Roundtable: Death Row Appeals, CIA Discipline
ED GORDON, host:
This is News & Notes. I'm Ed Gordon.
On today's Roundtable, a lawmaker wants to limit appeals for death row inmates, and eight years without a trial. Joining us from our New York bureau, Bob Meadows, a writer for People magazine. Renee Amoore, president of The Amoore Group, joins us from Philadelphia today. And Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of "Cousin Jeff Chronicles," which can be seen on BET, joins us from our headquarters in Washington, DC.
All right, guys. We want to take a quick look at a bill that's being sponsored by a Republican representative that will limit the federal appeals process for death row inmates from 10 years to as few as two years. The average length can be about a decade. In California, it's actually closer to 20 years. Yet there are those who are complaining about this bill because of what we have seen over the course of the last probably 15, 20 years now, and that is, with new DNA evidence, we're finding that many, many people are being exonerated for crimes they're alleged to have committed and sit on death row. So, Bob, that being taken into account, do you think this is a good idea?
Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People Magazine): I applaud the effort, actually, Ed. Twenty years, 10 years is too long to be on death row, especially if you're innocent and especially if you're guilty. But I think if you do something like this, you have to make DNA testing a right of the accused and of the convicted, because if you're going to shorten the process you can't just eliminate the end results, which often is--which occasionally is the guy being exonerated. So you have to make that a part of the system from the start.
Mr. JEFF JOHNSON (Producer, Host, "Cousin Jeff Chronicles," BET): Yeah. You know, I've got a somewhat different take on it. I think that the larger issue is we're dealing with not only due process, but we're dealing with a flawed system. I mean, in counties and states where courtrooms are overcrowded, where the caseload is overburdened, the thought of being able to push this process is a frightening one, because in many cases they have a difficult time handling the caseload. And I understand that that's part of what this is about. But my concern is very much, I think, as Bob has mentioned, if DNA is not a clear part of this, then we run the risk of denying the very due process within a flawed system that protects people's lives as well as ensures that justice is served.
GORDON: Yeah, backhandedly, to a great degree, the backlog has protected many of those people who are African-American who sit on death row, awaiting their day, so to speak, and that has also given their team time to prove, Renee, that, in fact, they are innocent.
Ms. RENEE AMOORE (President, The Amoore Group): Well, let me say, Ed, I definitely support the legislation that would limit a death row's inmate, because I think it's important that everybody knows and understands that this legislation would not affect cases in which a defendant is arguing innocence with new DNA evidence. I just think that what needs to happen--they need to have federal accountability in our court systems, better management, some type of administrative person to monitor these type of cases, even if they go in and do some random sampling--such organizations as the legal defense--legal fund folks or even the social service folks--to go in and really evaluate what is really going on so that we can have better accountability, because our courts are overloaded, because most of our cases are coming from state now to federal crimes and it's been an issue.
Mr. MEADOWS: But I think with even the language of limiting appeals still begins to have us focus on the wrong place, and I think that until we get to a place where we're serious about dealing with the inadequacies within the system--I don't think that this legislation, ultimately, deals with that. And so if we're talking about adding DNA to make that a priority, a necessity, that's one thing. If we're talking about ensuring that we're trying to fix the process as it relates to caseload and moving cases through the system, still protecting due process, that's another. But I think we still have to be very careful in the language in the legislation that we will support, because I think that there is room to remove due process in certain cases if we're not careful.
Ms. AMOORE: And I think you're right.
Ms. AMOORE: I think we do have to look at legislation and make it clear that it's being fair to all folks, but you also have to look at when are the victims protected, also, and when do they have some type of final judgment?
Mr. MEADOWS: You get no argument from me there.
GORDON: Bob, you know, Jeff beats me to my point, and that is that it seems to me, to a great degree, while we discuss this proposed bill, the United States really should take a look at the entire system of the problems that we have seen over the course of decades now on death row, and because overwhelmingly death row is full of the indigent and the poor, it does not receive the same microscopic look as, perhaps, it should.
Mr. JOHNSON: This country pretty much overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, so that's one of the reasons why you don't see people taking a tremendous look at this. People often want that eye-for-an-eye justice that, you know, is often (technical difficulties). One of the things about this is that I really believe that--Rep. Dan Lungren out in California, he's been pushing this for a long time. And as you mentioned, California--yeah, the average there is about 20 years. But in--I believe this is really a money issue for him, and perhaps for everybody, because it costs about $114 million a year to house California's death row inmates, and every year that they live it's like $2 million more for an individual prisoner. So I think that that's what Lungren is going after.
But, again, I just have to go back again. This--I know what everybody's saying about due process, and I really believe that, but I think if DNA testing is there from the beginning, that will really alleviate some of the things where you're going to have innocent people being put to death, which is probably going to happen anyway, but at least you will have that in place so that somebody is not--maybe if they've been there for 15 years instead of the 10 that they were only given, they would have lived.
GORDON: Jeff brings up an interesting point about backlog of the system. Here is a story that one would almost believe should not, or would not, I should say, happen here in the United States. James Thomas, a man charged with murder in 1996, has spent eight and a half years in jail awaiting trial, awaiting (technical difficulties) and underfunded was this system that this was--and we should note this is in Louisiana--that this case was allowed to slip through the cracks. And again, because Mr. Thomas was indigent and poor, he could not get representation. His mother finally scraped up $500, hired an attorney who brought this to light. Jeff, when you hear this, one has to believe that Mr. Thomas is not alone in this situation.
Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely not, and I think that there have been more than enough cases to show, one, that indigent folks, poor folks, are consistently either ignored and some would even say ill treated, and I don't know if we want to go as far to say that, but some would say ill treated within the system by, one, stories about public defenders that have been with their clients 11 minutes before the case and, in many cases, not even given the kind of representation that are necessary; those that don't get seen by public defenders because, again, of the backlog that we're talking about. And so I think that there are states--I think Michigan is even one of them--that has tried to ensure that state funds are put in place to ensure that local counties and districts are given more support to the public defenders so that they have more staff people there, they have better rates that are there.
But we've seen in more--I think that there's litigation in Georgia. Five lawsuits were triggered to--for--so that there was an overhaul of indigent legal services. And out of that, 44 new public defender offices were created. That's the kind, I think, of ingenuity that we need to begin to see. Otherwise, these kind of cases aren't necessarily going to be the exception, but they're going to be more normal than is acceptable.
Mr. MEADOWS: It sounded to me something like you would hear in Iraq, one of the countries, one of the countries that we're fighting against--people being put in jail and just left there, seemingly, to rot. And what's also lost in this is that there was somebody who was murdered, Dennis Scruggs, who's not getting any justice at all because the people who are accused of killing him never came to trial because they couldn't find these lawyers to help them out. So, I mean, that's another aspect of this, is that there was a--well, I actually don't know Dennis Scruggs' ethnicity, but there was somebody who was killed who's not getting justice, and I think that's also a travesty.
Mr. JOHNSON: And in many cases, Bob, it's...
Ms. AMOORE: And I...
Mr. JOHNSON: I'm sorry, Renee. In many cases, it's the poor and the poor...
Mr. MEADOWS: Exactly.
Mr. JOHNSON: ...and so it's poor victims and poor defendants that are not being served by the legal system.
Ms. AMOORE: And I...
GORDON: And a cynic might say, Renee, and pick up on your point--but a cynic might say that James Thomas, who was set free by virtue of the idea that his alibi witness has since died of kidney disease, I believe--when you think about this, one doesn't really know, quite frankly, whether Mr. Thomas is, in fact, innocent or guilty, by virtue that we did not hear from the alibi witness.
Ms. AMOORE: You're absolutely right, and it does concern me and I think this is just crazy what has happened to James Thomas and other folks that people have alluded to on the panel. The bottom line for me--it goes back to the system, and we've all talked about that. You can look at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in DC; maybe we can come up with something, some type of grants for them to come in and do some of these random samplings that I've talked about earlier. But something definitely has to be done. I know in Pennsylvania they're looking at state grants to really look at the system and overhaul it and do some better things so that, again, the criminal and the victim (technical difficulties)...
GORDON: All right. We'll turn our attention now to the CIA. And an independent watchdog organization has represented--or recommended, I should say, that disciplinary reviews for current and former officials who were involved in the failed intelligence efforts before the attack on 9/11 should, in fact take place. It was harshly critical of many senior officials, including former CIA Director George Tenet. The irony here is that current CIA Director Porter Goss must now decide whether disciplinary proceedings will go forward. A, Renee, do you believe that, in fact, we should continue to dig into this and hold people accountable? Some will suggest that this is one of those things that you cannot prevent.
Ms. AMOORE: You know what, Ed? I just have an issue with them being disciplined now. There's already problems with the CIA and FBI and where they really never communicated about what is going on as far as terrorism, those type of things. And I think that there's been historical protocol that these two agencies haven't communicated. But I think that what Tom Ridge tried to do was to bring all these under Homeland Security so that they could have better communication and make some things happen. I know that our congressman here, Congressman Weldon, was real concerned that--two or three years ago that the CIA knew that something was going on with terrorism.
I think we'll never find out what really happened, but we need to look at the new protocol and maybe clearly our goal should be ensuring that the intelligence community budget is well spent, the intelligence community is working together as a team around military and civilian things that are happening abroad and at home. I just don't think you can go back and reprimand these folks. What can you really do? Some of them are gone. All you can do is send them a letter or ban them in the future from having contracts with the agency.
Mr. MEADOWS: But, you know, I have to say that I think that, you know, obviously, Porter Goss--this is a tough decision for him, what he's got to do here, but I think that he may not be reprimanding these people. He's just going to recommend the disciplinary reviews. These people may be exonerated, and something more may happen to them. But you're right, of course, Renee, that there's nothing you can really do to George Tenet; he's already gone--like that. But I think it might be good for people to at least see that these reviews took place, along the same lines of having Emmett Till's body exhumed just to prove that it's Emmett Till's body. That gives some type of closure, perhaps, or at least it'll do something for the people who did lose loved ones--we have to remember that--on 9/11.
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, yeah. I mean, let's use the key word, which is `accountability.' Who does the buck ultimately stop with, and how do we even say that it's acceptable to set a precedent where, if this kind of information was known prior to an attack, that it's justifiable on any level and that someone should be held accountable, even if it's through a letter; someone should be held accountable, even if it's through the form of disciplinary action. And I think, Bob, as you mentioned, we really are talking about just putting these people up before investigation. It may come out that they would be exonerated. But the point is, let's push towards accountability. If we're challenging other folks in corporate America to be accountable, if we're challenging people, even our young people, to be accountable through their education, ultimately, the federal government should be held to a as high, if not higher, standard of accountability.
Ms. AMOORE: So you feel that, with a letter or not even a letter, just having another commission or committee pull together to really go through the whole process again, so that the victim--you know, that people--the 9/11 victims' families that are calling for this type of report or public debate would have some type of closure?
Mr. JOHNSON: Absolutely. And, again, I think that, if it's possible, if there is real information and there was real errors made on the part of people at highest levels, that those people should be held accountable for those errors. If those errors did not take place, then so be it. But I do not believe that we have the luxury of allowing people in positions with this amount of authority, that have the ability to affect so many lives, not to be held accountable or at least not create the procedures that ensure that the maximum level of accountability is reached.
Ms. AMOORE: I'm just not sure that they're still going to come to what really happened and if the information was there, and I guess that's because, like I said earlier, so many folks or senior officials are gone, and also, like somebody said earlier, it's a tough decision for the director right now on which way, really, to go, because I think that there'll be more tension and issues in the CIA because of this whole thing going through a process again.
Mr. JOHNSON: And sometimes it's really--in my mind, it's just about having a level of integrity to the process. Even at the end of it, if you don't get to the result that everyone wanted, you can at least say that you pushed for the highest level of accountability possible, and that's my issue. I think that's the standard that we need to set.
GORDON: And, Bob, isn't, to a great degree, perhaps that the most important aspect of all of this--the idea of bringing back a level of trust, as best you can have it, with operatives like those in the CIA and FBI and the like? There has been a sense of mystery removed from this community, and perhaps, like "The Wizard of Oz," us looking at this community and feeling that maybe you weren't as smart as we thought.
Mr. MEADOWS: Or maybe you were as dumb as we always thought. I don't know which that is. But I think that, yeah, like--I think it's important to hold this--to hold everybody--you know, make sure that they did what they did, and if they didn't, they have to, you know, be accountable for that. So, you know, it--I think it would help the families, honestly, and I think it would help the American public just to see it, but also agree that eventually you have to just let this--you have to let the new system work.
Mr. MEADOWS: You have to see how it works.
Ms. AMOORE: And that's where I'm going--that there's a new system and we should, you know, deal with this new system and try to do what we need to do...
Ms. AMOORE: ...but also bring some closure to what has happened. But we have to move on, or we're going to continuously bring this kind of stuff up over and over again, because no matter what committee, commission or report you have, people are still going to be unhappy.
GORDON: Yeah. Well, clearly, we can see in just this discussion how difficult it is to reach that balancing point. Bob Meadows from New York with People magazine, Renee Amoore, president of The Amoore Group, and Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of "Cousin Jeff's Chronicles" on BET, I thank you all for joining us. Appreciate it.
Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.
Ms. AMOORE: Thank you.
GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.