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Old 05-23-2003, 11:31 AM
softheart softheart is offline
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Default Women on Death Row Report

May 23

Sonia Jacobs, 56, a tiny, pepper-haired woman who makes her living as a
yoga instructor, is sitting with me in a Los Angeles luncheonette,
ordering breakfast. "The cranberry, we don t have any low-fat cranberry
muffins," a waiter informs us. "Okay, fatty cranberries," smiles Jacobs,
who likes to be called by her nickname, "Sunny." "How fatty can a
cranberry be?"

Sunny Jacobs doesn't sweat the small stuff. In 1976, when her son Eric was
9 and her daughter Tina, 15 months old, she was convicted of killing 2
police officers in Florida and sentenced to be the 1st woman to die in the
electric chair under what was then a newly reinstated capital punishment
law. She subsequently spent 5 years in isolation on Florida's death row
and a total of nearly 17 years in a maximum security prison. Her children
were taken from her and her common law husband, Jesse Tafero, convicted of
the same murders, was put to death in 1990 in an electrocution so grizzly
that his head caught on fire.

Now, it is true that Sunny was present at the crime, though in the most
passive way. In February of 1976, when she was 28 years old, she'd
traveled to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, from North Carolina where she lived,
to meet up with Tafero, Tina's father, an ex-con who she'd fallen for. I
didn't know about his background when I met him, she maintains, while
picking on her cranberry muffin. "And then, once we were together, it was,
you know, love."

In Florida that day, an acquaintance of Jesse's, a career-criminal named
Walter Rhodes, offered to drive Sunny, Jesse, and the children to West
Palm Beach, where Sunny hoped to pick up some money wired there by her
parents. En route, they were stopped by 2 police officers, who spotted a
gun on the floorboard by Rhodes's feet. Rhodes panicked and shot the
officers. Sunny, in the back, covering her children like a human shield,
didn't even see the killings. The murders, she says, happened in a blink
of an eye. Almost immediately after their arrests, Rhodes cut a deal with
the prosecutor. In exchange for a lesser, 2nd-degree murder charge, he
agreed to testify that it was Jesse and Sunny who'd done the killing.

Though Rhodes would fail a lie detector test, and while he was the only
one of the trio who tested definitively positive for firing a gun, the
authorities committed themselves to his scenario. They illegally kept from
the defense Walter Rhodes's polygraph report that contradicted his trial
testimony; in fact, the prosecutor told the press that he gave Rhodes a
deal because the man had passed his polygraph. Meanwhile, Sunny and Jesse
were painted in the media as a kind of "Bonnie and Clyde" team,
thrill-seekers who killed for the fun of it. Jesse, the first to go to
court, was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. At Sunny's trial,
the most persuasive evidence the D.A. had was Walter Rhodes's testimony.

To make a defendant with no previous felony convictions eligible, as the
phrase goes, for the death penalty, then-Assistant District Attorney
Michael Satz brought in a surprise witness: a young woman detained on drug
charges around the time of Sunny's arrest. At the D.A.'s behest, Brenda
Isham would claim in court that, Sunny, her cellmate for a brief while,
had confessed to the killing, said she enjoyed it, and would do it again.

Sunny can recall sitting in the Broward County courtroom numb: "They are
talking about you and you don't know what the heck they're talking about.
You say to the lawyer, 'Say something, he's lying.' He says, 'Shhh,
shhh... don't disturb the proceedings.' And then, when they brought this
girl in, I thought, 'This is a joke.

Everybody's going to know that you're not going to sit down and tell your
life story to some girl who came into jail on drugs one night.'"

About that shushing lawyer: He was an underpaid, court-appointed attorney.
"I didn t exactly have O.J. Simpson's 'dream team,'" she sighs. "My
parents were told a private lawyer would cost six figures. Who has that?
They could have mortgaged their house, but the feeling was, 'You didn't do
anything, there's no evidence, the court will give you an attorney. It's
just a technicality. You go to court. They'll see you didn't do anything
and you'll go home. We were naive. We believed in the system."

As luck would have it, the system assigned her a judge, Daniel Futch,
famous throughout Florida for decorating his desk with a sparking model of
the electric chair. Up against such powerful forces, Jacobs, guilty at
worst of loving unwisely, found herself convicted of 2 murders she hadn't
committed. The jury recommended a life sentence. Judge Futch overruled
them and ordered death by electrocution.

Thus Sunny entered history as the 1st woman sentenced to die after the
Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Since that 1976 day, some 131
women have been similarly condemned; 10 have been executed 9 in the last 5
years. One knows some of their names: Karla Faye Tucker, Wanda Jean Allen.

For the 1st 5 years of her incarceration, Jacobs existed intotal isolation
in a tiny cinderblock cell. Her guards were prohibited from even speaking
to her. While she waited for her appeals to wend their way through the
courts, Jacobs held herself together by practicing yoga and writing to
Jesse and her children. At night, she dreamt of Ethel Rosenberg.

A break, a big one, came in 1982, when the Florida Supreme Court
overturned her death sentence, converting it to life-imprisonment. Now,
Sunny was released into the general population of the Broward Correctional
Institution, where she noticed something chilling: The women who were in
for murder, normally, were there because they'd been involved with a man.

Ultimately, it would take a woman to help Sonia Jacobs win back her
future. In 1990, a childhood pal of Sunny's-- West Coast filmmaker Micki
Dickoff --heard about her old friend's situation.

Dickoff became obsessed with the case and spent the next 2 1/2 years
investigating it. She used her filmmaking skills to create computer
graphic storyboards proving that Walter Rhodes could have fired all the
shots. Then, she convinced an ABC news crew to go to Wisconsin, where
Brenda Isham the damaging jailhouse witness now lived. Before network
cameras, a tearful Ms. Isham told of how the prosecutor had encouraged her
to lie about what Jacobs said to her in 1976. With all this new
information and with the reality that Walter Rhodes, in his jail cell, was
telling new versions of the old story the Federal 11th Circuit Court of
Appeals overturned the original conviction.

Thus, on October 9, 1992, Sonia Jacobs strode out into the Florida
sunlight, a liberated woman in every sense of the word.

She is, to this day, one of only two condemned women-- the other is
Sabrina Butler of Mississippi who've managed to return to what inmates
call, "the free world."

As this is being written, there are 44 women sitting on death rows in some
14 states, less than 2% of the total among the condemned. In the 27 years
since the Supreme Court revived capital punishment, 10 women have been put
to death. As the nation continues to debate the use of executions as a
crime prevention strategy, the fate of these women is mostly absent from
public discussion. They are a policy afterthought, as invisible in their
potential deaths as they were in their lives.

The broad arguments against capital punishment, male and female, are
widely known: It is applied unequally to the poor and unequally by race;
innocent people have likely been executed; it does nothing to deter crime;
it brutalizes all of society by heightening the general ambiance of
violence. But when one examines the stories of the women on death rows
around the country, all the rest seems doubly true. The females who draw
death sentences seem to be the poorest of the poor, the most socially
marginal, the least able to protect themselves in court with a well-funded
and coherent defense.

And some of the women are doubtlessly innocent. Over 100 people have
walked free from death row, victims of wrongful convictions. We can see
the fallibility of the entire system by looking at the men. Since 1992
lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School
of Law have used DNA testing to exonerate 12 men who'd received death
sentences and 21 others who were convicted of homicide but received lesser
sentences. In many of their cases, they were able to show they were
absolutely not the perpetrators of crimes they'd been convicted of.
There's no reason to doubt that the wrongful conviction rate for women is
just as high, said Mr. Scheck.

For a great many of the women, however, the big issue is not so much
wrongful conviction, but over-prosecution such things as the upgrading of
charges and the ignoring of mitigating circumstances such as self-defense
or a history of abuse or even mental illness.

The ACLU is conducting a study, due out later this year, on women on death
row and the systemic elements of unfairness in how they got there.
Over-prosecution-- that fact of death in so many female capital cases-- is
being looked at, and Diann Rust-Tierney, director of their Capital
Punishment Project, has indications it's widespread.

This reporter spoke with four different capital defense lawyers, who each
noted that when it comes to women on death row, over-prosecution is one
factor they often share. A lot of the women are overcharged, reports
Aundre Herron, a staff attorney for the California Appellate Project,
which files appeals for the condemned. A case that probably was
manslaughter or 2nd degree murder is charged as a capital crime. It should
have been charged as a lesser crime because, maybe, the person's mental
state wasn't right. That makes her an easy target for an ambitious
prosecutor. What makes these women such easy targets is often their
unconventionality. Regardless of the validity of claims of mitigating
circumstances, juries will be less sympathetic to a woman who's lived an
untraditional lifestyle or committed a crime thought to be unwomanly.
Perhaps this is because women, regardless of race, are often punished for
being rebellious, sexual, or violent, or for otherwise breaking the
expectations of gender.

"If there is a common thread that ties the women on death row together, it
is the fact that they have not lived up to some societal norm," suggests
Kathleen O'Shea, a former nun who edits the newsletter "Women on the Row"
and who has developed an informal ministry among them. O'Shea is also the
author of the most authoritative academic textbook on the subject, Women
and the Death Penalty in the United States: 1900-1998. "As a society, we
continue to demand that women behave in a certain way and we punish women
who do not. This is clearly illustrated by the legal term 'unfit mother'.
No man has ever stood before a judge, or served time, or been executed for
being an 'unfit father.'

Almost 20 years after her trial, Sunny Jacobs would meet a man who'd sat
on her jury. "He said that one reason they wanted the death penalty, she
recalled, was that they wanted to make an example of a woman, and that
would send a clear message to those criminals out there."

Though the facts in her case were different from Ms. Jacobs's, Brittany
Marlowe Holberg's status as a prostitute and crack addict were central to
how an Amarillo, Texas jury reacted to her claims of self-defense in her
1998 murder trial. She'd killed an elderly man, A. B. Towery, 80, and had
left behind a horrible and bloody crime scene 58 stab wounds on the dead

Holberg, then 25, claimed Towery was a client who'd attacked her; she'd
been defending herself, there had been a struggle, and in a
cocaine-induced madness she had freaked out. Though she presented
supportive evidence for her story; though there was testimony to the
victim's violent history with his ex-wife and children; though a
psychiatrist testified that Brittany was suffering from battered wife
syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a cocaine addiction, the
jurors found it hard to believe that an elderly citizen could have
employed a prostitute.

In doing this, they dismissed the underpinnings of Brittany's defense. "My
father didn t even like the word 'sex'; he was old fashioned," one of Mr.
Towery's son swore in the courtroom.

Never mind that a former prostitute, Diana Eileen Wheeler, testified that
she'd had something like 10 dates with Towery in 1994; she'd even taught
him how to clean the stains off of his Mel Mac dinnerware. Never mind that
elderly men, even puritanical ones, have been known to employ the services
of sex workers. The prosecutor just rolled his eyes to the jury in
disbelief, an action that seemed to be enough to discredit whatever
Wheeler told them.

Once the D.A. had his conviction nailed down, he won a death sentence
against Brittany, who had no prior record of violence against anyone, by
bringing in jailhouse informants who swore that she had made all manner of
bloodthirsty confessions to them.

Today, Brittany Holberg is 30, and 1 of 8 women awaiting execution on the
female death row at the Mountain View unit of the Texas prison system in
Gatesville, an aptly named town with 6 different jails within it. The
Mountain View unit is where the condemned women stay while their appeals
wind their way through federal and state courts. Should their appeals
fail, they are sent down to the men's prison in Huntsville, some 180 miles
away, where they are put to death by lethal injection.

Ms. Holberg is currently contesting her conviction through writ of habeas
corpus proceedings, charging ineffective representation and prosecutorial
misconduct at trial. Soon after her appeals lawyer filed her writ, the
Randall County D.A. asked to be recused from arguing the case. According
to the Amarillo Globe-News, Holberg's 2- inch-thick habeas corpus filing
includes several affidavits from women who admit to being convicted of
crimes, alleging [the D.A.] and his employees attempted to make deals to
elicit false testimony against Holberg.

To visit with Brittany Holberg, a reporter has to apply to the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice, obtain the inmate's permission, and agree
to a dress code that includes no halter tops, no mid drift [sic] exposure,
no low-cut blouses, etc. Ms. Holberg on the day we meet is wearing
standard prison whites and is sitting in an absolutely centered position
within a glass and steel box at a special visitor's center within the
women's prison. Though she is presented like a specimen in a museum-case,
there s something moving about how Brittany has composed herself. Her hair
and make-up are carefully done; her upright posture bespeaks a quiet

Amazingly, after hundreds of interviews with world leaders and film stars,
I am struck dumb by the setting. I've never interviewed a person in a box

I find it hard to be talking to an individual about the conditions of her
planned death. She's healthy. She doesn't have cancer or AIDS. But there's
a huge machine working to scientifically, legally, kill her.

Brittany is uncomfortable too. She doesn't know me from Eve, but I'm
asking her about her deepest thoughts and nightmares, while the prison
officials are, no doubt, listening in.

At first we chat-- I swear-- about the weather, and then, guardedly, about
her existence before death row. Brittany says her parents were
hippie-drugsters, but she doesn't blame them for her fate. She made a
teen-aged marriage and has a beautiful daughter from that, Mackenzie, now
age 10, who lives with her father in Tulsa.

At 20, Brittany left him, moved back to her hometown of Amarillo, fell in
with a bad crowd, and got hooked on hard drugs.

To support herself and her habit, she began working in the sex trade.
Because of the appeal, I can't talk about that night, Brittany whispers,
referring to the crime. I wish I could talk to you about it. I would, I
would tell you everything."

The day after her jury came in with their lethal sentence, Brittany was
transported to the death row at Gatesville: "I can't even explain to you,
she sighs, what it s like to have someone say, 'you are sentenced to die.'
It's words. You feel helpless, numb. It's almost as if your emotions shut
you down."

For weeks, Brittany lay catatonic in her cell, staring at the wall, not
quite believing where she'd landed. Eventually, I made myself get up. I
learned how to stop focusing on where I was, whether it was right or
wrong, because all that doesn't matter. The desire to live was what
mattered, not the reality of her surroundings.

"I don't dwell everyday on the fact that I'm on death row," she tells me.
"I would go mad if I sat here everyday and thought to myself, 'The State
of Texas wants to kill me. They want to put a needle in my arm and they
want to kill me.' So I have learned to take every day one little step at a

Having a daughter gave her impetus to pull herself together. Mackenzie is
the reason I am where I am right now, mentally, Brittany says, smiling. "I
cannot live, and I cannot die, knowing that my child has to live with the
horror that these people tried to say about me, the story of the crime,
their depiction that I was a cold-blooded person."

Leaving a decent record for Mackenzie, seeking to be fully present in
whatever time she had left, plus detoxifying from the cocaine, transformed
this woman.

When one meets Brittany Holberg, she seems difficult to decode. She is
muted and, at the same time, open. Though she is poorly educated, there is
a thoughtfulness to her. It was carelessness about her very being that
landed her in Gatesville, but today, there's nothing careless about
Brittany Holberg.

Brittany spends her days reading, writing to her family, and working on
her appeals. And she keeps up with the death penalty debate out there in
the free world. Indeed, she closely followed the situation of the late
Gary Graham (aka Shaka Sankofa), another Texas inmate, executed in June
2000, who many thought innocent. "When they'll execute someone under those
conditions, "Brittany notes, "I realized, at that point, it doesn't matter
whether I'm guilty or innocent, this has now become a very political
thing... At this point, they're just killing to kill."

When, after an attempted breakout by some men on the Huntsville death row,
Texas imposed new harsher conditions on all death row inmates, Holberg
wrote to Kathleen O'Shea's newsletter: "Since this occurred, you would not
believe the treatment we are given. Just 2 weeks ago, we were informed
that not only would we be strip-searched for our one hour of recreation a
day, but also when taken for a shower. So for the last 2 weeks, we have
been stripped no less than 6 times a day. This is every day, sometimes at
times like 2:30-3 a.m., and we never leave the building or our cells for
that matter."

It took guts to complain. And the authorities didn't like it. But Brittany
Holberg spends a lot of time seeking small justices. Spend a few hours
with Brittany, and one begins to think that inside prison, this hard luck
girl/woman finally grew up. Unless she is totally shucking me, this is not
a vicious person.

As she speaks about the possibility of a mediation process with her
victim's relatives once her appeals are settled, the idea of killing her
seems utterly pointless. Who could it possibly serve? No one, except
perhaps the prosecutor who numbed the good citizens of Amarillo into
feeling a bit safer about crime when he brought them a death sentence.

Brittany is the symbolic witch they'll all burn in the hope of expiating a
larger, far more complicated problem from their midst. By sacrificing her,
they won't solve that problem.

In fact, they will extend the cycle of violence, and produce a whole new
generation of crime victims among Brittany's relatives. If Brittany is
executed, then little Mackenzie will be left to join the ranks of the
families of murder victims. Witch-burning or no, the killing will be just
as traumatic for her, an innocent, as it was for A.B. Towery's children.

As I write this, there are some 3,514 men and women on death rows in 37
states from California to Texas to Florida. Almost all of them have
mothers and wives, partners, lovers, daughters, children, friends,
grandmothers. Count the numbers.

This violent circle reaches far and wide. And it is here where women bear
the heaviest burden of this deadly epidemic. They bear it stoically, often
silently. But the cost to them is huge.

I am sitting in a Delaware restaurant with Barbara Lewis, a Wilmington
pharmaceutical worker whose son, Robert Gattis, 41, has been languishing
in jail for almost 13 years, 11 of them on death row. Little Delaware, the
2nd smallest state in the union, has the highest per capita execution rate
in the country topping that of Texas and Florida. This is a state that had
public flogging laws on the books until the 1960s.

"My son has had 6 dates set to die," she tells me over coffee. Ms. Lewis's
sensitive face reflects her 60 years. "That's been a reality since he was
sentenced. They told me they were going to do it how and when. There
aren't words to describe this.

No one understands what it is like for somebody to bind your child and put
him to death. There's no clean way to do it. It's killing me, slowly."

For more than a decade, Ms. Lewis's existence has centered on her weekly
visits to Robert. She is his lifeline to the outside world, his last
connection to humanity. She has 3 other children, several grandchildren
and a job she must keep, lest the entire family go down in flames. Her
bedtime prayer is, "Oh Lord, help us all to keep going." Lewis says she
feels society blames her for her son's deed. She had to endure the
unthinking glee with which her co-workers greeted the execution of Timothy
McVeigh; some, as if it was a football game. Most nights she doesn't
sleep. For a while she took to working the night-shift as a way of doing
something useful with her anxiety.

But what do you do with an endless parade of colleagues, neighbors, church
parishioners, who loudly proclaim their support of capital punishment?

"When you say that, you're saying you want my son dead," Barbara Lewis
always tells them.

And the answer comes back: "Barbara, we weren't talking about you!" But it
is about her. If all fails, it will be Barbara Lewis who will have to
comfort her son in the days before the execution.

She'll have to be present at that terrible death moment so that he doesn t
die without someone nearby who loves him. Most certainly, it will be
Barbara who will have to bring her Robert's body home from the execution
chamber, and it is she, when it is all over, who will have to bury the
child she once gave life to.

Meanwhile, what Ms. Lewis sees when she visits her son is devastating. "He
is housed in a 24-hour lock up-- 45 minutes of recreation three days a
week," she explains in a whisper. "He needs interaction with other human
beings. It's taking its toll on him. He's become morose. You treat people
like animals and you get what you pay for."

Now, Robert Gattis's crime was horrible in a fit of rage, he shot his
estranged girlfriend, Shirley Slay. Ms. Lewis partly blames herself. She'd
lived in an abusive marriage for many years. She wonders now if her son
didn't see too much as a child.

The facts in Gattis's case read like those in a hundred other capital
cases that end in a death sentence: a crime, court appointed defense
lawyers working at $60 an hour, some turns of bad legal luck. Gattis's
special legal misfortunes began, Ms. Lewis believes, when a local
prosecutor was criticized for being lax about black-on-black crime. It's
her view the Gattis case was used to disprove the accusation. Thus what
might have been manslaughter in another locality or time was instead

The 2nd piece of misfortune was that Gattis was tried around the time a
new state law was enacted transferring death penalty decisions from the
hands of 12 unanimous jurors to a single judge. Gattis's judge exercised
his newly-won powers by ordering an execution.

During the trial, Ms. Lewis tried to reach out to the victim's family, but
her efforts at reconciliation were thwarted by the prosecutors who had a
stake in the enmity between the 2 families. There's not a day that I don't
think about that family, she says.

The current status of Gattis's case, and life, is that all of his appeals
have been exhausted. His last legal hope lies in Delaware's courts
reviewing whether recent decisions on the constitutionality of judge
sentencing apply retroactively (since his crime was committed under the
old law and tried under the new, now unconstitutional, one). If it does
not go his way, he will be given a new, final, date to die.

Somehow-- I can't imagine how-- Barbara Lewis just keeps going. She goes
through periods of nervousness, depression.

Several of her daughters ' children live with her, and she worries,
perhaps more than the average grandmother, about the violence they see on

Remarkably, whenever she can, Barbara Lewis tries to stop the death
penalty for everyone. With her best friend (my chosen sister), Anne
Coleman, whose daughter was murdered, they are a 2-woman lobby against
Delaware's state-sponsored killing. Together they've founded Because Love
Allows Compassion, which offers support to both crime victims families and
to the families of death row inmates.

"I also hope that our communities can learn to accept that killing is a
tragedy on all sides, "she once told a reporter. "There is never just one
set of victims."

Nonconformists, caretakers, victims alike: The circle of violence never
ends. What Barbara Lewis, Sunny Jacobs, and Brittany Holberg know, and
what the majority who still support the death penalty have yet to learn,
is that capital punishment kills the humanity in us all.

(source: Claudia Dreifus, Ms. Magazine, spring 2003)
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Old 05-23-2003, 01:30 PM
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lulu lulu is offline
Been here forever

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so grizzly
that his head caught on fire." omg, what the heck, that would surly give the people there that veiwed that a night mare. Good grief, it makes me plum sick
many hugs
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Old 11-17-2003, 12:39 PM
dani dani is offline
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Softheart -- I am a College student and am currently doing research on women on death row, but more specifically their situations previous to this. Your writing here was extremely interesting - if you could contact me I would love to talk with you further. It would also be very helpful if you could tell me where you found your information so I could cite it in my paper?
Thank you for your help!
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Old 11-17-2003, 07:56 PM
MrCoffee MrCoffee is offline
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I'm glad they found her innocent. However, the ACLU does not have any credibility in my personal opinion. The reasoning here, is that the ACLU supports the death by starvation of a severely cognitively disabled person. Since the ACLU supports a guardian's wish to starve another person to death, I don't see why the ACLU should have any input or say in regards to death penalty or human rights cases.

I think, perhaps, a better candidate for representing people on death row would be Amnesty International, or perhaps even the Catholic Church. Both organizations support death penalty abolition.

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Old 11-25-2003, 06:42 PM
blessed_be blessed_be is offline
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Default women are so under-supported by women.


thanks for posting this!

am i wrong or do men on DR and in prison get way more support from free women (pen pals, etc...) then do women who are incarcerated?
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Old 02-23-2004, 04:45 PM
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OMG that is heart wrenching. i wish her all the joy and happiness in the world. It is so frighteneing that this kind of thing can happen in our country.
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Old 06-07-2006, 06:07 PM
artdowns artdowns is offline
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Default Suzanne Basso on Texas Death Row

Why are so many ignoring the plight of Suzanne Basso in Texas? Her execution is not scheduled but Texas seems to be playing catch-up.
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Old 07-18-2007, 05:24 AM
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after looking at the death penalty in a search for Texas where I wanted to retire it scares me to no end, we can look at this and be scared silly question and answer =
Can a defendant get death for a felony in which s/he was not responsible for the murder?Yes
my GOD help this nation, where does a middle class person live that a person can feel safe from their laws?
Joy When things are bad, we take comfort in the thought that they could always be worse. And when they are, we find hope in the thought that things are so bad that they have to get better.
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Old 07-18-2007, 08:02 AM
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Originally Posted by blessed_be
am i wrong or do men on DR and in prison get way more support from free women (pen pals, etc...) then do women who are incarcerated?
As far as the general population inmates goes I'd say that's true. But I don't know about women on death row. I think that they might get more people writing in due to their case being high profile.
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Old 08-05-2007, 08:09 AM
natashainsd natashainsd is offline
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i think some states especially texas execute waaaaaaaay too many people
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Old 08-05-2007, 04:22 PM
Dalton Wayne Dalton Wayne is offline
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Good for her the system worked, no near enough but in this case the system worked..
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