Friday, September 24, 2010

Capital Punishment Lottery Finds A Loser In Virginia; Wisconsin Should Keep Saying "Not Here"

Scott Walker has said recently he would put us in this shameful company:

The State of Virginia put to death Thursday night a woman, Teresa Lewis, who had pleaded guilty to arranging the murders of her husband and stepson - - even though the actual hands-on killers got life sentences and one of the imprisoned co-conspirators said they had manipulated the borderline-mentally retarded woman, not the other way around.

Why, among three conspirators, should two live and one die?

You don't have to be a bleeding heart to see that death sentence execution as unfair.

In 1995, while working on a series for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the death penalty, I witnessed an execution in the Walls Unit, in Huntsville, Texas, site of the Texas Correctional System's Death House.

The killer Was Clifton Russell, Jr.

He and another man had beaten an innocent victim to death and stolen his car.

The other killer pleaded guilty and got a lesser sentence, but Russell, still a teenager, chose to go to trial, was found guilty and was executed.

People will argue whether the death penalty has deterrent effect, or is cost-effective, but there is no denying that the whole thing is a perverse lottery because it is applied without uniformity.

Murderers live or die according to their wealth, trial judge, legal representation, city and state, gender, race and dumb luck.

Should justice, life and death be such a gamble?

I don't think so, and I hope Wisconsin continues to keep this barbaric practice off our books and collective conscience.

Here are a few paragraphs I wrote some years later about arriving in Huntsville just before two executions were scheduled back-to-back; the Teresa Lewis case affirms for me that the death penalty is a blot and blight on our justice system.

Inside the Walls Unit and at other stops, I interviewed prison employees,
academics and several death row prisoners, including the two men headed
for what prison officials were calling "the back-to-back." If you believe
that capital punishment deters murders, you'd have thought the extra
publicity about "the back-to-back" would have turned potential Texas
killers more peace-loving, at least temporarily.

So imagine my surprise when I picked up a newspaper in a Huntsville cafe
and saw that a different double execution had knocked the "back-to-back"
to the back pages.

Frank Picone, an ex-Houston police officer - a person trained to uphold
the law, mind you - had murdered his 2 young sons, shooting one boy with a
shotgun as he slept, then drowning the other.

A few days after reading that Picone had turned a nasty custody dispute
into his own domestic massacre, I witnessed, on Jan. 31, 1995, another
homicide - the execution of 33-year-old Clifton Russell Jr. in the opening
half of "the back-to-back."

At 18, Russell and another teenager, William Battee, were charged with
beating a man in Abilene to death and stealing his car.

Russell had pleaded not guilty, but was convicted. After 15 years on death
row, and without a single rule infraction, prison officials said, Russell
got the injection and moaned when it stopped his heart. His death
suggested that lethal injection is not as humane as some proponents
believe, though the eye-for-an-eye crowd argues it's not painful enough.

Nevertheless, Texas isn't going to bring back "Old Sparky," though its
retired electric chair is displayed prominently in the Texas Prison Museum
on Huntsville's downtown square.

And what about William Battee, Russell's co-offender?

Tried separately, Battee pleaded guilty and was incarcerated - then was
released, only to reoffend and return to prison before Russell was
executed, prison officials said.

Therein lies another problem with capital punishment: It's not applied
uniformly, state-to-state, county-to-county, criminal-to-criminal.

As for Frank Picone - the ex-cop turned double child killer?

He got life imprisonment.

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