Category Archives: Capital Punishment

Senate State Affairs looks at repealing the death penalty on Weds Feb 10

On Wednesday, February 10, at 10:00 am the SD Senate State Affairs committee will take on 1 bill. This is compiled using the agenda at the time of composing this post. Agendas can and do change!

One way to listen to these meetings live is via the audio links on the Schedule page of the LRC website. While there you can also view the status board for the meetings as they are going on.

This will be a long meeting!

SB 94 (SoDakLiberty Posts) – Repeal the death penalty.

SoDakLiberty Stance: Undecided
Prime Sponsors: Sen Arthur Rusch (R, Dist 17) and Rep Timothy Johns (R, Dist 31) are the prime sponsors.

Currently a Class A felony is punishable by “death or life imprisonment”. This bill would replace that with “life imprisonment without the possibility of parole”. The bill would also commute the sentence of anyone currently on death row in South Dakota to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The rest of the bill then removes statutes dealing with the death penalty.

This is a true death penalty repeal bill.

Last month I blogged pretty extensively about the death penalty. I urge everyone to listen to testimony in committee tomorrow. But for now below I have provided a repost of my recap of the death penalty forum I attended.

RECAP OF THE HUMAN FACES OF THE DEATH PENALTY FORUM

Human Faces of the Death Penalty forum in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Human Faces of the Death Penalty forum in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

Over the last couple of weeks I have done a good number of posts focused around the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum sponsored by the South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. This post will briefly recap all of those posts for easy reference.

I have also created a YouTube playlist containing all of the individual videos from the posts listed below:

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL WILL BE A FOCUS FOR 2016, A LOOK BACK AT 2015

This post looked at the death penalty repeal legislation that was taken up in 2015. None of the bills made it out of committee.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 1: OPENING REMARKS FROM DENNY DAVIS

In this post the Denny Davis, Director of  South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, gave his opening remarks and explained why it was so important to put a human face to the death penalty.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 2: JUAN ROBERTO MELÉNDEZ-COLÓN

This post focused on a man who was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit and then sentenced to death. He spent seventeen years, eight months, and one day on death row for a crime he did not commit.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 3: SHUJAA GRAHAM

This man also spent time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He has also been an advocate for making incarceration more human for all prisoners, and not just death row inmates.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 4: SUEZANN BOSLER

Bosler is a victim survivor in a death penalty case. She has been an advocate to abolish the death penalty for years.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 5: SEN COLBY COASH

This Nebraska state senator was instrumental in getting the death penalty repealed in that state during the 2015 legislative session.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 6: QA SESSION AND OPPOSING VIEW

There was a brief Q&A session at the end of the forum. Most of the QA session was centered around an audience member that is for the death penalty and has lost a family member to two men sentenced to death in South Dakota.

A FEW WORDS WITH BERNIE HUNHOFF

Sen Bernie Hunhoff (D, Dist 18) was in attendance at the event.

A SHORT CHAT WITH ARTHUR RUSH

Sen Arthur Rusch (R, Dist 17) was in attendance at the event.

A SHORT CONVERSATION WITH REP RAY RING

Rep Ray Ring (D, Dist 17) was in attendance at the event.

Recap of the Human Faces of the Death Penalty forum

Human Faces of the Death Penalty forum in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Human Faces of the Death Penalty forum in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

Over the last couple of weeks I have done a good number of posts focused around the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum sponsored by the South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. This post will briefly recap all of those posts for easy reference.

I have also created a YouTube playlist containing all of the individual videos from the posts listed below:

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL WILL BE A FOCUS FOR 2016, A LOOK BACK AT 2015

This post looked at the death penalty repeal legislation that was taken up in 2015. None of the bills made it out of committee.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 1: OPENING REMARKS FROM DENNY DAVIS

In this post the Denny Davis, Director of  South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, gave his opening remarks and explained why it was so important to put a human face to the death penalty.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 2: JUAN ROBERTO MELÉNDEZ-COLÓN

This post focused on a man who was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit and then sentenced to death. He spent seventeen years, eight months, and one day on death row for a crime he did not commit.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 3: SHUJAA GRAHAM

This man also spent time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He has also been an advocate for making incarceration more human for all prisoners, and not just death row inmates.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 4: SUEZANN BOSLER

Bosler is a victim survivor in a death penalty case. She has been an advocate to abolish the death penalty for years.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 5: SEN COLBY COASH

This Nebraska state senator was instrumental in getting the death penalty repealed in that state during the 2015 legislative session.

DEATH PENALTY REPEAL FORUM PT 6: QA SESSION AND OPPOSING VIEW

There was a brief Q&A session at the end of the forum. Most of the QA session was centered around an audience member that is for the death penalty and has lost a family member to two men sentenced to death in South Dakota.

A FEW WORDS WITH BERNIE HUNHOFF

Sen Bernie Hunhoff (D, Dist 18) was in attendance at the event.

A SHORT CHAT WITH ARTHUR RUSH

Sen Arthur Rusch (R, Dist 17) was in attendance at the event.

A SHORT CONVERSATION WITH REP RAY RING

Rep Ray Ring (D, Dist 17) was in attendance at the event.

Death Penalty repeal forum pt 6: QA Session and opposing view

Death Penalty repeal forum panel in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Death Penalty repeal forum panel in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

At the end of the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum sponsored by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty there was a short question and answer session. The QA session ended up being more interesting than I anticipated because an audience member gave her perspective as a victim that supports the death penalty.

Here is the full video of the forums QA session. I believe this part of the forum is worth listening to in order to hear the other side of the story. Below I am going to pull out some brief key parts of QA session, but I would urge everyone to listen to hear an opposing viewpoint!

The video is just over 22 minutes long.

Why speak about the death penalty in Europe

One of the audience members asked a question I was curious about myself. The panelists repeatedly mentioned during the forum that they had traveled all over Europe speaking about the death penalty.

Shujaa Graham answered this question. He noted that many European countries continue have debates about restoring the death penalty after certain events happen. The panelists continue to travel to Europe to ensure the death penalty is not re-instituted in those countries.

It should be noted the EU has taken a strong stance against the death penalty in its member states.

Nebraska death penalty repeal referred to voters

Even though the legislature successfully passed legislation to repeal the death penalty, that was not the end of the story. In August a group called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty delivered 166,692 petition to the SOS in order to refer the law to the voters in 2016. In October Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale announced enough valid signatures had been verified by the counties to certify the referendum. That basically put the new law on hold until the results of the 2016 election come in.

Nebraska State Senator Colby Coash handled the question about what happens now that the new law has been referred to the voters. Coash says the referendum will likely be held up in the courts, and there are some possible problems with it. He also claims the Nebraska governor, Pete Ricketts, has used a lot of his own money to drive the petition process. The Journal Star out of Lincoln, NE, confirms this to be true.

I have talked to a few pro death penalty advocates in South Dakota since doing these blog posts and have a feeling any death penalty repeal law passed in SD would also be referred to the voters. Both sides are very passionate about this issue.

Why isn’t pro-life one of the values

An audience member asked Sen Coash why pro-life was not one of the conservative values he used to help defeat the death penalty.

Coash said he did use that talking point. But he “kept running into buzzsaws” when using that talking point. People would mention there is a difference between an innocent life and a guilty life.

Proponent of the death penalty speaks

Then a person from the audience who happened to be a family member of a victim spoke from her perspective. He father, a prison correctional officer, was killed by two in people in the state penitentiary. This is a well-known case in SD. One of the murderers was put to death in 2012. The other murderer in this case has his execution stayed.

I would ask everyone opposed to the death penalty to listen to her story (it begins about the 8 minute mark in the video). It is important to hear both sides of the story. She admitted that in her opinion she finds only a few cases where the death penalty is OK. I believe her story makes a good case for how dangerous some people truly are, especially to those working in correctional facilities.

One thing she brought up was that she had no victims rights. As I’ve looked into the issue I have to agree with her.

After hearing her story I didn’t change my stance on the death penalty. But as I said above, it is important to hear both sides of the issue; especially from a person such as this who has first-hand experience as a victim’s family member right here in South Dakota. Personally I find her to be very brave for coming into such a forum and bringing up an opposing viewpoint.

Up Next – The Final Post

Up next in this series will be the final post in this series coming out of the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum. This will basically be a recap post of the forum.

Death Penalty repeal forum pt 5: Sen Colby Coash

Nebraska State Senator Colby Coash speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Nebraska State Senator Colby Coash speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

It is time for the final speaker in Part 5 of a series of blog posts revolving around the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum sponsored by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.  Previous posts in this series have focused on two men wrongfully sentenced to death (Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón and Shujaa Graham) and on the story of a victim survivor that has fought against the death penalty (SueZann Bosler). This post will focus on Colby Coash, a Republican State Senator from Nebraska who was instrumental in getting the death penalty repealed in that state.

Here is the full video of Colby Coash speaking at the forum. His story is worth listening to because he was able to find the right talking points to get a red state to actually repeal the death penalty. Below I am going to pull out some brief key parts of Coash’s story, but I would urge everyone to listen to his story!

The video is just over 36 minutes long.

Key Parts of the Story of Colby Coash

Colby Coash started by noting he was in a meeting about a year ago with the hopes to try repealing the death penalty in Nebraska. A colleague of his has tried offering legislation for 38 years.  Nebraska is a red state just like South Dakota. The chances looked grim for actually getting the death penalty repealed there. But it was repealed during 2015 in Nebraska.

Colby Coash mentioned that while growing up the death penalty really wasn’t something he thought about, or opposed. I think most of us can relate with him. But while he was going to college some friends brought him to an execution at the penitentiary. When entering the pen parking lot he found out the people attending were split into two groups, those for and those opposed to the death penalty. On the side Coash was on, the pro side, there was a band and tailgating going on. Coash called the event “festive”, and included fireworks. He noticed the opposition side was being silent and praying, while his side was drinking beer. During the drive home Coash had to think about what he had just participated in and how that fit with the values he was raised with. He vowed never to be in a situation like that again; but then put it in the back of his head.

Years later Coash was elected to the Nebraska State Senate. As a young Senator, Coash was assigned to the Judiciary committee. This time Coash was sure where he stood on the death penalty. He then spent the next seven years fighting against the death penalty. I won’t go through his legislative history of votes, he explains that pretty well in the video above.

Coash spent years trying to get death penalty repeal legislation passed. 2015 was the last attempt and he tried a different approach. He started sharing his story with colleagues and voters.

Coash also had to look at what had been done over the last 38 years and why it wasn’t working to repeal the death penalty. Here are some of the talking point that had been tried over and over without gaining any traction:

  • The death penalty disproportionately affects minorities. Coash noted that talking point just was not working.
  • The death penalty is unfair. Coash notes that in Nebraska not one of the death row inmates claimed to be innocent. That removed the whole debate about innocence.
  • The death penalty is unfair socially. Rich people can get a lawyer to defend themselves, and the people on death row were less fiscally advantaged so were unable to defend themselves. This also did not work as a talking point.

After looking at the talking points above that didn’t work, Coash had to find talking points that would work in Nebraska. The above talking points were “old and tired”. They may be true, but the talking points were not resonating with the Nebraska legislature or the voters.

So then Coash changed the narrative away from the above talking points and went towards more conservative talking points. He looked at how the death penalty matches with conservative values, and live by those values.

Here are some of those values:

  • Fiscal responsibility. Coash noted the death penalty system in Nebraska was broken, and costing the taxpayers a lot of money (true country-wide thanks to drug companies being pressured). He passed on the message of fixing a broken part of government.
  • Justice. Death row inmates were spending decades on death row without the sentence being carried out. This would not allow closure for the victims families. Coash said the state should focus on sentences where justice could be carried out without extending the suffering of the victims families.
  • Limited government. Coash focused on whether the government should have the right to take a life. This was a strong talking point in Nebraska because it is a Republican majority.

The above talking points resonated better with his Republican colleagues because they focused on core conservative values. In addition to those talking points there was a group similar to South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty that was getting voters to give their legislators support. They were not attacking legislators, rather they were letting the legislators know they would be supported back in their district for voting to repeal the death penalty.

My Thoughts

Putting Sen Coash’s approach in work during the South Dakota 2016 legislative session is workable. SD is a red state just like Nebraska. Conservative values should work here just as well as they worked in Nebraska. I’ve covered SD politics for a few years now and have heard most Republican legislators in this state campaign on fiscal responsibility, justice and limited government. Those are the very same talking points Coash was able to use in order to get the death penalty repealed in Nebraska.

I also think everyone opposed to the death penalty should reach out to South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. They could use help coaxing legislators during the 2016 session. I truly do feel South Dakota can and should repeal the death penalty. I also feel it is possible in 2016!

Next Post

All of the panelists have spoken now. The next post will be a short QA session. Also there will be some remarks from the crowd offering the other side of the death penalty debate.

Death Penalty repeal forum pt 4: SueZann Bosler

SueZann Bosler speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
SueZann Bosler speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

It is time for part 4 in of a series of blog posts revolving around the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum sponsored by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.  The previous two posts focused on the stories of Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón and Shujaa Graham; both of which were wrongly sentenced to the death penalty. This post will focus on the story of SueZann Bosler, a victim survivor that watched her father being murdered before her eyes. She now fights against the death penalty on her father’s behalf.

Here is the full video of SueZann Bosler speaking at the forum. Her story is worth listening to. Below I am going to pull out some brief key parts of Bosler’s story, but I would urge everyone to listen to her story! Bosler puts a perspective on the death penalty I feel is important  for everyone to hear.

The video is just under 30 minutes long. (I apologize for some of the camera work in this video. My good tripod had recently been stolen, and this cheap replacement was just that… cheap!)

Human Face of the Death Penalty

Before writing about Bosler’s story I would like to mention something host Denny Davis says at the beginning of this video. He was talking about the media and others talking about people on death row like they are animals. He goes on to say:

Do these people look like animals. That’s why I wanted to bring you the human face of the death penalty. People who are on death row have a face, they are human beings. They want to live a human life. What does it say about us as a society that don’t give them that chance.

I agree with Davis, most of the time when I’ve discussed the death penalty it seems any talk of death row inmates devolves to talking about a lower life form. Perhaps it makes it easier for some people to accept the death penalty by forgetting these are actual human beings. Yes, many of those on death row did some terrible things to others. But does that mean they are no longer human? And what about the many death row inmates who were later found innocent. Is society to blame for those wrongfully killed by the state?

Key Parts of the Story of SueZann Bosler

SueZann Bosler is what many would call a victim of the death penalty. She had to watch her father, a Brethren minister, be murdered right before her eyes. Yet she does not call herself a victim, instead she prefers the term victim survivor. Bosler also was attacked and left for dead. I won’t go into the details on this part of her story. Instead I would ask everyone to hear it from Bosler’s own mouth in the video above. It is worth hearing.

Earlier in life Bosler remembers having a death penalty talk with her father. Bosler’s father had stated outright that he would not want someone sentenced to the death penalty if he were murdered or killed. Those words stayed with her during the long trial and sentencing phases of the trial. Shen then thought her voice would be listened to during sentencing. But no, she found out that her voice (and really her dads voice through her) would not be listened to. What Bosler found out is that the victims voice was not wanted by the prosecution.

Bosler found a way around not talking about the death penalty during trial by stating part of her job was to advocate against the death penalty. That allowed her to speak out against the death penalty in court as a fact, instead of as an opinion (which she had been warned against in court). The judge then threatened her with jail if she tried an approach like that again. She may have caused the prosecution and judge some heartburn, but she was victorious in keeping someone from getting the death penalty.

SueZann Bosler also spoke briefly about closure. She has seen the term closure used by politicians to make their political points. Bosler said politicians using such talking points were probably trying to get closure for votes. Through her own thought process, Bosler realized that helping the government to murder another person (even if he is a murderer) would also make her a murderer. She refused to accept that outcome. Bosler realized that murder does not cause closure.

SueZann Bosler holding DP card. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
SueZann Bosler holding an anti-death penalty declaration card. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

Bosler also mentioned she carries a card on her person at all times letting it be known she is against the death penalty. The card includes a declaration that if something were to ever happen to her that she does not want that person to get the death penalty. She also wears a black band around her wrist all the time that says “there is no such thing as a lesser person”. I think that saying fits in with what Denny Davis was trying to do with this whole event by putting a Human Face to the Death Penalty.

Put in Perspective

Earlier this month I mentioned HB 1158 (SoDakLiberty Posts), which was a bill brought forth by Steve Hickey during the 2015 session to try giving victims a voice in death penalty sentencing. Here is what I said at that time:

Personally I find it almost stunning that the wishes of the victim or the victim’s family would not even be presented during the presentencing hearing. During committee testimony for the bill Hickey had said “The victims voice, I think, is the starting point in the consideration of the sentencing in a death penalty.” He noted the victims wishes do not have to be granted according to the bill he brought forth. All this bill really would have done is let the jury know the wishes of the victim and/or the victim’s family. Allowing this would not necessarily change the outcome. I agree with Hickey that the victims voice should be heard during the hearing and I find it to be an injustice that this doesn’t happen.

Now after hearing SueZann Bosler’s story I feel even more adamant that HB 1158 should have passed. Bosler found herself being treated quiet harshly by the judge and prosecution in the trial of her fathers murderer. They were more than interested in hearing her story when it came to convicting the murderer. Yet when it was time for sentencing they almost treated her like the criminal because she wanted her voice as a victim to be heard. Hopefully a similar bill in the 2016 session can be passed so that all victims can be heard during sentencing; regardless of whether they believe in the death penalty or not.

Final Thoughts

It is hard to imagine what someone such as SueZann Bosler has had to go through. Not only was she attacked and had to watch her father be murdered, but she had to be part of a trial that lasted many years. When it came to sentencing she suddenly found out her words were no longer accepted by the judge or prosecution. That is a situation that must stop. I think no matter what side of the death penalty debate people fall on, they should agree that sentencing would be an appropriate time to hear from the victim’s family.

Next Post

The next post in this series will feature Colby Coash, a Republican Senator from Nebraska. He will share his experience getting the death penalty repealed in Nebraska.

A few words with Bernie Hunhoff

Sen Bernie Hunhoff speaking on the SD State Senate floor. Photo by Ken Santema 02/11/15.
Sen Bernie Hunhoff speaking on the SD State Senate floor. Photo by Ken Santema 02/11/15.

While attending the Death Penalty Repeal forum I took a few moments to speak with some of the legislators in attendance. One of those was Sen Bernie Hunhoff (D, Dist 18). It was thanks to Hunhoff mentioning the Death Penalty Repeal form during the Legislative Preview episode of SD Focus that I found out about the event. My conversation with Hunhoff was short and was focused purely on the 2016 session.

I first asked Hunhoff about his confidence level of death penalty repeal legislation making it past committee this year. Hunhoff believes there has been a good debate about the death penalty in the legislature for the last three or four years, and feels there has been good progression. He said at first legislators just fell into their ideological camps, possibly because it is an issue that hadn’t been debated in so many years. But now he thinks that after a couple of years of “real powerful testimony” he feels the discussion has broadened to a point where more minds have been opened to the possibility of repealing the death penalty. Going forward he doesn’t really see it as a partisan issue, and believes it will come down to legislators doing their own searching in order to come up with the right answer.

Then I asked Hunhoff about other issues he is looking towards in the 2016 session (other than ed funding and Medicaid expansion). Hunhoff is looking forward to some legislation relating to Jolene’s Law. During the 2015 session SB 71 (SoDakLiberty Posts) was defeated, which would have extended the Jolene’s Law Task Force for another year. After being defeated, Governor Daugaard found some grant money to fund the Task Force for another year. Hunhoff has heard some good potential legislation will come out of the Task Force this year. Hunhoff believes the issue of sexual abuse is “a terrible plague on our society”.

The Elder Abuse Task Force was also mentioned by Hunhoff. This is another topic he wishes wouldn’t have to be discussed in the state of South Dakota. But Hunhoff said the reality is that there are elderly people in South Dakota being abused and taken advantage of.

When talking about the transgender issue, Hunhoff wishes it would just be left up to school districts. He feels the topic needs to be dealt with compassionately. Since there are legislators that believe they have answers to transgender issues, Hunhoff says it will once again be a topic during session.

Actually I agree with Hunhoff that Marcy’s Law, the Elder Abuse Task Force, and transgender issues will be a focus during the 2016 session. I hope he is able to make some headway and get death penalty repeal legislation out of committee this year. I really feel it deserves to be debated on both the House and Senate floor.

Death Penalty repeal forum pt 3: Shujaa Graham

Shujaa Graham speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Shujaa Graham speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

This is part 3 in of a series of blog posts revolving around the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum sponsored by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.  The previous post focused around the story of Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón, a man who spent nearly eighteen years on death row for a crime he did not commit. This post will feature Shujaa Graham, another person who spent time on death row for a crime he did not commit. Graham’s story focuses a lot on the inhumane punishment involved in incarceration and the death penalty.

Here is the full video of Shujaa Graham speaking at the forum. This is well worth listening to and hearing his story. Below I am going to pull out some brief key parts of his story, but I would urge everyone to listen to his story! Graham further expands upon the case made by Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón against the death penalty.

The video is just over 25 minutes long.

Key parts of the story of Shujaa Graham

Shujaa Graham in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Shujaa Graham in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

Mr Graham was accused of a killing a prison guard in 1973. Yes, he was already in prison when convicted and sentenced to death. During his teenage years Shujaa moved from the deep south to South Central LA. While in LA he was part of gang activity and had spent time in and out of the penal system.  In prison he met a man who taught him the value of learning about history and culture. From that point on he spent his time turning his life around and becoming involved in political activism. In prison it was fellow prisoners who helped him to become educated. He also had become a leader. It was becoming a leader that led his eventual time on death row.

As a leader Graham spent time trying to organize prisoners and getting them to stand up for themselves. He was doing so in a cultural way, and did not advocate for violence. Graham was then accused a leading an uprising. This is part of what he had to say at the forum:

November the 27th, a human being was killed. And his name is Jerry Sanders. He was a prison guard and I was accused of leading an uprising.

I led an uprising. Just like I’m talking to you all and encouraging you to stand up. That’s what I did. But I never encouraged people to participate in violent activity. I encouraged them to stand up and organize themselves in units of power, and take it to the warden that is responsible to deal with our situation.

Graham then spent the next nine years going through physical and mental torture. It was during the fourth and final trial that he was found not guilty.

When talking about incarceration Graham says he believes society must be protected at times. But he does not believe in revenge or punishment. He says it is important to remember that those spending time in jail/prison will return to society. Graham believes we should be headed towards a better society. That also goes to the guilty. He believes everyone should be treated as a human being, and nobody should have to go through the torture he had to endure.

As Graham left prison he vowed to make sure nobody spent life in prison or go onto death row for a crime they did not commit. He said ” I’m gonna fight until the day I die to make it right”.

Put in Perspective

Shujaa Graham spent nine years fighting a death sentence for a crime he did not commit. But even if he had committed the crime, is the death penalty a punishment that should be handed out? Many advocates of the death penalty say such a punishment should be handed out because it keeps society safe by deterring future crimes. But is that true?

Chart Source: Death Penalty Information Center
Chart Source: Death Penalty Information Center

The chart above provided by the Death Penalty Information Center shows that states without the death penalty have consistently had lower murder rates. No, this doesn’t mean having a death penalty causes more murder. Rather, it shows a lack of ability for capital punishment to reduce murder rates. What kind of message does that send when we as a society are willing to inhumanely punish someone for a reason that simply isn’t backed up with real proof? Perhaps instead of capital punishment, it is time to look at prison reform that allows prisoners to be treated like human beings and work towards becoming productive members of society.

Final Thoughts

I really never looked into the punishment aspect of the death penalty or prison incarceration. But after hearing stories from people such as Shujaa Graham I begin to wonder if the current penal system isn’t focused too hard on punishment. It seems that as a society we tend to stop thinking of a person as an actual human being once they attain the label of prisoner. Yet anyone that truly believes in equality and freedom should be sticking up for the rights of all people. Including those who have been incarcerated for crimes against society. Graham definitely has some talking points worth discussing as the debate about the death penalty and justice reform continue.

Next Post

Suezann Bosler will be the speaker in the next post. She watched her father get murdered right before her eyes. She worked on her father’s behalf to keep her father’s murder from being put to death.

Death Penalty repeal forum pt 2: Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón

Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón speaking in Sioux Falls. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

It is time for part 2 of a series of blog posts revolving around the Human Face of the Death Penalty forum sponsored by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.  The first post in this series focused on the opening remarks by the group’s Director Denny Davis. This post will focus on the story of Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón, a man who spent nearly eighteen years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Here is the full video of Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón speaking at the forum. This is well worth listening to and hearing his story. Below I am going to pull out some brief key parts of his story, but there is no way my words can do justice to what he had to live through. I would urge everyone to listen to his words and feel his emotional story.

Key parts of the story of Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón

The prosecution of Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón is not only important in discussing the Death Penalty, but also important in discussing how the justice system doesn’t always work. There was no physical evidence the prosecution could use against Juan, because none existed. The prosecution’s case relied upon the testimony of a witness, that happened to be an informant with a criminal record. With such a weak case the prosecution was able to get the jury to sentence Juan to death. Even if Juan had been guilty of the crime it should give pause to anyone that considers how a man was sentenced to death with no real evidence, and only the testimony of a criminal.

At the time of his prosecution Juan could not read or write English, and he didn’t speak English very well either. He simply didn’t understand the language. He was completely reliant upon his defense attorney and the prosecution to do what was right. And that is where the system failed him. On his final appeal he finally got a lawyer that was able to do some true investigation. Included in the materials held by the original defense lawyer was a taped confession from the real murderer. After more investigation the new defense lawyer found more evidence that was never brought forth which would have cleared Juan of all charges. The original prosecutor and defense lawyer both had access to this evidence, and didn’t bring it forth. Juan spent almost eighteen years on death row because of a justice system that failed him.

Put in perspective

Now to put this in perspective. He spent seventeen years, eight months, and one day on death row for a crime he did not commit. Juan was the 99th person to be exonerated and released from death row since 1973. He was released from death row in 2002. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) there have now been 156 exonerated death row inmates since 1973. Also on the DPIC website it lists 1422 executions in the US since 1976. If those 156 exoneration’s were added to the 1422 executions that would make a total of 1578. Had those 156 exonerated inmates been put to death, that would mean that 10% of the inmates on death row would be put to death incorrectly.  I don’t know about anyone else, but a 10% fail rate on determining the death penalty makes me feel just outright sick. It makes me wonder how many innocent people are still on death row and innocent. If the answer is that even one innocent person is on death row, that should  give anyone pause in the consideration of allowing the state to kill anyone.

I think Juan summed it up best when he said “we can never release an innocent man from death or the grave.”

Final Thoughts

I have many reasons for being personally opposed to the death penalty. I also understand that not everyone shares my personal moral values and will feel differently. But I do think people such as Juan Roberto Meléndez-Colón, having been wrongly sentenced to death,  should give reasons for anyone to at least reconsider their support of the death penalty. How many people have been put to death in the US for a capital crime they did not commit?

I would also urge everyone to listen to Juan’s story in the video above. I did not blog about the emotional turmoil this man has gone through and I do not believe I could do it justice. But I do know I have a deep-found respect for Juan. Somehow after all he has gone through Juan tries to live a happy life and is an inspiration to others.

Next Post

Up next in this series of posts will be Shujaa Graham. Mr Graham is another death row inmate that was exonerated for a crime he did not commit.

Death penalty repeal forum pt 1: Opening remarks from Denny Davis

Denny Davis giving the opening remarks at death penalty repeal forum. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Denny Davis giving the opening remarks at death penalty repeal forum. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

As I announced last week, the death penalty repeal will be a focus for me on this blog during the 2016 SD legislative session. This post will begin a series dedicated to a public forum I attended on Saturday, December 12, titled the Human Face of the Death Penalty. It was sponsored by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and was hosted by the group’s Director Denny Davis. In this post I will highlight some points I find interesting from the opening remarks spoken by Mr Davis.

Here is the full video of the opening remarks from Mr Davis. It is just over six minutes long.

Takeaways from the opening remarks

Davis says he called for the forum “so we can be begin to see the death penalty with a human face”. In that he isn’t just talking about the inmates on death row, but also “our face”. He says the death penalty is “not about what they do, the death penalty is about what we do”. He makes the point that the death penalty is a way for society to say that killing is OK by law, even though there are many other laws that say killing is not OK. This single statement really sums up my personal feelings when I first starting looking at why the death penalty is wrong.

As Davis notes, in modern society we have the means to incarcerate for life if necessary to keep society safe. As a tool to deal with the worse of criminals, the death penalty is no longer necessary. Davis also notes that the US is one of the few “western developed democracies” that actually still uses the death penalty. Personally I find it astonishing that the US would even consider still putting people to death. From my viewpoint the death penalty is not about keeping society safe (which can be done with incarceration) and it definitely isn’t about reform. Rather I believe it is pure and simple revenge. Revenge should never be seen as a foundation for any law in modern society!

Davis went on to say this is not about murderers getting off easy. Anyone convicted of first or second degree murder in SD will serve life in prison. Anyone convicted of a crime will still be appropriately punished. I think that point is important because repealing the death penalty is not about letting criminals get off easy. Not in the least!

Denny Davis holding the death certificate of a death penalty victim. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.
Denny Davis holding the death certificate of a death penalty victim. Photo by Ken Santema 12/12/15.

While talking Denny Davis had shown the crowd a large copy of a death certificate from someone put to death in North Carolina. What was interesting in this case is that the doctor filling out the death certificate chose homicide as the cause of death. The doctor that filled out the death certificate would not change how she filled it out because she feels the death penalty is “state-sponsored homicide”. I agree.

The next post

The next post in this series will focus on Juan Roberto MeléndezColón. He was convicted of a crime he did not commit and spent nearly 18 years on death row. I can’t even imagine what it was like for him to spend that many years waiting to be killed by the state, for something he didn’t even do.

Death Penalty repeal will be a focus for 2016, a look back at 2015

Death row © Christianm | Dreamstime.com
Death row © Christianm | Dreamstime.com

This last Saturday I attended a forum in Sioux Falls hosted by South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The event had a panel that looked at the Human Face of the Death Penalty. Over the next couple of weeks I will have video and blog posts coming out of that event. The progress of death penalty repeal legislation will be a focus on this blog during the 2016 session.

Before doing the posts coming out of the death penalty forum or looking at 2016, I will take a few moments to look at the legislation brought forth in 2015. None of the four bills made it out of committee.

HB 1158 – Victims opposition to the death penalty

HB 1158 (SoDakLiberty Posts) was prime sponsored by Rep Steve Hickey (who later in the year resigned to study abroad) and Sen Billie Sutton (D, Dist 21).

This was a bill I thought might actually make it through committee. SD codified law 23A-27A-2 defines the relevant evidence a jury will be presented with during a presentence hearing that involves the death penalty. The fourth and final relevant evidence includes the following:

(4)    All evidence concerning any mitigating circumstances,

HB 1158 would have added the following:

(4)    All evidence concerning any mitigating circumstances, including documented evidence of the victim’s opposition to the death penalty and testimony from the victim’s family that the defendant’s life be spared.

Personally I find it almost stunning that the wishes of the victim or the victim’s family would not even be presented during the presentencing hearing. During committee testimony for the bill Hickey had said “The victims voice, I think, is the starting point in the consideration of the sentencing in a death penalty.” He noted the victims wishes do not have to be granted according to the bill he brought forth. All this bill really would have done is let the jury know the wishes of the victim and/or the victim’s family. Allowing this would not necessarily change the outcome. I agree with Hickey that the victims voice should be heard during the hearing and I find it to be an injustice that this doesn’t happen.

The bill was killed by the House State Affairs committee by a vote of 10-2.

HB 1159 – Opposition to death penalty on ID card

HB 1159 (SoDakLiberty Posts) also had Rep Hickey and Sen Sutton as the prime sponsors.

This is a bill I never thought would make it through committee, and was glad to see it defeated. I personally am against the death penalty, but I don’t think this was a good solution. The bill can be best summarized in the first sentence of the bill:

A person, eighteen years of age or older, may express personal opposition to the death penalty by checking the box on the driver license or identification card application.

Hickey had offered an amendment that would have fixed some of the issues that were possible with the legislation as proposed. I don’t think that was enough from my perspective. Personally I think the state already does too much data collection, especially by the DMV. There are other ways for victims to get their wishes known without involving a driver’s license. During the death penalty repeal forum I recently attended one of the panelists showed a card that can be carried around to serve the same function. I would also think that a signed document stored with a persons Will would also be a good alternative. Plus, without HB 1158 passing it made this bill fairly irrelevant.

The bill was killed by the House State Affairs committee by a vote of 10-2.

SB 121 – Real of the death penalty

SB 121 (SoDakLiberty Posts) was prime sponsored by Sen Bernie Hunhoff (D, Dist 18) and Rep Hickey.

Currently SD codified law 22-6-1 provides for the death penalty as one of possible punishments for a Class A felony (there are nine classes):

(1)      Class A felony: death or life imprisonment in the state penitentiary. A lesser sentence than death or life imprisonment may not be given for a Class A felony. In addition, a fine of fifty thousand dollars may be imposed;

This bill would have removed the death penalty and made a life imprisonment one without the possibility of parole. I thought Sen Hunhoff made a good case for passage of the bill during committee testimony when he made this statement:

Do we want a government so big, so powerful, that it can decide life and death. Can we be sure, if government has that much power, can we be sure there will never be an error in the justice system. I believe by last count there were a hundred and fifty exonerations, of people who were on death row and exonerated.

He also went on to talk about whether it is effective as a deterrent or ethical. Personally I do not want a government so powerful that it can make life or death decisions. That is particularly true for many of us that find the death penalty to be morally wrong. I will likely go further into this topic during the 2016 session as new bills are brought forth.

The bill was killed by the Senate State Affairs committee by a vote of 7-2.

SB 122 – Revise death penalty provisions.

SB 122 (SoDakLiberty Posts) was also prime sponsored by Sen Hunhoff and Rep Hickey.

SB 122 is a bill I thought maybe had more of a chance than SB 122. Instead of repealing the death penalty, this bill would also add the requirement that:

A finding that the defendant is too dangerous to be incarcerated and is an ongoing danger to the public and the prison community.

That requirement would have to be met during the presentencing trial along with current requirements of at least one aggravating circumstance and a recommendation that the death sentence be imposed. Personally I would rather a full repeal of the death penalty, but at least this bill would have created a hurdle that would cause fewer people put to death by the State of South Dakota. Considering how many death row inmates have been exonerated nationwide, I can’t understand why this bill did not make it out of committee.

The bill was killed by the Senate State Affairs committee by a vote of 7-2.

PS. I almost forgot about one of the first posts I did on this blog explaining in part why I am opposed to the death penalty.

PPS. I also found another old post where I said this:

Gun control and reducing murder within our society has become a large debate topic recently. However at the same time we fail to debate whether the government should be allowed to kill people. The death penalty at its core is simply the taking of someone’s life for revenge. There is no justice or rehabilitation with the death penalty. There is only death.