On the Resumption of Federal Executions

On the Resumption of Federal Executions

Reflections by our intern, Heejae Jung. Heejae is a sophomore at Vassar and is with us for the fall 2020 semester.

In mid-July, the embers of fireworks were still ingrained in my memory from the celebration of
Independence day and reawakened by the occasional crackling from my neighbors (a new trend to deal with
quarantine boredom). I felt the familiar crinkle of the morning news from my outstretched fingers. The Wall
Street Journal and I had been good breakfast companions since January of 2020–part of my New Year’s
resolution to be more well-read and on top of current events. My first-year advisor at college had told me
once that, “Economics makes the world go round,” and I could now say the same for the news.

Yet unlike any other Sunday, I did not fill my mind with the solace of eggs in American kitchens,
missed social cues from face masks, North Korean defectors discussing the officers’ corruption, or Susan B.
Anthony’s defiance against America’s unrepresentative usage of the pronoun “he” in the law when it came to
voting. That day, one headline seared past all the monthly clutter: “U.S. Executes Second Federal Inmate This
Week After a 17-Year Hiatus.” In the story of Wesley Ira Purkey’s execution for the rape, murder, and
dismemberment of a sixteen-year-old girl despite his impaired rationality as to the reasoning behind his
punishment, it cast a cloud of doubt over the constitutionality of such a permanent and crude judicial
reprimand. The only word that came to mind upon finishing the article was “rage,” one experienced by both
parties. The bereaved victim’s father and the tormented inmate were both severely hurt and wronged: one
enraged by grief for the heinous murder of his daughter and the other tormented by his condemnable
actions, in many ways a byproduct of his childhood abuse and mental illnesses. The back-and-forth dissent
among Supreme Court justices that ultimately resulted in the ending of Purkey’s life did not do either side
any favor.

Cloaked in modern-day euphemisms–“as painless and quick a death as possible”–and drenched in
pathos language–“a danger and harm to society that wastes government and citizens’ taxes”–the defense for
the death penalty has gaping holes no one can fill. I can see no way around the egregious breach of justice
that ending a person’s life entails. Opposing the death penalty does not excuse the criminal, it does not
overlook the victim’s suffering, and it certainly does not misuse the law. It simply acknowledges that one
does not have to endorse killing to rightfully punish inexcusable crimes. I admit to being largely ignorant of
these alternative methods and any historical context that led to the maintenance of this policy. But the tone
of vengeance that accompanies those who talk of a “rightful killing” reflects the lack of mercy and basic
humaneness, all of which do not promote anyone’s well-being. Two murders never make a right. This “eye
for an eye” approach to delivering punishment must come to an end.

Reading this article forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that capital punishment is still legal
and still practiced in parts of the world. It made me question the American legal system and the rightfulness
of its conduct. At the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is “air, food, water, warmth and rest”–who are
we, who is anyone, to deny others such primitive needs? The moment we say another person’s life can rest in
the hands of others, regardless of how harmful that person is, we are endorsing an unethical hierarchy that
gives permission to act upon the idea that certain lives are more important than others. When I celebrate the
Fourth of July, I celebrate America’s independence and its citizens’ livelihood. The bright fireworks grow dull
at the threat of such a foundational basis in this country.

My Reflections on Tree of Life Tragedy

With Vicki Schieber, Pittsburgh October 2018

To My Concerned Friends,

This past Saturday morning, I was in synagogue, standing next to the Torah. As we were reading of the binding of Isaac, other folks got word of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I am fine. That night, I was among scores turned away from a suburban location of the Pittsburgh Central Blood Bank. The community reaction was so overwhelming that they could not store or process all the donations they had already received. Pittsburgh is a remarkable community.

We need to tone down the rhetoric. We must respond with gentle anger, but with a dedication to increase love and understanding in our world, and continue to set a moral example. We don’t need stiffer death penalty laws; we need to see the Divine image in everyone, those with whom we agree and those with whom we do not agree. The Jewish communities of Pittsburgh and around the nation are hurting. We know that there are good and evil in the world. We know there is baseless hatred in the world. No one, no community is immune.

Thank you for reaching out to me and thank you for standing in solidarity with us at this difficult time.



Marshall Dayan is an experienced capital defense attorney and is also an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He also serves on the board of directors at Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Death by blackness?

by PADP Board Member Shane Claiborneshane7

The color of your skin shouldn’t determine whether you live or die. But that is precisely the case for Duane Buck, a Texas man facing execution. His case is before the Supreme Court this month.
Earlier this month, the nation’s highest court allowed the execution of another African American man, Kenneth Fults, to take place in Georgia despite the fact that his own defense lawyer referred to him as “nigger” and fell asleep in court. On top of that, one of the jurors in the case, Thomas Buffington said this: “I don’t know if he ever killed anybody, but that nigger got just what should have happened.” Buffington went on to say that the death penalty is “what that nigger deserved.” Kenneth Fults was executed on April 12.
Now the Supreme Court will consider the case of Duane Buck. It’s the next big test of whether the words inscribed on the front of the Supreme Court – “Equal Justice Under the Law” – are a mirage. Mr. Buck’s guilt is not in question. What is in question is whether or not he should be executed for what he did. And what is also in question is whether or not black people are more dangerous than white people.
In Texas, during the sentencing trial in capital cases, the “future dangerousness” of the defendant is considered as the jury determines whether someone should be executed. In Mr. Buck’s case, his own attorneys introduced testimony from a psychologist that Mr. Buck posed a danger to society because he is black. That same psychologist, Walter Quijano, gave similar racially-charged testimony in 6 other Texas cases that resulted in death sentences. All of those death sentences were thrown out and the defendants were given new sentencing hearings – except for Duane Buck who still faces execution.
It gets worse.
At the time of Buck’s trial, Harris County prosecutors were 3 times more likely to seek the death penalty for African American defendants than for similar white defendants. During the same period, Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to sentence African-American defendants to death. Over the last 5 years, nearly 75% of all death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color.
Texas and Georgia (where Kenneth Fults was executed) are currently our deadliest states and have accounted for 10 of the 12 executions in 2016. Though Texas and Georgia have accounted for over 80% of the executions so far this year, they are only the eye of the storm.
The contemporary practice of the death penalty cannot be divorced from our history of slavery and racism. As Connecticut’s Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 2015, the court’s treatise made this point: “The 13 states that comprised the Confederacy have carried out more than 75% of the nation’s executions over the last four decades.”
To be blunt, the states where people were being lynched 100 years ago are precisely the states where people, and an inordinate percentage of people of color, are being executed today. To this day, one of the biggest predictors of who gets executed is the race of the victim and the resources of the defendant. We are not executing the worst of the worst but the poorest of the poor… and especially people of color.
The roots of the death penalty are sunk deep in the horrific history of lynching. As lynchings decreased, legal executions increased. Two-thirds of those executed in the 1930s were black. As African Americans fell to 22% of the South’s population by 1950, they made up 75% of the executions. And today – 2016 – even though African Americans make up only 13% of the nation’s population, 42% of death row is black, and 34% of those executed since 1976 have been black.
These stunning realities have created many new leaders in the movement for alternatives to the death penalty. Among those calling for a halt to executions are many conservative legislators and several governors who are for the death penalty in principle but not in practice because of the issues involving racial bias. Even some of the death penalty’s most vocal supporters like Southern Baptist leaders Al Mohler and Richard Land have publicly shared their deep concerns about racial bias in the system.
In light of these realities, Duane Buck’s request for a new sentencing hearing is a moral imperative. His case and the concerns it raises have brought together an eclectic array of unusual allies around the country. In addition to civil rights leaders, clergy, and elected officials, there are also prosecutors, judges, and a former Texas governor (Gov. Mark White) supporting Mr. Buck’s request for a fair sentencing hearing.
Also among the folks asking for justice for Mr. Buck is none other than one of the prosecutors during his trial, Linda Geffin. Her own commitment to justice would not allow her to be silent.
In the nearly two decades he has been in prison, Mr. Buck has been anything but “dangerous.” He has never been written up for a single violation. He has gained a reputation for being a mediator and reconciler, disarming hostilities on the inside even between guards and inmates. The warden has called him a light in the darkness and a blessing to the prison. He’s known as “Preacher Buck” because of the clear way his faith shapes him and compels him to care for others.
Since all this is happening in the heart of the Bible belt, it’s important to remember that the Bible itself gives us stories of murderers that were redeemed. Among the Bible’s most famous figures were three murderers saved by God’s grace – Moses, David, and Paul.
As a devout Christian, Preacher Buck has done everything he can to heal the wounds of what he did. One of the folks who can testify to that is Duane’s step-sister, Phyllis Taylor, who was critically injured during the crime. She is among the many voices saying that execution is not the solution.
I hope you will join me in calling for an end to the death penalty. But even if you don’t – even if you believe in the death penalty – I hope you will join me and hundreds of others in calling for a new, fair sentencing hearing for Duane Buck.
Duane has made his last appeal to the United States Supreme Court. My hope and prayer is that the Supreme Court will fix this injustice once and for all. Let justice prevail.
No one should be killed because they are black.


Williams v. Pennsylvania at the US Supreme Court

This morning, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that goes to the very heart of the issue of fairness. The question in Williams v. Pennsylvania is whether a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, who was the District Attorney at the time a case was prosecuted and personally approved seeking the death penalty, should recuse himself when it came up on appeal. According to Marc Bookman, Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, “While you never want to guess how the Supreme Court is going to rule in a case, the justices clearly understood that there are multiple serious problems involved with former Chief Justice Castille’s refusal to recuse himself.”

To add insult to injury, when Castille ran for the PA Supreme Court (we still elect judges here in the Commonwealth) he boasted about his success in getting death sentences as a District Attorney. That sounds like a problem to me. Shawn Nolan, the Chief of the Capital Habeas Unit, Federal Community Defender summed it up nicely. “This is quite simple: when you prosecute a case and personal authorize the death penalty, you cannot later sit as a judge on that same case to decide whether your own office engaged in prosecutorial misconduct to obtain that death sentence. “
And it’s not as if the office of the Philadelphia District Attorney hasn’t had plenty of prosecutorial misconduct. In this case alone, prosecutors withheld mitigating evidence, leading Judge Sarmina to blow a proverbial gasket. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the prosecution schlepping boxes and boxes of material into her chambers when she ruled that prosecutorial misconduct was not OK in any case, much less one involving the death penalty.

“This is what happened here. Former Chief Justice Castille personally authorized seeking death against Terry Williams, a barely 18 year-old sexually abused teenage – repeatedly victimized by the man he killed. Then Justice Castille refused to recuse himself and whitewashed the misconduct of the lawyers in the office that he ran. We are confident that the Supreme Court will see this as an egregious violation of due process and will once again affirm its essential role of ensuring that American citizens can have confidence in the courts.”
Another observer remarked that “Several of the Justices seemed incredulous that any judge would believe that his involvement as the District Attorney in the case would not have prejudicial influence on his fellow justices. “Justice Kennedy responded to the prosecutor’s argument that any potential bias was diminished by the passage of time with, “You mean, the 30 years they kept him in solitary confinement works in favor of the state?”

Warning: If you want to cling to your ignorance, don’t read this.

Next time you defend the death penalty by saying that it’s the appropriate punishment for a person who confesses or when the crime is unspeakable, you might want to remember this.


Two young children were raped and murdered in the basement of their home. The man convicted of the crime CONFESSED (at least according to police) to the crime AND failed a lie-detector test. The prosecution fought for years to keep the DNA from being tested — explain that one to me, will you? Then, it finally gets tested and there’s a match with another person who is now serving a prison sentence for… you guessed it… rape. What’s not clear to me from the story is whether or not the rape for which that other man was convicted happened before the 7 and 8 year old children were raped and murdered. I hesitate to research that part. And oh yeah, the only reason he wasn’t sentenced to death is because there was just one hold-out on the jury. Thank God for that. The price we, as a society, pay for keeping the death penalty includes a long line of cold cases and rape kits that aren’t tested because the government doesn’t have the resources to handle them. Let’s reexamine our priorities, shall we?

Kathleen Lucas

Governor Wolf has the high ground here

The wording of House Resolution 143 calls Governor Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty unconstitutional. The action taken by the governor was a moratorium on executions until a study is complete. Wolf has not disregarded the constitution; rather, the governor has taken a conservative action as to avoid error.


I’m unafraid to point out the hypocrisy of opposing an essentially conservative action by the governor which respects life and seeks to examine the effectiveness of the system that metes out death — as was called for in Furman v. Georgia and reaffirmed (though grudgingly) in Gregg v. Georgia.
Gregg put in place procedural restrictions and the study will examine if the death penalty in Pennsylvania in fact is meeting the standards set by the Supreme Court in 1976 for its use. This was after executions were found to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, only four years earlier.  Case discussion of Gregg v. Georgia states, “The concerns expressed in Furman that the death penalty not be imposed arbitrarily or capriciously can be met by a carefully drafted statute that ensures that the sentencing authority is given adequate information and guidance, concerns best met by a system that provides for a bifurcated proceeding at which the sentencing authority is apprised of the information relevant to the imposition of sentence and provided with standards to guide its use of that information. Pp. 188-195.” (https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/428/153)

It is not unreasonable, in light of recent multiple exonerations and evidence of arbitrary or biased sentencing that the governor should ask for a review of how the death penalty is being used and to hold off killing anyone meanwhile. This is not rash nor does it disregard the commonwealth’s constitution. Wolf has the high ground here.

Marlene Lang, Ph.D. candidate