The Bigger Picture

The bigger picture

Thanks to the Death Penalty Information Center for alerting us to this op-ed from Connecticut victim’s family member Victoria Coward:

In 2007, there were more than 100 people murdered in Connecticut. The murders of the Petit family women rocked our state to its core. However, the murder of my 18-year-old son, Tyler, went virtually unnoticed.  

Dr. Petit’s loss was horrible, but so was mine, and so were those of every single one of those other 100 murders — each a tragedy in their own right. Each leaving behind loved ones whose lives can never be the same.  

For the last few months I have been speaking against the death penalty. I’ve been joined by 82 others who have lost children, siblings, parents, and spouses and have said that the death penalty hurts victims’ family members – all of us – because of how it treats those entrenched in the death penalty system, as well as those who are left on the outside without the attention and care that capital cases receive. 

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that the death penalty is given in fewer than 1 percent of cases, yet it sucks up millions and millions of dollars that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services. What I wouldn’t give for a tiny slice of those millions to give my grieving daughters some professional help to process the death of their brother.

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to acknowledge that the death penalty in our state is a cruel hoax. In 50 years we have executed one person. Despite good intentions and earnest efforts to reform the system, we have remained unable to find a way to have a fair trial without torturing the victims’ families. With any other sentence, the surviving victims walk away confident that the offender is serving his punishment. With the death penalty, the promised punishment never comes, but surviving families vigilantly wait and fight. How absurd that in a quest to help them we would sentence them to this purgatory.

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to face the ugly truth that the death penalty sets some crimes and some victims apart as more important than others. How do we make these decisions? Is it quantity of lives lost? The location of the murder? The death penalty attempts to identify “the worst” crimes. There is just no way for us to reasonably do this, and it is hurtful that we try.

I feel for Dr. Petit, and I understand his pain better than most. The last thing I want is to appear to be “against” Dr. Petit – and I assure you, I most certainly am not. But that is the illusion that the death penalty system creates. It has said to us that some cases are different, some cases are worthier of our attention, some hurt is deeper. And this just adds to my pain.

If our legislators are serious about helping us — all of us — they will repeal the death penalty and do so as soon as they possibly can.

ACLU Statement Against the Death Penalty

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in an Apr. 9, 2007 website section titled “The Death Penalty: Questions and Answers,” offered the following:

It [capital punishment] is immoral in principle, and unfair and discriminatory in practice… No one deserves to die. When the government metes out vengeance disguised as justice, it becomes complicit with killers in devaluing human life and human dignity. In civilized society, we reject the principle of literally doing to criminals what they do to their victims: The penalty for rape cannot be rape, or for arson, the burning down of the arsonist’s house. We should not, therefore, punish the murderer with death… Capital punishment is a barbaric remnant of uncivilized society.”

Apr. 9, 2007 – American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 

Issues in the Zacarias Moussaoui Case

Zacarias Moussaoui Case

Read “Terrorism Trial’s Strategies Revealed,” Washington Post, Nov. 14, 2005, regarding the penalty phase of Moussaoui’s capital trial.

Read the United States’ “Notice of Intent ot Seek a Sentence of Death” for suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, filed in the U.S. District court for the Eastern District of Virginia in March 2002. Read the 6 count indictment against Moussaoui, filed in in December 2001.

Federal Jury Gives Moussaoui Life in Prison Without Parole – A federal jury voted today that Zacarias Moussaoui should serve a sentence of life in prison without parole despite the government’s assertion that his lies to FBI officials contributed to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Earlier the jury had found that Moussaoui was responsible for some of the deaths that took place on September 11, and that he was eligible for the death penalty. After weeks of testimony during the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury took 7 days to recommend a sentence of life without parole. In their verdict, the jury unanimously agreed that Moussaoui “knowingly created a grave risk of death” for more than the intended victims of September 11th, and that he committed his acts with “substantial planning,” two of the aggravating factors listed in the death penalty statute.

Moussaoui’s defense team, with whom he did not cooperate, argued that he is a delusional schizophrenic. They maintained that Moussaoui took the witness stand to confess his role in the September 11 attacks because he wanted to achieve martyrdom through execution. During the sentencing phase, jurors heard testimony from victims’ family members, some of whom supported and some who opposed the death penalty for Moussaoui, from mental health experts, and others who were directly impacted by the events of 9/11.

Following the verdict, Terry Rockefeller, whose sister was killed in the World Trade Center attacks, noted, “Had the jury sentenced Zacarias Moussaoui to death we would have turned a man with long-term mental health problems, whose direct responsibility for the 9/11 attacks are tenuous, into a martyr. Evidence introduced during the trial cast significant doubt on Moussaoui’s importance within al Qaeda. . . . [M]ost fundamentally, I oppose the death penalty because I do not want to be the citizen of a state that kills. I do not want to be a party to more violence and killing.”

The attacks took the lives of nearly 3,000 people and were the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. The Alexandria courthouse where the trial was held is just miles away from the Pentagon, where one of the 9/11 attacks occured. Federal judge Leonie Brinkema is expected to impose the life sentence on Thursday, May 4. (CNN & Associated Press, May 3, 2006, and Statement issued by Terry Rockefeller, May 3, 2006). Read the Jury’s Verdict Form. See Federal Death Penalty and Arbitrariness.

  • NEW VOICES: Senior Counsel to 9/11 Commission Questions Death Penalty for Moussaoui – In a recent New York Times op-ed, John Farmer, senior counsel to the 9/11 commission and a former New Jersery attorney general, states that seeking the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui detracts from U.S. efforts to seek justice against senior Al Qaeda officials who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks. Farmer claims Moussauoi, who was in jail as terrorists plotted and carried out the events of 9/11, was not the “20th hijacker” and is a “poor stand in” for more senior level Al Qaeda leaders who are also in U.S. custody:

Through a perverse confluence, Mr. Moussaoui’s interest in becoming something in death that he never was in life — important — has combined with the government’s interest in executing someone for the 9/11 attacks. The likely result is an odd form of assisted suicide, in which Mr. Moussaoui will claim martyrdom as he is executed, and the United States will claim that the rule of law has been vindicated by bringing a terrorist to justice for 9/11.

Neither claim will be justified. . . .

Zacarias Moussaoui is evil, and there is no doubt that he arrived here determined to kill Americans, but he was not a leader of Al Qaeda. He was not even, as initially reported, the “20th hijacker.” He was not in contact with the 9/11 hijackers in the United States. His apprehension in late August 2001 did nothing to disrupt the plot’s timing. He sat in jail while the attacks unfolded.

Based on his conduct, he should sit in jail some more. Six floors underground, with one hour outside his cell per week. For, oh, 50 more years or so. He should die there, frustrated and forgotten, embittered and anonymous. This could have been achieved without the catharsis of the penalty hearing. (New York Times, April 11, 2006). See Federal Death Penalty.

  • NEW VOICES: Mother of September 11 Victim Opposes Death Penalty for Moussaoui – Alice Hoagland’s son, Mark Bingham (pictured), was killed on September 11 as he joined with fellow United Airlines passengers to ground a plane that may have been headed toward the White House. Hoagland is urging a life sentence for Zacarias Moussaoui, who faces the death penalty for his role in the terrorist events of that day. In an interview with The Advocate, Hoagland noted that sparing Moussaoui’s life would honor “a reverence for all life” and that it would prevent some from viewing him as a martyr. Hoagland, a former flight attendant who is now active in transportation safety issues, stated:

We Americans have the opportunity to keep him from becoming glorified as a martyr. . . . Al Qaida, other fundamentalist Muslim groups – even mainstream Muslims – would be tempted to view Moussaoui’s death as a martyrdom. This man does not deserve that honor.
. . .
We Americans have the opportunity to demonstrate our compassion toward a man who has shown no compassion for America. We are a nation of laws, of justice, and of mercy. By sparing his life, we can demonstrate our humanity by acknowledging the humanity of a human being who badly needs compassion. By sparing his life, we will have overcome the sort of hatred that he displays toward us.
. . .
It is difficult to imagine a more despicable human than Zacarias Moussaoui has shown himself to be. But he, like all of us, is a bundle of traits and attitudes. His lower self has dictated his present low behavior. I hope we as a nation can demonstrate our higher impulses by sparing his life – while keeping him safely behind bars for the remainder of his life. If we can do that, we will honor our own high standard of reverence for all life, and we will model a better standard of behavior for Zacarias Moussaoui to take to heart. (, April 8, 2006. Hoagland’s comments will appear in the May 9, 2006, edition of The Advocate (Calif.)). See New Voices, Victims, and Federal Death Penalty.

International News

  • Germany Hesitates to Supply Evidence that Would Aid in Prosecution of Moussaoui – German authorities are reluctant to turn over evidence in their possession that could demonstrate a relationship between suspected terrorist Zacarious Moussaoui and the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks on the U.S. Moussaoui is charged with 6 counts of conspiracy in connection to the attacks and faces the death penalty if convicted. German officials, who do not want to contribute to the case as long as it could potentially result in the execution of Moussaoui, are currently negotiating with American officials in an attempt to find a satisfactory compromise. (Washington Post, 6/11/02)
  • British Authorities Oppose Capital Punishment for Detainees – Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for External Affairs, said that it was inconceivable that the three British citizens being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay could be subject to capital punishment after being tried in a military tribunal. “I just think that would be a way of losing international support and losing the moral high ground that the international coalition has,” said Patten.
    Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw added: “The British Government regularly, in cases where the death penalty may be imposed on British citizens, makes our views on the death penalty very plain to the American authorities. We are opposed to the death penalty.” (BBC News, 1/22/02)
  • Spain Will Refuse to Extradite Terrorists If U.S. Seeks Death Penalty – A Spanish Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Spain will not extradite terrorist suspects to the U.S. without assurances that they will not be subject to capital punishment. The spokesman cited European Union agreements that prevent members from extraditing suspects to countries where judicial norms are seen as falling below those in the Union. (Associated Press, 11/23/01)
  • U.S. Differences with Europe on Death Penalty Could Impede Progress on Terrorism – The U.S. may have to agree that it will not pursue the death penalty against suspected terrorists in order to have them extradited from Europe. In the next few weeks, European Union leaders will meet with U.S. officials to decide on extradition procedures for those suspected of the U.S. terrorist attacks on September 11. In the past, European countries, which oppose capital punishment, have refused to extradite criminals to the U.S. unless U.S. officials stipulate that the death penalty will not be sought. Several European Union ministers have asked for a new comprehensive agreement that would address the issue of capital punishment. (USA Today, 10/3/01) See also, International Death Penalty.

Woman in Mansfield slayings likely leaving Death Row

Woman in Mansfield slayings likely leaving Death Row

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 01, 2011

By Melody McDonald

Six years ago, convicted killer Chelsea Richardson became the first woman in Tarrant County to be sentenced to death.

 But in all likelihood, Richardson, 27, will soon be leaving Death Row.

After nearly four years of legal battling, Richardson’s appellate attorney and the Tarrant County district attorney’s office agreed that the former prosecutor on her case withheld evidence and that she should get a new punishment hearing — and a life sentence.  The agreement marks the second time in three years that the district attorney’s office has agreed to change the outcome of a death penalty case handled by ex-prosecutor Mike Parrish.  In both cases, Parrish — who retired in 2008 amid the controversy — committed prosecutorial misconduct by withholding evidence that could have been useful to the defense.

 “This office will not be a party to the infliction of death as a punishment when there is even an appearance of impropriety on the part of a prosecutor who formerly worked in this office,” District Attorney Joe Shannon said. “If the death penalty is to be used, it must be obtained legally, fairly and honestly and without the hint of a possible injustice.”

Reached by phone at his home Wednesday, Parrish said he has no problem with Richardson receiving a life sentence but emphatically denied withholding evidence or being untruthful.  “The thing with Chelsea getting a life sentence, that should have happened a long time ago,” Parrish said. “That is probably what is really called for in this case, so I don’t have a problem with that at all. I do have a problem with them saying I was untruthful about something.”

 This week, Richardson’s attorney, Bob Ford, and Assistant District Attorneys Chuck Mallin and Steve Conder submitted a legal document with their agreement to state District Judge Steven Herod of Eastland County, who was appointed to hear the appeal. If Herod agrees with their conclusions, he will make a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the only entity that can order a new punishment hearing.  If the appellate court agrees to the new punishment hearing, both sides then plan to enter into an agreement, and Richardson will receive a life sentence — a deal that will finally bring the case to a close.

 The slaying

 In May 2005, Richardson received a death sentence after she was convicted of capital murder in the slayings of her boyfriend’s parents, Rick and Suzanna Wamsley of Mansfield. Authorities said Richardson; her boyfriend, Andrew Wamsley; and friend Susana Toledano killed the couple in 2003 so Andrew Wamsley could inherit his parents’ $1.56 million estate.   Toledano — who did most of the shooting and stabbing — struck a deal with prosecutors and received a life sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to murder and testifying against Wamsley and Richardson. Wamsley went to trial, was convicted of capital murder and received a life sentence. Richardson, portrayed by prosecutors as the mastermind, also took her chances with a jury, who convicted her of capital murder and sentenced her to death.

 In summer 2007, Ford filed a post-conviction writ of habeas corpus alleging that Richardson was illegally convicted and raising nine points of error, including that the trial judge was biased, that her defense attorneys were ineffective and, most notably, that Parrish was dishonest.  Herod conducted a series of hearings over the next few years. On May 18, each side gave its final summation.

 Defense arguments

 Ford’s argument centered on the credibility of Parrish, whom he called a “weasel” and a “certified cheat.” Ford argued that Parrish failed to give notes by psychologist Randy Price to Richardson’s defense team. Price’s notes could have suggested that Toledano, not Richardson, was the mastermind.  To bolster his argument, Ford reminded Herod about Parrish’s misconduct in another case, which prompted the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008 to overturn the conviction of Death Row inmate Michael Toney, who had been convicted for a 1995 bombing that killed three people. In that case, the district attorney’s office also agreed that Parrish committed prosecutorial misconduct when he failed to turn over to the defense 14 documents containing exculpatory or impeaching evidence.

 Toney was released from prison but died in a car wreck before prosecutors decided whether to retry him. Parrish, meanwhile, received a private reprimand by the State Bar of Texas for his conduct in Toney’s case.

 “This just sickens me,” Ford told Herod in the latest hearing. “Mr. Parrish should be indicted. … He’s a disgrace to the bench and the bar.”

 Prosecutor Mallin told the judge that he was not going to defend Parrish’s behavior but said the psychologist’s notes — if Parrish had given them to the defense — likely would not have changed the outcome of Richardson’s trial.

 Writing on the wall

 After the May 18 hearing, Herod said he would consider their arguments and notify the participants of his decision soon. A few days later, however, both sides agreed to work to get Richardson’s death sentence changed to life in prison.  “We fought the fight until we could go no further, when the handwriting was on the wall,” Mallin said.

 In the document filed this week, both sides agreed that Parrish had been untruthful about Price’s notes, that he should have disclosed them to the defense and that it affected the punishment phase. If Richardson ends up with a life sentence, she will have to serve at least 40 years in prison before she is eligible for parole.  Parrish said Wednesday that he learned about Price’s notes after the trial and that, if he had them, he would have turned them over.

 “I haven’t been untruthful about anything,” he said.

 Ford said Parrish is lying about not knowing of the notes during the trial.  “If Randy Price’s notes had been turned over when they should have been turned over, there is no way Chelsea Richardson was ever going to receive the death penalty from that jury or any other jury,” Ford said. “… I think we reached a just result.”