Monthly Archives: February 2016

Update: Progress on SB 463 – Death Penalty Suspension bill

Update 2.22.16: The Senate floor debate and vote on SB 463 will be on Thursday, March 3! Please write a letter to the editor (LTE) of your local newspaper and to the Union Leader today! See our LTE tool here (sample talking points are provided on that page).

Update 2.16.16: On Tuesday, February 16, the Senate Judiciary held an executive session on SB 463. There was little debate or discussion, and as the members of that committee are mostly pro-repeal Senators, they voted 3-to-1 for an “OTP” or ought-to-pass recommendation on the bill. Voting for: Senators Daniels, Pierce, and Cataldo. Voting against: Senator Carson. (Sen. Lasky was absent but supports the bill). The bill will now move to the full Senate, perhaps as soon as the week Starting February 29. Stay tuned!

On Thursday, January 28, we held an effective hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the proposed death penalty suspension bill. More than 20 people testified in favor of the bill, and only 2 against. Supporters included a death row exoneree, clergy, law enforcement, a former FBI Special Agent, a former NH Attorney General, a former NH Surpreme Court Justice, several attorneys, several murder victim family members, among others.

(Concord) – A broad group of people testified today in support of SB 463, which suspends the implementation of the death penalty until it can be ensured that it is not being imposed on innocent people. The bill is sponsored by Senator Kevin Avard and Senator Gary Daniels and was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ray Krone, before his exoneration in 2002, spent more than 10 years in Arizona prisons, including nearly three years on death row, for a murder he did not commit.

“In 1991 my world was turned upside down when Kim Ancona was murdered in a Phoenix bar and I was arrested for the crime. The case against me was based largely on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a supposed ‘expert’ witness, who claimed bite marks found on the victim matched my teeth. This testimony was later discredited but I was sentenced to death in 1992.

“In 2002 I became the 100th person to be exonerated from death row when DNA found at the murder scene indicated the guilt of another man. My situation is not unique, innocent people are being executed and it must stop,” said Krone.

Barbara Keshen, former prosecutor for the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and current chair of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told the committee that despite New Hampshire having an excellent justice system, it isn’t perfect. She talked about a New Hampshire case she handled in which an innocent man came very close to being convicted.

“To date over 150 death row inmates have been exonerated after evidence surfaced that they were wrongly convicted,” said Keshen. “These exonerations resulted from mistaken eyewitness identifications, incompetent legal counsel, shoddy forensic results, jailhouse snitches and coerced confessions. Can we really say that it is impossible for an innocent person to be executed in this state?” asked Keshen.

Tom Parker is a 30-year law enforcement veteran who spent 24 years with the FBI and has conducted or supervised over 10,000 Federal and state criminal investigations.  For the past 20 years, he has served as an expert witness on police practices and investigative competency in homicide cases all across the country.

“In homicide investigations, I have seen countless instances of falsified investigative reports, witness tampering, erroneous or coached eye witness identifications, the destruction of exculpatory evidence, fictitious crime lab results including incompetent DNA testing, and perjured testimony. The most frightening part of all of this is the volume and frequency of these transgressions committed by police officers.  We arrest and convict innocent people almost every day in this country, and there is now a growing body of proof that we have convicted and executed innocent people for crimes they did not commit. As long as we have a death penalty in America, we will continue to execute innocent people,” said Parker.

Also testifying before the committee was Sam Millsap, a lawyer in practice for over 40 years and currently an Adjunct Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University Law School. “When I was the elected District Attorney in San Antonio, Texas, I oversaw the indictment, prosecution, and conviction of Ruben Cantu. I asked the jury to sentence him to die based on the eyewitness testimony of a single person and they did.  Years after his execution that key eyewitness recanted his testimony. There is no appeal after an execution takes place. Ruben Cantu is dead and I have to live with that every day,” said Millsap.

See also:

NH1 News: Wrongly convicted murderer comes to NH to push for repeal of state’s death penalty (video)

Concord Monitor: Evidence mounts against death penalty

That is the description of Senate Bill 463, a bipartisan piece of legislation that is the very definition of reasonable: Until the justice system is perfect, the state shouldn’t execute anybody.

For opponents of the death penalty in New Hampshire, it is just another chapter in a fight that has been raging many for years. Unless a great number of lawmakers suddenly find the political will to do the right thing, its passage is doubtful.

The trouble is that this is a society too accepting of collateral damage. Politicians talk of innocents killed by American weapons overseas as if the victims weren’t people at all but rather battlefield layers to be stripped away. And then they strip away the social safety net to punish the lazy and those who wish to exploit the system. If a few kids go to bed hungry or live on the streets, so be it. The same goes for death row. If one innocent person out of 25 guilty ones has to die, that is simply the price to be paid in this eye-for-an-eye world.

Anyone who has read Franz Kafka should feel a chill: In his world, you are that one out of 25. One day you are living your hardscrabble life and the next you are in a cell answering questions about a heinous crime of which you have no knowledge. But there’s enough evidence, and enough investigative incompetence, to suggest otherwise. Once those who hold your fate in their hands are convinced of your guilt, it’s just a matter of making the pieces fit together, even when they don’t.

But that’s not a Kafka novel; it’s Kevin Cooper’s story.

There is no riveting Netflix documentary about him, so don’t feel bad if the name doesn’t ring a bell. Cooper has been on death row in California since 1985, after he was found guilty of murdering Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 10-year-old Chris Hughes in Chino Hills. It was a brutal crime. According to a lengthy NBC News report last month, the victims received more than 144 wounds in four minutes. The one survivor, 8-year-old Josh Ryen, had his throat slit.

Although Josh would later point the finger at Cooper, a black man, he initially told police that three white or Latino men murdered his parents, according to NBC. Other witnesses spotted three white men driving away from the house in the family’s stolen station wagon. And a woman called police to say that on the night of the murders she found her husband’s coveralls splattered with blood. He was a white man and convicted murderer. The police never tested the blood on the coveralls, NBC reported, and instead discarded them in a dumpster.

As sometimes happens, the police had their man and any evidence that didn’t fit that narrative was discarded. So Cooper was sentenced to be executed on Feb. 10, 2004. The Ninth Circuit Court decided at the last minute to review his case, NBC reported, eventually ordering new proceedings after a number of problems were found with the original case. That led to five years of legal wrangling before the conviction was ultimately upheld in 2009. This past November, California lifted its moratorium on executions, and so the hands of time began moving faster for a potentially innocent man waiting for his final day on Earth.

Cooper is black. He is poor. He was on the run from police – and hiding out in a house near the crime scene – when the murders happened. If Cooper is indeed innocent, as several federal judges have suggested, it has all the makings of a Kafkaesque nightmare.

One of these years, New Hampshire lawmakers will wake up and realize that to take one innocent life is to take one too many, and so will abolish the death penalty.

Let this be the year.