Computer Clemency

Net serves death-penalty foes well

Convicted killer Jaturun Siripongs had already been served his last meal-papaya slices, grapes, dim sum, strawberry sherbet and Pepsi-when word came that he had been reprieved. Siripongs, 43, had been scheduled for a lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 17 for the 1981 murder of two people in Garden Grove, and a federal judge's decision to grant a temporary reprieve-a decision upheld several hours later by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals-came just a few hours before that deadline.

Also within hours of the court's decision, word began to spread on the Internet. Usenet participants posted their opinions on the reprieve, ranging from "Thank God" to "String him up!" The Death Penalty Focus of California site (www.deathpenalty.org), an anti-capital punishment group, posted detailed updates of Siripongs' current status and asked for help in protesting his possible execution to the governor. "Urge him to reconsider his clemency decision," the group asked on its site. "The Siripongs case was and still is the perfect opportunity to commute the sentence to life without the possibility of parole." A number of other abolitionist sites added their pleas for help on the Siripongs case as well.

Death-penalty activists, in fact, are increasingly turning to the Internet to spread the word about their cause. Death Penalty Focus greatly expanded its site in July, when it realized the impact its online presence was having.

"We redesigned our site because we realized it was becoming more important," said Death Penalty Focus' Kristin Skinner. "When we started, we felt it was important to have a presence on the Web, but the feedback we started getting was tremendous and made us realize the Web site was becoming a critical part of our work."

The appeal of the Internet for death-penalty activists is obvious. Going online enables activists to stay in touch, helping them reach a broader audience and maintain contacts with other, similar groups. "The site has opened us up to a lot of folks in California that we wouldn't otherwise be able to reach," Skinner said. "It's also helped us stay in communication with the abolition community worldwide. There are groups in Canada, Sweden and elsewhere that have taken information from our Web site and used it in letter-writing campaigns."

Those letter-writing campaigns-to the governor, to newspapers, to legislators, urging them to pardon specific inmates, commute their sentences, or abolish the death penalty outright-are one of the chief ways abolitionists (as they call themselves) work to stave off executions.

Sometimes they don't: Thomas Thompson was executed on July 14 for the rape and murder of OC resident Ginger Fleischli in 1981, despite an extensive campaign of demonstrations, vigils, letter writing and appeals to the Supreme Court. But the Internet makes it much easier to provide activists with the information they need to write these letters. The Death Penalty Focus site offers addresses and phone numbers for government officials, e-mail forms so you can compose your message and send it directly from the site, details of pending cases so you can bolster your opinion with facts, and contact information for other anti-capital-punishment organizations. Other abolitionist sites offer similar services. Skinner said another advantage of providing this information online is that it frees up their staff members to work on other tasks.

"In the case of [Siripongs], we have all sorts of information that enables people to get the information they need in order to write letters, which decreases the time our staff spends on the phone answering these basic questions," she said. "And that means they can spend time doing more strategic planning."

Death Penalty Focus' site has an entire section on Siripongs (located at www.deathpenalty.org/current/Siripongs/siripongs.html). Siripongs, a Thai national, was convicted in 1983 of the killings of Pakavan "Pat" Wattanaporn and Quach Nguyen during the robbery of a Garden Grove store where Siripongs had worked. Siripongs has admitted to taking part in the robbery but has denied killing the store owner and clerk, blaming instead an accomplice, whom he has refused to name. Every court that has since considered the case has affirmed both the guilty verdict and the sentence of death. But a number of people, including Wattanaporn's husband, two of the original jurors and the Thai government, have asked that the sentence be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Death Penalty Focus site offers a detailed list of evidence that supports Siripongs' contention that he is guilty of robbery but innocent of the double homicide, press releases and news articles, statements by organizations in support of commutation, and requests for action. And even though Suripongs has been granted a temporary reprieve, the organization isn't exactly relaxing by the pool.

"The main thing we're focusing on now is working on Governor Pete Wilson and saying that he can stop the madness by commuting the sentence, which is what everyone wants," Skinner said. There is speculation that following Suripongs' next court hearing, which is scheduled for Dec. 3, the ultimate responsibility for the clemency decision will fall on Governor-elect Gray Davis. But Skinner isn't waiting.

"If the governor is ordered to reopen the clemency process, we want the pressure already in place," she said.

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