Thursday, December 7, 2006

Amnesty International USA Urges Commutation of Angel Diaz's Death Sentence in Florida

Amnesty International USA Urges Commutation of Angel Diaz's Death Sentence in Florida

Execution Scheduled for Dec. 13, Despite Key Witness Recanting His Testimony

12/7/2006 12:57:00 PM


To: State Desk

Contact: Jason Opena Disterhoft of Amnesty International USA, 202-544-0200 ext. 302

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 /U.S. Newswire/ -- Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) has urged Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to halt the execution of Angel Diaz, which is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, Dec. 13. If it proceeds, the execution would be the last to take place this year and the fourth in Florida in the last two months.

Amnesty International, the world's largest grassroots human rights organization, has issued a worldwide call to action regarding Diaz's case, mobilizing the public to send appeals to Gov. Bush on Diaz's behalf. AIUSA Executive Director Larry Cox has also written Gov. Bush, urging commutation of Diaz's sentence.

"On behalf of more than 320,000 members of Amnesty International USA, I appeal to you to do everything in your power to stop the execution of Puerto Rican national Angel Nieves Diaz," Cox wrote to Bush. "As an international human rights organization, Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without reservation. While I have tremendous sympathy for the family and friends of Joseph Nagy, I believe capital punishment only perpetuates the cycle of violence."

Anibal Acevedo Vila, governor of Puerto Rico, has also taken the unusual step of writing to Gov. Bush requesting clemency for Diaz, citing Puerto Rico's longstanding opposition to the death penalty.

Angel Diaz was sentenced to death for the 1979 robbery and murder of bar manager Joseph Nagy. He was allowed to represent himself at trial even though he had limited command of the English language, had no knowledge of how trials were conducted, and had not finished high school. Assessments conducted by mental health experts also suggest that Angel Diaz suffers from various mental disorders.

Although two other men were involved in the robbery of the bar, co-defendant Angel Toro pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. The testimony of Ralph Gajus, a jailhouse informant, was central to the prosecution's allegations that Diaz was the gunman. Gajus has now provided a sworn affidavit stating that his testimony was false and that he knew nothing about the crime.

At the sentencing, it was argued in mitigation against a death sentence that Diaz had only been an accomplice to the crime, but no new evidence of this was presented. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that residual doubt about guilt is a highly mitigating factor in the minds of capital jurors. Although the jury recommended a death sentence for Diaz, it did so only by eight votes to four, indicating possible residual doubt in the minds of the jurors, even with the testimony of Gajus. Without Gajus' testimony, it is possible that more of the jurors would have voted against a death sentence.

Testimony given by people who are themselves in custody or facing criminal prosecution has been shown to be frequently unreliable. Research at Northwestern University in Illinois has revealed that the use of such informants was among the three most prevalent factors in wrongful capital convictions in the United States. A review of 111 such cases from 1973 to 2004 found the use of false testimony in 46 percent of the cases.

"Testimony by jailhouse informants is notoriously unreliable and is a leading cause of wrongful convictions in this country," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, the director of AIUSA's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. "It would be a travesty of justice for the state of Florida to allow this execution to proceed now that a key piece of the prosecution's case has been called into question."

This case exemplifies many of the concerns raised earlier this fall by the American Bar Association, which conducted a thorough study of Florida's capital punishment policies. Florida is the only state in the country that does not require a jury to be unanimous in recommending the death penalty. Four of the jurors in Diaz's trial did not vote for the death penalty; it is highly likely that without the damaging testimony of Gajus, even more would have voted against a death sentence.

"Gov. Bush's last days in office should not involve the execution of a man who was incompetent to stand trial and who was sentenced largely on the basis of testimony that has since been recanted by a jailhouse snitch," said Mark Elliott, AIUSA's State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Florida. "We call upon the governor to make a final stand for justice and to stop this execution from proceeding."

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