Month: May 2012

PENNSYLVANIA – Pa. governor signs 3 more death warrants


May 31, 2012 Source : http://abclocal.go.com

HARRISBURG –  Gov. Tom Corbett has signed execution warrants for three men on death row.

  • Darien Houser was convicted of the 2004 killing of a Philadelphia warrant officer attempting to serve a warrant on Houser for failing to appear at his rape trial.
  • John Koehler Jr. is on death row for persuading a teenager to kill Koehler’s girlfriend and her 9-year-old son in Bradford County in 1995.
  • Willie Clayton was found guilty in 1986 of killing two Philadelphia men during separate robberies, two months apart.

Pennsylvania has executed only three people – all of whom chose to end their appeals – since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976. The last was in 1999.

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TEXAS – Man on death row for Houston slaying loses appeal – Jamie McCoskey


May 30, 2012  Source : http://www.chron.com

HOUSTON — A federal appeals court has rejected an appeal from a Texas death row inmate condemned for the slaying of a Houston man abducted from his apartment and fatally stabbed more than 20 years ago.

Attorneys for 47-year-old Jamie McCoskey contended instructions to the jury at his 1993 trial were improper. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Tuesday rejected the claims, moving McCoskey closer to execution for the death of 20-year-old Michael Dwyer. Dwyer’s fiancé also was abducted and taken to an abandoned Houston home where Dwyer was killed and she was raped. She later identified McCoskey as the attacker.

McCoskey already had been convicted of kidnapping in Travis County, was a two-time parole violator and was released from prison six months before the November 1991 abductions and slaying.

DEATH ROW: Journalist and campaigner Eric Allison gives his inside track


May 31, 2012 Source : http://www.camdennewjournal.com

by Eric Allison

During my time behind bars, I acquired something of a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer.

Not major league; I didn’t reverse any wrongful convictions, or take a case to the House of Lords, as some of my more illustrious fellow con lawyers managed; but I enjoyed some minor victories and liked being a thorn in the side of my keepers and fighting them on behalf of prisoners with a grievance occupied my time nicely.

My work – all pro bono – did not endear me to the authorities who held me; no penal system takes kindly to criticism from those it locks up.

But my experience and the payback from my keepers, pales into insignificance alongside the real jailhouse lawyers brought to life  in the pages of a remarkable book of that name.

Jailhouse Lawyers is the work of one of the most celebrated prisoners in the American prison system, Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been on death row in a Pennsylvania penitentiary since he was convicted of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981.

Jamal, 54, is perhaps the best known prisoner in the world; feted by lawyers and academics and supported by activists worldwide.

He has been given honorary citizenship of 25 cities, including Paris, Copenhagen and Montreal.

Although no mean lawyer himself, the book is not about the author.

He takes an admirably humble view of his own achievements, preferring to pay homage to the celebrated convict lawyers who have taken cases to the highest courts in the US. Practitioners who, in Jamal’s words, have learned their law, “not in the ivory towers of multi-billion-dollar-endowed universities”, but in the “hidden dark dungeons of America.”

The term dungeons is not misused; in the US, prisoners who offend their keepers are placed in the “hole” and the common thread linking those featured in the book is the amount of time they have all spent in the hole, some for decades.

And while some penal systems “dress up” the names used for isolation blocks (care and separation units, in this country for example), in the US, the hole is precisely that – a hole in the ground. Hardly the places to prepare to take groundbreaking cases to the United States Supreme Court, as many of those named have done.

In 1991, a group of academics studied the disciplinary actions, against prisoners, in jails across the US.

They found no segment of the american prison population outweighed jailhouse lawyers when it came to prisoners targeted by the administrators for punishment.

The prison lawyers headed the table, “scoring” twice as many spells in the hole as, for example, gang members or political prisoners.

Despite this persecution, many have become legends in their own legal time; often teaching other inmates to follow what has become a successful tradition.

The fact that jailhouse lawyers have become so firmly entrenched in US legal circles is a massive tribute to those practising their craft under the most restrictive and oppressive conditions.

Men such as Richard Mayberry, who has won more civil actions from behind bars than most conventional lawyers win in a lifetime.

In legal circles in the US, it is said to be a rare law report which does not begin or end with Mayberry mentioned in the citation or text.

Or David Ruiz, who, in 1971, naively complained about prison conditions to the assistant warden of the Texas penitentiary which held him. That action earned a long spell in the hole.

Learning fast, Ruiz rewrote his complaints and passed them out to a lawyer and began the battle which would change Texas penal history. A decade later, the United States Supreme Court forced the Texas penal authorities to spend billions to bring their system into “some semblance of modernity”.

The fight for justice from inside has never been easy. Even in supposedly enlightened times, attempts have been made to silence the jailhouse lawyers.

In 1996 the then President Bill Clinton put his name to the Prison Litigation Reform Act which, far from reforming, put financial and legal restraints on those who sued from behind bars.

The author’s death sentence is currently under review. In April this year, the United States Court of Appeals unanimously declared his death sentence to be unconstitutional.

His case was remanded for a new hearing.

The death penalty  may be imposed again or Abu-Jamal may receive a sentence of life without parole.

Irrespective of his fate, this compelling and inspiring work should be mandatory reading by those who make and practice law.

Reform rarely comes from the top, the poker player holding four aces never asks for a new deal.

Jailhouse lawyers worldwide have usually been dealt a bad hand in life; these chronicles show us that, even with the odds stacked against them, they do not always lose the game.

Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v the USA. By Mumia Abu-Jamal, Crossroads Books, PO Box 287 NW6 5QU £11.99 + 10% postage. Email: crossroadsbooks@ allwomencount.net

• Selma James presents her new book, Sex, Race and Class – The Perspective of Winning, at the Owl Bookshop  207-209 Kentish Town Road, NW5 2JU  at 6.30pm tonight (Thursday)

ARIZONA – Motion denied to watch executions by injection


May 31, 2012 Source : http://www.azcentral.com

Despite strong language from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a 2002 appeals-court ruling, a federal judge in Phoenix on Wednesday denied motions to allow attorneys and reporters to watch as executioners insert the catheters that carry the drugs used in lethal injections for condemned prisoners.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office in Phoenix and other defense attorneys have complained about the practices of the Arizona Department of Corrections in carrying out executions by lethal injection. Among the concerns are the qualifications of those who insert IV lines into the condemned prisoners and why they repeatedly fail to find suitable veins in the prisoner’s arms and must resort to a surgically installed catheter in the groin area.

On May 15, the day before death-row prisoner Samuel Lopez was to be executed for the 1986 murder of a Phoenix woman, his attorneys filed a motion with U.S. District Judge Neil Wake, asking to be allowed to witness the catheterization. Wake did not rule on the motion. But the subject had come up in oral arguments on May 14 in a last-ditch appeal to the 9th Circuit.

Of concern in that appeal was a March execution in which the condemned man was not allowed to speak to his attorney when prison staff was unable to find a suitable vein in his arm and instead inserted the catheter in his groin.

The appeals court refused to stop Lopez’s execution, but one of the judges questioned why the media had not insisted on being present when the lines were inserted. The state of Ohio and California allow such witnessing, and a 2002 9th Circuit opinion ruled that the public has a First Amendment right to witness all aspects of an execution.

Lopez subsequently received a reprieve from the Arizona Supreme Court until June 27 because of problems with the state clemency board.

A coalition of Arizona journalism groups took up the challenge and asked to become part of the lawsuit over the Corrections Department policies.

That same day, another group of journalists in Idaho filed its own lawsuit asking to witness the preparation process on First Amendment grounds.

But Wake denied the Arizona motions Wednesday, citing technicalities in the timing of the motion and saying that a First Amendment violation had not been properly claimed.

Dale Baich of the Federal Public Defender’s Office said his office had not yet decided how to proceed.

Dan Barr, an attorney who represents the Arizona journalists, said his options would be to wait for Baich to amend his motion or file a separate lawsuit to assert the journalists’ claims.

“The whole trick is bringing up the issue in the right form and the right time,” Barr said.

ALABAMA MAN FREED FROM DEATH ROW AFTER PROVING PROSECUTOR ILLEGALLY BARRED AFRICAN AMERICANS FROM JURY SERVICE


May 29, 2012 Source http://www.eji.org

On May 18, 2012, Victor Stephens was taken off death row after 25 years and resentenced to life in prison. The result came after the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama on October 6, 2011, found that the Hale County prosecutor who tried the case illegally discriminated against African Americans during jury selection.

Victor Stephens is African American. During his capital trial, the prosecution illegally used 21 of its 23 peremptory strikes to remove eligible African Americans from serving on his jury. The defense objected, arguing that the prosecutor’s strikes and the prosecutor’s notes made during trial revealed racially biased jury selection in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The law requires prosecutors to give reasons for strikes if the judge suspects there is racial discrimination during jury selection. In his notes, the prosecutor wrote “need reason to strike” next to two black jurors but no white jurors, for whom the prosecutor instead wrote actual reasons, such as “hard of hearing.”

The defense argued that the fact that the State “need[ed a] reason to strike” two black jurors, while it did not “need [a] reason to strike” any white jurors, is direct evidence that the State first decided to strike these black jurors and then searched for a pretextual and facially race-neutral reason to give the court.

These notations, together with other evidence in the record, comprise overwhelming evidence proving the State illegally discriminated against African Americans in jury selection, the defense contended.

The federal court agreed, pointing out that the State’s purported reasons for excluding African Americans were not supported by the record and, in some cases, were contradicted by the jurors’ responses during jury selection.

The court further found the fact that the State had a chance to ask jurors about any discrepancies but did not suggests the prosecutor’s explanation was a sham and a pretext for discrimination. “[Unless he had an ulterior reason for keeping [a potential juror] off the jury,” the federal court reasoned, “this court would expect that the prosecutor would have cleared up any misunderstanding by asking further questions.”

In contrast, the prosecutor did ask white potential jurors follow-up questions and did not strike white potential jurors who shared the same “reasons” as black jurors who were struck.

Concluding that the prosecutor illegally excluded black potential jurors based on their race, the federal court vacated Mr. Stephens’s conviction and sentence, granting him a new trial. The State settled the case without a new trial and, on May 18, Mr. Stephens was re-sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

A recent report by EJI found that racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread, particularly in serious criminal cases and capital cases. Hundreds of people of color called for jury service have been illegally excluded from juries after prosecutors asserted pretextual reasons to justify their removal.

ALABAMA – Expense and execution – Death-penalty cost issue resurges as state struggles


May 30, 2012 Source : http://www.timesdaily.com

As many states look for ways to reduce spending, a battle is brewing between supporters and opponents of the death penalty.

Opponents contend states could save millions of dollars by abolishing the death penalty. Proponents argue the death penalty is needed to punish defendants convicted of heinous homicides, even when it means decades of paying attorneys to argue the merits of a death sentence and for housing an inmate, such as former Sheffield resident Tommy Arthur.

Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw, chief of Alabama’s death penalty litigators, said he is unsure how much the state has spent attempting to carry out Arthur’s execution, which was first ordered in 1983.

“It’s been so long, I’m not sure if anyone knows how much the state has spent keeping Tommy Arthur on death row all these years,” Crenshaw said.

Arthur, 70, has been on death row for 29 years for the 1982 murder-for-hire killing of Muscle Shoals resident Troy Wicker. His conviction was overturned twice on technicalities. The state Supreme Court has set an execution date for Arthur five times only to have it halted when defense attorneys raised legal issues, most recently in March when they objected to Alabama’s use of the drug pentobarbital in executions.

Arthur continues to maintain his innocence.

Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said the agency does not keep tabs on the amount of money spent on legal fees for death row inmates, only the cost of housing them, which is now about $43 per day. He said the department does not separate the cost of housing inmates on death row from the expense of keeping them in other areas of a prison.

Alabama has 101 men and four women on death row. The average age of the death row inmates is 41 and they have been there an average of 11 years and 7 months, Corbett said.

Richard Deiter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, said states typically do not keep track of the amount of money spent on a single inmate from the time they are sentenced to death until an execution takes place.

“There’s probably not anyone in Alabama who knows exactly how much money has been spent keeping Mr. Arthur on death row, but there is no doubt it has been very expensive,” Deiter said. “All states need to take a serious look at how much they are spending on death penalty cases and decide if it is money well spent.”

Crime victims groups and death penalty proponents contend the cost of capital punishment is offset by the value it provides in deterring homicides and punishing criminals convicted of the most heinous murders.

Deiter contends the money spent on executions should be used to prevent crime.

“The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime,” Deiter said. “Some of the states with the highest number of executions also have the highest homicide rates. Studies have shown it can cost more than $30 million to carry out an execution. Only one in 10 death penalty cases results in an execution and when you combine the legal fees for the appeals of all of those defendants, it makes that one execution very costly. That money could be better spent on hiring more police officers, installing better lighting in high-crime areas, providing education aimed at preventing crime and doing other things to make sure crimes do not happen.”

Miriam Shehane, executive director of Montgomery-based Victims of Crime and Leniency, disagrees.

“I don’t care how much it costs to execute someone, we need the death penalty,” she said. “The death penalty opponents want to argue that it is cruel and unusual punishment. My daughter was abducted, then raped for hours and shot repeatedly. Was that not cruel and unusual punishment? The punishment needs to fit the crimes and for some murders, the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment.”

Shehane’s daughter Quenette was kidnapped and killed in Birmingham in 1976.

Three men were convicted of her murder. One was executed, another was sentenced to life in prison without parole and the other sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones said he never considers the potential cost of incarceration and future legal expenses when deciding if a defendant convicted of capital murder should be sentenced to death. He said that decision is based on the jury’s recommendation and the circumstances of the homicide.

Economics

When a defendant is convicted of capital murder in Alabama, the jury then hears additional evidence before recommending the death penalty or life in prison without parole as punishment. The judge is not obligated to follow the recommendation when imposing the punishment.

“We don’t need to put someone to death because it’s cheaper than keeping them in prison for the rest of their life,” she said. “At the same time, we shouldn’t not put someone to death because it might be more expensive than keeping them in prison. You don’t make a life or death decision based on economics.”

Jones has imposed the death penalty twice.

He sentenced David Dewayne Riley Jr. to death in 2007 for the 2005 shooting death of Florence package store clerk Scott Michael Kirtley. He sentenced Riley, 27, to death again in 2011 after the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his first conviction on a technicality. The jury at both trials recommended that Riley receive the death sentence for the execution-style shooting.

Jones said the possible cost of sending Riley to death row never crossed his mind before carrying out the recommendation of the juries.

“The Alabama Legislature may someday decide we can no longer afford to send people to death row,” Jones said. “That’s a decision they would have to make and until they do, I am going to continue to carry out the recommendations of juries who say someone deserves the death penalty when the circumstances of a murder warrant sending a defendant to death row.”

Political battle

Shehane said the Legislature will face a tough battle from her organization and other capital punishment proponents if it ever attempts to abolish the death penalty in Alabama as a way to save money.

Deiter said with the cost of defending death sentences in the appeals process and even the expense of purchasing the drugs used in executions increasing, some states might have to replace capital punishment with a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the hope of parole as a way to punish defendants convicted of the most brutal homicides.

“All states with the death penalty (will have) to decide if it is worth the expense when they are having to cut back in so many other areas, including courts and police,” Deiter said.

For Alabama, Shehane said, the money spent sending defendants convicted of capital murder to death row and carrying out their execution is worth the expense.

SENTENCED TO DEATH

Top 10 states for number of inmates on death row as of Jan. 1:

  • California 703
  • Florida 402
  • Texas 312
  • Pennsylvania 211
  • Alabama 202
  • North Carolina 166
  • Ohio 151
  • Arizona 153
  • Georgia 99
  • Louisiana 89

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

RISING COST OF HOUSING PRISONERS

Daily inmate maintenance costs in Alabama

  • 2000 $25.47
  • 2002 $26.07
  • 2004 $27,92
  • 2006 $36.67
  • 2008 $41.47
  • 2010 $42.30

Source: Alabama Department of Corrections

DEATH PENALTY STATES

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming.
Source: Death Penalty Information Center

NUMBER OF EXECUTIONS BY STATE SINCE 1976

State Total 2011 2012
Texas 482 14 5
Virginia 109 1 0
Oklahoma 99 2 3
Florida 73 2 2
Missouri 68 1 0
Alabama 55 6 0
Georgia 52 4 0
Ohio 47 5 1
North Carolina 43 0 0
South Carolina 43 1 0

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

TENNESSEE – Tenn. Supreme Court overturns death sentence – Hubert Sexton


May 30, 2012 Source : http://www.timesnews.net

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a death sentence for a man convicted of murdering a Scott County couple in their bed and ordered that a new jury decide whether to execute him.

The state’s highest court cited numerous problems with both the evidence and sentencing phase of the murder trial of Hubert Glenn Sexton, including prosecutors making inappropriate statements to jurors and the admission of prejudicial evidence.

A Scott County jury convicted Sexton of two counts of first-degree murder for the May 2000 murders of Stanley and Terry Sue Goodman. The Goodmans were shot to death as they slept in their Huntsville home days after Sexton was accused of sexually abusing one of Stanley Goodman’s children.

In spite of the problems during the trial, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the murder convictions.

“Aside from the unfairly prejudicial nature of the inadmissible evidence and the inappropriate argument by the prosecution, however, the proof of guilt for each of the two murders was simply overwhelming,” the opinion, written by Justice Gary Wade, said. The court noted that the evidence included Sexton telling at least three of his friends that he had murdered the Goodmans.

The court said problems started even before the trial began when some people were improperly excluded as jurors. The court said jurors never should have heard allegations about the sexual abuse because Sexton had not been charged. The opinion noted that prosecutors could have elected to charge Sexton separately in the matter.

And the court said that jurors may have been prejudiced by hearing that Sexton initially agreed to take a polygraph but then changed his mind and refused. Prosecutors were also said to make inappropriate comments to jurors during opening statements and closing arguments.

PENNSYLVANIA – New trial requested for Fayette man on death row – James W. VanDivne


May 29, 2012 Source : http://triblive.com

Attorneys for a Fayette County man on death row for the 2004 slaying of his former girlfriend say they have found witnesses who contradict the testimony of a key prosecution witness.

The discovery is just one reason James W. VanDivner deserves a new trial or sentencing hearing, according to a petition filed by his attorney, Brent Peck of Uniontown.

In 2007, VanDivner, 63, was found guilty of the July 5, 2004, shooting death of his former girlfriend, Michelle Cable, 41, outside her home in Grindstone. VanDivner also shot Cable’s teenage son, Billy, who survived a bullet wound to his spine.

VanDivner received the death penalty.

“That issue is phenomenal; the eight witnesses we interviewed who were there, who said (Jessica Cable) was not,” Peck said.

Jessica Cable, who is the victim’s daughter, testified at trial she saw VanDivner grab her mother’s hair, shoot her at close range and tell her, “There, you (expletive), I said I was going to kill you and smile and walk away,” according to Peck’s filing.

Peck and his wife, Mariah Balling-Peck, also an attorney, on Tuesday said they spoke with eight witnesses who indicated Jessica Cable was not present when her mother was shot.

The witnesses, none of whom were called to testify at trial, told the attorneys Jessica Cable arrived shortly after the shooting, according to the petition.

In addition, the Pecks said they found a retired school administrator who backs up earlier defense claims that VanDivner likely was diagnosed with mental retardation prior to age 18.

By law, such individuals cannot be sentenced to death, Brent Peck said.

VanDivner attended special-education classes while enrolled in the Frazier School District, according to the Pecks.

At trial, prosecutors said the placement resulted from behavioral issues, and was not based on tests for mental retardation.

Although the school has no records of any intelligence tests being given to VanDivner, Brent Peck said he has found a retired administrator who indicated only students with an IQ of 75 or less were placed in special-education classes.

Behavioral problems were not taken into consideration, according to the former administrator, Peck said.

“Their argument he was in special education because of behavioral issues was completely unfounded and completely off the wall,” Brent Peck said.

With the mental retardation threshold pegged at 70, plus or minus 5, VanDivner would have fallen into that category as a child, Brent Peck said.

A hearing has not yet been scheduled on the petition. VanDivner is on death row at the State Correctional Institution in Greene County.

In June 2010, former Gov. Ed Rendell had signed an execution warrant for VanDivner, but a stay was issued.

CALIFORNIA – Convicted killer hangs himself on California’s death row – James Lee Crummel


May 29, 2012

(Reuters) – A convicted killer sentenced to death for the 1979 murder of a 13-year-old boy has hanged himself on California’s death row, months before voters in the state are due to decide whether to abolish the death penalty, prison officials said on Tuesday.
James Lee Crummel, 68, was found hanging in his cell at San Quentin State Prison, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Sam Robinson said in a written statement.
Crummel, who had prior convictions for child molestation, was pronounced dead at 4:20 p.m. on Sunday. He was sentenced to death in 2004 for the 1979 kidnapping, sexual abuse and murder of 13-year-old Wilfred Trotter, Robinson said. Crummel had been housed on death row ever since.
The suicide comes ahead of a ballot measure in California in November in which voters will decide whether to repeal the death penalty in a state that is home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s death row inmates.
The ballot initiative focuses on the high cost of the death penalty in a state that has executed 13 people since capital punishment was reinstated in the nation in 1976. More than 720 inmates sit on death row pending lengthy and expensive appeals.
Crummel joins another 20 inmates who have committed suicide while on California’s death row. According to the corrections department, since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1978, 57 condemned inmates in the state have died from natural causes and six died from other causes.
A federal judge halted all California executions in 2006 after ruling that the three-drug protocol that has been used for lethal injections carried the risk of causing the inmate too much pain and suffering before death.
California has since revised its protocol but an appeals court has blocked resumption of executions over the same objections.

OHIO – Ohio Set To Execute Severely Mentally Ill Inmate Next Week – Abdul Awkal STAYED


UPDATE : june 15

CLEVELAND: An Ohio judge has ruled a condemned killer not mentally competent to be executed for the death of his wife and brother-in-law.

The ruling Friday by Cuyahoga County Judge Stuart Friedman on Abdul Awkal comes just a week after Gov. John Kasich ordered a last-minute reprieve hours before Awkal was set to die.

Awkal is convicted of killing his estranged wife and brother-in-law in a Cleveland courthouse in 1992 as the couple prepared to divorce.

Awkal’s attorneys had argued during several days of testimony that he is so mentally ill he believes the CIA is orchestrating his execution.

The Ohio Parole Board voted 8-1 last month against recommending mercy. Most members concluded Awkal had planned the shooting and it wasn’t because of a psychotic breakdown.

UPDATE : june 5 source : http://www.abc6onyourside.com

Inmate Moved for Death Penalty to be Carried Out

COLUMBUS — Ohio prison officials are beginning their preparations to execute a man convicted in the 1992 slayings of his estranged wife and brother-in-law at a courthouse in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County.

If put to death, 53-year-old Abdul Awkal would be the second man Ohio executes since lifting an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty that lasted six months.

Awkal, whose execution is Wednesday, was sentenced to death for shooting Latife Awkal, his spouse from an arranged marriage, and brother-in-law Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz, as the couple was taking up divorce and custody issues.

Awkal’s attorneys asked the state Supreme Court Monday to delay the execution to allow a hearing on Awkal’s mental competency.

The state opposes the delay and Awkal’s earlier requests for clemency were denied.

Update : May 29, 2012 Source http://thinkprogress.org

On June 6, Ohio is scheduled to execute Abdul Awkal for the murder of his estranged wife and brother-in-law unless Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) grants a pending clemency petition, or a court steps in with a last minute order. Here’s the facts about the mental health of the man set to be executed next Wednesday:

  • Survived a Civil War: In 1975, when Abdul was sixteen years old, a civil war erupted in his home country of Lebanon. Abdul lived through this war for eight years before he was able to escape to Michigan to live with family members. Although Abdul never sought treatment during his first months in the United States and thus was not diagnosed with a mental illness until sometime later, he said that he spent his first four months in America sitting on his brother’s couch — behavior an Ohio clemency board said was “as if he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
  • History of Mental Breakdowns: Abdul eventually found work as a gas station attendant. About a year after he arrived in the United States, however, he was wrongfully accused of stealing from his employer. According to the Ohio Supreme Court, he then suffered a mental breakdown. Abdul “became hysterical, cursing and breaking things, vomited and then collapsed.” He was taken to a Detroit hospital in a straitjacket and later released with instructions (that he disregarded) to seek psychiatric treatment. Some time later, Abdul suffered at least one more mental breakdown as his marriage to the woman he eventually killed became increasingly dysfunctional. A mental hospital again told him to seek psychiatric care, but he did not follow up because he says he could not afford treatment.
  • Suicidal Depression: In November of 1991, about two months before he would kill his estranged wife and brother-in-law, Abdul finally did attend four counseling sessions because he was depressed and had thoughts of suicide.
  • Hallucinations: On January 7, 1992, Abdul shot his wife and brother-in-law during a meeting related to Abdul’s pending divorce. While awaiting trial in an Ohio jail, he began having hallucinations. Abdul says he saw his wife speak to him and tell him to “join her.”
  • Incompetent to Stand Trial: Abdul’s trial was delayed after a court found him mentally incompetent to assist in his defense. During the period between his arrest and his trial, county psychiatrists experimented with various anti-depressant, anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs in an attempt to control his hallucinations and enable him to participate in the trial, and a judge eventually deemed him competent to state trial in September of 1992. During the pre-trial period, the prosecution also offered him a plea bargain, which he rejected, that would have taken the death penalty off the table. It’s not clear what Abdul’s mental state was when he rejected this deal.
  • Second Finding of Mental Incompetency: In 2004, Abdul wrote a federal judge asking that his appeals be terminated and that he be executed swiftly. The judge responded by ordering a psychiatric evaluation. Twelve years after his arrest, Abdul was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, depressed type and determined to be mentally incompetent to waive his appeals.
  • Letters to the CIA: In 2001, Abdul started writing letters to then-CIA Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, along with former CBS new anchor Dan Rather and, eventually, President Obama offering advice on how to fight terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one letter to Obama, for example, Abdul advises that rather than dismantling or safely detonating the Taliban’s explosive devices, U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan should “replace the electronic receiver inside the IEDs with ours and keep them buried.” Abdul also told a clemency board that he advises the CIA on “Islamic religion and culture” and that he is upset that the CIA did not listen to him after he warned them about 9/11. At other points, he’s claimed he is being executed because the “CIA wanted him dead.”

As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart recognized almost four decades ago, the “most irrevocable of sanctions should be reserved for a small number of extreme cases.” This is why the Constitution forbids executions of juvenile offenders or the mentally retarded. And it is why the death penalty is reserved to only a handful of the most severe crimes. Indeed, American juries consider death such an extreme sanction that only 2 percent of convicted murderers are sentenced to die.

There’s no question that Abdul committed a terrible crime more than twenty years ago, and he has spent every subsequent minute of his life in state custody because of his actions. That will not change if Gov. Kasich grants Abdul clemency, or if the Supreme Court recognizes that people with severe mental illnesses do not belong on death row.