Death row inmate wins shot at another sentence








A Houston man on death row for 25 years has won an appeal that could get him a new punishment trial or see his sentence reduced to life.

Roger Wayne McGowen was condemned in 1987 for fatally shooting a 67-year-old woman during a Houston bar robbery in March 1986.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholds a lower court’s ruling that instructions given to jurors didn’t provide a way for them to consider his disadvantaged background.

The ruling posted late Monday is in line with other Texas capital cases of that era before the courts refined jury instructions.

The appeals court also rejected arguments that the 48-year-old McGowen is innocent, his trial lawyers were deficient and his long time on death row is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.


Absent Compassionate Release, Austerity Helps Some Terminally Ill Prisoners Obtain Freedom








Entrance to the clinic at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island in Queens, New York. (Photo: Librado Romero / The New York Times)
Patricia Wright is 60 years old, legally blind and wheelchair-bound. She also has Stage 4 cancer, which has spread to her breasts and to her brain. In November 2011, doctors removed one of three tumors from her brainstem and placed a steel plate in her head. It was Wright’s seventh surgery that year alone.
If Wright were anyone else, she would go home and recuperate among family and loved ones. But she is in prison, having been sentenced to life without parole in 1997. Instead of having a loved one bring her home, Wright was handcuffed, shackled and returned to the skilled nursing facility (SNF) at the Central California Women’s Facility prison.
If the idea of battling cancer behind bars is not appalling enough, Wright never should have been convicted and incarcerated. The San Francisco Bayview reports that when Wright’s former husband was found dead in 1981, she was not a suspect. However, in 1995, her brother Larry, who was facing a ten-year sentence in a maximum-security prison for child abuse, told police that Wright was responsible for the murder. In exchange, his sentence was reduced to two years imprisonment with five years of parole. After his release from prison in 2000, Larry wrote a detailed letter stating that he had lied about his sister’s involvement in the death of her husband. The absence of DNA evidence linking Wright  to the killing has led the Innocence Project in New York City to take on her case .
In September 2010, California passed Senate Bill 1399, a medical parole process to reduce the cost of expensive medical care and around-the-clock armed guards for incarcerated people who are permanently medically incapacitated. However, people sentenced to death or to life without the possibility of parole remain ineligible for medical parole. Thus, as Wright’s son Alfey Ramdhan pointed out in an appeal in the San Francisco Bay View, her only chance to spend her remaining days with her family is if Gov. Jerry Brown grants her executive clemency or compassionate release.
However, Wright has two prior felonies from 15 years earlier when Ramdhan, then age 7, stole two 99-cent toys and a hand towel from an open house. Although the items stolen were valued under $400, these two actions were classified as felonies. Given that Wright’s conviction in her ex-husband’s death is considered a third strike  under California’s three-strikes legislation, Brown’s office has been reluctant to grant her clemency. 
Wright is not the only terminally ill person behind bars fighting to spend her remaining days with her loved ones outside of prison. In 1985, Charisse Shumate was sentenced to 15 years to life for killing an abusive partner in self-defense. She entered the Central California Women’s Facility with sickle cell anemia and Hepatitis C, neither of which were adequately treated by the prison’s medical system. She lost sight in one eye when the doctor waited five days to treat a sickle-cell-anemia related disorder. Beverly Henry, Shumate’s friend and a prison peer educator, stated that ten years after entering prison, Shumate was diagnosed with cancer, which also went largely untreated. Even as her own health deteriorated, Shumate became an advocate for women’s medical needs. In 1995, she became the lead plaintiff in Shumate v. Wilson, a class-action lawsuit against the  California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) about their life-threatening health care.
In 2000, she testified before state lawmakers at a special session on conditions in women’s prisons. She helped others with sickle cell anemia understand the disease and the necessary treatments. In an email to me, Beatrice Smith-Dyer, another one of Shumate’s friends, stated that Shumate also advocated for the right to compassionate release for any prisoner with less than a year to live, introducing them to outside advocates who fought on their behalf.
According to Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of advocacy group Justice Now and the attorney who represented Shumate, Shumate was originally reluctant to be the poster child for her own cause. When Shumate did apply for compassionate release, the parole board instead recommended her for clemency, which required the governor’s approval. The board’s decision defused the activism around her case. “There was the appearance that they had done something,” Chandler stated in a recent phone conversation. “There are always these manipulative ways that the prison system undercuts compassionate release.” Then-governor Gray Davis refused to approve the application and Shumate spent the last days of her life in the SNF until her death on August 4, 2001.
As a prison peer educator, Henry regularly visited the SNF. She reported that women are locked into their rooms for most of the day and are only allowed outside for the occasional shower, recreation time or visits – and even those cannot be assured. Henry told me that only a couple of women were assigned the job of wheelchair-pushers for the 15 to 20 women in the SNF, even though many were wheelchair-bound. “If five visitors arrive on the same day, maybe only three women can get their visits because staff won’t assign additional women to push them out for their visit,” said Henry.
In addition, SNF staff forbade peer educators from helping women with basic tasks such as combing their hair. “That’s not your job,” they were told when they tried to help women like Sally, who was paralyzed after a back injury was mistreated. SNF staff also accused peer educators of upsetting the women. “We upset them because we talked to them about what they shouldn’t accept,” Henry explained.
Beatrice Smith-Dyer has other chilling stories from her time at the SNF. Smith-Dyer began working at the SNF in 1996, first as a peer counselor, then in 2000 as a hospice volunteer. “[At the time] there was one doctor assigned to the SNF. If he or she was an ass, the woman [patient] was treated really badly.” Women were handcuffed and shackled when they were brought to outside hospitals, often causing them to fall when they tried to enter or leave the prison van. Smith-Dyer described the last days of a woman who was transferred from the California Institute for Women so that she could die at the SNF. “She lay unconscious for one month before she died, shackled to a bed with two correctional officers next to her bed. Wright is only hanging on by a thread,” she wrote in an email. “All it takes is the paperwork sitting on a desk for too long.”
Wright’s now-adult children, Mistey Ramdhan and Alfey, and her sister Arletta, are fighting to keep that from happening. With the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners  (CCWP), they have mounted a campaign for Wright’s release. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS) and have also joined the campaign.
Releasing people suffering from life-threatening or terminal health conditions has happened in other instances. In Mississippi, sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott were sentenced to two consecutive life terms for a 1993 robbery in which $11 was stolen and no one was hurt. Like the case of Wright, their arrest and incarceration were based on accusations that were later recanted: two of the three teens who had actually committed the robbery testified against the sisters in exchange for two-year prison sentences.  According to The Huffington Post, in 1998, one of the men who had originally testified against them signed an affidavit swearing that the Scott sisters were not involved with the crime. That affidavit, as well as two others that pointed to the sister’s innocence, were submitted for post-conviction relief by their attorney. 
Like Wright, the Scotts’ wrongful conviction was followed by a life-threatening medical condition and inadequate health care. James Ridgeway and Jean Casella reported in Solitary Watch that in 1997, Jamie Scott was diagnosed with kidney problems, but received minimal treatment. In 2010, both kidneys began shutting down. She was sent to the prison infirmary. A week later, she was taken to the hospital, where doctors inserted a shunt into her neck so that she could receive dialysis through a catheter. She was then returned to prison where she endured faulty or missed dialysis sessions, infections, and other complications. Her sister Gladys offered to donate a kidney, but was told by prison staff that prisoners did not qualify  as organ donors and that a transplant would be too expensive. 
Throughout the sisters’ incarceration, their mother Evelyn Rasco fought to free them. She wrote to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Jesse Jackson, the Innocence Project, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Nancy Lockhart, who was working at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition at the time, was the only one to positively respond, promising Rasco that she would continue with the case until the sisters were exonerated. Together, they formed The Committee to Free the Scott Sisters. Both continued to reach out to organizations and individuals, slowly building a grassroots campaign to free the sisters. In addition, Lockhart mounted a campaign using social media platforms, as well as the more traditional on-the-ground techniques. “Global support grew well into the thousands. I would estimate at least ten thousand,” Lockhart wrote in a recent email.
In June 2010, supporters rallied outside the Department of Justice , connecting the extreme sentence of the Scott sisters with the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans nationwide.
In September 2010, over 200 supporters marched  to the steps of Mississippi’s State Capitol in Jackson, demanding freedom for the Scott sisters.
Public pressure paid off, at least in part. That December, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour suspended the sisters’ life sentences  on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie. Lockhart – who had no part in negotiating the parole terms and whose continuing goal is full exoneration – along with other supporters, questions the ethics of forcing Gladys Scott to barter a body part for freedom. She and other supporters also note that Barbour granted them parole for life rather than a pardon, which would expunge their felony convictions. “He said they didn’t admit their guilt,” their attorney Chokwe Lumumba explained in a recent phone call. “But they’re not guilty, and the testimony against them was recanted.” Lumumba points out that, of the seven people that Barbour had pardoned before paroling the Scott sisters, six were white, all were men, and almost all had been convicted of, and had confessed to, killing their wives or girlfriends. The Scotts are black women.
Barbour’s motive was purely economic. In his statement, Barbour noted, “Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.” He later told WMPR Radio , “Did you know it costs us $190,000 a year for dialysis for just one patient alone? Mississippi’s taxpayers ought not to be paying for that.”
Barbour is not the only one to view releasing terminally ill people from prisons as a cost-saving measure. In January 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver appointed to oversee California’s prison health system, suggested that legislators consider early release of chronically sick prisoners as a quick way to cut ballooning prison costs. Like Barbour , his motive is financial, not compassionate.
Chandler, who has been working around compassionate release since the 1990s, notes that financial arguments are more likely to be heard these days. In 1997, when California’s legislature passed Assembly Bill 29 , codifying compassionate release, it deliberately excluded people imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole.  “There was an expectation that people like Patricia would die in prison,” Chandler stated. She recalled that, in 2007, when advocates and allies tried to lobby for a compassionate release bill that would clarify and streamline the process for terminally ill people, no legislator would consider it until the word “compassionate” was removed. “No one wanted to seem overly compassionate towards ‘those people’ [meaning family and community members of prisoners],” she noted. In response, advocates shifted the focus of the bill to preserving public safety while saving money. The Fiscal Savings and Medical Release Bill, with no mention of compassion, passed in 2007.
Deirdre Wilson, coordinator for CCWP, told me that even with this bill, “It’s still insanely difficult to get people out on compassionate release.”
“There’s still a lot of stigma against people in prison,” said Wilson. “It’s been normalized for us to treat people in prison as less than human. The only argument that some people will hear is the economic one because the compassion is not there.”
When asked about changes in the decade between the campaigns for Shumate and Wright, Henry observed: “It’s the same story. They want to wait till the last minute to release them, but they actually don’t want to release them.”
If Henry were able to speak directly to the prison authorities and the governor about Wright, she would say, “Whatever time she’s got left, let her spend it at home.”

Dump the death penalty, ex-senator urges










Civilised society should abolish capital punishment because it is inhumane, essentially based on a medieval concept of retribution, and risks innocent people being put to death, according to Aquilino Pimentel, a former Philippine senator who played an key role in ending the death penalty in his country in 2006.

Visiting Bangkok at the invitation of Amnesty International Thailand and the Union for Civil Liberty,

the 79-year-old Pimentel urged Thais opposed to capital punishment to keep their “passion” burning, despite hearing that many Thais, including senior Buddhist monks, still support executions.

“A majority of Thais still do not support [abolition of the death penalty],” human rights lawyer Sarawut Prathumraj said. Sarawut told Pimentel that many Thais look back fondly to the 1960s and the era of dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who was known for summarily executing people accused of committing arson in public areas.

Thailand’s Human Rights Master Plan for 2009 to 2013 states that the Kingdom aims to abolish capital punishment by the end of the period, but the goal seems far removed from reality, as there is no visible movement towards that end at present.

Pimentel met and addressed the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, chaired by appointed Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn. Members of the committee exchanged differing views with Pimentel, with one member defending execution by lethal injection – the method practised in Thailand today – as “humane”, and another saying that the death penalty was needed to rid society of its scourges.

Another member told Pimentel that it was not uncommon for some convicts who are sentenced to death to have their sentences commuted and to eventually walk free after a decade or so in prison.

Pimentel argued that the death penalty doesn’t give condemned criminals the opportunity to reform themselves, while the risk of even one person being wrongly executed was too high for a civilised society to bear.

Pimentel said the notion of “an eye for an eye”, also known as the Lex Talionis principle of Roman law, was medieval and not suited for modern society.

“If Lex Talionis were to be used to justify the imposition of the death penalty as an act of retribution, then in those cases of murder or rape, before the criminals are executed, they should first be subjected to the indignities or outright tortures that had been inflicted on the victims so that the criminals undergo the same level of pain as that suffered by the victims,” he said.

The former Philippine senator also cited various works showing that the death penalty had no deterrent effect on criminality.

Somchai said after the meeting with Pimentel that the committee was interested in continuing to debate capital punishment, but added that “some people see the need for the death penalty to deal with those who are beyond [redemption].” He added that a compromise could eventually be struck, such as replacing the death penalty with long prison terms without parole, as is practised in the Philippines today.

Pimentel said that since the death penalty was abolished in his country, heinous crimes that would once have drawn a sentence of death were now punished by imprisonment for 20 to 40 years without parole. Some argue that long jail terms are an even worse punishment than death, he said.

One member of the Senate panel argued that it was better to kill a bird than keep it in a cage without letting it see the Sun, which was cruel and inhumane, like a long prison sentence. Pimentel said he couldn’t answer on behalf of the bird, however.

Appeals Court upholds Haley Barbour pardons




When juries convicted four murderers and sent them to prison they never dreamed Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour would pardon them.  Especially the jurors who convicted Joseph Ozmont for shooting a helpless man in the face as he crawled toward him for aid.

Several Wichita Falls citizens were disappointed today to hear an appeals court  in Mississippi upheld the pardons as valid Thursday.

Ozmont of course did not share their disappointment.  He could be heard heaving a huge sigh of relief all the way from Wyoming where he now is free to roam the highways and byways of that state or any other state including Texas.

Rick Montgomery was a 40-year old store clerk in 1992 when three men brazenly entered his business and shot him twice.  Not realizing Ozmont was one of the group that robbbed him, he crawled across the floor toward him for help after he’d been shot twice by the accomplices.  In one of the more brutal murders in recent history Ozmont shot him in the face.

A relative of the clerk was outraged at news of the pardon and admitted members of his family were now in fear for their lives.

One local law enforcement official said that at least with Rick Perry as governor in Texas, Wichitans didn’t have to worry about wholesale pardons of violent criminals convicted in Wichita Falls courtrooms.

Former Governor Barbour defended his some 200 pardons including the four murderers when he left office on January 10, 2012.


Part of his justification was that sudden passion killers are not likely to be a future danger to society.

Wichita Falls police officers would not agree with that.  It is common knowledge domestic violence calls are some of the most dangerous law enforcement men and women are called upon to handle.

One of the convicted murderers Barbour pardoned shot his ex-wife in the head as she held their baby in her arms.  Randy Walker, who was standing near Tammy Gatlin, said pardoned David Gatlin shot him after shooting his wife.  The bullet which killed Tammy missed Gatlin’s baby by inches.


All four of the pardoned murderers worked as trustees at the Governor’s Mansion.

Brett Favre’s brother was among the pardoned.  He was convicted of manslaughter for driving his car in front of a train while he was intoxicated.  The passenger in his automobile was killed.

The appeals court in Mississippi ruled Governor Barbour was within his rights to determine who should be pardoned.

American presidents and governors have long made a habit of pardoning murderers, drug dealers, rapists and other assorted criminals on the day they leave office.  That way they don’t have to face the wrath of voters in future elections.

Victims and relatives of victims have no recourse other than to express their frustration and anger in the wake of pardons.

The only solution is for legislative bodies to pass laws limiting the powers of presidents and governors to pardon criminals.




Mississippi denies Jeffrey Havards appeal

The Mississippi Supreme Court has denied – for the second time – a post-conviction appeal from convicted murderer Jeffrey Keith Havard.

The court said Thursday that Havard had raised no new issues that deserved consideration. Havard’s first post-conviction petition was denied in 2008.

Havard was convicted in 2002 of capital murder and sentenced to death in Adams County for killing a 6-month-old girl.

Inmates use a post-conviction petition to argue they have found new evidence – or a possible constitutional issue – that could persuade a court to order a new trial.

Havard was convicted of killing Chloe Madison Britt of Ferriday, La., the daughter of his girlfriend. Prosecutors say the infant’s injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome, but she also had suffered from sexual abuse.

Wrongful convictions: One of Florida’s greatest shames










Bill Dillon

Testimony from now-discredited dog handler John Preston helped convict William Dillon (above in 2008) and others. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel file)


Last week, Florida finally made amends for wrongly imprisoning a Brevard County man for 27 years.

With cameras rolling, Gov. Rick Scott apologized to Bill Dillon for the corrupt process that led to his conviction and signed a bill compensating Dillon with $50,000 for each year stolen from his life.

It was justice due … and delayed.

Yet this ugly chapter of Florida’s history is not over. Because dozens of other men were also convicted by the same fraudulent witness who helped imprison Dillon.

And the state isn’t doing a thing to right those wrongs.

In fact, as Dillon drove home from Tallahassee on Friday, he was unable to revel in the end of his three-decade-long nightmare. Instead, he found himself thinking about all the others whose cases were never properly vetted.

“They deserve to have their cases checked out,” he said. “My goodness, they deserve at least that much.”

They are the dozens of men also convicted with the help of John Preston.

Preston was a dog handler — the guy Brevard County authorities called in the 1980s when they couldn’t make a case legitimately.

Preston who would say whatever they wanted him to.

He once claimed that his German shepherd picked up a suspect’s scent in the middle of a lake. Another time, he claimed the dog caught a scent in the middle of a busy highway — months after the crime had been committed.

No other dogs could do such things. And it turned out that Preston’s couldn’t either.

A judge later exposed him as a fraud. In a court-supervised test, the dog could do virtually none of what Preston had claimed.

The judge would later say that Preston, now deceased, was retained “to confirm the state’s preconceived notions about cases.”

As horrifying as that may sound — that cops and prosecutors knowingly conspired to use bad evidence to convict people — it was actually pretty simple.

Most of the cases involved horrendous crimes, such as rapes and murders. In Dillon’s case, a man had been stabbed to death and his body left in the woods. Jurors were eager to make someone pay — and ready to believe anyone who would help them do that.

Along with the bogus testimony from Preston, Brevard authorities also relied upon witnesses who would later be discredited as well. (Two recanted their testimony. One had sex with an investigator.)

“I never got over how easy it was for them to do it,” Dillon recalled Friday. “Or how long it took for them to be found out.”

After Preston was exposed, some of the men began filing appeals with the help of nonprofit groups such as the Innocence Project.

So far, three men whom Preston helped convict have been freed from prison — after spending, collectively, more than 50 years behind bars.

An appeal is under way for a fourth.

Dillon and justice advocates are convinced there are more.

But Florida officials have never conducted a comprehensive investigation into all of Preston’s old cases.

Instead, they have relied on individual defendants to file their own appeals … something that took Dillon and one of the other exonerees more than two decades on their own.

State Attorney Norm Wolfinger turned his back on this matter long ago. Former Gov. Charlie Crist did the same.

The promise was supposed to rest with Attorney General Pam Bondi. When campaigning, she vowed to look into all of the Preston cases — for the sake of those still behind bars, as well as those who served their sentences but still carry the stain of a felony conviction.

No one wanted Bondi or anyone else to push for mass exonerations — just to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into all of the cases in which Preston was involved.

But after Bondi got elected, her interest waned.

It’s probably not surprising. The plight of the wrongfully convicted isn’t sexy. Their lobby isn’t powerful. The volunteer activists and lawyers don’t cut campaign checks.

And rarely does the public champion the cause.

Fighting for the wrongly convicted is simply the right thing to do … which apparently isn’t reason enough.

Dillon said Friday that he was heartened by Gov. Scott’s full-throated apology on behalf of a state that did him wrong.

So perhaps Scott can do what all the others have not: call for a thorough investigation to study the legitimacy of all of the Preston convictions.

And maybe members of the public one day will encourage him to do so — and for Bondi to keep her word.

For I’m reminded of the comment from Martin Luther King: “The problems today are not the evil actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good.”

You can reach Scott’s office at 850-488-7146 or and Bondi’s office at 850-414-3300 or,0,3502561,full.column

As We See It: Weighing the death penalty







It would be yet another example of making public policy through initiative, but the drive to place a state death penalty referendum on the November ballot is long overdue.

Backers of the initiative say they have already collected 800,000 signatures, far more than the 504,760 valid signatures required to make the ballot.

If the initiative does make it, as is likely, it will mark the third time in 40 years voters will be asked to decide whether California should have the death penalty. The SAFE California Act would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

No matter your opinion on the ultimate morality of capital punishment, the way it has come down has been a travesty in this state. It would be one thing if the death penalty was effectively carried out, but under no stretch of the imagination has this happened.

We’re under no illusion voters will automatically just end the death penalty. History teaches otherwise. In 1972, after the state Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, more than two-thirds of voters overrode the decision. Then, in 1978, 71 percent of voters approved an expanded death penalty law passed by legislators over Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto.

Then, in 1986, voters tossed state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, an even more adamant foe of the death penalty, and two other justices off the bench after the judges had regularly voted to overturn death sentences.

Although support nationally for the death penalty has been dropping slightly, a September poll in California on the issue showed 68 percent support, although respondents — when asked the appropriate penalty for convicted murderers — supported life in prison without the possibility of parole over death. No state, however, has ever repealed capital punishment by a ballot initiative.

This time the backers include Jeanne Woodford, who oversaw four executions when she was warden of San Quentin State Prison, and Donald Heller, the lawyer who wrote the 1978 initiative and who now says he made a “terrible mistake.”

One of the main arguments made by backers of the initiative is the wasteful spending propping up capital punishment in the state. A 2008 study by a state commission found the death penalty was costing taxpayers $137 million a year for trials and appeals and the maintenance of Death Row. Substituting life in prison without the possibility of parole would drop this figure to $11.5 million, the commission said.

Another study last year put the cost even higher, at $184 million, and put the overall cost since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 at $4 billion. Backers are going to argue that these costs are prohibitive at a time of financial crisis in California, where schools and public safety are at financial risk.

And here’s another figure: $308 million. That’s what each of the 13 executions carried out in California have cost since capital punishment was reinstated. Thirteen. At present, there are 725 condemned prisoners on Death Row in our state.

Among the many reasons so few executions have been carried out is that they’ve been halted since February 2006, after a federal judge ruled that poor staff training, monitoring and faulty procedures could possibly subject a condemned person to constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment.

Deterrent to heinous crimes or a legal and unaffordable boondoggle? This is a case where Californians should listen to the arguments, pro and con, weigh the evidence, and then vote their conscience.