darold Taylor — stepped forward after the trial and said Coles confessedto killing MacPhail. Hargrove said Coles admitted letting a man named Troy takethe fall.
MacPhail’s family waited many years to see theman convicted of killing him brought to justice. They have lived with the agonyof a case that has been left hanging year after year, their loss relived everytime a legal proceeding brought Mark MacPhail’s name back into the headlines.
I cannot imagine that pain.
On the other hand, thousands of people worldwidehad doubts about Davis’ guilt. Did he pull the trigger on that hot Savannahnight? Or was it someone else? Perhaps we will never know the answer withabsolute certainty.
But we will never be able to bring Davis back tolife. He died from a lethal injection at 11:08 p.m. Wednesday.

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