Amnesty International Report 1999 - United States of America


Sixty-eight prisoners, including three juvenile offenders, were executed in 18 states. More than 3,500 people remained on death row. There were continuing reports of torture and ill-treatment by police and prison officers, and of shootings by police in disputed circumstances.

In January the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions issued a report on his 1997 visit to the USA. The report called for a moratorium on executions and concluded that "race, ethnic origin and economic status appear to be key determinants of who will, and who will not, receive a death sentence." In February the UN Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance visited the USA. In August the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women visited prisons and immigration detention facilities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia, California and Minnesota. The state authorities refused her entry to three Michigan prisons where it was alleged that female inmates had been sexually abused by guards.

The death penalty continued to be used extensively. Sixty-eight people were executed, bringing the total number executed since the end of the moratorium on the death penalty in 1977 to 500.

Three juvenile offenders were executed, the first in the USA since 1993. All three had serious mental health problems and were put to death for crimes committed when they were 17 and emerging from abusive, poverty-stricken childhoods. Joseph Cannon and Robert Carter were executed in Texas in April and May respectively. Dwayne Wright was executed in October in Virginia. At Joseph Cannon's execution, the needle delivering the chemicals into his arm "blew out". Witnesses were removed while the needle was reinserted. Joseph Cannon's mother collapsed and needed hospital treatment after seeing her son killed.

Paraguayan citizen Ángel Francisco Breard was executed in April, despite an International Court of Justice (ICJ) order that his execution be suspended. Under the UN Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which the USA is a party, Ángel Breard had the right to assistance from Paraguayan consular officials. Paraguay took the case to the ICJ on the grounds that he had been denied this assistance, in breach of the Convention. Five days after the ICJ ordered the execution to be suspended until it had considered the case, Ángel Breard was executed. In November the US government issued an apology to the government and people of Paraguay for the violation of Ángel Breard's rights under the Convention. Seventy-three foreign nationals remained under sentence of death in the USA; almost all had been denied their rights under the Convention.

Eleven death-row prisoners were executed after abandoning their appeals and "consenting" to their execution. Jeremy Sagastegui was executed in Washington State in October. At his trial, Jeremy Sagastegui represented himself, refusing the assistance of an attorney, entered a guilty plea and requested that the jury sentence him to death. He had been diagnosed as suicidal three months before the crime for which he was condemned and had previously been diagnosed as a manic depressive and schizophrenic.

There were new reports of police shootings in disputed circumstances and of torture or ill-treatment of people by police and prison officers. Several unarmed teenagers were shot by police following car chases. They included 14-year-old black teenager Jenni Hightower, who was killed in March in New Jersey after police officers fired 20 shots into the stolen car in which she was a passenger. In April, three young black and latino men received multiple gunshot wounds when police fired into a car stopped for alleged speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike. The incident reinforced accusations that police officers along the New Jersey Turnpike stopped black and Latino drivers solely on the basis of race. Such arrests for "driving while black" were allegedly common in several states. In June the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit alleging racial bias in traffic stops.

In October sheriff's deputies in Humboldt County, California, applied OC (pepper) spray-soaked pads to the eyes of four female anti-logging protesters who had chained themselves together. Later that month, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by protesters who had received similar treatment in 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998) on the grounds that the procedure caused only "transient pain" and did not amount to excessive force. Amnesty International had condemned the treatment as torture in that instance and called for the use of OC spray against non-violent demonstrators to be banned (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

In July a police Use of Force Review Board report concluded that police in Eugene, Oregon, had acted within policy when they sprayed demonstrators with OC spray during a non-violent protest in June 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998); however, the report was critical of some aspects of the operation.

In October a former New York City Police Department (NYPD) officer was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison by a federal judge for violating the civil rights of Anthony Baez who died after a confrontation with officers in 1994 (see Amnesty International Reports 1996 to 1998). An appeal by the officer was pending at the end of the year.

The trial of four NYPD officers for the 1997 assault on Abner Louima was still pending at the end of the year (see Amnesty International Report 1998). In December, two other NYPD officers were arrested and charged with lying to federal investigators in the case.

There were reports of abusive use of restraints and of electro-shock weapons, and allegations of sexual and physical abuse in several prisons and jails. A prisoner in the El Paso Criminal Justice Center in Colorado died in May after being strapped for hours to a restraint board. Other prisoners in the Center alleged in a lawsuit filed in May that they had been strapped to the board for up to 12 hours during which time they had had difficulty breathing, were forced to urinate and defecate in their clothing, and were taunted by guards. Use of the board was suspended in the prison following the death, and a review of the jail's restraint policies was undertaken.

In July the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) removed 34 detainees from Jackson County Jail in Florida following allegations that they had been tortured with electro-shock shields while held in four-point restraints, and subjected to beatings and excessive periods of punitive solitary confinement. The case was still under investigation by the Justice Department at the end of the year.

There were allegations of sexual abuse of women prisoners in states including California, Michigan and New York. There were allegations that prison staff in Michigan had threatened or harassed inmates and staff who reported complaints. In March a federal court agreed to pay three women US$500,000 to settle a lawsuit in which they claimed that they had been beaten, raped and sold for sex to male inmates by guards at the Federal Detention Center in Pleasanton, California.

In February, eight guards were indicted on federal charges for staging fights between rival inmates in Corcoran State Prison in California, between 1988 and 1994, during which seven inmates were fatally shot by guards (see Amnesty International Report 1997). In October, five guards at the prison were indicted on state charges for arranging and covering up the rape of an inmate by another prisoner in 1993. In October state legislative hearings on systematic brutality in the prison ended with recommendations for a series of policy changes, including tighter guidelines controlling the use of lethal force and more training for prison guards.

In February inmates beaten and injured by guards at Hays State Prison in Georgia in 1996 received US$283,000 in damages to settle a federal lawsuit against the authorities (see Amnesty International Reports 1997 and 1998).

An appeal lodged by the State of California against a 1997 ruling by a lower court that Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt) should be granted a retrial (see Amnesty International Report 1998) was heard by the California Court of Appeals in December. No ruling had been given by the end of the year.

Amnesty International launched a worldwide campaign against human rights violations in the USA with the publication in October of a 150-page report, USA: Rights for All. The report focused on police brutality, ill-treatment in prisons and jails, the treatment of detained asylum-seekers, the death penalty, the US government's failure to abide by international standards, and concerns surrounding US arms trading. Amnesty International made over 40 recommendations for changes to bring US policies and practice into line with international standards at the federal, state and local level. It recommended, among other things, establishing independent monitoring bodies to investigate allegations of police brutality and abuses in jails and prisons; a ban on electro-shock stun belts and other dangerous restraint procedures as well as on the routine shackling of pregnant women; restrictions on interactions between male staff and female inmates to prevent rape and sexual abuse in jails and prisons; a ban on the death penalty for juvenile offenders and a moratorium on executions as a first step toward total abolition; the adoption of a binding code of conduct covering transfers of military, security and police equipment, services and expertise; and ratification, without reservation, of the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child and on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Amnesty International had not received a direct response from the government to its report by the end of the year.

During the year, the organization published several other reports. In May it issued USA: Human rights concerns in the border region with Mexico, on ill-treatment by Border Patrol INS officers. In October Amnesty International delegates met senior INS officials in Washington dc to discuss the organization's concerns.

Amnesty International published USA: The death penalty in Texas, lethal injustice in April, and On the wrong side of history: children and the death penalty in the USA, highlighting the cases of juvenile offenders on death row, in October. In November Amnesty International launched USA: Fatal flaws – innocence and the death penalty at a major conference in Chicago attended by nearly half the 75 wrongfully convicted prisoners released from US death rows since 1973.

Also in November, Amnesty International released USA: Betraying the young – human rights violations against children in the US justice system which described ill-treatment of children in both the juvenile justice and the general criminal justice systems.

During the year Amnesty International wrote to numerous federal, state and local authorities about issues including the death penalty; police shootings and brutality; ill-treatment in prisons, jails and juvenile detention centres; and the cruel use of restraints and stun weapons. It called for a ban on the use of OC spray against non-violent demonstrators. It raised concern about the shackling of pregnant women and called for an independent, comprehensive inquiry into the Maine Youth Center, in Portland, Maine, following reports of ill-treatment.

In March Amnesty International wrote to the Federal Bureau of Prisons expressing concern about the alleged punitive conditions under which Oscar López Rivera, a supporter of Puerto Rican independence imprisoned on criminal charges, was held at Marion Federal Prison; he was subsequently transferred to another facility where conditions improved.

In July Amnesty International submitted an amicus curiae brief to the California Appeals Court concerning the case of Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), arguing that the failure to disclose crucial information about a key prosecution witness to the defence should result in a final reversal of his conviction.

Amnesty International wrote to the Los Angeles court authorities and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department calling on them to ban the use of remote control electro-shock stun belts after a defendant Ronnie Hawkins was stunned with the belt on the order of a judge during a Los Angeles court hearing in June; the order was given after he had repeatedly verbally interrupted the proceedings. Amnesty International said that use of stun belts constituted inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and that, in Ronnie Hawkins' case, the deliberate infliction of pain as punishment, by or at the instigation of a public official, fell within the definition of torture under international standards. The organization reiterated its concerns in October in an amicus curiae brief to a federal district court, which heard a lawsuit filed on behalf of Ronnie Hawkins and others, seeking, among other things, a preliminary injunction to prevent the use of the stun belt in Los Angeles county and municipal courtrooms. A ruling on the case was pending at the end of the year. In November Amnesty International raised concern with the authorities about the use of stun belts on low security hiv-positive inmates in New Orleans Parish Jail in Louisiana, while they were being transported to hospital and awaiting treatment.

In September Amnesty International wrote to the US government about the air strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, seeking clarification on the measures taken to protect civilian lives. Amnesty International also wrote to the UN Secretary-General asking for an investigation into the bombing of Sudan. In December the organization called on the US government to ensure maximum protection of civilian lives in accordance with international humanitarian law in its air strikes against Iraq after UN weapons inspectors reported non-cooperation by the Iraqi authorities.

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