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For the week of November 8 through 14, 2000

The Fight for Life

"You see a lot of cases where attorneys do not have the expertise or the resources to prosecute, then inequities and unfairness occur."

Andrew Parnes

Express Staff Writer

Andrew Parnes Photo by Willy Cook

A gargoyle on the desk of Ketchum attorney Andy Parnes represents Keith Wells’ demons.

Wells was Idaho’s most recently executed murder defendant, killed in 1994, and the only person to be executed in the state since 1957. He was a "volunteer," in the parlance of death row, meaning he was sentenced to death, but waived his right to appeal.

"Wells believed that demons drove him at the time of the killings," Parnes said.

Parnes, who took the case during the sentencing phase, said he and his co-counsels believed Wells was not rational, and appealed the case to the federal Ninth Circuit Court, which heard it on the scheduled day of execution.

"All we were asking for was a doctor’s viewpoint and the court said ‘No.’ How did the courts know he was competent if there was never any hearing on his mental state?"

Parnes faxed the court documents to the U.S. Supreme Court, which stayed the execution for a few hours but declined to hear the case. Wells was executed at 2 a.m. the following morning.

Wells’ case was one of many death penalty cases Parnes has handled. Fifty-four years old and a New Yorker by birth, he is one of the foremost opponents of the death penalty in the Western states.

Parnes obtained a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University, and ran the Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues program before deciding to attend law school at the University of California at Berkley in 1975. His goal was to specialize in economic law, but fate intervened when Parnes assisted an attorney friend with an attempted murder trial in Oakland.

"That got me interested in criminal law," he said.

An internship at the federally funded Public Defender’s program followed while he was still in school, in Hunter’s Point, a San Francisco ghetto. After graduation in 1978, Parnes practiced criminal defense law.

During a 1980 ski vacation to Sun Valley, he fell in love with his future wife, Kate, a skier working as a waitress at the old Chart House in Elkhorn, and working as a substitute teacher. (Kate Parnes is now on the Blaine County school board). Eventually, he recalled, "she came to California, but we always kept coming back up because she loved it here." In 1990, the couple and their three children settled permanently in Ketchum.

Parnes had begun specializing in death penalty work in the late 1980s, due to California’s large death row population. All 550 of those inmates are housed in San Quentin State Prison. He is currently working on six of those cases, commuting between Idaho and California to meet with prisoners and co-counsels at San Quentin.

Idaho has 21 convicts on death row, in Boise. Several of those people, Parnes contends, should not be there.

"In Idaho, which is a very small state [population wise], with a lot of solo practitioners," Parnes said, "there were, in the early and mid-80s, good-hearted, good-intentioned people, who did not have the resources to defend these cases."

As the result of Parnes’ help, two of those defendants are now off the row.

One was Freddie Paz, a man so delusional, Parnes said, he "does not believe that the person who was shot was actually shot." Because of the nature of his mental health his death sentence was commuted.

The other involves the ongoing case of Tom Gibson, accused of murdering two people--one in Spokane, Wash., the other in Idaho in 1980. A federal court reversed his conviction on appeal based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel, Parnes said. Eventually, Gibson pleaded to second-degree murder, and the case went into mediation with Parnes, his two co-councils from Seattle, Idaho’s Attorney General, the mediator from the federal Ninth Circuit, and the local prosecutor.

Parnes said Gibson maintained he was present at the killings but was not the murderer. Parnes contended Gibson is "absolutely not the person who did the killings." As a result of Parnes’ work in mediation, Gibson, who has already served 18 years, will be released Jan. 1, 2003.

When murder defendants receive an inadequate defense, or are charged by a prosecutor’s office that lacks the means to thoroughly investigate the crime, Parnes said, "the imposition of the death penalty becomes arbitrary and capricious."

"The real thrust is it’s not just, it’s not fairly enforced in the country. There’s so much racial bias and bias to try to resolve cases. What lawyers [ideally] are doing out there is protecting society’s rights. We make sure the cops and prosecutors are following the rules. It’s a matter of checks and balances."

Columbia University Law Professor Jim Liebman has claimed that nearly 68 percent of death penalty cases have been reversed in either the guilt or penalty phases. States have paid large sums of money as compensation in capital cases to some who were wrongly convicted.

Parnes gave as an example the case of two men who served 18 years on death row in California but are now free men. He said that at the time of the murders for which they were indicted, they were actually in custody in another county. The prosecutors hid this information, and the defendants were falsely identified.

"It’s unfair," Parnes said, "but if they had been executed it would have been outrageous."

Since Illinois resumed the use of capital punishment in 1977, 12 people have been executed and 13 have been freed from death row for various reasons. This year Gov. George Ryan called for a moratorium on all executions in the state.

In New Hampshire, the State Legislature voted in March to abolish the death penalty, but Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill.

Parnes readily acknowledges many people on death row are guilty. However, he contends that because of the death penalty, "as a society we spend way to much time, money and attention in the media on these (murder) cases. Crime is more widespread on a lower level."

He makes his case statistically. There are 3,000 people on death row in the United States versus 4.5 million on probation and parole, and about 2 million incarcerated.

"Number one, I think if we took all those resources and put it into drug programs, and education, we would reduce murder."

Though he makes practical arguments against the death penalty, Parnes’ feelings about it were formed in childhood. He said he was "raised with a belief that we shouldn’t take others’ lives--that the government should not take lives."

"I think more and more people are opposed, not because it’s a moral issue, though I think it should be, but [because] we don’t want to take someone out and lynch them," he said. "We want to be fair. I think that is where the sentiment is going. Even South Africa abolished the death penalty after Apartheid. So why do we have it? There’s a movement around the world--if the United States is so interested in human rights why do [we] have the death penalty?"

When most folks think of criminal lawyers, summoned up are the high-profile types who’re called in to be part of a dream team of lawyers, or appear on morning television expounding on their takes on trials.

Meanwhile there are unsung soldiers who fight in the trenches of justice and in the backwaters of the country for the neglected and derided.

"In 1972 the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional. There was hope that they would not reinstate it," Parnes said. But the U.S. government did re-activate the death penalty in 1977.

Governmental crimes are the most immoral in Parnes’ opinion, where people like Hitler and Eichmann gain control and create an atmosphere where the slaughter of other people is encouraged. But he still believes that a "life in prison is appropriate punishment."

The European Union stipulates that to be a EU member a country must not have the death penalty.

Internationally, capital punishment is widely considered as a human rights issue.

Seemingly, less than evolved countries that have no death penalty are Turkey, Yugoslavia, Iran, Russia, China, and Afghanistan, Parnes said.

And, he said, that’s a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. What the court interprets this to mean is that if death is imposed in a wanton and capricious manner then it cannot be imposed.

"The courts have determined that you cannot say ‘the punishment for this is death, and nothing else.’ There have to be alternatives." Parnes said. "There is no mandatory death penalty."

Maintaining a high level of righteousness is part of the process for Parnes.


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