The most significant death-penalty stories of 2011 have been named by Execution Watch, a news program on Pacifica Radio Network’s KPFT FM 90.1 that broadcasts and streams live whenever Texas puts a prisoner to death:
1. Troy Davis is executed in Georgia despite lingering doubts about his guilt. The rush to execution was not as unusual as the broad international awareness of, and support for, Davis.
2. Mumia Abu-Jamal makes the metaphorically giant leap from Pennsylvania’s death row into general prison population after the Philadelphia district attorney announces it will stop its 30-year effort to obtain a durable death penalty against him.
3. Texas executes Mexican national Humberto Leal, flouting international law by refusing to give him a new hearing despite the failure by police to tell him at arrest that he may contact the Mexican Consulate for legal help.
4. Illinois abolishes the death penalty, reducing the number of states with capital punishment to 34. In a related story, Oregon’s governor says no executions will take place during his term but neither commutes any death sentences nor stops prison officials from selling excess execution drugs to other states.
5. The European Union escalates its activism against American use of the death penalty by banning the export to the United States of barbiturates that could be used to in lethal-injection executions.
6. The number of new death sentences in the United States reaches an historic low of 78, the first time in more than three decades that fewer than 100 people were condemned to death.
7. Anthony Graves, exonerated from death row for a murder he did not commit, successfully sues the State of Texas for compensation owed to him by law, accepting from the comptroller a check for $1.45 million.
8. The Texas death penalty is declared unconstitutional by State District Judge Teresa Hawthorne of Dallas, echoing Harris County District Judge Kevin Fine’s earlier ruling, made moot by a plea deal.
9. The death penalty becomes part of the GOP primary race when Rick Perry elicits applause from a debate audience for presiding over more executions than any governor in history and disbelief from the media for declaring he has never lost sleep over an execution.
10. Director Werner Herzog successfully releases INTO THE ABYSS, a gritty documentary describing from several points of view a triple murder in Texas and its aftermath. Another documentary involving capital punishment, INCENDIARY, premieres and wins an award at Austin’s South by SouthWest Film Festival.
Other stories in 2011 that Execution Watch designated as especially noteworthy include:
— A district judge in Georgetown takes under advisement a request for a special inquiry into alleged wrongdoing by the top prosecutor in a murder trial that put an innocent man behind bars for 25 years. Michael Morton presented evidence that ex-district attorney Ken Anderson knowingly withheld evidence that might have led to his acquittal.
— The U.S. Supreme Court vacates a $14 million jury verdict against former New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. for withholding evidence that might have averted the wrongful conviction and near-execution of John Thompson. A divided court said a prosecutor’s office cannot be held liable for a member’s illegal withholding of exculpatory evidence due to inadequate training.
— The Texas Forensic Science Commission releases its final report on the Todd Willingham case, directing the Innocence Project of Texas to work with the state fire marshall to review more than 700 arson cases for possible wrongful convictions based on outdated science.
— Literary critics respond enthusiastically to the publication of AUTHOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EXECUTION, a highly personal and humanistic memoir by David Dow, litigation director of Texas Defender Service.
— A Louisiana-based coalition of civic and religious groups called I Want to Serve launches a campaign to outlaw the exclusion from capital juries of people who oppose the death penalty.