News Tag: Criminal Justice Reform

Advocacy Groups to Address Restraint and Seclusion at JPS Board Meeting

December 12, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org
Sid Scott, Mississippi Center for Justice, 769-230-2841; sscott@mscenterforjustice.org

JACKSON, Miss – On Tuesday, December 16, advocacy groups will publicly comment on a new restraint and seclusion policy at the Jackson Public Schools (JPS) Board of Trustees meeting. The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, Mississippi Parent Training Institute, and Families as Allies will express concerns on a revised policy that the JPS Board is proposing to enact.

The policy outlines the use of restraint and seclusion techniques in school. The groups assert that the policy fails to focus on creating a safe environment for students and faculty, lacks clarity in the definitions of the techniques that open the door for harm, and does not promote positive behavioral interventions, among other concerns.

WHAT:
Advocacy organizations will present concerns regarding a restraint and seclusion policy to the Jackson Public School Board.

WHO:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, Mississippi Parent Training Institute, and Families as Allies commenting on a new policy proposed by the Jackson Public School Board of Trustees.

WHEN:
Tuesday, December 16, 2014 at 5:30pm.

WHERE:
JPS Board Meeting Room
621 South State Street
Jackson, MS 39201 

ACLU of Mississippi Responds to "No True Bill"

November 25, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; mmiller@aclu-ms.org 

JACKSON, Miss – The following is a statement from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi Executive Director, Jennifer Riley-Collins, about the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The decision is part of a national pattern of police using excessive, and sometimes fatal, force against people of color, often during routine encounters. Understandably, many people in our community are angry and frustrated about the grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Wilson. Some will take to the streets as part of peaceful protests to express their grievances. The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy. As an organization dedicated to protecting people’s First Amendment rights, the ACLU of Mississippi is here to serve as a resource for protestors who need to know their rights.

People should continue to peacefully protest the frequency with which police officers, and the departments they work for, are not held accountable for their actions. While many law enforcement officers carry out their jobs admirably and with great respect for the communities they serve, we cannot ignore the systematic use of excessive force employed by some police officers.

There is an erosion of the protect and serve role expected from law enforcement allowed by the total lack of police transparency and accountability; militarization of departments so they appear and operate more like an occupying military force; and the failure of police departments to eliminate racial profiling.

The ACLU of Mississippi will not let up in its tireless pursuit of defending the rights of citizens to protest and preventing future tragedies like the one in Ferguson from happening again. Through our litigation and public policy advocacy, we will remain in the forefront of working for meaningful and long-lasting systemic reforms of police departments.” 

Learn about our work to ensure police accountability.

 

ACLU of Mississippi Receives $350,000 from W.K. Kellogg Foundation

November 24, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Morgan Miller, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi Foundation (ACLU-MS) received a two-year $350,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support a school safety project. The project seeks to improve outcomes for Mississippi’s students with disabilities and students of color by restricting the use of restraints and seclusion on children in schools. 

“This generous grant will allow us to empower families and communities thereby increasing opportunities for Mississippi’s vulnerable children to have a fair chance at success in school and life,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

The project will engage of civic, community, corporate, and congregational leaders, promote public awareness, monitor use of restraint and seclusion in school districts and advocate for the implementation of positive behavior interventions and supports that are safe, effective, and evidence-based.

Mississippi is one of five states that lack a statute, regulation, or even nonbinding guidelines. The lack of regulation has resulted in the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children becoming common place among Mississippi schools despite the potential dangers and lack of evidence of their effectiveness. Data also has revealed the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline with students with disabilities and students of color who also experience disabilities. “The lack of regulation has resulted in the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children becoming common place among Mississippi schools despite the potential dangers and lack of evidence of their effectiveness,” stated Charles Irvin, Legal Director for the ACLU of Mississippi.

ACLU-MS has been a champion of children’s rights. ACLU-MS has produced a number of reports including Missing the Mark and Handcuffs on Success which have illuminated extreme and destructive approaches to school discipline which not only have directly harmed students and families, but also have caused teachers, law enforcement officials, and community members to have their lives and careers made more difficult by these ineffective and counter-productive school discipline policies and practices. As a result of these efforts, reforms have been implemented which have improved outcomes for children across the state.

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About the ACLU of Mississippi

The ACLU of Mississippi is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization founded in 1969 that defends and expands the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Mississippians guaranteed under the United States and Mississippi Constitutions, through its litigation, legislative and public education programs. It is an affiliate of the national ACLU.

About the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life.

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti. For more information, visit www.wkkf.org.

ACLU of Mississippi Releases Tool to Hold Police Accountable

November 06, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Morgan Miller, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi launched a smart phone application (app) called Mobile Justice Mississippi—an empowerment tool for those who feel their civil rights are being violated by law enforcement officers.

The Android app, which can be downloaded for free through the ACLU of Mississippi website, has three main functions and Know Your Rights information.Recordallows citizens to capture exchanges between police officers and themselves or other community members in audio and video files that are automatically sent to the ACLU of Mississippi.Witnesssends out an alert when someone is stopped by police so that community members can move toward the location and document the interaction.Reportgives the app user the option to complete an incident report and send it directly to the ACLU of Mississippi for review.Know Your Rightsprovides an overview of what rights protect you when you are stopped by law enforcement officers.

“Knowledge, accountability and transparency are key to the strength of a system that ensures everyone is treated fairly. On a daily basis across Mississippi, citizens, especially young men of color, have close encounters with law enforcement officers in which their rights are trampled on. This app will equip and enable Mississippians with knowledge and the power to demand justice.” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

ACLU affiliates in Missouri, Oregon and Nebraska are joining the ACLU of Mississippi in releasing the Mobile Justice app today. Funded by a grant from the National ACLU, the Mobile Justice app was developed by Quadrant 2 – the same developer that created the Stop and Frisk Watch app for the New York Civil Liberties Union to address racial profiling. An iPhone version of Mobile Justice will be released at a later time.

“This app will empower young people to protect their own rights and advocate for others when they are stopped by police,” said Rebecca Curry, ACLU of Mississippi Director of Advocacy and Policy. 

Learn more about Mobile Justice Mississippi and download the app here. For those who do not have smart phones or have limited capacity to utilize them because of limited cellular coverage in more rural areas, the ACLU of Mississippi is conducting Know Your Rights trainings.

Questioning the "No-Refusal" Checkpoint

October 06, 2014

By Andres Wallace, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Mississippi

Imagine for one second—driving down the street, when suddenly (or not so suddenly) you happen upon a police roadblock. You know that you have not had any alcohol. You approach the roadblock—confident that the roadblock will be brief. However, this is no ordinary roadblock. This is a No Refusal roadblock—one wherein motorists who are suspected of driving impaired and subsequently refuses sobriety tests could, upon issuance of a warrant by a judge, be ordered to submit to a blood test

According to the Clarion-Ledger, on September 5 and 6, eight Mississippi counties participated in the “No Refusal” weekend campaign. The Clarion Ledger also reported that there were 152 DUI arrests and 31 blood samples taken.

Now, if you are anything like me, you are asking yourself—can they do that? Are we sure this happened in the United States? The answer to both of those questions is, unfortunately, yes.  Naturally, you hear that the “No Refusal” weekend campaign is legal and you then ask yourself—how can that be legal?

Recently, the United States Supreme Court has ruled on a case that essentially establishes the proper procedures that an officer must follow in order to be able to draw a driver’s blood.

Before, I discuss the legality of the “No Refusal” weekend campaign, I would like to say that I understand that driving under the influence is a problem in the state of Mississippi. I also realize that DUI related accidents have been rising in the state over the past few years. However, although drivers driving under the influence continue to be a problem—we as a society must be careful of the liberties that we sacrifice in order to solve a problem, such a DUI.   

In order to fully understand the “No Refusal” campaign, let’s discuss the legality of sobriety check points. The United States Supreme Court has established that a police checkpoint set for the purpose of identifying intoxicated driver was consistent with the Fourth-Amendment. In essence, the Supreme Court established that a checkpoint established for identifying drunk drivers is constitutional if properly conducted. 

So, now that we have established that a sobriety checkpoint is legal, one question comes to mind— what gives an officer the right to draw an individual’s blood? Well, in 2013 the United States Supreme Court, in Missouri v. McNeely, established that a warrantless blood draw is a violation of one’s Fourth Amendment rights; however, the Court also noted that “other factors present in an ordinary traffic stop, such as procedures in place for obtaining a warrant or the availability of a magistrate judge, may affect whether the police can obtain a warrant in an expeditious way.” At a No Refusal checkpoint, judges are available to sign warrant at the request of the officer.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure applies when an intrusion into the body—such as a blood test—is undertaken without a warrant, absent an emergency situation. In ruling on McNeely, the Court has indirectly given justification for the drawing of blood at a traffic stop—if a warrant is properly obtained. 

At the No Refusal checkpoints, the police are supposed to rely on their suspicion of drunkenness as the probable cause for a search warrant. If a citizen is stopped at a No Refusal Checkpoint but shows no sign of intoxication, there would be no probable cause for the issuance of a warrant. Without probable cause, no warrant should be issued. In essence, the Judge will then have the final say as to whether there is probable cause to conduct a blood draw. If however, a warrant is issued where no probable cause exists, there would be a clear Fourth Amendment violation.

As much as it pains me to say this, if conducted pursuant to a valid warrant, the drawing of an individual’s blood at a “No Refusal” checkpoint would be constitutional.

Although No Refusal campaigns are constitutional, I am still very concerned about an individual’s inability to refuse. If I refuse to take a breathalyzer test, my license should be suspended—that should be the price that I pay for refusing to take the test. Why am I being forced to submit to a bloodtest?  There seems to be other means of achieving the goal of deterring drivers from driving intoxicated. Drawing blood seems like an extraordinary measure—where other less intrusive methods are available.

Additionally, I am critical of the use of a refusal to submit to a breathalyzer as the basis for probable cause. I also wonder what the cost would be to the taxpayer for these tests, and how many of them would come back positive. I believe that these issues will become more contentious as more states adopt their own versions of the No-Refusal campaign.

If you come upon a checkpoint, exhibit no signs which would trigger the officer's assertion of probable cause and are still forced to submit to the invasion of a blood draw please contact us at office@aclu-ms.org or 601-354-3408.  

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ACLU-MS to Law Enforcement: Protect Citizens' Right to Record Actions of Public Officials

September 29, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Jennifer Riley-Collins, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; jriley-collins@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – Highlighting recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and following the model set by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in an unprecedented legal statement on citizens’ rights to record police actions, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi is contacting local law enforcement agencies throughout Mississippi, urging them to establish clear policies and training to ensure that officers conform to the Constitution they are sworn to protect. The ACLU of Mississippi hopes that by sharing information with Mississippi law enforcement officials about best practices the organization can assist police in heading off problems and protecting the rights of citizens as well as public safety.

“Taking photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is your constitutional right. That includes police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” said ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director, Charles Irvin. “Unfortunately, law enforcement officers often order people to stop taking photographs or video in public places, and sometimes harass, detain or even arrest people who use their cameras or cell phone recording devices in public. We urge Mississippi’s law enforcement agencies to join with us and to conduct embrace policies in line with DOJ guidance which protect this right.”

Given the conflicts over recording that continue to arise despite the enormous attention this issue is receiving across the country, the ACLU of Mississippi urges that now is the time for Mississippi police departments to review and modify their internal policies and training programs to ensure protection of the rights of citizen journalists.

The Department of Justice specifically recommends that police policies do the following:

  • Affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right to record police activity;
  • Describe the range of prohibited police responses to individuals observing or recording the police;
  • Clearly describe when an individual’s actions amount to interference with police duties;
  • Provide clear guidance on the necessity of supervisory review of any proposed action to be taken by officers against an individual who is recording police;
  • Describe the narrow circumstances under which it is permissible for officers to seize recordings and recording devices; and
  • Indicate that no higher burden be placed on individuals exercising their right to record police activity than that placed on members of the press.


Read the letter
to law enforcement agencies.

Learn more about the right to record.

Three Years in a Cage. No Charges and No Lawyer.

September 24, 2014

By Brandon Buskey, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project

Octavious Burks has been waiting for 10 months.

He's locked in a jail in Scott County, Mississippi. He hasn't been formally charged. He hasn't been assigned an attorney.

This is a recurring nightmare for Octavious: The same thing happened in 2009 and 2012. In each case, he was held for roughly a year. Each time, he was eventually released without a trial or a conviction. Octavious has spent over three years of his life locked in a cell without ever being formally charged – let alone found guilty – of a crime.

In November of 2013, Octavious was arrested in connection with a robbery. The judge set his bail at $30,000, which Octavious could not afford. Also unable to pay for a lawyer, Octavious applied for a public defender. The court approved his request, but 10 months later Octavious still hasn't received an attorney – an advocate who could fight to lower his bail, challenge his arrest, or prepare for a trial.

Why not? Because he has never been formally charged with a crime.

That's how it works in Scott County: No one gets a public defender until they've been indicted. In other places, this might not be a big deal. In Colorado, prosecutors have 72 hours after an arrest to formally indict someone. In Kansas, it's two weeks. But in Scott County and throughout Mississippi, the wait could last forever. That's because Mississippi doesn't limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone, even if that someone is wasting away in jail.

In Scott County, felony indictments are only issued three times a year, after a grand jury convenes to formally charge defendants with their crimes. If you're lucky, you might wait two months to hear about your charges. If you're unlucky, you're put off until the next session. That's at least another four months in jail. And if you're like Octavious, you're left completely in the dark for months on end.

Octavious is not alone in the darkness – dozens of people are locked in the Scott County jail, without attorneys or formal charges. And this problem isn't confined to one jail in one county. People statewide are losing months and sometimes years of their lives to a glacial justice system. That means years without work. Years without being able to care for their families. Years without knowing when the ordeal will end. All without the state having to prove a thing.

The Constitution protects you from being arbitrarily imprisoned on a mere allegation. When you're accused of a crime, you have a right to an attorney, even if you can't afford one. You have a right to a speedy trial. Scott County cannot pretend as if the Constitution doesn't apply in its courts. That's why the ACLU yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Octavious and others trapped in the Scott County jail, demanding that local judges, sheriffs, and district attorneys change the way they do business.

It's time for Scott County to stop illegally robbing people of their lives.

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ACLU Sues Scott County on Behalf of Mississippians Jailed Indefinitely Without Lawyer or Indictment

September 24, 2014

For Immediate Release

CONTACT: Alexandra Ringe, media@aclu.org, 212-549-2666

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a class action suit late yesterday against the Scott County (Mississippi) sheriff, district attorney, and judges after learning that the Scott County Detention Center has held people for as long as a year without appointing counsel and without indicting them. The county’s practices violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments’ rights to counsel, to a speedy trial, and to a fair bail hearing.

“This is indefinite detention, pure and simple. Scott County jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight. For those waiting for indictment, the county has created its own Constitution-free zone,” said Brandon Buskey, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “These prisoners’ cases are frozen, their lives outside the jail are disintegrating, and they haven’t even been charged with a crime. The county has tossed these people into a legal black hole.”

One plaintiff in the ACLU’s suit, Joshua Bassett, has been in the Scott County Detention Center since January 16 of this year; he has been denied an attorney and a grand jury hearing. Another, Octavious Burks, has been in the jail since November 18, 2013. Neither Mr. Bassett nor Mr. Burks could afford their bail. Mr. Burks has been through this ordeal twice before. Since 2009, he has been jailed in Scott County on three separate charges without indictment or counsel.

The ACLU has evidence that many others have been trapped in the Scott County Detention Center for months at a time because they couldn’t pay bail and, like Mr. Bassett and Mr. Burks, were denied counsel and a grand jury hearing.

“We’re seeking to make Scott County’s justice system function for all its residents,” said Buskey. “The county must set reasonable limits on the amount of time someone can remain in jail without a lawyer and without charges. But Scott County, while extreme, isn’t alone. In too many places across the United States, poor people languish in jail for weeks and months, crowding the system because they can’t make bail and are waiting for an indictment or a public defender. Reform can’t come soon enough.”
 

The complaint in Burks et al. v. Scott County et al. is available here:
https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/burks-et-al-v-scott-county-mississippi

More information about the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project is available here:
https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform

ACLU National blog about the case:
https://www.aclu.org/blog/criminal-law-reform-prisoners-rights/three-years-cage-no-charges-and-no-lawyer 

Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

August 18, 2014

By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program at 5:07pm

The tragic killing of college-bound teenager Michael Brown has raised questions about the frequency with which police kill unarmed black men in America. The answer, unfortunately, is far too often.

Just three months ago, on a warm April afternoon, a white police officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man, in downtown Milwaukee's Red Arrow Park. According to the Milwaukee police chief, the officer was "defending himself in a violent situation." But the eyewitness report of a Starbucks barista paints a very different picture.

According to the barista, Hamilton had been sleeping on the concrete sidewalk next to Starbucks when two police officers approached him, asked him questions, and left after determining that he was doing nothing wrong. But an hour or so later, she heard yelling. Looking out the Starbucks window, she saw a different white police officer standing up against Hamilton, "who was holding the officer's own baton in a defense posture." The officer "lunged" at Hamilton in an attempt to get the baton, but failed. The barista watched in horror as the officer stood 10 feet away from Hamilton, pulled out a gun, and shot Hamilton 10 times in quick succession without issuing any verbal warnings. The barista reports that she never saw Hamilton hit the officer with the baton.

The tragic killing of Hamilton bears a striking – and deeply troubling – resemblance to the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot by an officer six times, including twice in the head, after being stopped for walking down the middle of a street. Including Hamilton and Brown, at least six black men were shot and killed by police since April in circumstances that suggest the unjustified use of excessive force and possible racial profiling.

In July, Eric Garner was killed in New York by officers who placed him in a chokehold – a banned tactic – and slammed his head into a sidewalk during an attempt to arrest him for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes.

In early August, police in Beavercreek, Ohio, fatally shot John Crawford III in a Walmart, where Crawford had been holding a BB gun that he had picked up on a store shelf.

Just days after the killing of Brown, Ezell Ford was killed by police on a Los Angeles sidewalk during an investigative stop. While police contend that officers opened fire after a "struggle," Ford's mother reports that he was lying on the ground complying with the officers' order when he was shot three times in the back.

And the very next day, pressman Dante Parker was killed in Victorville, California, after being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by police attempting to arrest him as a suspect in a nearby robbery. Apparently, police suspected him because he was riding a bicycle, and the robbery suspect was reported to have fled on a bike.

The stories of these six people make one thing painfully clear: The killing of black men in incidents that begin as investigatory police stops are anything but unusual in America. In this sense, Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

There is a reason for this. More than 240 years of slavery and 90 years of legal segregation in this country have created a legacy of racialized policing. Killings and beatings lie at one end of a spectrum in which black people ­– and young black men in particular – are routinely stigmatized, humiliated, and harassed as targets for police stops, frisks, and searches, even when they are doing nothing wrong.

The numbers show the reality.

Studies of Rhode Island traffic stops and New York pedestrian stops confirm that police stop blacks at higher rates than whites. Even more troubling is that the New York study determined that a neighborhood's racial composition was the main factor for determining NYPD stop rates, above and beyond the "role of crime, social conditions, or the allocation of police resources." In other words, New York cops targeted blacks because of their race – not because they happened to live in a dangerous place or in an area flooded by police.

Data from Ferguson mirrors these racial disparities. Last year, blacks not only accounted for 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests by Ferguson police, the state attorney general's office calculated that blacks were overrepresented in these encounters in light of their population figures. Even more damning is the fact that although police were twice as likely to search blacks than whites after initiating a stop, whites were far more likely to be found with contraband.

It is not a leap to conclude that the same biases that cause those racial disparities also make it more likely that black men will die during the course of police arrests. According to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, although black men made up only 27.8 percent of all persons arrested from 2003-2009, they made up 31.8 percent of all persons who died in the course of arrest, and the majority of these deaths were homicides.

Why does racialized policing persist despite the end of slavery and Jim Crow? While explicit racial bias may be less prominent today (albeit anything but eliminated), implicit racial biases plague all of us, including those charged with keeping our streets safe. A large body of compelling research has demonstrated how these unconscious, automatically activated, and pervasive mental processes translate into action with devastating consequences for black people.

In particular, researchers have well-documented shooter bias. One video game study simulated the nearly instantaneous decisions made by police officers to shoot armed individuals and to refrain from shooting the unarmed. The study revealed that participants were more likely to shoot black people than white people in error.

Both explicit and implicit biases lead far too often to the killing of black men in police-civilian encounters. And they undergird the daily indignity and humiliation experienced by blacks who are stopped, questioned, and searched by police when they have done nothing wrong.

Police are sworn to serve and protect everyone equally, not disproportionately stop and harass only certain communities. Rather than express surprise and shock during a summer where six black men have been killed by police in highly questionable circumstances, it is up to us to do something.

The single most important first step is to provide accountability—including through the Attorney General's issuance of a comprehensive ban on racial profiling. Accountability will advance justice for past harms and pave the way forward for a future in which we are closer to the promise of equal justice for all.

Sign our petition asking the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice to stop funneling billions into the militarization of state and local police forces.

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Continuing the Conversation After Arizona's Execution

July 25, 2014

By Alison Steiner, President, ACLU of Mississippi Board of Directors

"The capital punishment system is discriminatory and arbitrary and inherently violates the Constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, and looks forward to the day when the United States joins the majority of nations in abolishing it.” -ACLU Policy Statement on Capital Punishment

The ACLU has long been known and respected for its unstinting efforts at the elimination of capital punishment, and to securing systemic reform of the death penalty process so long as it is still with us.

Success of the abolition campaigns has been particularly impressive of late. In the last six years six states have decided that they, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, will “no longer tinker with the machinery of death,”i.e.will no longer try to systemically reform something that is not worth the effort of fixing.

Arguments for abolition have successfully invoked the undeniable racial discrimination in who is even prosecuted for death-eligible offenses. They have also relied upon disproportionate rate of DNA-based exonerations of people on death row and the unacceptably high risks of condemnation and execution of the innocent. Where they have worked, these arguments have propelled legislatures and executive branches to find the death penalty not worth its very considerable expense any more.

However, this has happened mostly in states where the death penalty was already falling in to disuse, or, as in Illinois, had already been stopped by executive moratoria and pardons. In most of these places, new death sentences were rare. In some, actual executions so uncommon that no one in the corrections systems had ever performed one.

These same arguments have not had as much traction in the hard core, particularly southern, death penalty states where death rows are large, new sentences, though rarer than before, are still regularly imposed, and executions are being conducted with disturbing frequency.

I think that this may be because the debate has mostly focused on the condemned people – is it unfair to them to be subjected to this racially disproportionate punishment, or face a not insignificant possibility that they are innocent yet condemned, when other, effective means of punishment are also available? Only indirectly does it talk about “us” and our distaste at collaborating in these injustices.

The event in Oklahoma, where the slow, agonizing death suffered by Clayton Lockett was, at least for a short time, witnessed by the world, have shifted that focus. Though it was Mr. Lockett who was being tortured to death, it was “us” – and by “us” I mean even the people conducting the execution – who were horrified by what we were witnessing. Even strong death penalty proponents had to admit that what happened to Clayton Lockett violated the Eighth Amendment.

Most recently, in Arizona, it took the state 1 hour and 57 minutes to execute Joseph Wood who gasped for air 660 times. Arizona rushed to execute him in secret and ignored the warnings of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Dennis McGuire in Ohio.

The conversation about capital punishment is once again questioning whether death penalty can, at least in practice, ever be anything other than a barbarity to which we must just say no, and that taints us as much as it harms the person we have condemned to suffer it.

The mostly conservative, mostly white politicians who, for now at least, still control legislatures and state-houses in the hard-core southern death penalty states, including Mississippi, have no reason to put themselves out politically for the people on death row, even the innocent ones. They can easily rationalize, ignore or deny the arguments that focus on the condemned people.

But like all human beings, most of these powerful men and women want to appear morally upright to the rest of the world. When the conversation focuses on their own part in maintaining a system that can allow someone to be strapped down, improperly sedated and then given just enough poison to cause a fatal heart attack half an hour later, we may be able to get their attention.

At the very least, we need to try.