A monthly bulletin about the death penalty
November 24, 2004 Vol. VI, Issue No. 7 Death Penalty Questions Surround Attorney General Nominee Alberto Gonzales Attorney General nominee, Alberto Gonzales, was the chief legal counsel to President George W. Bush while he was Governor of Texas. While in this position, Gonzales was responsible for briefing the Governor on as many as 57 death penalty cases in order to assist him in deciding whether any of the cases warranted clemency. However, an examination of these documents by the Atlantic Monthly revealed that Gonzales routinely omitted crucial details from his case summaries including: evidence of ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, and mitigating evidence, as well as information indicating that the individual might actually be innocent. There is also evidence to suggest that on June 16, 1997 Gonzales sent a letter to the U.S. State Department arguing that the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations did not apply to Texas because it was the federal government, not the state of Texas, which had signed the treaty. Bush refused to grant clemency to Irineo Tristan Montoya, a Mexican National, who had been denied his right to contact the Mexican Consulate. Tristan was executed by the state of Texas on June 18, 1997 just two days after Gonzales sent his memo. Number of Death Sentences Continues to Decline A study by the US Department of Justice revealed that the number of people sentenced to death in 2003 reached a 25-year low. 144 people were sentenced to death in 2003 which is less than half of the number sentenced in 1996 - a whopping 320. The number of death sentences has declined steadily over the last six years and the number of executions has dropped from a high of 98 in 1999 to 65 in 2003. These numbers indicate a growing hesitancy by juries to return a death verdict and perhaps the recognition on the part of some district attorneys that they are simply unable to convince juries to return a death sentence in most cases. In July 2004, Alameda County Prosecutor Jim Anderson said in regard to the Richard Dean Wilson case, "We thought...the likelihood of getting a death vote on this guy was small. The best we would have ever gotten was hung jury after hung jury" (Tri-Valley Herald, July 30, 2004). San Mateo County prosecutors decided to seek a sentence of life in prison for Seti Christopher Scanlan in August 2004 after concluding that "it was not reasonably likely that we would get a jury that would deliver the death penalty." Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe noted that even if a jury were to sentence Scanlan to death, years of subsequent appeals would cost taxpayers millions more (San Jose Mercury News, August 24, 2004). Public concern that scores of innocent people have come very close to execution may be responsible for the significant decline in death sentences. San Francisco Magazine Highlights Stories of California’s Wrongfully Convicted A recent San Francisco Magazine article by Nina Martin entitled "Innocence Lost," exposes California's horrendous record of wrongful convictions. Over the past 15 years, at least 200 California inmates have been freed after courts found they were unjustly convicted - nearly twice the number of known exonerations as in the next two states (Illinois and Texas) combined. Six of these individuals had been sentenced to death (Oscar Lee Morris, Lee Perry Farmer, Jerry Bigelow, Troy Lee Jones, Patrick Croy, and Ernest "Shujaa" Graham). Some 63% of wrongful convictions in San Francisco Magazine’s research sample of 30 cases involved serious police error or misconduct. Some 47% of wrongful convictions in the sample involved serious prosecutorial error or misconduct. More than 90% of the cases were upheld on direct appeal despite these egregious errors. The entire article is available online at:
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