The secrecy imposed by Arizona on the source and quality of the lethal injection drugs it uses to kill death row inmates has been challenged in a new lawsuit brought by the Guardian and other media organizations.
In the lawsuit, filed with a federal court in Phoenix, the Guardian together with the Associated Press and four of Arizona’s largest news outlets argue that the state’s refusal to disclose any information about its lethal injection drugs is a breach of the public’s first amendment right to know about how the death penalty is being carried out in its name. It follows agroundbreaking first amendment case brought by the Guardian and others in Missouri in May....
Use of midazolam in executions in recent months has proved particularly problematic and contentious. It has been associated with gruesome and prolonged deaths in Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma. The Arizona complaint has been joined, in addition to the Guardian and the Associated Press, by two of the state’s most important newspapers, the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star. Two major television channels, KPNX-TV Channel 12 and KPHO Broadcasting Corporation, are also party to the suit.
The action is lodged in the US district court in Arizona and is directed against Charles Ryan, director of the department of corrections, and the state’s attorney general, Thomas Horne, both in their official roles. The Guardian and fellow plaintiffs are represented by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale law school, with the assistance of Ballard Spahr LLP in Phoenix.
Unlike most other lawsuits that have been brought relating to the creeping secrecy that surrounds lethal injection drugs – which have argued the prisoners’ constitutional rights have been violated – the Arizona lawsuit starts with the principle that the public has a right to know how capital punishment is being carried out.
The complaint argues that “the public cannot meaningfully debate the propriety of lethal injection executions if it is denied access to this essential information about how individuals are being put to death by the state.” It says that the established constitutional right of public access to aspects of government procedures means that the state should be obliged to reveal “the source, composition, and quality of drugs, as well as the protocols, that have been or will be used in lethal injection executions and to view the entirety of an execution”.
This is the fourth lawsuit that the Guardian has launched against various manifestations of secrecy in the US death penalty. As well as the actions in Arizona and Missouri, there are ongoing legal complaints currently before the courts in Pennsylvania and in Oklahoma, where the state is being challenged for having drawn the curtain halfway through the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April.
Saturday, January 31, 2015
After adopting new execution drug laws, Ohio delays all executions for additional year
As explained in this AP article, a full year after Ohio had difficulties executing Dennis McGuire and a month after the state enacted new execution laws, Ohio officials decided to kick the execution can another year down the road by rescheduling all 2015 scheduled executions. Here are the details:
The state on Friday rescheduled executions for seven death row inmates as it tries to find new lethal drugs, meaning no inmate will be put to death in Ohio in 2015. The announcement affects six executions this year, including one set for Feb. 11 for condemned child killer Ronald Phillips, and one previously scheduled for 2016 that was pushed farther back.
The move, which was expected, follows a federal judge's previous order delaying executions while the state puts a new execution policy in place, the state said. The delays also allow the state time to find supplies of new drugs, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The new execution policy calls for Ohio to use drugs it doesn't have and has had difficulty obtaining in the past.
The delays mean that for the first time Ohio won't execute anyone in a calendar year since the state resumed putting inmates to death in 1999. The state put one inmate to death last year and three in 2013. A total of 11 executions are scheduled for 2016. Under the revised schedule, the next execution is Jan. 21, 2016, when Phillips is scheduled to die for the 1993 rape and killing of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron.
Tim Young, the state public defender, applauded the move, saying there was no need for executions "until we have answers to the numerous legal and medical questions posed by lethal injection."
Earlier this month, the state ditched its two-drug method after problematic executions in Ohio a year ago and Arizona in July. Ohio's supplies of those drugs, midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, were already set to expire this year. Underscoring concerns about midazolam, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week ordered Oklahoma to postpone lethal injections executions using the drug until the court rules in a challenge involving midazolam.
Ohio's execution policy now calls for it to use versions of thiopental sodium or compounded pentobarbital, neither of which it has. Death penalty experts question where Ohio would find supplies of thiopental sodium, saying it's no longer available in the U.S. and overseas imports would run afoul of importing bans.
Notably, before Ohio started having major problems with lethal injection protocols, the state had become one of the most active and effective states carrying out death sentences. The state completed nearly 50 executions from 2002 through 2012, and a few years in that period it was second only Texas in the number of executions completed. But lethal injection difficulties and litigation entailed that the state could carry out only three executions in 2013, only one in 2014 and now there will be none in 2015.
I expect that Ohio officials will be try pretty hard to get its machinery of death up and running again in 2016, and it is possible a Supreme Court decision about lethal injection protocols in Oklahoma might actually end up helping the state get its execution chamber back on line. But the 140 men and one woman now on Ohio's death row (and their lawyers) should be breathing a little easier today. And it now seems that much more likely that the majority of these murders will end up just dying in prison rather than be subject to an affirmative state killing.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
"The Humane Death Penalty Charade"
The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:
When the United States at last abandons the abhorrent practice of capital punishment, the early years of the 21st century will stand out as a peculiar period during which otherwise reasonable people hotly debated how to kill other people while inflicting the least amount of constitutionally acceptable pain.
The Supreme Court stepped back into this maelstrom on Friday, when it agreed to hear Warner v. Gross, a lawsuit brought by four Oklahoma deathrow inmates alleging that the state’s lethalinjection drug protocol puts them at risk of significant pain and suffering.
In accepting the case, the justices had to change its name. The lead plaintiff, Charles Warner, was executed on Jan. 15 after the court, by a vote of 5-to-4, denied him a lastminute stay. That may sound strange until you consider that while it takes only four justices to accept a case for argument, it takes five to stay an execution. The case is now named for another inmate, Richard Glossip. (On Monday, the Oklahoma attorney general requested temporary stays of the impending executions of Mr. Glossip and the other two plaintiffs.)...
The justices have been here before. They upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection in 2008. But, since then, the battles over the practice have grown more warped. Many drug makers now refuse to supply their products for killing, leaving states to experiment on their inmates with other drugs, often acquired under cover of official secrecy and administered by authorities with no medical training. During a hearing last month on Oklahoma’s protocol, a state witness who testified that midazolam is effective appeared to rely on the website drugs.com, not scientific studies. It would all be a laughable farce if it didn’t involve killing people.
There is disingenuousness on both sides. Many who oppose the death penalty, this page included, are obviously not interested in identifying more “humane” methods of execution; the idea itself is a contradiction in terms. Nor are many capital punishment supporters concerned with how much suffering a condemned person might endure in his final moments. In the middle sit the armchair executioners who engage in macabre debates about the relative efficiency of, say, nitrogen gas.
It is time to dispense with the pretense of a painfree death. The act of killing itself is irredeemably brutal and violent. If the men on death row had painlessly killed their victims, that would not make their crimes any more tolerable. When the killing is carried out by a state against its own citizens, it is beneath a people that aspire to call themselves civilized.
I love the phrase "armchair executioners," even though I could not help reacting with a classic "Taxi Driver" response.
Recent related posts:
- Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
- Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)
- Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge
- The SCOTUS culture of death: "Execution Case Highlights the Power of One Vote"
Monday, January 26, 2015
The SCOTUS culture of death: "Execution Case Highlights the Power of One Vote"
The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this New York Times piece by Adam Liptak that highlights why the Supreme Court's decision on Friday to grant cert to review Oklahoma's execution protocol is so interesting and creates much death penalty drama for this coming week and the months ahead. Here is how the piece starts:
There are nine justices on the Supreme Court. It takes four votes to hear a case, but it takes five to stay an execution.
That can leave a lethal gap. A death penalty case can be important enough to claim a spot on the court’s docket of perhaps 75 cases a year. But the prisoner who brought it may not live to see the decision.
In agreeing on Friday to hear a challenge to the chemicals Oklahoma uses to execute condemned prisoners, the court brought fresh attention to the life-or-death importance of a single vote. The lead petitioner in Friday’s case, Charles F. Warner, was already dead. He was executed eight days earlier, after the Supreme Court refused to stay his execution. The vote was 5 to 4.
“What happened to Charles Warner was not an isolated glitch,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and the author of a new article on the court’s voting procedures in capital cases. “It was a typical, if high-visibility, example of a systemic flaw in the machinery of justice that has gone unrepaired for far too long.”
The case the court agreed to hear used to be called Warner v. Gross, No. 147955. On Friday, taking account of Mr. Warner’s death, the court changed it to Glossip v. Gross, No. 147955. It may change again. The new lead petitioner, Richard Glossip, is scheduled to be executed on Thursday. The other two petitioners in the case also have execution dates in coming weeks, all of them well before the court is expected to hear arguments in the case, in April.
The Supreme Court did not say on Friday whether it would stay the other three executions. In a statement, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, made a pointed reference to the fact that it took only four votes to grant review. He seemed to indicate that the state was prepared to proceed with the executions.
The petitioners’ lawyers will doubtless seek stays. In Mr. Glossip’s case, they will have to act quickly. How the court responds will illuminate the current vitality of its fitful commitment to a procedure it sometimes uses to bridge the voting gap: the “courtesy fifth” vote to stay executions. Such votes are said to be available once the court makes a formal decision to grant review of a condemned prisoner’s case.
Recent related posts:
- Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
- Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)
- Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge
Friday, January 23, 2015
Seven years after Baze, Supreme Court takes up another lethal injection challenge
As reported in this new USA Today piece, taking up a "case that could have broad implications for hundreds of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will consider whether a drug protocol used in recent lethal injections violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment." Here is more:
The justices agreed Friday to consider a case originally brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma -- one of whom was put to death last week, after the court refused to block his execution with a combination of three drugs that has caused some prisoners to writhe in pain.
Because the court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision to let that execution go forward, it presumably was their votes in private conference Friday that will give the issue a full hearing in open court. Only four votes are needed from the nine-member court to accept a case. It will likely be heard in April, though it could be held over until the next term begins in October.
Lawyers for Charles Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next six weeks sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas. While the court's conservatives refused to stop Warner's execution, the request for a full court hearing had been held for further consideration.
The lawyers claim that the sedative midazolam, the first drug used in the three-drug protocol, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a general anesthetic and is being used in state executions virtually on an experimental basis. They say inmates may not be rendered unconscious and could suffer painfully as the other drugs in the protocol are administered.... "States now experiment with various drug formulations that have resulted in multiple malfunctioning executions — indeed, spectacles — over the past year," the challengers' brief says....
The court's four liberal justices -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- voiced deep concern about the three-drug protocol in their eight-page dissent last week. They also dissented last September when the court rejected a stay application from a Missouri inmate executed with the same drug.
I presume this cert grant will halt all scheduled executions in Oklahoma until the Supreme Court rules. Left unclear, however, is whether other states will be able to move forward with executions while this case is pending. This DPIC page with scheduled executions suggest that at least a half-dozen states have more than a dozen serious execution dates scheduled before the Supreme Court is likely to resolve this new case from Oklahoma.
I am sure that these states will try to move forward with executions, especially if their protocols are dissimilar to what Oklahoma does in executions. But I am also sure that death row defendants and their lawyers will urge states to postpone all execution until the Supreme Court rules in this new case (as happened when the Supreme Court first took up this issue eight years ago in Baze v. Kentucky). In short, here we go again!
Recent related posts:
- Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
- Over dissent of four Justices, SCOTUS lets Oklahoma execution go forward (... and Florida executes around the same time)
Thursday, January 15, 2015
As reported in this USA Today article, a "sharply divided Supreme Court refused Thursday to block the execution of an Oklahoma inmate over concerns about a drug protocol that has caused problems in the past." Here is more:
The court's five conservative justices denied the request for a stay of execution without comment. But the four liberal justices issued an eight-page dissent in which they questioned whether the drug protocol.
"The questions before us are especially important now, given states' increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. "Petitioners have committed horrific crimes and should be punished. But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death. I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions."
Warner's execution was to come within hours of another in Florida, where Johnny Shane Kormondy, 42, was awaiting death for killing a man during a 1993 home invasion. Both executions were to use the same combination of three drugs.
Lawyers for Warner and three other convicts set for execution in Oklahoma over the next seven weeks had sought the Supreme Court's intervention after two lower federal courts refused their pleas.
Justice Sotomayor's eight-page dissent, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan, is available at this link and it ends with these two paragraphs:
I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol. It is true that we give deference to the district courts. But at some point we must question their findings of fact, unless we are to abdicate our role of ensuring that no clear error has been committed. We should review such findings with added care when what is at issue is the risk of the needless infliction of severe pain. Here, given the evidence before the District Court, I struggle to see how its decision to credit the testimony of a single purported expert can be supported given the substantial body of conflicting empirical and anecdotal evidence.
I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution. Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished. But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death. I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions.
Not long after this decision was handed down, Oklahoma finally was able to carry out the death sentence imposed on Charles Warner for him murder of his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter way back in 1997. This AP report suggests that this Oklahoma execution, as well as another one taking place at roughly the same time in Florida with the same combination of drugs, were completed "without incident." Consequently, I hope Justice Sotomayor feels at least some relief that these two murderers, roughly two decades after they killed, apparently were seemingly not "subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death."
UPDATE: This CBS News story suggests that I may have been too quick to assume that the Oklahoma execution was without incident. Here is what the CBS News story reports about what unfolding in Oklahoma:
The execution lasted 18 minutes.
"Before I give my final statement, I'll tell you they poked me five times. It hurt. It feels like acid," Warner said before the execution began. He added, "I'm not a monster. I didn't do everything they said I did."
After the first drug was administered, Warner said, "My body is on fire." But he showed no obvious signs of distress. Witnesses said they saw slight twitching in Warner's neck about three minutes after the lethal injection began. The twitching lasted about seven minutes until he stopped breathing.
Oklahoma geared up to restart its machinery of death nine months after ugly execution
As reported in this Politico article, headlined "Oklahoma prepares to use controversial execution drug," a notable state is about to get back into the execution business. Here is how the article starts:
The state of Oklahoma plans to perform its first execution this week since a botched procedure last April, using a variation of the same three-drug cocktail that left an inmate writhing in pain for nearly 30 minutes before he died.
Thursday’s scheduled execution of Charles Warner, who is on death row for the rape and murder of an 11-month-old, is the first of four that was stayed following last year’s incident but that are now set to take place over the next two months.
Lawyers for all four inmates filed a last-ditch appeal with the Supreme Court on Wednesday but, if it is denied, Warner and the three others will be given different quantities of the same three-drug regimen, including the sedative that failed to induce unconsciousness and contributed to the visible agony of the man executed last April, Clayton Lockett.
That sedative, midazolam, is at the center of the appeal effort, as attorneys for Warner and the other three inmates argue that the drug does not sufficiently knock out the person receiving it.
Thursday, January 08, 2015
Ohio to delay scheduled executions early in 2015 after adopting another new execution protocol
This Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "State revises death penalty protocol, will delay executions," provides the latest news in the ever-dynamic Ohio execution story. Here are the details:
Ohio will switch its lethal injection protocol, adding thiopental sodium, a drug used previously, and dropping the two-drug regimen of midazolam and hydromorphone that caused problems in the last execution a year ago.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said today until it secures supplies of pentobarbital, a drug already permitted, or thiopental sodium, the Feb. 11 execution of Ronald Phillips, and possibly others, will be postponed. The state used thiopental sodium from 1999 until 2011.
Gov. John Kasich will likely have to postpone the executions of Phillips, 41, of Summit County, and Raymond Tibbetts, 57, of Hamilton County, scheduled for March 12. The execution of Gregory Lott, 53, of Cuyahoga County, is scheduled May 14.
The first two executions would take place before House Bill 663, a new lethal injection law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, takes effect in late March. The law allows the state to buy drugs from small compounding pharmacies, which mix batches of drugs to customer specifications. It also permits the state to keep secret the identities of drug suppliers because of security concerns....
The state had to file legal paperwork detailing the new drug protocol with U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost 30 days in advance of the next scheduled execution on Feb. 11. Frost has presided over most of the recent contested lethal injection cases filed on behalf of Ohio Death Row prisoners.
The change means that Dennis McGuire 53, will be the one and only person in Ohio to be put to death using the combination of midazolam and hyrdomorphone. During his Jan. 16, 2014, execution, McGuire choked, coughed, gasped and clenched his fists for about 20 minutes prior to succumbing to the drug mixture. His son and daughter, who watched their father’s troubled execution, subsequently sued the state, alleging his death was cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution....
The controversy over McGuire’s executions resulted in the postponement of all remaining executions in Ohio last year. It will be the fifth time in 2 1/2 years that Phillips has had a new execution date. Dates in September and July last year, and November 2013 were delayed either by Kasich’s clemency actions or reprieves from Frost. Phillips was given a reprieve by Kasich to explore his desire to have transplant surgery to provide a kidney to his ailing mother, but the surgery never took place....
In addition, a lawsuit was filed late last year on behalf of Phillips, Tibbetts and two other inmates challenging the secrecy shrouding the revised execution process. Frost will also hear that lawsuit which claims that state officials, through the new law, are trying to stifle public debate about capital punishment by “seeking to punish, disarm, suppress and silence” opposition.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Have messy executions in 2014 moved the death penalty debate in any way?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "Death penalty backers stand firm despite botched executions." Here are excerpts:
Oklahoma’s last execution went so badly that the state tried to cancel it before the end came. With the inmate writhing while the lethal drugs seeped into his body, his executioners drew the viewing gallery curtains, concealing what the warden later described as "a bloody mess."
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April and other troubling ones this year in Ohio and Arizona gave capital punishment opponents a flicker of hope that areas of the country most enthusiastically supportive of the death penalty might have a change of heart. They did not.
Although Governor Mary Fallin suspended executions so that Lockett’s death and Oklahoma’s methods could be reviewed, the state held a ceremony for its overhauled death chamber only months later and is scheduled to resume executions in mid-January.
And rather than causing states to question whether capital punishment is just or worth the risk of subjecting someone to a potentially agonizing death, the prolonged executions and problems states have had securing lethal injection drugs have led them to explore new, old, and more efficient ways of killing, including gas.
"I think we had a little flash of hope that it would help our cause, but all it did was generate a lot of conversation about it," said Lydia Polley, a member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "It just led to people thinking of better ways to kill them."...
Lockett’s execution did little to dampen support for the death penalty in Oklahoma, which has executed more inmates than any other state except Texas since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. In October, officials gave media tours of the renovated execution unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, which got a $104,000 overhaul after Lockett’s death and now stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the shabby, 106-year-old facility.
Not content with just the upgrades to the prison and lethal injection equipment, Oklahoma’s Republican-led House conducted a study on the use of nitrogen gas for executions and is expected to consider legislation early next year that would make Oklahoma the first state to adopt hypoxia by gas — the forced deprivation of oxygen — as a legal execution method.
Other conservative states are exploring alternatives to lethal injection because of the problems securing the drugs.... Tennessee passed a law to reinstate the electric chair if it cannot get lethal injection drugs and Utah is considering bringing back the firing squad....
Ralph Shortey, a Republican state senator from Oklahoma City who is pushing for Oklahoma to adopt alternative execution methods to lethal injection, estimates that 90 percent of his constituents strongly support the death penalty, despite what happened to Lockett. "The average Oklahoman is saying he got exactly what he deserves," Shortey said. "A lot of people think they should suffer even more than they do. They think the lethal injection is too easy for them."
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Ohio officials (and taxpayers) get a lethal injection lawsuit for the holidays
On the last day of Hanukkah which happened also to be Christmas Eve, a group of lawyers for a quartet of Ohio condemned prisoners gave the state a very predictable present: a lawsuit challenging Ohio's new lethal injection law. This local story, headlined "Death-row inmates challenge new execution-secrecy rules," provides the details (and this link to the suit):
Four death-row inmates are challenging the constitutionality of Ohio's new execution secrecy rules, their attorney announced Wednesday morning. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus, the inmates claim the new law, which shields the identities of most participants in Ohio's execution process, violates their rights to free speech and due process.
Proponents of the rules, signed into law by Gov. John Kasich last week, say they are needed to protect individuals involved with Ohio executions from harassment and potential harm.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday afternoon on behalf of death-row inmates Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, Robert Van Hook and Grady Brinkley. The first three are scheduled to be executed next year; Brinkley's execution date has not yet been set.
Under the new law, House Bill 663, Ohio must keep secret the names of people involved with executions, other than top officials. The law also protects the identity of small-scale drug manufacturers called compounding pharmacies if they make lethal-injection drugs for the state. The inmates' lawsuit claims these measures violate the First Amendment because they were passed to silence death-penalty critics and "foreclose all effective advocacy" against executions in Ohio.
The lawsuit also challenges other parts of the law that require courts to seal such information from the public and prevents the state's medical board from disciplining physicians who testify about Ohio's execution method. "These laws violate some of the most basic principles upon which our democracy was founded," said Timothy Sweeney, the inmates' attorney, in a statement. "Everyone should be deeply troubled by this bold piece of legislation which has been passed to artificially reduce public criticism of government actions in one of the most important areas in which it acts: the taking of a human life."
The defendants in the lawsuit are Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine, state prisons director Gary Mohr and Donald Morgan, warden of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, where Ohio's executions are carried out. DeWine spokeswoman Lisa Hackley said Wednesday that the attorney general's office is reviewing the lawsuit. Spokesmen for the governor's office and the state's prisons agency declined comment.
HB 663 is an attempt to overcome problems that Ohio — like many other states — has had obtaining lethal-injection drugs in recent years. Ohio ran out of its preferred lethal-injection drug, pentobarbital, last year because European pharmaceutical companies refused to continue selling it for use in executions....
Supporters of HB 663 say that the state could turn to compounding pharmacies to make pentobarbital, but the companies are reluctant to make lethal-injection drugs unless they can remain anonymous, for fear of public reprisal. DeWine and other proponents of the legislation have said the changes are needed if Ohio is to resume executions next February, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.
As long-time readers know, Ohio's execution problems, plans and procedures have been subject to extensive litigation over the last half-decade. Time will tell if this latest litigation will extend another half-decade. As the title of this post indicates, Ohio (and federal) taxpayers get the bill for all this litigation, and I cannot help but wonder how much Ohio costs its taxpayers by trying took keep its death penalty system alive and killing.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Are Arizona and Oklahoma likely to have their machineries of death operational early in 2015?
I blogged here a few days ago about steps taken by the Ohio legislations to get its lethal injection drugs and protocols shored up so the state can get back in the business of executing condemned murderers in 2015. Now I see from this New York Times report that Arizona and Oklahoma, two others states that had messy execution in 2014, now also appear poised to get their death chambers revved up again in the coming new year. Here are the basic details why:
A federal judge in Oklahoma City on Monday said that the state can resume executing prisoners this winter, rejecting the argument by some medical experts that using the same sedative involved in the bungled execution of Clayton D. Lockett in April amounted to an illegal experiment on human subjects.
Judge Stephen P. Friot of Federal District Court, ruling against condemned prisoners who sought to delay new executions, said that lethal injection was more humane than historical methods like hanging, and that since the sedative in question, midazolam, had been successfully used in a dozen executions elsewhere, it should not be considered new or experimental.
“Federal courts should not sit as a board of inquiry as to best practices,” Judge Friot said, adding, “The plaintiffs have failed to present a known and available alternative.” An occasional isolated episode does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, he said.
Also Monday, in a separate ruling on another prolonged execution by lethal injection, a report commissioned by corrections officials in Arizona said the killing of Joseph Wood in July had been conducted properly. Mr. Wood appeared to gasp for nearly two hours before dying, but the report concluded that he was unconscious during that time and did not feel pain.
The unusually protracted and, in the view of many witnesses, agonizing executions in the two states led to new questions about the reliability of lethal injection and whether it can be performed humanely. These states and others have also been forced to try new drugs and combinations as manufacturers have refused to supply the barbiturates traditionally used in lethal injections.
Dale A. Baich, a lawyer for the Oklahoma prisoners, said they would appeal Judge Friot’s decision. “We are still concerned about Oklahoma’s ability to carry out executions humanely using midazolam,” Mr. Baich said....
The Arizona report, by consultants hired by the State Department of Corrections, cited the Pima County medical examiner’s statement that Mr. Wood’s “gasps, snorting and body reflexes are the normal bodily responses to dying, even in someone highly sedated.” Arizona used midazolam in a different combination from Oklahoma, pairing it with the opiate hydromorphone. Medical experts cited in the report said they could not determine why it took so long for Mr. Wood to die.
Still, Arizona’s director of corrections, Charles L. Ryan, said Monday that the state would abandon that two-drug protocol. The state will continue to search for supplies of the barbiturates of choice, pentobarbital or sodium thiopental, Mr. Ryan said. But if they remain unavailable, Arizona will use midazolam in the same three-drug regimen planned in Oklahoma, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a caustic heart-stopping drug.
Oklahoma has had a moratorium on executions since April 29, when the lethal injection of Mr. Lockett went awry. Now, saying that improved procedures are in place and that they will boost the dosage of midazolam, they plan to execute four men in three months, starting with Charles F. Warner on Jan. 15.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
With new drug secrecy law, just when is Ohio really likely to get its machinery of death operational?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Columbus Dispatch account of the new Ohio law enacted last week to foster procurement of needed execution drugs by state authorities. The article is headlined "New law will keep lethal-injection drug supplier secret," and here are the details prompting my question:
A new Ohio law signed yesterday by Gov. John Kasich will shield from public disclosure the supplier of drugs used in future lethal injections effective on March 20. However, two executions are scheduled before that date: Ronald Phillips of Summit County on Feb. 11, and Raymond Tibbetts of Hamilton County on March 12.
There was no immediate word from Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine or the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction about how the Phillips and Tibbetts executions will be handled, or if they will be postponed. There are four additional executions scheduled for later next year.
A spokeswoman for Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said new drugs can’t be purchased until House Bill 663 takes effect. “Our assumption is if they go forward with those executions, they will have to do it under existing law,” Amy Borror said.
Existing law does not permit buying drugs from undisclosed sources. The two drugs used in the last Ohio execution on Jan. 16, appeared to cause Dennis McGuire to gasp, choke and struggle against his restraints for about 20 minutes before he died.
The lethal-injection measure ... will allow prison officials to buy drugs from some of the 61 compounding pharmacies in the state. Typically smaller, independent businesses, compounders mix drugs for specific customer needs. They can ask the state not to identify them as the provider of lethal drugs for 20 years. The law also will keep confidential forever the identities of execution-team members and physicians involved in the process, even in an advisory capacity.
Another provision of the law requires an overall review to be done of the state’s lethal-injection process.
As reported in this prior post, a federal district judge back in August extended his injunction precluding executions in Ohio through January 15, 2015. I expect that state officials will seek to formulate a new execution plan in light of this new law, and that defense attorneys will seek to preclude executions from starting again until such a new plan is fully formulated and fully examined through litigation.
In light of all these realities, I am inclined now to tentatively predict that we likely will not have another execution in Ohio until well into 2015. At the same time, if and when Ohio gets its machinery of death operational in 2015, it seems quite possible that the state will try to move forward with a new execution every six weeks.
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Noting some reasons the number of US executions in 2014 are so low
This new Christian Science Monitor article details some reasons why the US is on pace to have fewer than three dozen executions this year for the first time in decades. The piece carries this lengthy headline and subheading: "Death penalty in 2014: why US has seen fewest executions in 20 years: The downward trend in executions has several explanations, but experts say it’s probably not because of death penalty debates about innocence and guilt. Rather, they say, it’s the details of how the state goes about ending a condemned life." Here are excerpts:
In late November, a federal judge emptied Wyoming’s death row of its last remaining occupant, Dale Wayne Eaton. His lawyers don’t dispute that Mr. Eaton in 1988 raped and killed 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell after kidnapping her and holding her hostage in his compound. The problem, the court found, was that his defense team failed to present him as a three-dimensional human being at his sentencing, including pointing out the severe beatings he received as a child and how he was evaluated to have low intelligence.
The ruling seemed of the moment in a country that has seen sentiments about the death penalty continue to shift in 2014. So far this year, America has seen the fewest executions — 32 — in 20 years....
A series of botched and disturbing executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona has also contributed to the shifting debate, argues Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Death penalty states are being forced to come up with new lethal injection drug formulas as traditional suppliers of the drugs stop distributing them to states.
The downward trend in executions has several explanations, but experts say it’s probably not because of debates about innocence and guilt. Rather, they say, it’s the details of how the state goes about ending a condemned life, including the issues surrounding the lethal injection drugs.
Friday, November 21, 2014
Ohio and Utah moving forward with distinct fixes for lethal injection drug problems
As reported in this two article, legislatures in Ohio and Utah are taking quite different approaches to the problems poised by the unavailability of some drugs historically used for lethal injection executions. The headlined of these stories highlight the basics:
From the Wall Street Journal here, "Ohio House Passes Bill Shielding Execution Drugmakers: Measure Would Add Layers of Secrecy to Death-Penalty Procedures."
From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Firing squad executions back on the table in Utah Legislature"
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Hoping to help Kickstart a notable new death penalty documentary
I am eager to promote widely an important film project from some folks in London focused on modern US death penalty stories. (I am partial to the project in part because one of my former students, Allen Bohnert, OSU Moritz College of Law grad ('06), is one key subject being documented in his role as current lead counsel in the long-running Section 1983 litigation over Ohio's lethal injection protocols.)
This notable project is still in production, and the filmmakers are currently fundraising for financial support to help allow them to finish filming. The Kickstarter campaign is available here; lots of interesting items are available (such as signed copies of Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy, one-off pieces of art and the film itself) for any donation over $25. I have been told that they will not be able to effectively finish this film without additional help for further funding.
The film itself is titled The Penalty, and it is to be a 90-minute feature documentary examining the current state of America's capital punishment system. While some other documentaries have focused on death row stories through the lens of condemned prisoners, this film is focused more on people involved not on the row: lawyers, family members, politicians, campaigners, law enforcement, and others. A snippet from some filming so far is available at www.thepenaltyfilm.com.
I understand that the filmmakers have been particularly focused on following (1) my former student, Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Ohio Allen Bohnert, through Ohio's problematic execution of Dennis McGuire and its fallout, and (2) Louisiana death row exoneree Damon Thibodeaux as he tries to put his life back together after his wrongful conviction and later exoneration. I believe the filmakers are also incorporating lots of other characters from the capital punishment universe, including many experts in the field such as Debby Denno, Jeanne Woodford, David Dow, Kathryn Kase, Peter Neufeld, Richard Dieter and Clive Stafford-Smith.
Finally, I have been told that anyone has any ideas on stories that the filmmakers should look at, or have ideas for people they should be sure to talk to (e.g., grant-giving foundations, media outlets, campaign groups), they filmakers are eager to spread their network far and wide, and you can pass on ideas by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Missouri completes ninth execution of 2014
As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Missouri Executes Leon Taylor for 1994 Killing," the Show Me state showed another murderer that death sentences still get carried out in Mizzou. Here are the basic details:
A man who killed a suburban Kansas City gas station attendant in front of the worker's young stepdaughter in 1994 was put to death early Wednesday -- the ninth execution in Missouri this year.
Leon Vincent Taylor, 56, was pronounced dead at 12:22 a.m. at the state prison in Bonne Terre, minutes after receiving a lethal injection. With Taylor's death, 2014 ties 1999 for having the most executions in a year in Missouri.
Taylor shot worker Robert Newton to death in front of Newton's 8-year-old stepdaughter during a gas station robbery in Independence, Missouri. Taylor tried to kill the girl, too, but the gun jammed.
Taylor's fate was sealed Tuesday when Gov. Jay Nixon declined to grant clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his appeal. His body covered by a white sheet, Taylor could be seen in the execution chamber talking to family members through the glass in an adjacent room. Once the state started injecting 5 grams of pentobarbital, Taylor's chest heaved for several seconds then stopped. His jaw went slack and he displayed no other movement for the rest of the process.
Four of Taylor's family members sat in a room to his left and looked on without reaction as the drug killed Taylor in about eight minutes. At a time when lethal injections have gone awry in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona and taken an extended period to kill an inmate, Taylor's execution went off without any visible hitches or complications with the drug or equipment.
In a final statement, Taylor apologized to Newton's family because "our lives had to entwine so tragically" and thanked his family for their support and love. "I am also sorry to have brought all of you to this point in my life to witness this and/or participate," Taylor said. "Stay strong and keep your heads to the sky."
Speaking to reporters after the execution, Newton's brother, Dennis Smith, noted that it had been about 7,500 days since the killing and said the family has missed Newton every one of them. Smith described Newton as a hard worker, generous and with a memorable laugh. At times, Smith paused to compose himself as tears rolled down his cheeks. "It would just take a coward to want to hurt someone like him," Smith said.
Monday, November 17, 2014
"Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by James Gibson and Corinna Lain now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Across the country, executions have become increasingly problematic as states have found it more and more difficult to procure the drugs they need for lethal injection. At first blush, the drug shortage appears to be the result of pharmaceutical industry norms; companies that make drugs for healing have little interest in being merchants of death. But closer inspection reveals that European governments are the true instigators of the shortage. For decades, those governments have tried — and failed — to promote abolition of the death penalty through traditional instruments of international law. Turns out that the best way to export their abolitionist norms was to stop exporting their drugs.
At least three lessons follow. First, while the Supreme Court heatedly debates the use of international norms in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, that debate has largely become an academic sideshow; in the death penalty context, the market has replaced the positive law as the primary means by which international norms constrain domestic death penalty practice. Second, international norms may have entered the United States through the moral marketplace, but from there they have seeped into the zeitgeist, impacting the domestic death penalty discourse in significant and lasting ways. Finally, international norms have had such a pervasive effect on the death penalty in practice that they are now poised to influence even seemingly domestic Eighth Amendment doctrine. In the death penalty context, international norms are having an impact — through the market, through culture, and ultimately through doctrine — whether we formally recognize their influence or not.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Legislation to get Ohio back on track with lethal injections being fast-tracked
As reported in this local article, headlined "Death-penalty reform bill would protect execution drug makers, physicians who testify," it appears that the state legislative process is moving forward to enact new regulations to help Ohio get back into the business of executions. Here are the details (with my emphasis added at the end):
Makers of Ohio's lethal-injection drugs would be kept anonymous, and physicians who testify about the state's execution method couldn't have their medical license revoked, under House legislation introduced Monday. Attorney General Mike DeWine has said that lawmakers need to pass the reforms if Ohio is to resume executions next year, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.
Ohio, along with many other states, has been struggling to settle on an execution method, as many large pharmaceutical companies have refused to continue selling drugs used for lethal injection. The state's current two-drug cocktail is being challenged in court and has been used in controversial executions in Ohio and Arizona.
House Bill 663 would keep secret the identities of compounding pharmacies, small-scale drug manufacturers that create individual doses of lethal-injection drugs on demand. The proposed change is a sign that state officials could turn to compounding pharmacies for lethal-injection drugs that courts have upheld but that larger companies have stopped selling, such as pentobarbital. Rep. Jim Buchy, a Greenville Republican co-sponsoring the bill, said the measure would protect compounding pharmacies from lawsuits.
Another proposed change in the bill would prevent the Ohio State Medical Association from revoking or suspending the license of any physician who provides expert testimony on the state's death penalty. Such immunity is needed, supporters say, because the state is worried that doctors will refuse to testify in defense of Ohio's lethal-injection protocol for fear that they'll run afoul of medical ethics....
House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican, and Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, each said last week they plan to pass the legislation. "That is something that we cannot leave in abeyance, otherwise we're going to have people who pass away prior to execution," Batchelder said.
I have a inkling that Speaker Batchelder's comments emphasized above may have been taken a little out of context, as the quote makes it seem he considers it is essential to fix quickly Ohio's machinery of death so that prisoners do not die on their own before being able to be killed by the state.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
"Physicians, Medical Ethics, and Execution by Lethal Injection"
The title of this post is the title of this new article by I. Glenn Cohen, Robert Truog, and Mark Rockoff available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In the wake of the recent botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma, a group of eminent legal professionals known as the Death Penalty Committee of The Constitution Project issued a set of recommendations for sweeping legal and administrative reforms of this method of capital punishment. This Article discusses the Committee’s recommendation that medical personnel perform the medically-related elements of lethal injection executions. Noting that such involvement is prohibited by the codes of medical ethics of professional societies in every medical profession, this Article argues that significant ethical concerns dictate that medical professionals should refuse to participate in lethal injection executions.
- The Constitution Project issues big new report calling for broad reform of capital punishment administration
Sunday, October 26, 2014
Media coalition sues Arizona on First Amendment grounds seeking more info on executions
As detailed in this article from The Guardian, the "secrecy imposed by Arizona on the source and quality of the lethal injection drugs it uses to kill death row inmates has been challenged in a new lawsuit brought by the Guardian and other media organizations." Here is more about the lawsuit (including a link to the filing):
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
"Could firing squad make a comeback in Utah, elsewhere?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new article discussing, yet again, possible alternatives to lethal injection as a means to carry out death sentences. Though covering some familiar ground, this article provides a useful reminder that it has been only a few years since the last firing squad execution in the United States and highlights reasons why states seriously committed to carrying out executions ought to be seriously considering this "classic" execution method again. Here are excerpts:
When Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010 at the Utah State Prison in Draper, more than 59 journalists from news outlets from around the globe descended upon Utah to cover the event. Reporters from Japan and Great Britain called it “a Wild West way of dispatching people” and referenced John Wayne movies.
But as anti-death penalty pharmaceutical companies in Europe refuse to sell the drugs necessary for lethal injections to prisons in the United States and in the wake of botched lethal injection executions in recent months, the firing squad could be making its return to Utah and other places. “I’ve had several states actually call (to ask about the firing squad),” Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said. “They asked me not to name them because they don’t want the media circus on it. But they’re in the same boat we are — they can’t get the drugs, either.”
Botched executions involving lethal injections in Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio earlier this year have led Ray to believe that the method could face constitutional challenges as well. For that reason, he is proposing legislation that would bring back the firing squad as the secondary execution method in Utah, should the primary method, lethal injection, be found unconstitutional or unavailable. “It really won’t do anything,” Ray said. “It’s just the plan B if we need it.”
A law passed in 2004 eliminated death by firing squad in Utah, but those on death row who requested such a death prior to the new law still have the option. Ray said the legislation he is proposing would restore the firing squad as a possible execution method, but eliminate the inmate choice. “It will be lethal injection, and then, if the drugs are not there, or it is unconstitutional, then it will be firing squad,” Ray explained. “There is no option for the inmates.”
Utah's firing squad comprises five riflemen, all certified law enforcement officers, using 30-30 rifles. Four of the guns are loaded with live ammunition and one is loaded with a blank before the officers shoot in unison.
Ray acknowledged that part of the reason the method was eliminated was due to the extra attention that surrounded it. But he said there is always going to be interest around executions, especially among international media. The firing squad may heighten that interest, but Ray doesn't balk at it as an execution method.
“It is actually the most humane,” he said. “The individual is usually dead before they can even hear the gunshot. It’s four bullets to the heart, so it’s not ‘How long did it take for him to die? Could he breathe? Did he feel it?’”
Wyoming Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, decided to propose the firing squad as Wyoming’s secondary execution method, because he said it is what he would choose if forced to select to among the alternatives to lethal injection. “It became a matter of personal prejudice and if I was the one that was being executed,” Burns said.
Wyoming’s current backup if lethal injection is unavailable is the gas chamber, which Burns felt was impractical for a number of reasons. For one, the state doesn’t have a gas chamber, and building one — and the possible litigation prompted by a decision to build one — would be expensive. “It would cost millions of dollars to build one,” Burns said. “And sometimes you have to put your own experience into it and I think the gas chamber would be a horrible way to kill somebody.”... “I do like the way Utah did it,” Burns said. “Utah has a very good protocol. If we pass this, I would hope the Wyoming Department of Corrections would look to the protocol that Utah uses.”...
Even before the botched executions, Burns noticed the difficulty getting lethal injection drugs from companies in the European Union. He proposed a bill to implement the firing squad in Wyoming’s legislative session this past January. It didn’t pass, but officials from the Wyoming Department of Corrections came forward and spoke about the difficulties states around the nation are facing when it comes to obtaining drugs for lethal injections, and the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee decided to look at the issue. Lawmakers have since decided to sponsor the firing squad bill in the upcoming legislative session in January....
Burns said the the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee recently had an extended debate about the death penalty and whether to eliminate it altogether. A proposed bill was even drafted. “It went down and not by a whole lot,” Burns said, before adding that he likes where Wyoming stands now with just one man on death row. “We have 22 people in prison for life without parole, and any one of those 22 could have been a capital case. We haven’t executed anyone since 1992, so we use it infrequently.”
Still, he believes the death penalty is an important tool in the criminal justice system to be used as needed. “I’m not a fan of using it more, but I would like to have it there in reserve for those crimes that are so horrible and so heinous that the person doesn’t even deserve life without parole,” Burns said.
A few recent related and older posts:
- Is nitrogen gas the best modern execution alternative to lethal injection?
- Serious talk about a serious alternative (nitrogen) to lethal injection in Oklahoma
- A worldly perspective on different execution methods
- Shouldn't Congress be holding hearings to explore federal and state execution methods?
- Poll after ugly execution highlights enduring death penalty support and openness to various execution methods
- Should problems with lethal injection prompt return of other execution methods?