Friday, July 01, 2005

You, Me AND The Death Penalty

By Donald S. ConneryJanuary 9 2005

the below found here on the web

We are often told, "Don't take it personally."

This may be good advice some of the time, but not thistime. Not when the whole world is watching. Not whenarrangements are being made to carry out, in the early morning darkness of Jan. 26, Connecticut's - and NewEngland's - first execution since 1960.

We are all, of course, on God's death row, saints and sinners alike. Losing a life is personal, especiallyif it is our own.

Taking a life is personal,especially if we freely choose to do so.

In a democracy, an execution is not a dictator's whim.

The hand that provides the lethal chemical modtailis, ultimately and collectively, the hand of everycitizen and every public official. So let me speak personally.

My claim to this space is that I have had a morevaried exposure to death penalty phenomena, for morethan 70 years, than perhaps anyone else in the state -in recent decades as an independent journalistinvestigating wrongful conviction cases inConnecticut, Alabama, Virginia, Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts and other states.

I will take youthrough the stages of my enlightenment. You can haveyour own say in some other way.

Should we be resolute about executing not only Michael Ross but, in fairness, the six other murderers waitingon death row?

After all, no one seriously questionstheir guilt. Or should we call the whole thing off nowand forever within the next two weeks?Where do I stand on the death penalty?

Stalling fortime, I could say that I share the sentiments ofClarence Darrow, the legendary trial lawyer. Though his oratory saved "trial of the century" thrill killers Leopold and Loeb from execution in 1924, he was honest enough to say at another time, "I havenever killed a man but I have read many obituarieswith great relish."

Or I could quote Tevye the milkman, the "Fiddler onthe Roof" philosopher. Tevye listens to villagers arguing about whether an animal up for sale is a horse or a mule. Hearing one man's opinion, he says, "You're right!"

Hearing the other man's opinion, he says,"You're right!"

Someone tells him they both can't be right. Tevye says, "You are also right!"

Like gambling, gun control and abortion, the death penalty is one of those hot-button issues where everyone is more or less right in their reasons for being for or against.

Who am I to say that the love dones of a murder victim are wrong about an eye for an eye?

Or that others who see all life as precious arewrong to urge the salvation of even "the worst of the worst"?Hypocrisy must be avoided. As the father of fourchildren and the grandfather of eight, how would Ifeel in the shoes of the family members of eight girlsand young women in Connecticut and New York whoselives Ross snuffed out in the 1980s?I recently talked to the mother of April Brunais andthe father of Leslie Shelley. April and Leslie, bestfriends in Griswold, never reached their 15thbirthdays. For their parents, a constant horror overtwo decades has been the realization that the killerbreathes, eats, speaks, sleeps, wakes up. Their deaddaughters do not.Yet in my work I have also observed another kind ofagony.I have seen the heartbreak, and sometimes the mentalbreakdown, of parents, children, wives, husbands,brothers and sisters of men and women doomed by ourdeeply flawed criminal justice system to spend yearsor decades behind prison walls for crimes they did notcommit. I have met and befriended at least two dozendeath-row convicts - beginning with Kirk Bloodsworthin Maryland, the first prisoner to be saved by DNA -who were lucky enough to have their innocence provedbefore it was too late.My own lifelong mixed feelings about executions, a warbetween head and heart, were only barely concealed oneearly December day when I spent several hours withMichael Ross.I was not alone with him, of course. In that NewLondon courtroom, where the man's mental competencewas at issue, there was a judge as well as lawyers,reporters, spectators, sketch artists, guards andothers.Even so, my concentration on the serial killer oftenerased all peripheral distractions. It is not everyday that you get to see a man who can tell you theexact moment of his death. I sat 15 feet from him,separated only by an easily vaulted barrier. Ispeculated whether I might have the agility to springat his throat and, conceivably, advance the date ofhis demise. During World War II, as a trained-to-killsoldier in the Philippines, I was not squeamish aboutwhat needed to be done to the enemy.I did not act on this fantasy even as I acknowledge,as everyone should, the primitive instincts that lurkbelow our veneer of civilization. I stuck to mypurpose, which was to take a long, hard look at theman we mean to execute.I was surprised by his appearance as he entered thecourtroom. The problem with delaying an execution forso many years is that the monster may no longer lookmonstrous. Age, prison food and medication hadtransformed the muscular youth of the 1980s into athin, 45-year-old man with delicate features. When hedisplayed his full profile and the sweep of hisponytail, I scribbled a politically incorrect note:"Looks girlish." To control his "sexual sadism" wehave been castrating him chemically, a fate some menmight regard as worse than death.Even more disturbing: This Cornell graduate acted likean attorney with more legal skills than the typicallawyer in a typical capital punishment case. (Astunning Columbia University study reveals that morethan two-thirds of death penalty sentences areoverturned on appeal, largely because of egregiousincompetence of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct.)His own attorney acknowledged that Ross knows moredeath penalty law than he does.The bizarre nature of pre-execution proceedings thatgo on all over America reached full flower here, asthe murderer, his lawyer, the prosecutors and thejudge all engaged in a lengthy, gentlemanly discussionabout the finer points of court rulings on capitalpunishment. It was all about whether Connecticutshould accommodate Ross in his willingness, after somany appeals, to die in a matter of days. No one wascrass enough to mention rapes, weapons, blood, screamsand bodies dumped like trash.What bothered me most was the realization thatConnecticut, just by having a death penalty, had givenRoss (like all candidates for execution) a wonderfulgift after his conviction. Something far nicer than asentence to permanent confinement in a noisy,suffocating, walled and razor-wired institution packedwith dangerous convicts and surly guards.We gave Ross celebrity instead of obscurity. We gavehim a safer place in prison, an automatic appeal andtop-drawer public defenders who even now are fightingto keep him alive. We gave him the power to play onour emotions, to win headlines, to force the state tospend vast sums during years of legal wrangling, toargue endlessly about what he deserved. I stand withClint Eastwood in "Unforgiven": "Deserve's got nothingto do with it."Even in the moments before his lethal injection, Rosshas the power to call the whole thing off by changinghis mind. If so, brace yourself for more years ofexpensive nonsense.It is so very different from the rough justice of myboyhood. In the late 1920s and 1930s, crime andpunishment were our best entertainment. For a kidgrowing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the many daily papers,with morning and evening editions and screamingheadlines, gave us more gore and excitement than thefictional mayhem children see today on their computergames.Even the stately New York Times regularly allottedacres of space to crime stories. Half the front pageand three full pages of the Times of Aug. 23, 1927,were devoted to the electrocutions in Massachusetts ofSacco and Vanzetti.They were the anarchists whose trial for murder,conducted at a time of hysteria about bomb-wieldingforeigners, touched off an international firestorm.States seldom apologize for the wrongdoing of theirlawmen. In this instance, half a century went by, thenGov. Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation in 1977"clearing" Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.I was still in my crib when another great case in 1927gripped the public's imagination. I pretend noawareness of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, the lovers whoused a sash weight to kill Snyder's husband afterseveral failed attempts to take his life. What I doclaim is that my education in death penalty issuesbegan only a few years later when I first saw thefamous New York Daily News sneak photograph of RuthSnyder sizzling in Sing Sing's electric chair on Jan.12, 1928.My parents had saved their copy of the paper. TomHoward, a photographer for the tabloid and one of theassigned witnesses to the execution, had strapped aminiature camera to his ankle. As the switch wasthrown for Sing Sing's first electrocution of afemale, her eyes peering out from a black hood, Howardraised his pant cuff and pressed a shutter release inhis pocket.Under the huge headline, "DEAD!", the blurryphotograph ran full size on the front page the nextmorning. Hundreds of thousands of extra copies roaredfrom the presses to meet the public demand.In that time, justice, or at least retribution, wasnot long delayed. Snyder and her lover (who took herplace in the hot seat minutes later) were dispatchedwithin 11 months of their arrests. The last publicexecution in America, a Kentucky hanging in 1936 thatdrew a crowd of 20,000, followed the crime by only twomonths. Lynchings in the South and Midwest took onlyhours or days and were locally considered almostlegal.Scarcely anyone was keeping statistics on executionsin the 1930s. Only now can we look back and know thatthose were both the glory times of the death penalty,claimed to be a deterrent to criminal violence, andAmerica's busiest crime years until the 1960s. In acountry with half of today's population, annualexecutions hit a high of 199 in 1935. Things wentdownhill after that, to double digits after 1951,sinking to just 21 in 1963.In 1968, not one person was officially put to deathfor the first time in U.S. history. Two decades later,a revival was well underway, leading to 98 executionsin 1999. Then the number dipped again to just 59 in2004. Texas, as usual, was tops with 23. TheNortheastern states scored zero.Most of what we know about executions in America sinceColonial times is due to the peculiar obsession of M.Watt Espy, a lean and gracious Southerner who hasspent most of his adult life assembling invaluablebits of death penalty information for his one-manCapital Punishment Research Project. By the time Icaught up with him in the 1990s, his index cardsoffered details on 14,000 executions since 1608.My wife and I called on Espy during one of my manytrips to Alabama on behalf of Michael Pardue ofMobile, a 17-year-old forced to falsely confess tothree murders in 1973. I had long since given up thepretense that I could maintain a detached journaliststance when confronted by the sight of innocent peopledrowning in legal cesspools.All of Pardue's convictions had been overthrown, butthe state refused to cancel his life-without-parolesentence because of the "three strikes" law. He hadbriefly escaped three times from prisons where he didnot belong in the first place. Finally, a prosecutorand a judge in a dusty rural courthouse agreed to lethim go one day in 2001, but only if his wife, hislawyer and the rest of us agreed not to embarrass themby alerting the media. Imagine the joy of seeing thismiddle-aged man set free after 10,000 days and nightsunjustly caged.We found Espy in a creaky old house in the sleepy townof Headland way down in Alabama's southeast corner. Asthe nation's foremost historian of executions, he wasstill mired in the pre-computer era of typewriters,loose leaf binders, file cabinets and data gleanedfrom yellowed newspapers, brittle true-life crimemagazines, police mug shots and other seeminglyuseless material.The sleuth of executions proved to be a fountain oflore about dead men walking - and sometimes joking orreciting verse. ("Hang me high/And stretch me wide/Sothe world can see/How free I died.") Espy knew allabout the sorry history of the Southern states aloneaccounting for as many executions as the rest of thenation combined.We discussed various Alabama wrong-man cases thatmiraculously had escaped Holman Prison's "Yellow Mama"electric chair. He spoke of Walter McMillian, anexonerated black man who had been put on death roweven before trial. I told how Mike Pardue in 1973 hadbeen seduced into taking blame for murders he didn'tdo because his defense attorney, recently aprosecutor, said it was his best way of avoidingexecution. This was a cruel ruse; the boy could nothave been put to death.The U.S. Supreme Court, in Furman v. Georgia in 1972,had called a halt to executions everywhere in theland. They could be resumed (and were in 1977) as soonas the death machinery was readjusted to make it lessof a crapshoot. Only "a capriciously selected randomhandful" of the most violent criminals get sentencedto death, wrote Justice Potter Stewart, under statelaws that are "cruel and unusual in the way beingstruck by lightning is cruel and unusual."Such concerns about the arbitrariness of executions,like awareness of mistaken convictions, were far fromthe minds of most people in the years leading up toWorld War II. Even so, there were enough do-gooders towork up a formidable, if generally futile, abolitionmovement. At the head of the pack was the League toAbolish Capital Punishment, oddly led by Lewis Lawes,famous as the Sing Sing warden whose institutionenjoyed New York's monopoly on electrocutions.Critics called Warden Lawes a hypocrite for saying heaverted his eyes in the death chamber every time thelethal jolts were applied. I remember him in radiointerviews eloquently decrying the whole business. Hiselevated argument about why the death penalty shouldbe abandoned was echoed decades later when ChiefJustice Earl Warren spoke of his faith in "theevolving standards of decency that mark the progressof a maturing society."The reformers back then feasted on a series ofcontroversial cases. As historian Stuart Banner tellsus in "The Death Penalty," the execution of GeraldChapman in Connecticut in 1926 created quite anuproar. "Chapman, convicted of killing a policeofficer, was widely believed to be innocent." Hisdeath produced a flurry of editorials and letters tothe editor on both sides of the issue, all serving asa prelude to the much noisier national arguments aboutthe death sentences imposed on the "Scottsboro boys"in Alabama and the circus atmosphere of the BrunoHauptmann trial in 1936.This latest "trial of the century" touched off a mediatsunami. In 1932, five years after Charles Lindberghflew alone across the Atlantic, someone kidnapped andkilled his baby son. Hauptmann, a German immigrant,looked guilty (people said) and offered a dubiousalibi for possessing some of the ransom money.Unconcerned about any presumption of innocence, theDaily News announced his arrest in 1934 in headlinestwo inches high: "LINDBERGH KIDNAPER JAILED."Hauptmann's inevitable conviction and execution werethrilling events for everyone in my neighborhood. Thegreat drama of justice in action was marred, however,by Hauptmann's insistence on his innocence. He refusedto yield even when New Jersey's governor promised lifeimprisonment in exchange for a confession. With AnnaHauptmann's full support, he would not yield, evenwhen a newspaper promised to give his destitute wifeand son $90,000.I was sure of Hauptmann's guilt, of course. I trustedthe law. I was raised on mod Tracy, radio'sGangbusters and the exploits of J. Edgar Hoover,Melvin Purvis and the other G-men. The nation cheeredas the good guys went after John Dillinger, Charles"Pretty Boy" Floyd, Ma Parker, Bonnie and Clyde andthe other famous criminals. Few were bothered by theFBI's execution of Dillinger as he stepped out of amovie theater in Chicago.World War II put a stop to my fascination with suchmatters. I had other priorities, like staying alive.Even so, I was aware that there was such a thing asmilitary justice. Most of the millions in uniformbehaved themselves well enough. Firing squads made anexample of at least some of the murderers and rapists.Years after the war, I read about a secret cemetery inFrance, in Fer-en-Tardenois, where 95 of the mostunlawful soldiers were buried. The dead included EddieSlovik, who was a petty thief in Detroit before beingdrafted. His corpse eventually was brought home as hisloved ones wondered about the U.S. Supreme Court'sslogan, "Equal Justice Under the Law."Out of 21,049 American military personnel convicted ofdesertion during World War II, he was the only oneexecuted. Needing a deterrent because of all thetroops going absent without leave during the Battle ofthe Bulge, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the order.The story was told in 1974 in a television movie, "TheExecution of Private Slovik," starring Martin Sheen.By then, even our armed forces had become reluctantabout applying the death penalty. No militaryexecution has occurred since 1961.Before finding my way to Connecticut in 1968, after adecade overseas as a Cold War foreign correspondent,two death penalty controversies in the 1950s and '60shad a major impact on me.The first was the trial and execution of Julius andEthel Rosenberg. Never before or since has there beensuch a worldwide condemnation of the American choiceof capital punishment. President Truman and hissuccessor, Eisenhower, both refused to intervene andhad to cope with millions of letters and telegramsflooding the White House.My wife and I were more than onlookers in that time ofhysteria about Reds under every bed. Some of ourleft-leaning professors at Harvard had come under firefor supposed anti-Americanism. I later reported Sen.Joe McCarthy's rampage of false accusations for UnitedPress. But in the Rosenberg matter, the mountingevidence of a genuine case of Moscow-directed wartimeespionage, stealing our nuclear bomb secrets, becameimpossible to dismiss.The execution date was stayed four times as the U.S.Supreme Court met to consider clemency, on oneoccasion bringing the justices back from vacation. Tenthousand people gathered in Manhattan's Union Squarein a final cry for mercy as Sing Sing's electric chairdid its work on June 19, 1953. Today, with Sovietfiles open to inspection, we can be fairly sure thatEthel had far less to do with passing on secrets toour wartime ally than Julius, and should have beenspared death, if there had to be a death penalty inthe first place.As for the second memorable controversy, it wasunderway when we moved to London in 1962 after myCuban Missile Crisis reporting for Time, Life and NBCgot me booted out of Moscow. Margaret Thatcher was ourmember of Parliament. The Bobbies kept the peacewithout carrying guns. Our neighbors on HampsteadHeath were well aware of their country's ancienttradition of executions (ax or gallows preferred),including deaths long ago for such "Bloody Code"offenses as shoplifting, stealing letters and being inthe company of gypsies for a month.Any number of reforms to civilize capital punishmenthad been adopted since the last public decapitation in1820 and the last public hanging in 1868. Yet this wasnot good enough. There was a rising demand to be ridof the death penalty.Britain was in distress about executing the wrong manfor murder years earlier, while giving a free pass toone of the most industrious serial killers since Jackthe Ripper. In the words of one account of the case, afeeble-minded man, Timothy Evans, suspected of the1949 slayings of his wife and daughter, was taken "tothe police station where he was interrogated until heeither confessed, signed a confession or the policelied about him doing either." He was soon convictedand hanged.Only later, when bodies began to surface, did itbecome apparent that a key witness against Evans, JohnChristie, had included Evans' wife and daughter in astring of murders. Christie was executed in 1953.Evans was granted a posthumous pardon in 1966 while wewere in England. In 1998, two other executedinnocents, Derek Bentley and Mahood Matan, weresimilarly pardoned posthumously.What was most scandalous was the refusal ofauthorities to face up to their mistakes and institutereforms. An alarmed public demanded, and got,Britain's complete abolishment of the death penalty,followed by safeguards to protect the innocent. Today,of course, all of Europe and virtually all otheradvanced societies except America are done withcapital punishment.I had no idea then, before we returned home to lookfor the perfect small town in Connecticut, that lawmenof The Constitution State, when similarly exposed formiscarriages of justice, would be just as reluctant astheir British counterparts to admit error and adopthigher professional standards.The Peter Reilly case of 1973-77 changed my life. Ihad expected to carry on a career as an internationalreporter but instead started groping about in theterra incognita of our justice system. What else couldI do? A high school friend of my children had beenforced to falsely confess to slaying his mother. Henow wore the brand of convicted killer. Wading deeplyinto what became the most controversial criminal casein Connecticut history, I eventually wrote a bookabout the tragedy of it all, "Guilty Until ProvenInnocent."Arthur Miller could not. Though his role in exposingthe injustice and recruiting legal talent had beencritical to the teenager's exoneration, he was sohorrified by the state's willingness to put ablameless person behind bars that he found itimpossible to tell the tale. In an unforgettablepassage in his memoir, "Timebends," he explained his"absence of creative enthusiasm":"It is still difficult to describe with any precision,but I think I was oppressed by a certain bruterepetitiveness in the spectacle of the Reillyprosecution. It was simple enough to understand thatthe police, once locked onto Peter, could not relent,lest they endanger their professional reputations.Quickly the question changed from who murdered BarbaraGibbons and might still be walking around loose to whowas impugning the state police. But as simple as theexplanation was, it offered a vision of man soappallingly unredeemable as to dry up the pen. Exceptfor the intervention of private citizens, a young man,physically slight and in many ways stillpsychologically a boy, would have been tossed to thewolves in the state penitentiary and eaten alive,"Miller wrote.What does this have to do with today's debate aboutcapital punishment? Peter, 18 at the time of hisarrest and due to be 50 in March, was convicted ofmanslaughter and never in danger of execution. But itis the Reilly story, and others like it, thatchallenge any belief we may have that Connecticutjustice is so immaculate that we can make killing ourworst offenders the preferred option.I will be plain. We have no business executing anyoneuntil we clean up our act. And not even then.We have to get over the hubris of thinking that we cango forward with a clean conscience because we are notTexas, Virginia, Georgia or some other benighted statewith less stringent rules about who gets to die. Theworld, not impressed with our fine distinctions, willlump us with the worst of the worst states.As Lynne Tuohy reminded us in The Courant Jan. 2,Connecticut came close to tossing out the deathpenalty in the mid-1950s. Gov. Abraham Ribicoff wasall for it; so was much of the public and the press.Understandably, the killing rampage of Joseph Taborskyand Arthur Culombe changed minds all over the state,including Ribicoff's.Citizens applauded the lawmen for putting an end tothe reign of terror and winning death sentences forboth killers. If the means used to accomplish thoseends were not entirely legal, who would object?Answer: The U.S. Supreme Court.Each year, our highest court looks at only a few ofthe thousands of appeals from the guilty complainingof unfairness and the innocent hoping for rescue. Thejustices took up Culombe's complaint. It was broughtby his attorneys, of course; the man was illiterateand brain-damaged. The court came down so hard onConnecticut's crime-solving methods that Culombe, witha life sentence, escaped the fate of Taborsky, who"volunteered" for the electric chair instead ofappealing his conviction. He became the last person tobe executed in Connecticut.The spotlight was on state police Maj. Sam Rome,"Connecticut's mod Tracy," famous for crime bustingthat relied heavily on his gut instinct and dirtytricks. His style was to illegally seize evidence,wheedle confessions in any way possible, and keepattorneys at bay for days, by shuffling suspects fromone police barracks to another. On the witness stand,Rome denied choking, kicking and beating Culombe. Hedenied bringing in the suspect's 5-year-old daughterto play in the interrogation room during the grilling.Connecticut's Supreme Court gave its seal of approvalto Rome's methods both in the Culombe appeal and asimilar appeal in the Roy Darwin murder case a fewyears later. The U.S. Supreme Court did not. TheCulombe and Darwin confessions were thrown out. Darwinwas set free despite strong indications of guilt.The deficiencies of police techniques were on fulldisplay in the bizarre mid-1960s case chronicled inMildred Savage's "A Great Fall." The mutilated body ofa Barkhamsted woman, Dorothy Thompsen, was found inher home. Deciding that the victim's mentallydisturbed mother-in-law did it, Rome won herconfession by bringing in a detective to pose as herattorney and a policewoman to pretend to be the newfianc=E9e of her son, the victim's husband.This enterprising activity could have closed the caseif a rival investigator had not stepped in. Lt.Cleveland Fuessenich, a future state policecommissioner, found his own suspect, Harry Solberg,and obtained a competing confession. Solberg was twicebrought to trial. Two times Rome testified for thedefense. The case died on the vine with Solberg freeand the homicide unsolved.I thought of this affair as the ultimate farce ofConnecticut justice until I involved myself in themore recent Haddam-Killingworth bus arson case. Thetorching of $500,000 worth of school buses in 1994 ledpolice to a teenager named David Saraceno. A 10-hour,high-pressure state police interrogation forced falseadmissions that were neither written down at the timenor recorded.Saraceno was convicted and imprisoned but laterreleased after a private investigation discovered thatthe prosecutor was protecting four other young men whoalmost certainly did the crime. The chief state'sattorney's office uncomfortably joined the defense ina motion to overturn Saraceno's conviction.This should have freed the youth from furtherjeopardy. Instead, in 1999, under threat of extendingthe legal nightmare that had already cost his parents$100,000, Saraceno accepted guilt for "hinderingprosecution by falsely confessing."Under the statute of limitations, the state hadallowed the five-year window for prosecuting the knownsuspects to close. No one except the wrong man didjail time for the crime.The law officer most responsible for compellingSaraceno to declare it was all his fault is ChiefState's Attorney Christopher Morano. Yet I believe himto be quite good at his job, as are most of our lawmenmost of the time. They protect us bravely. It is onlytheir inability to admit and correct mistakes inhigh-profile cases that throws them off the truecourse of justice.I am also quite willing to think well of LeonardBoyle, our new state police commissioner, after arecent two-hour confidential interview. Boyle may beConnecticut's best-qualified top cop ever. Givenencouragement, he could bring 21st century thinking toa department still wedded to old ways, still refusingto record interrogations, still stifling its ownwhistleblowers.Is it any wonder that I do not want to entrust anyonein this state, or any state, with the power to inflictdeath when life is an option?With honorable exceptions, our politicians, policeagencies, prosecutors and judges have been slow tolearn the lessons of the DNA revolution that hasrocked the criminal justice system during the last 15years. The errors, corruption and racism have alwaysbeen known, if only because of movies like "The WrongMan," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Hurricane." Itis just that people prefer to believe that wrongfulimprisonments are rare, and only the truly guilty geta ticket to death row.In fact, the national error rate for mistakenconvictions is far higher than even the expertssuspected. With more than two million Americans inprison or jail at any one time, the number accused orconvicted for crimes they did not do is in the tens ofthousands. If airlines operated this way, two to fiveplanes would crash for every hundred taking off.Thanks to DNA, we are now forced to confront the uglyreality of a system rampant with faulty eyewitnesstestimony, false confessions, junk science, jailhousesnitches, inept lawyers, police perjury,win-at-any-cost prosecutors and judges too comfortablewith the idea that appeals of jury verdicts are abouttechnicalities, not the possibility of innocence.Connecticut's Richard Lapointe case ought to be ourloudest wake-up call. I could say the same about thethree other ongoing wrong-man cases I know best inthis state. All are based on unconscionable policemethods of squeezing falsehoods from suspects andwitnesses: Ryan Thompson for a Plainfield slaying,Travis Wright for a killing in Stamford and PatrickCorbin for a rape in Bristol. But Lapointe deservesspecial attention because the death penalty came intoplay in a way that should shame us all.The middle-aged dishwasher was arrested in 1989 andconvicted in 1992 for the 1987 slaying of his wife's88-year-old grandmother, Bernice Martin. TheManchester police, interrogating Lapointe for morethan nine hours, extracted such admissions as, "If theevidence shows I was there and that I killed her, thenI killed her, but I don't remember being there." Yetthere never was any physical evidence linking him tothe murder and arson.The uncorroborated false confession was central to theconviction. The police and prosecutors were fullyaware that Lapointe, with a child's mind in a man'sbody, had suffered from a form of hydrocephalus or"water on the brain" ever since boyhood. They knew ofhis exceptional vulnerability to the powerfulpsychological ploys that are commonly used ininterrogation rooms nationwide. Nonetheless,Connecticut tried hard for the death penalty.But for Dr. Charles Duncan, a neurosurgeon from theYale School of Medicine, the state might havesucceeded. With graphic images of Lapointe's damagedbrain backing up his testimony, he convinced thejurors not to increase our death row population.Now in his 15th year behind bars, Lapointe should havebeen set free a decade ago by some combination ofpublic outrage and official action after Tom Condon'scover story in Northeast [Feb. 21, 1993] exposed thefull horror of it all. That classic in investigativejournalism led to a Hartford conference of nationalexperts on the system's errors and a book I edited,"Convicting the Innocent." Nothing worked. Connecticutjustice was unmoved.A citizens' group, The Friends of Richard Lapointe,founded by Robert Perske of Darien, has been untiringin seeking Lapointe's liberty. Perske is the nation'sforemost advocate for mentally retarded citizenscaught up in the justice system. The prospects forLapointe's eventual salvation are brighter these days.The case has been taken up by Centurion Ministries ofPrinceton, N.J., nationally known for winning freedomfor dozens of innocents who had lost all hope.Which brings me to Gov. M. Jodi Rell. As she blessesthe death penalty and vows to veto any bill callingoff the Ross execution, she may sincerely believe sheis acting in Connecticut's best interest. She is not.Even if they cannot stop an execution on their own,governors have their state's biggest bully pulpit toarouse public opinion against it. Or they can makepolitical hay, as Bill Clinton did during his firstrun for the presidency, by showing up the day aconvict dies.President Bush, who presided over more executions(152) than any governor in American history during hisreign in Texas, did not give an inch on histough-on-crime stance when appeals to save Carla FayeTucker, the killer turned born-again Christian,flooded in from all over the world. He did say aprayer for her.Another Republican governor, George Ryan, seemed to bejust as fond of executions until the day he learnedthat half the people Illinois had been sending todeath row were wrongly convicted. He could hardly haveescaped noticing that something was terribly wrong. Aseries of Chicago Tribune expos=E9s and investigationsconducted by Northwestern University's law andjournalism schools had uncovered a Grand Canyon ofmiscarriages of justice.The rest is history. I was in and out of Chicago anumber of times during that time, serving as anadviser to Northwestern's Center on WrongfulConvictions. Ryan, a onetime pharmacist, was not muchof a governor, but it was heartening to see himcourageously defying his own party, the lawenforcement leadership and conventional politicalwisdom by doing the right thing.He was applauded around the world for declaring amoratorium on executions. Then, saying there was noway of sorting out the innocent from the guilty withany swiftness or certainty, he cleared every lastconvict off death row. They would just have to do withlife-without-parole sentences. The Illinoislegislature came alive with new laws, including themandatory recording of interrogations, to reducemistaken convictions.Gov. Rell, who enjoys far more popularity than Ryanever knew, has the opportunity of a lifetime to makehistory of her own. She can steer Connecticut awayfrom the folly of resuming executions. In thetradition of Ella Grasso, who was magnificent duringthe Reilly case for stopping the police cover-up, shecould direct her energies toward making this state'sjustice system the most advanced and principled in thenation. Money is available for this noble task: themillions we are wasting and will keep on wasting bymaintaining the death penalty.Connecticut cannot afford to look ridiculous. Thewhole world is moving away from the death penalty asif from the plague. Its complete abolition in thisnation is inevitable. Unless, of course, AbrahamLincoln was wrong about "the better angels of ournature."Would Rell lose face by changing her mind, just asRibicoff changed his, although in the other direction?I leave it to a bit of verse from the 1960s, urgingAmerica to call off the bombings in Vietnam, by Danishscientist and poet Piet Hein:The noble art of losing faceMay someday save the human raceAnd turn into eternal meritWhat weaker minds would call disgrace.Donald S. Connery of Kent is writing a history ofmiscarriages of justice.Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant,1,529027=4=2Estory?coll=3Dhc-headlines-northeastDrive around McClean, VA(the home of CIA headquarters) and read theroad signs: "George Bush's CIA"Nixon is spinning in his grave wondering what Bush has to do to beimpeached."Fascism should rightly be called Corporatism, as it is a merge ofState and Corporate power." ---Benito Mussolini, the father of modernfascism.


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