Since the last Public Law Newsletter, Reprieve’s EC Project has continued to identify and assist yet more foreign nationals facing the death penalty in the United States. In total, we are currently offering assistance to over 50 prisoners.
In order to publicise our work and to educate capital defence lawyers on the opportunities and challenges raised by representing a foreign national, the Research Fellows travel extensively across the United States meeting with attorneys and speaking at conferences. Most recently, I have been to Oregon, Washington and Idaho to meet with trial and appellate counsel and I have spoken at the “Life Over Death” annual conference in Florida, as well as before the Oregon Capital Defence Lawyers Association.
As a result of our outreach activities, Reprieve has assisted in two notable cases this year – that of Mark Stroman in Texas and Manuel Valle in Florida.
Mark Stroman received the death penalty following a series of shootings in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. When Mark Stroman approached Reprieve for assistance his execution warrant had already been signed by Governor Rick Perry and he was scheduled to die on July 20, 2011.
In a remarkable act of forgiveness, his surviving victim, Rais Bhuiyan, had been campaigning to save Mark Stroman’s life. Despite repeated requests from Rais Bhuiyan to meet with Mark Stroman, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice failed to respond. Consequently, Rais Bhuiyan issued proceedings against the Governor, under the Texas victims’ rights law, seeking an injunction to stay the execution.
Tragically, and in spite of the valiant efforts of Mark Stroman’s counsel, Rais Bhuiyan’s counsel and the team at Reprieve, Mark Stroman was executed.
Whilst the ultimate goal may have been to save Mark Stroman’s life, the Reprieve team nevertheless achieved some incredible things: they built a strong relationship with Mark Stroman very quickly, found crucial new evidence, helped the US lawyers draft legal pleadings and helped bring the story or Mark Stroman’s extraordinary victim, Rais Bhuiyan, to the world.
Manuel Valle was a Cuban National with ties to Spain who had been on Florida’s death row for 33 years when on June 30, 2011, Governor Rich Scott signed his death warrant. This was Governor Scott’s first death warrant since taking office and the first scheduled execution in the state since April 2010.
In 1978, Manuel was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer: his original trial took place a mere 24 days after his arraignment. After two retrials, Manuel’s conviction and sentence were finally confirmed on December 2, 1991.
Reprieve petitioned a number of international and European bodies on Manuel’s behalf. We were successful in securing intervention from the European Union who wrote directly to the Governor, the Bar Human Rights Committee who drafted an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court on the humanitarian issues raised by the case, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who granted provisional measures prohibiting Manuel’s execution until the IACHR had considered his case and, on the basis of Manuel’s ties to Spain, Spain intervened arguing that to execute after such a long period of incarceration subjected Manuel to extreme mental and physical trauma and that the failure to ensure he had a meaningful clemency process contravened acceptable minimum human rights standards.
Despite an application to the US Supreme Court for stay and petition for writ of certiorari, sadly, Manuel was executed on September 28, 2011. Justice Breyer was the sole dissenting judge who wrote a strident dissent:
“I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death…The commonly accepted justifications for the death penalty are close to non-existent in a case such as this one.”
I found both of these executions not only tragic but also disheartening. However, in spite of those feelings I try to remember that the lessons learned and insight garnered from these experiences will be carried forward by the Reprieve team for the benefit of other Reprieve assisted prisoners in a continuing fight to defend justice and save lives.
In a country where belief in the deterrent and retributive functions of the death penalty is so entrenched, any gains must be celebrated, however small.
In Other News
On November 22, 2011 Governor John Kitzhaber placed a moratorium on all executions in Oregon, issued a temporary reprieve stopping the December 6 execution of Gary Haugen and urged Oregonians to "find a better solution" to a system that he said is arbitrary, expensive and "fails to meet basic standards of justice."
Gary Haugen has foreign ties to Norway and despite offers of assistance from Reprieve had decided to waive his appeal rights and “volunteer” to be executed. Governor Kitzhaber made clear however, that he did not act out of compassion for Haugen or any other inmate. Instead he argued:
“In my mind, it is a perversion of justice…I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”
With this announcement, Oregon is the latest of five states to abolish or back away from the death penalty: in 2004, New York's Supreme Court ruled that their death penalty statute was unconstitutional, in 2007, New Jersey repealed its death penalty law, followed by New Mexico in 2009 and Illinois abolished it earlier this year.
The steady decrease in the total number of executions each year in the US and the abolition movements in a number of states, shows that progress (while slow) is being made. While men and women continue to die as a result of the arbitrary and discriminatory system administered by death penalty states, it is also true that abolitionists, in their many forms, are making inroads to change the opinions of even the most ardent supporters of the death penalty.