Columns » Ernest Dumas

Guest writer: Betsey Wright

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To: Gov.-elect Mike Beebe.

I am delighted that you are our governor-elect, and, for a change, I happily look forward to the next few years!

I know and accept that you support the death penalty, which I oppose. I also know you to be a man who believes in fairness. It is because I know both things about you that I send this unsolicited advice about clemencies as you put together the Beebe governor’s office.

First, please do not allow a form letter saying that you cannot grant clemency because a jury made the decision. YIKES! Juries, prosecutors and law enforcement make terrible errors sometimes. The Innocence Project at Cordoza Law School has proved the innocence of 187 people convicted of all kinds of crimes all across this country. There are 123 people who have been freed from death rows after their innocence was proved. Another two dozen were executed in spite of evidence of innocence. You know how difficult it is to get a court to accept evidence of innocence because there are technical requirements for when and how such proof is presented. So you, my friend, will become the only person who always has the ability to review the contentions made by an applicant for clemency, and your review must be independent of any other.

One of my least favorite people, Kenneth Starr, former special counsel on the Whitewater investigation and now dean of Pepperdine Law School, recently said something very wise while on a panel examining the death penalty:

“[M]y own experience in recent years — in the Robin Lovitt case in Virginia ... and in the still-unfolding Michael Morales case in California — suggests to me that governors and their advisors are tending to neglect this historic role of clemency and pardon in the system,” Starr said.

“Michael Morales’ case is illustrative of what I think is a terrible trend, abject deference to the judicial system with its inevitable flaws and a frank unwillingness on the part of virtually every governor in the country, and those who advise them, to fulfill their assigned role in our constitutional structure.”

I hope that you will become the first governor of Arkansas, within my knowledge, to actually fulfill your constitutionalresponsibilities regarding clemencies.

It is critical that your staff review crimes, especially those that yielded a death penalty, to learn whether others committing comparable or similar crimes were given lesser charges. It is also crucial that your staff learn whether others committing comparable or similar capital murders were allowed to plea bargain.

Just the other day, I read about a plea bargain given to a man who had gunned down his wife in the street while she clutched their four-month-old child. He took the child from his dying wife and then shot her three more times. In a plea bargain, this murderer’s charge was reduced to first-degree murder, meaning that he can be eligible for parole one day. I do not disagree with the prosecutor’s actions in this case, but I will point out that the most recent arrival on death row is a man who stabbed his wife to death on a street less than 200 miles away. I’m certain that you see there is no equity in this.

The first execution date you will probably set will be for a man convicted in the county where I live. He was burglarizing homes and at one killed the homeowner. Also in my county, a man who participated in the imprisonment, rape, sodomy and eventual death of a young teen-ager was allowed to take a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. There is no logic to this. Why is the first one worse than the other?

There are many other examples of the lack of standards for “most heinous.” Prosecutors are human beings who react to horrible crimes in their districts, just like the rest of us do. The mere fact that 61 percent of the men on Arkansas’s Death Row are black, compared with less than 15 percent blacks in the population, and the fact that most murderers are white, indicates bias, albeit probably unintentional in most cases.

Sometimes people get the death penalty because they had a terrible lawyer or because the victim’s family are community leaders or because they are black and nearly always because they are poor. For whatever reason, they are not offered a plea bargain like the vast majority of people charged with capital murder. In spite of what the State Hospital says, some of them are simply not competent to stand trial. Sometimes Death Row inmates are innocent.

I hope you will select a pardons and clemencies advisor who has had significant experience in criminal justice, including some defense experience. And it is very important that you not use your appointments to the Parole Board as political payoffs (as Gov. Mike Huckabee has occasionally done) since these people must make serious decisions about the lives of people who come before them.

After the courts have finished reviewing a death penalty case, you, my governor-elect and my friend, must be the Equalizer. I ask only for fairness. In many cases, there is no other place for fairness to happen except through the clemency process.

Betsey Wright, an activist on death penalty issues, is a former chief of staff to Gov. Bill Clinton. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.

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