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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Atkins v. Virginia- Execution of the Mentally Retarded is Prohibited

Daryl Renard Atkins was convicted for the August 16, 1996 abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder of Eric Nesbitt in Virginia. Atkins appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and this case set precedent because in 2002 the Court granted certiorari and Justice Stevens held that executions of mentally retarded criminals were "cruel and unusual" punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. I will discuss the Court's reasoning for this decision.

When a ruling on a matter of law sets precedent, it furnishes an example or authority for similar or identical cases that will follow it. Only very rarely will the courts depart from this doctrine called stare decisis, which is a term that means when a court makes a decision it sticks to it, as do courts of equal or lower rank. One of the exceptions when the courts will reconsider matters of precedent is when considerations of public policy demand it.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court of appeals in the nation and the Supreme Court justices are tasked with interpreting the Federal Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court uses the Writ of Certiorari as a discretionary device to choose the cases it will hear. Certiorari is a Latin word that means "to be informed of" and is a writ issued by a superior court to a lower court requiring that it produce a certified record of a particular case tried there in the lower court. In 2009-2010 there were 8,159 petitions for Writ of Certiorari, and usually the Court only hears oral arguments for approximately 100 cases per Term, issuing full opinions for 75-85 of those, and writing orders for 50-60 that are reviewed without oral argument.

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Atkins case abrogated a previous ruling by the Court in Penry v. Lynaugh. Abrogate is another fancy word they use that just means "to cancel," basically. That the Court changed its stance is a big thing. So, why did the majority decide to do so? To answer this, we must first understand how the United States justifies continuing the death penalty.

Under the Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, a punishment is "cruel and unusual" if it falls within one of two categories: 
1) "those modes or acts of punishment that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time that the Bill of Rights was adopted" as set forth in Ford v. Wainwright
and 
2) modes of punishment that are not consistent with modern standards of decency, as demonstrated by facts and signs without bias or prejudice (objective indicia), the most important of which is "legislation enacted by the country's legislatures," established in Penry v. Lynaugh.

In Gregg v. Georgia the Court identified "retribution and deterrence" as the social purposes served by the death penalty. Quoting Enmund v. Florida, Justice Stevens wrote that, "Unless the imposition of the death penalty on a mentally retarded person 'measurably contributes to one or both of these goals, it "is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering," and hence an unconstitutional punishment.'" Justice Scalia adds, also quoting Gregg v. Georgia, that there is a third social purpose of the death penalty- "incapacitation of dangerous criminals and the consequent prevention of crimes that they may otherwise commit in the future."

Retribution is the interest in seeing that the offender gets his "just deserts". To balance this, the severity of the appropriate punishment necessarily depends on the culpability of the offender. Culpability being the blameworthiness of the offender, requiring a showing that he acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently. The death penalty being the most severe and most final of punishments to impose, the courts confine it to the most serious crimes. And since the Court's ruling in Godfrey v. Georgia that the culpability of the average murderer is insufficient to justify the most extreme sanction, Justice Stevens reasons that neither should should the metally retarded offender -with their diminished culpability- be considered more culpable than the average murderer and be suitable for execution.

The goal of deterrence is not furthered by the execution of mentally retarded offenders since, by definition, they have a diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning or to control impulses. The very impairments that render them less morally culpable, also make it less likely that they can process the possibility of execution as a penalty and control their conduct based on that information.

Taking into account the decision in Lockett v. Ohio, Justice Stevens believed that the risk is enhanced "that the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty" because mentally retarded defendants in the aggregate face a special risk of wrongful execution because of the possibility that they will unwittingly confess to crimes they did not commit, their lesser ability to give their counsel meaningful assistance, and the facts that they are typically poor witnesses and that their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of "evolving standards of decency," the Court concluded that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution places a substantive restriction on the State's power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.

In his dissent, Chief Justice Rehnquist stated that he believes the Court was in error to accord any weight on the Eighth Amendment scale to public opinion poll results and the fact that several professional organizations and religious groups have adopted official positions opposing the imposition of the death penalty upon mentally retarded offenders, when the elected representatives of a State's populace have not deemed them persuasive enough to prompt legislative action; legislation being the clearest and most objective evidence of contemporary values. Back in 1972 the Court expressed its opinion in Furman v. Georgia that legislatures, not courts, are constituted to respond to the will and consequently the moral values of the people.

Rehnquist disagreed with the methodology of the polling and its overall reliability. For anyone planning to use such in the courts, they should take note of this and be well prepared. Rehnquist cites the Federal Judicial Center's Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence and its Manual for Complex Litigation as offering helpful suggestions to judges called upon to assess the weight and admissibility of survey evidence on a factual issue before a court.

Though entitled to less weight than legislative decisions, Rehnquist points out that the Court has recognized data concerning the actions of sentencing juries, as in Coker v. Georgia and Enmund v. Florida. Data that is completely absent in the Atkins case. In Rehnquist's view, the work product of legislatures and sentencing jury determinations should be the sole indicators used to ascertain contemporary American conceptions of decency for purposes of the Eighth Amendment. Also, specifications of punishments are questions of legislative policy, decided in Gore v. United States.

Justice Scalia points out in his dissent that the Court has extracted a "national consensus" forbidding execution of the mentally retarded from the fact that 18 States had recently enacted legislation barring execution of the mentally retarded. That was less than half of the 38 States that permit capital punishment, and only 7 of those 18 have legislation barring the execution of all the mentally retarded. The other eleven prohibit execution of mentally retarded defendants convicted after, or convicted of crimes committed after, the effective date of the legislation, and permit the execution of mentally retarded offenders who commit murder in a correctional facility and all but the most severely mentally retarded convicts.

Scalia believed that the Court's "consistency of the direction of change" reasoning was faulty, referring to the recent legislation. Even more scathingly, Scalia says that, "'Special risk' is pretty flabby language (even flabbier than 'less likely') -and I suppose a similar 'special risk' could be said to exist for just plain stupid people, inarticulate people, even ugly people."

I hope this post has been of some help to those who want to understand the Court's reasoning in some of these cases and has saved you the trouble of reading 28 pages of small-print legalese. But for those of you who are advocates of prisoners' rights, civil rights, or Constitutional rights the cases ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court are necessary reading. Even if they are seemingly negative rulings- read them. Inside you will find the keys to what was done incorrectly and how the petitioner could have made a more solid foundation for their arguments. You also get to read some real gems from the Justices, like those I've quoted here.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Is the majority right?

*disclaimer: this post was not written by Steven, but by those who help him with his blog.
A democratic system is based on the principle that the voice of the majority matters the most. In practice, for law makers, it usually means that if you do not follow what the majority thinks, you will lose the next elections. You might suppose that the current legal system in the US reflects the opinions of the majority. Is that really so?
To continue on the topic of JLWOP-related publications, today we would like to recommend a report by National Council on Crime and Delinquency: Attitudes of US Voters Toward Youth Crime and the Justice System.
With more than 100 years of experience, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency is the oldest non-profit social and criminal justice research organization in the US. NCCD was originally founded to address issues of juvenile probation, juvenile courts, and family courts. It focuses on promoting legal reforms that enhance fairness and equality.
On their request, a national public opinion poll was conducted in 2007 to determine what American voters think of youth crime and the justice system.
The results may surprise many of you.
  • The majority doubts that the juvenile justice system is effective.
  • The majority thinks that juveniles should not be automatically sentenced in adult courts, as is currently imposed by law for certain offences.
  • The majority does not believe that incarcerating youth in adult facilities is a deterring factor that prevents future criminal acts. The majority says that such practices increase the possibility of recidivism.
  • The majority says that rehabilitation services will reduce crime rates and save tax dollars.
  • The majority feels that the juvenile justice system is racially prejudiced.
To view the complete report, please click here:
How would you answer the questions NCCD asked in the poll?
Should “tough on crime” policy apply to all offenders, irrespective of their age?
Please feel free to comment. 


Monday, June 25, 2012

A BIG DAY for JLWOP


*disclaimer: this post was not written by Steven, but by those who help him with his blog. We thought many people may find such information useful. JLWOP is the sentence Steven received. Our aim is to make our audience aware of the situation of thousands of people who are victims of the American legal system.

We are publishing this post on a special day. A day that brings hope for people like Steven, for more than 2,000 boys and girls, men and women kept in American prisons. SCOTUS, in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Arkansas decided that JLWOP is unconstitutional, as violating the Eighth Amendment. All mandatory LWOP sentences given so far will have to be reviewed.

Juvenile Life Without Parole, often referred to as JLWOP, is a type of sentence currently present nowhere in the world but in the United States of America. In the age of striving for the freedom of the individual, for equality and for universal justice, most people show disbelief when they are told that such a practice is permitted in our times. The statistics make it even more striking- there are at least 2,500 people in the US serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. It is estimated that over 100 juveniles add to this number every year (from 2005 to 2007 courts sentenced 259 children to serve LWOP). Are American kids really so much worse than kids in other countries? Are they less able to develop, to rehabilitate, or to simply grow up than their peers from Portugal, Bolivia, Pakistan, South Korea, Ghana or New Zealand?

For anyone who is interested in the subject, we have collected reports, articles, academic papers, available on-line, which may help you understand the nature of JLWOP, why it is basically wrong and why it should be entirely abolished as soon as possible. Today SCOTUS made a huge step for America to meet legal and humanitarian standards of the contemporary societies.

First, we would like to draw your attention to a publication by Amnesty International: "This is where I’m going to be when I die”.

Amnesty International is an organization which has been fighting for human rights worldwide for more than 50 years now.  In 1977, AI received Nobel Peace Prize.

Their website has a designated section with  information on JLWOP-related issues. Please click here to browse their publications on the subject.

The Introduction of the report gives a short explanation on: “Prosecution as adults” and “Mandatory life without parole”- two mechanisms in the American law that have made JLWOP possible.

 "This is where I’m going to be when I die”, presents stories of three victims of JLWOP - Jacqueline Montanez , David Young  and Christi Cheramie.  In the introduction, the authors  point out that the US and Somalia are the only countries yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. They present what had been done before to minimize harsh sentencing of juveniles to LWOP- in 2005, in Roper v. Simmons,  death penalty for under-18-year-olds was abolished by the Supreme Court of The United States. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, SCOTUS deemed LWOP for non-homicidal offences unconstitutional.

The full report can be accessed here:  

Please leave us a comment with your thoughts on JLWOP and words of encouragement for Steven, to continue his fight for freedom.

 
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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Poll



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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fly Right Inc. Lands at WCCF

May 12th saw the Fly Right, Inc. ministry making an appearance at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. Though the weather didn't cooperate for the event to be held outdoors, Mr. Jim Harris made the best of it by bringing everything indoors, into the facility's gym.

As the prisoners filed into the gym, we were greeted by music, the sight of some RC aircraft, a few very nice motorcycles and the smiles of Jim Harris, his wife Fredia Harris, as well as volunteers Angela Pennock, Raul Arismendez, and Ryan Cook. Some of the prisoners had met them at a previous event, but even new introductions felt like they were reestablishing old friendships. After the first groups finished arriving and everyone was settled in, the show began.

Though indoors, Mr. Harris made the most of the limited space by flying the three small, remote controlled aircraft: a plane, a helicopter, and a quad-engine hovercraft. Before flying each one, he explained the basics of that particular craft, how it operates and some of his personal experiences with them. Some of the prisoners noticed that he spoke of things they could relate to, and they commented on it. Mr. Harris responded, "Just wait and I'll tell you the rest of the story." As a grand finale, Mr. Harris landed the helicopter on his wife's outstretched hand.


After he'd finished the aerial demonstration, Mr. Harris allowed the guys to pass around the plane and helicopter. As they were passing around the aircraft, Mr. Harris began recounting his story. It's a familiar story on many points to those who have been in the system. Peer pressure, trying to be cool, early drug use leading to other things. Finally it proceeded to crimes, being on the run from the law, becoming incarcerated... But Jim wanted to share what made his story different. When he was at his lowest, Jim found strength and salvation in Jesus Christ.

Jim wrapped his message up and invited the guys to split into groups with Fredia, Angela, Raul and Ryan. Each shared their own experiences as Christians and invited the men to take the step, make the decision and come to know Jesus as their savior, as well. It was an event I enjoyed and I really appreciated the volunteers -14 in all- for coming into the prison to spend time with us. On the way back to my housing unit I was running a little late, though it was a fortuitous thing. I got a chance to meet three more of the volunteers: Mr. Timothy Craddock, Mr. David Pose, and Ms. Cinnamon Falk. To all of you who visited- thank you.

On a final note, to anyone who reads this- Fly Right, Inc. needs a Spanish interpreter. They have some opportunities to reach those of the Latin community but need someone who can interpret while they are speaking. If you or someone you know might possibly be interested, you can contact them at: JimH@Flyrightinc.org or by calling them at (877)369-3778



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Monday, May 28, 2012

A Change is a'Comin'

In response to a recent post request I will try to update you, my Constant Readers, as to what has been happening here at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility. You might have noticed from the lack of posts during the past few months, things weren't great. Fights, stabbings, almost constant lockdown throughout the entire facility. And that's why Mr. Raymond T. Byrd was brought in as the new warden.

Since January, Warden Byrd has been working to bring about the changes necessary for the facility to operate as it should. Part of that is a change of the guard, so to speak. There have been many terminated from their jobs, demotions, a restructuring, many under observation, as well as new guards trained and hired. As one of my associates is fond of saying, "Mr. Byrd runs a legit business."

One of the things I've had to adjust to is "going back," which is our way of saying that we have to go to the dining hall to eat our meals. The only prisoners in general population that eat their meals on the pods are the ones on Protective Custody units that aren't allowed to go to the dining hall. Mr. Byrd sent down the order, so that anyone else who wants to eat has to come to the dining hall. Makes sense.

There was recently a contest held to determine the cleanest and most well-behaved pods in the entire facility. The winning pods got to participate in a "fun day" on May 5th where we got to spend the morning outside, play baseball, volleyball, and listen to music (that the staff picked). They fed up burgers, hot dogs and chicken that they grilled right there. We also got treated to single-serve ice cream. The food was in addition to our regular three meals. That day was Cinco de Mayo, so we got some good Mexican fare. Really enjoyed it, myself.

On May 12, Fly Right, Inc. was here at the prison. For more about this event, click here. A Christian ministry, they volunteer to come into schools and prisons. This was the first such event I've had the chance to attend since being incarcerated and I'm grateful for the experience -that Chaplain Speight arranged it, Warden Byrd okayed it and that the volunteers came into the prison.

The changes are coming at a steady pace and I will be keeping you all updated. Here at WCCF I've noticed they aren't attempting to keep guys in long-term segregation, locked down indefinitely. I'll try to find out what's been happening down there. If you have any specific questions, please leave them as comments on the post and we will answer them if at all possible. It takes a few days for me to get the messages from my loved ones and then get a response in the mail, but it will get done.



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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mississippi Package Program

It's that time of year again for the prisoners in Mississippi: time to order packages. For all those unfamiliar with this, twice each year MDOC allows the prisoners in the state to order (or have ordered for them) food items up to a total of $100 per prisoner (before adding sales tax) from Access Securepak. The first opportunity of the year to order packages begins April 30 and ends June 11 -this is called the Summer Package. The second opportunity begins around November, ends in December and is called the Holiday Package.

THERE ARE 3 WAYS TO PLACE AN ORDER:
1) Online at- www.mississippipackages.com
2) Via mail by sending a completed order form and payment to-

Access Securepak (MS)
10880 Lin Page Place
St. Louis, MO 63132

All mail orders must be postmarked by June 4, 2012 and delivered by June 11.
3) Phone- (800) 546-6283

PAYMENT:
Access Securepak does not accept personal checks. Orders will be accepted when accompanied by cashier's check, money order, or credit card (MasterCard, Visa or Discover). They also accept debit cards, prepaid credit cards or cash advance cards. When paying by credit card, be sure to include the card number and security code, expiration date, card holder's address and phone number. If the prisoner has the funds on their account, they can have an institutional check cut for the proper amount and order their package that way. A 7% sales tax is applied to all products, as required by the State.

SHIPPING & HANDLING:
$3.95 shipping and handling for all orders.

LIMITS:
$100.00 maximum limit per prisoner. Multiple orders for the same prisoner will be combined into one package not exceeding the limit.

DELIVERY OF PACKAGES:
Each facility will receive one shipment each week, beginning May 7, with the final delivery by the end of the week of June 19.
If you attempt to order a package for your loved one on Access Securepak's website and encounter problems, don't panic. You are not alone in this. If the prisoner's name isn't showing up in the Access Securepak's database or if they say anything about a dispute involving the prisoner's account, the solution is simple. Have the prisoner mail the completed form to you, and you can then mail it in with the funds, directly to Access Securepak. Or you can have the funds deposited in the prisoner's inmate account and them the prisoner can send the form in on their own after having an institutional check cut for the correct amount.

*Be sure to give Access Securepak permission to substitue items in the event of a backorder. Your loved one will get their package sooner and they often substitute items with something of greater value.

CUSTOMER SERVICE QUESTIONS:
To check the status of an order 24 hours a day, call 1-800-546-6283.
Customer Service Hours- 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday, and 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. CST, Saturday.
If you have any questions or concerns, you can call Trish Jolly, at the Pearl, MS Office at 1-877-420-1576 or 601-420-4100.

Click here to read Steven's thoughts on the package program and and find out what he recommends.


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About Steven

My photo
Steven Farris is a prisoner who has been incarcerated since a month after his 16th birthday in 1998. Currently serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole, he is seeking to educate the public about the true nature of prison and the widespread and negative effects of the prison industrial complex. Steven has worked with both the National Prison Project of the ACLU, as well as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in furthering this effort.

You can contact him directly at:
Steven Farris #R5580
WCCC
P.O. Box 1889
Woodville, MS 39669-1889

Check out my other blog:

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