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Media spar w/ Idaho over executions

BOISE - As Idaho’s news media spar with the state in federal court over limits on access to executions, the case has turned a spotlight onto Idaho’s long and consistent history of media witnesses attending its state executions to serve as the eyes and ears of the public. In fact, media witnesses have been present for all but one Idaho execution since 1901, and published detailed accounts of them.

“The body swung not to the right and left, the rope made not a single twist, but facing the sun in the eastern sky, like one standing erect, all that was mortal of Ed Rice was there before his fellows, while the tide of life fast ebbed away,” the Idaho Daily Statesman reported in 1901, recounting the first state execution held at Idaho’s state prison.

Read the rest of Betsy Z. Russell's story here.

Texas ends special meals in executions

By MICHAEL GRACZYK,Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — Texas inmates who are set to be executed will no longer get their choice of last meals, a change prison officials made Thursday after a prominent state senator became miffed over an expansive request from a man condemned for a notorious dragging death.

Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed Wednesday for the hate crime slaying of James Byrd Jr. more than a decade ago, asked for two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.

Prison officials said Brewer (pictured) didn't eat any of it.

“It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege,” Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, wrote in a letter Thursday to Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Within hours, Livingston said the senator's concerns were valid and the practice of allowing death row offenders to choose their final meal was history.

“Effective immediately, no such accommodations will be made,” Livingston said. “They will receive the same meal served to other offenders on the unit.”

That had been the suggestion from Whitmire, who called the traditional request “ridiculous.”

“It's long overdue,” the Houston Democrat told The Associated Press. “This old boy last night, enough is enough. We're fixing to execute the guy and maybe it makes the system feel good about what they're fixing to do. Kind of hypocritical, you reckon?

“Mr. Byrd didn't get to choose his last meal. The whole deal is so illogical.”

Brewer, a white supremacist gang member, was convicted of chaining Byrd, 49, to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him to his death along a bumpy road in a case shocked the nation for its brutality.

Whitmire warned in his letter that if the “last meal of choice” practice wasn't stopped immediately, he'd seek a state statute to end it when lawmakers convene in the next legislative session.

It was not immediately clear whether other states have made similar moves. Some limit the final meal cost — Florida's ceiling is $40, according to the Department of Corrections website, with food to be purchased locally. Others, like Texas, which never had a designated dollar limit, mandate meals be prison-made. Some states don't acknowledge final meals, and others will disclose the information only if the inmate agrees, said K. William Hayes, a Florida-based death penalty historian.

Some states require the meal within a specific time period, allow multiple “final” meals, restrict it to one or impose “a vast number of conditions,” he said.

Historical references to a condemned person's last meal go as far back as ancient Greece, China and Rome, Hayes said. Some of it is apparently rooted in superstition about meals warding off possible haunting by condemned people once they are put to death.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based anti-capital punishment organization that collects execution statistics, said it had no data on final meals.

Since Texas resumed carrying out executions in 1982, the state correction agency's practice has been to fill a condemned inmate's request as long as the items, or food similar to what was requested, were readily available from the prison kitchen supplies.

While extensive, Brewer's request was far from the largest or most bizarre among the 475 Texas inmates put to death.

On Tuesday, prisoner Cleve Foster's request included two fried chickens, French fries and a five-gallon bucket of peaches. He received a reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court but none of his requested meal. He was on his way back to death row, at a prison about 45 miles east of Huntsville, at the time when his feast would have been served.

Last week, inmate Steven Woods' request included two pounds of bacon, a large four-meat pizza, four fried chicken breasts, two drinks each of Mountain Dew, Pepsi, root beer and sweet tea, two pints of ice cream, five chicken fried steaks, two hamburgers with bacon, fries and a dozen garlic bread sticks with marinara on the side. Two hours later, he was executed.

Years ago, a Texas inmate even requested dirt for his final meal.

Until 2003, the Texas prison system listed final meals of each prisoner as part of its death row website. That stopped at 313 final meals after officials said they received complaints from people who found it offensive.

A former inmate cook who made the last meals for prisoners at the Huntsville Unit, where Texas executions are carried out, wrote a cookbook several years ago after he was released. Among his recipes were Gallows Gravy, Rice Rigor Mortis and Old Sparky's Genuine Convict Chili, a nod to the electric chair that once served as the execution method. The book was called “Meals to Die For.”

High court asked to halt Texas execution

By MICHAEL GRACZYK,Associated Press
HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Attorneys for a black man set to die Thursday evening for a double slaying in Houston 16 years ago appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to block the execution because a question about race was asked during the punishment phase of his capital murder trial.

 Duane Buck, 48, (pictured right) faces lethal injection for fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend and a man in her apartment. In an appeal to the Supreme Court on Thursday and a letter to Perry, Buck's lawyers said a psychologist testified that black people were more likely to commit violence.

 “The State of Texas should not condone any form of racial discrimination in the courtroom,” attorney Katherine Black wrote Perry, urging the governor to use his authority to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve for Buck. “The use of race in sentencing poisons the legal process, undermines the reliability and fairness of the sentence, and breeds cynicism in the community toward the very institution entrusted with protecting the rights of all persons equally.”

Buck's case is one of six convictions that then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn — a political ally of Perry who is now a Republican U.S. senator — reviewed in 2000 and said needed to be reopened because of the racial reference.

In the other five cases, new punishment hearings were held and each convict again was sentenced to die. State attorneys contend Buck's case was different from the others and that the racial reference was a small part of larger testimony about prison populations.

Perry (pictured left) is a capital punishment supporter and as frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination his actions now are coming under closer scrutiny. During his 11 years in office, 235 convicted killers in Texas have been put to death. His office said he has chosen to halt just four executions, including one for a woman who later was executed.

Buck, 48, was convicted of gunning down ex-girlfriend Debra Gardner, 32, and Kenneth Butler, 33, outside Houston on July, 30, 1995, a week after Buck and Gardner broke up. Buck's guilt is not being questioned, but his lawyers say the jury was unfairly influenced and that he should receive a new sentencing hearing.

A third person, Buck's stepsister, Phyllis Taylor, also was wounded, though she has since forgiven Buck and sought for his death sentence to be commuted to life in prison.

Gardner's 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were among those who witnessed the shootings. Officers testified that Buck was laughing during and after his arrest, saying Gardner deserved what she got.

The psychologist, Walter Quijano, was a defense witness and the testimony at issue came in response to a question from a prosecutor. Jurors in Texas must decide on the future danger of an offender when they are considering a death sentence.

Buck's attorneys went to the Supreme Court after losing appeals in lower courts. A clemency request to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, all of whom are Perry appointees, also failed.

Assistant Attorney General Edward Marshall told the Supreme Court Buck's appeals were attempts to relitigate claims that every court, including the Supreme Court, already rejected.

“The record in Buck's case reveals that no constitutional violation occurred during his sentencing trial,” he told the justices.

If courts continue to reject Buck's appeals, only Perry could delay the lethal injection by invoking his authority to issue a one-time 30-day reprieve for further review.

Perry was not in the state Thursday, meaning any final order to delay would technically come from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. However, Perry's office frequently points out that he remains the governor and in contact with Austin while traveling.

Mike Walz, communications director for Dewhurst, said Thursday he would not comment “while any legal actions are still pending.” Perry generally has adhered to the same policy.

The lead prosecutor who tried the case, Joan Huffman, now a Republican state senator, said this week she had no concern about asking Quijano the question about race. She noted her question came in reference to a report he prepared for the defense and the issue was raised just once.

The execution would be the second this week and the 11th this year in Texas. Two more Texas prisoners are set to die next week.