Friday, February 19, 2016
Excited to be at Duke Law School for "The American Death Penalty after Glossip"
I am excited and grateful to have the chance to spend today at Duke Law School for this symposium, "The American Death Penalty After Glossip." Here is the basic description: "The symposium, featuring several of the country's leading experts in the field, will assess the implications of the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, as well geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty and use of statistics in death penalty litigation." And one can, I am told, watch the event live-streaming via links here, here and here.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Might Virginia go back to the electric chair to try to complete an execution scheduled for next month?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Washington Post article headlined "Lacking lethal injection drugs, Va. might turn to the electric chair." Here is how the article begins:
Virginia lawmakers are mulling a bill that would allow state officials to use the electric chair to execute those on death row when lethal-injection drugs are not available — a measure that might be needed to put an inmate to death next month.
The legislation passed the Virginia House of Delegates last week, though it still must clear the Senate, which it has failed to do in the past. But this year might be different because an inmate is scheduled for execution in March, and prison officials say they do not have the sedatives they need to do it. “It’s our job to help carry out what they have decided in a court of law,” said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), who introduced the bill.
The proposal again thrusts Virginia to the center of a national debate on how the justice system should deal with those it has determined deserve to die. Historically, states turned away from the electric chair, believing lethal injection to be quicker, less painful and less likely to be declared cruel and unusual punishment, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Now — with the needed drugs in short supply — they are being forced to look at alternatives, sometimes turning to practices that have fallen out of favor, Dunham said.
“The irony is they’re looking for alternatives to lethal injection because lethal injection may be found to be cruel and unusual, or because lethal injection drugs are becoming harder for states to lay their hands on,” Dunham said. “It’s pretty clear that states that adopt electrocution as the method of execution are going to face very serious constitutional challenges.”
Virginia is one of eight states that already allow electrocution as a method of execution, letting inmates choose between it and lethal injection. The next inmate slated to die, Ricky Gray, has not yet picked a method. What will happen at his March 16 execution — or if it will go on as planned — remains unclear.
Gray, 38, was convicted in 2006 of brutally killing a Richmond musician, his wife, and their 9- and 4-year-old daughters. He picked the family because he spotted their door open and decided to rob them, court documents say. The documents say Gray also confessed to killing his wife, Treva Terrell Gray, and three members of another Richmond family. In urging his colleagues to pass the bill, Miller gave a lengthy and graphic description of Gray’s crimes and asked legislators to help the victims’ families “get the justice that they deserve and that our justice system has determined they deserve.”
“This isn’t expanding the death penalty, but the case I just told you about is exactly why we have this punishment on our books,” he said.
Marna Squires, the mother of Gray’s wife, said she does not care what method is used. “I’d love to be there and lay him down on the gurney and put the needle in him if they’d let me,” Squires said.
Executions by electrocution are far less common than those by lethal injection, though they are not unheard of. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 158 people have been executed by electrocution since 1976, compared with 1,252 by lethal injection. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia permit the practice in theory, according to data from the center, though each state has different rules. The last inmate to pick electrocution in Virginia was Robert Gleason Jr., who was given a life sentence for killing someone to cover up his involvement in a drug gang, then death for killing two fellow inmates behind bars. He was executed in 2013.
Courts in Georgia and Nebraska have ruled that electrocution violates their state constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, according to the center.
Monday, January 04, 2016
Noting Alabama's notable struggles to secure various execution drugs
This lengthy local article, headlined "Court records show pharmacists refused death penalty drugs," reports on the various difficulties experienced by the Cotton State in an effort to get the chemical tools it needs to get its machinery of death running again. Here are some details:
At the height of Alabama’s search for lethal injection drugs, state officials were turned down by every pharmacy they contacted for help, according to court records filed Wednesday. State officials asked every licensed compounding pharmacist in Alabama to make batches of pentobarbital — once the primary drug used to kill inmates — and all refused. Attempts to buy the drug from four other states also failed, court documents state.
Those refusals could point to a rough road ahead for the death penalty, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that cleared another drug, midazolam, for use in executions.... Alabama officials are trying to resume executions by lethal injection after a two-year hiatus caused by legal challenges and shortages of key execution drugs.
Tommy Arthur, condemned to death for the 1980s murder-for-hire of Muscle Shoals resident Troy Wicker, is one of several inmates who have challenged the state’s current approach to execution: injecting an inmate with midazolam to deaden pain, rocuronium to still the muscles and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Midazolam has been used in botched executions in other states, including an Oklahoma execution in 2014 in which it took an inmate more than 30 minutes to die after the drugs were injected. Inmates say the use of midazolam is cruel and unusual, but the U.S. Supreme Court approved its use in an Oklahoma case last summer, seemingly clearing the way for executions in Alabama as well.
Lawyers for the state on Wednesday asked a federal court for a summary judgment that would end Arthur’s appeals and send him to the execution chamber. But Arthur’s lawyers are trying to flip the script in the case. Before the state adopted midazolam as a death penalty drug, Arthur filed a similar challenge against the use of pentobarbital, Alabama’s main execution drug before 2014. Now that he’s faced with execution by a new drug, Arthur wants to switch back to pentobarbital, a drug he claims is less cruel than midazolam.
Lawyers for the Alabama attorney general’s office say they can’t return to pentobarbital, because no one will sell the drug to the Department of Corrections. “These sources have either indicated they cannot obtain the ingredients for compounded pentobarbital, were not capable of compounding pentobarbital, or refused to be a supplier for the ADOC” lawyers for the attorney general’s office wrote in a court document.
The court documents, among hundreds of pages filed in Arthur’s case last week, shed light on Alabama’s often secretive attempts to obtain drugs for use in lethal injection. Several states have struggled to get their hands on drugs because a growing number of drug suppliers refuse to sell them, citing ethical objections or opposition to capital punishment.... [I]n the Arthur case ... new court documents show ... the state simply couldn’t find a supplier, despite contacting “nearly thirty” sources....
Arthur’s lawyers supplied the state with a list of 19 Alabama pharmacies they said were potential sources of pentobarbital. (All 19 names are blacked out in court documents.) But the state’s lawyers argue they’ve contacted all 19, plus others, and been turned down. “While Arthur alleged that as many as 10 states intend to use compounded pentobarbital for executions, the process of obtaining compounded pentobarbital is difficult to impossible for most,” the state’s lawyers wrote.
That might not matter now, given that Alabama has switched to midazolam, a drug that’s more readily available on the market. But pharmacists’ resistance to compounding execution drugs may soon turn out to be important in the search for midazolam as well...
Two major suppliers of midazolam — Illinois-based Akorn and New Jersey-based Becton-Dickinson — have declared in the past year that they’re opposed to selling the drug to Alabama for executions. While the state hasn’t identified its midazolam supplier, the state’s lawyers used “package inserts,” essentially instructions for use of a midazolam, from Akorn and Becton Dickinson in court filings this year. Both companies have denied selling the drug directly to Alabama prisons, and Akorn even asked the state to return any Akorn-made midazolam it had on hand for executions.
Individual pharmacists are also backing out of the lethal injection business. Last year, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists and the American Pharmacists Association both voted to discourage their members from supplying drugs for executions.
Wednesday, December 09, 2015
Georgia struggles a bit while completing final scheduled US execution of 2015
As reported in this local article, headlined "Georgia executes Brian Keith Terrell after struggling to find vein," the Peach State had a not-so-peachy time completing an execution yesterday. Here are the details:
Brian Keith Terrell was put to death at 12:52 a.m. Wednesday for the 1992 murder of 70-year-old John Watson of Covington.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied Terrell’s final appeal shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday, clearing the way for the death to proceed. But it took an hour for the nurse assigned to the execution to get IVs inserted into both of the condemned man’s arms. She eventually had to put one into Terrell’s right hand.
Terrell winced several times, apparently in pain. After all the witnesses were seated and a prayer was offered, Terrell raised his head and mouthed, “Didn’t do it,” to Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, who was sitting at the center of the front row.
Terrell’s execution marks the fifth lethal injection the state has carried out this year, more than any other year since the state first used lethal injection in 2001....
In 1992, Terrell stole John Watson’s checkbook and withdrew a total of $8,700 from the victim’s bank account. Watson, a friend of Terrell’s mother, Barbara, told her he would not press charges against her son if a substantial amount of the stolen money was returned within two days. Instead, Terrell ambushed Watson as he left his Covington house for a dialysis appointment.
Terrell’s lawyers had pleaded for clemency because of their concerns about the pharmacist who made the lethal injection drug. According to court filings, that pharmacist has a 50 percent error rate.
The pharmacist — whose identity is secret under state law — compounded the drugs used in six previous executions, including the pentobarbital that turned cloudy in early March, forcing the state to postpone scheduled executions. The Department of Corrections said it has addressed the problem. Kelly Gissendaner, who was the lone woman on Georgia’s death row, and another man have since been put to death. Terrell’s lawyers argued in court filings that at the very least Georgia should use another pharmacist to make the drug.
Friday, December 04, 2015
Arkansas state judge strikes down portion of state execution law aimed at keep drug suppliers secret
As reported in this AP article, an "Arkansas judge struck down a portion of the state's execution law that keeps secret the source of drugs it uses, saying Thursday that drug suppliers do not have a constitutional right to be free from criticism." Here is more about the ruling and its context:
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen sided with death row inmates who challenged a law passed by lawmakers this year that prevents disclosure about the drugs that are used in executions. The judge also ordered the state to disclose drug details, including the makers and suppliers, by noon Friday. "It is common knowledge that capital punishment is not universally popular," Griffen wrote. "That reality is not a legitimate reason to shield the entities that manufacture, supply, distribute, and sell lethal injection drugs from public knowledge."
Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said late Thursday that the office had filed notice of appeal with the state Supreme Court. Rutledge also asked for an immediate stay of Griffen's order. "Attorney General Rutledge has a duty to defend the State's lethal injection statute and disagrees with Judge Griffen's order," Deere wrote in an emailed statement.
In the filing for an immediate stay, attorneys for the office noted that states with secrecy laws regarding executions have generally won challenges to those laws. They believe Arkansas' law is less stringent than many of those.
In his ruling, Griffen noted that a federal judge in Ohio last month granted a protective order to allow that state to maintain secrecy about the drugs, but he said that court erred because it accepted "what it acknowledged as no proof of 'a single known threat'" as an indicator that disclosing a state's source for drugs would pose an undue burden on that state....
The Arkansas Supreme Court put on hold executions for eight inmates until the inmates' lawsuit challenging the state's execution protocol and secrecy law could be heard.
Under the execution secrecy law, the Department of Correction has withheld the manufacturer and distributor of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride obtained last year, as well as other information. Midazolam, a sedative, gained notoriety after being used during executions that took longer than expected last year in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the drug's use in executions in June. Earlier this year, The Associated Press identified three pharmaceutical companies that likely made Arkansas' execution drugs; each company said it objects to its drugs being used that way.
The inmates argued that the secrecy law is unconstitutional. They want information on the drugs' makers and suppliers to determine whether they could lead to cruel and unusual punishment. They also argued the secrecy law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information. The state has said the agreement is not a binding contract.
Griffen noted in his ruling that an attorney for the state said Arkansas' suppliers "covertly sold" the drugs to the state despite directives from the pharmaceutical companies that they should not be sold for use in executions. He said the admission, "whether inadvertent of not," was important because it shows the state could abide by the contract and still obtain drugs....
Griffen noted that Arkansas has a law outlining humane euthanization practices for animals. "The court rejects the notion that domestic pets and livestock in Arkansas have the right to die free of unjustifiable or prolonged pain, but that the constitutional guarantee against 'cruel or unusual punishment' found in the Arkansas Constitution allows people who commit murders to be put to death as if they have no entitlement to such right," he wrote.
Arkansas last executed an inmate in 2005.
Sunday, November 08, 2015
California (finally!) officially announces switch to one-drug lethal injection protocol
California, the state with the largest death row and the seemingly most-dysfunctional and expensive capital punishment system, late last week announced that it is finally going to try to modernize its long-dormant execution protocol. This extended Los Angeles Times piece provides the details and the back-story:
California unveiled a new method for executing prisoners Friday, proposing a “humane and dignified” single-drug injection protocol that could restart capital punishment after a nearly 10-year hiatus. The regimen would replace a three-chemical method the state used in the past. That mixture was struck down in 2006 by a judge who said it could cause inhumane suffering if one of the drugs failed to work.
The new proposal stems from a lawsuit filed against the state by crime victims' families who favored the death penalty and wished to see it enforced. A settlement of the suit, brought by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, required the state to devise a new lethal injection method by this month.
Executions are not likely to resume immediately, however. Public vetting of the proposal could take a year, and court challenges may follow. In addition, voters may see one or more ballot measures on the death penalty next year....
The new California protocol would allow a choice of four barbiturates for lethal injection: amobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital and thiopental. The selection would be made on a “case-by-case basis, taking into account changing factors such as the availability of a supply of chemical,” according to the proposal, published online Friday by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The single-drug protocol creates “a better flexibility, a better system of options,” said Michael Rushford, who heads the foundation that filed the suit. Rushford expressed chagrin over the state's decision to use the regulatory process, which allows two months for public comment and will delay the resumption of executions.
He said officials had dragged their feet in crafting a new policy. He attributed that to Gov. Jerry Brown and Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, who oppose the death penalty although they have said they would enforce it. “If we had a different governor and a different attorney general, these wouldn't be problems,” Rushford said.
Harris' office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton, speaking for the Brown administration, ascribed the delay to the developing national debate over execution methods, not resolved until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June.
At least 16 death row inmates in California have exhausted their appeals and could be executed if the protocol is adopted. The inmates range in age from 49 to 78. One was condemned for crimes that took place 36 years ago.
Some condemned prisoners were stoic when told about the impending arrival of a new execution protocol. “In the meantime, I have my life,” Clifton Perry, 46, said in a recent interview, noting that legal challenges could drag on for years. He was sentenced to death for the 1995 killing of a convenience store owner during a robbery.
California has 749 inmates on death row, the most in the country. Since 1978, the state has executed 13 prisoners, 68 condemned offenders have died from natural causes and 24 have committed suicide....
California voters narrowly defeated a ballot measure in 2012 that would have abolished the death penalty. Eight states have rescinded capital punishment laws since 2000. Death penalty opponents have proposed an initiative for the November 2016 ballot that would replace capital punishment with life without the possibility of parole. Legislative analysts this week said such a move would save California some $150 million a year, by reducing the costs of capital punishment trials and subsequent penalty appeals.
A competing measure, sponsored by law enforcement and victim groups, also has been submitted for state review. That measure would propose changes to speed up executions.
Saturday, November 07, 2015
A citizen's notable (and radical?) suggestions for improving the Ohio execution process
Yesterday I received an interesting e-mail from an Ohioan styled as a "letter to the editor" and which I received permission to reprint here:
Dear Mr. Berman,
In reference to the PD article "Ohio in quandary over how to resume executions " (Oct 24) about lethal-injection drugs, I would like to comment.
Since I live in Ohio, I would like to address our execution dilemma. Allow me to suggest an alternative to lethal injection.
I am disappointed to see the failure of execution cocktails that have taken an half an hour or more to end a prisoners life. Although the suffering of these dying criminals does not seem unfair.
But I would like to solve -- once and for all -- the problems with inefficient lethal drugs. Let's make execution less painful for us all. As an alternative to drugs, we simply use the Red Cross method of donating a pint of blood, but using a 20 ounce bag to hold all of a person's blood, resulting in a complete draining of all blood for a quick and painless eternal sleep.
I call this the 'Total Blood Withdrawl' execution. I wrote the protocol for this method. Maybe Red Cross can use the blood.
Let's use this transition method to a day when there will be no more executions.
I have no idea if this plan for "Total Blood Withdrawal" would actually produce a "quick and painless eternal sleep." But given that officials in Ohio and elsehwere seem unwilling and/or unable to come up with viable alternatives to problematic lethal injection protocols, I am pleased to highlight here that even average citizens are eager to offer alternative execution methods for consideration.
Tuesday, November 03, 2015
Supreme Court stays Missouri execution to allow consideration of medical claim concerning execution
As reported in this AP article, the "U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday put on hold the execution of a Missouri man convicted beating three people to death with a claw hammer while a lower court considers an appeal." Here is more about the stay:
Ernest Lee Johnson claims the execution drug could cause painful seizures because he still has part of a benign tumor in his brain, and surgery to remove the rest of the tumor in 2008 forced removal of up to 20 percent of his brain tissue.
The Supreme Court granted a stay while the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers whether his complaint was properly dismissed. It wasn't immediately clear how quickly the appeals court might rule....
Johnson was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for killing 46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs and 58-year-old Fred Jones during a closing-time robbery of a Casey's General Store in Columbia on Feb. 12, 1994. Johnson wanted money to buy drugs, authorities said. All three workers were beaten to death with a claw hammer, but Bratcher was also stabbed at least 10 times with a screwdriver and Jones was shot in the face....
Johnson grew up in a troubled home and his attorney, Jeremy Weis, said his IQ was measured at 63 while still in elementary school. Testing after his conviction measured the IQ at 67, still a level considered mentally disabled.
He was already on death row in 2001 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally disabled was unconstitutionally cruel and a new sentencing hearing was ordered. Johnson was again sentenced to death in 2003. The Missouri Supreme Court tossed that sentence, too, forcing another sentencing hearing. In 2006, Johnson was sentenced to death for a third time.
The brain tumor was removed in an operation in 2008. While benign, doctors could not remove the entire tumor. Weis said the combination of the remaining tumor and the fact that Johnson lost about one-fifth of his brain has left him prone to seizures and with difficulty walking.
Missouri's execution drug is a form of pentobarbital believed to be manufactured by a compounding pharmacy — the state won't say where it gets it. Weis cites a medical review by Dr. Joel Zivot, who examined MRI images of Johnson's brain and found "significant brain damage and defects that resulted from the tumor and the surgical procedure," according to court filings. "Mr. Johnson faces a significant medical risk for a serious seizure as the direct result of the combination of the Missouri lethal injection protocol and Mr. Johnson's permanent and disabling neurologic disease," Zivot wrote.
Court filings by the Attorney General's office note that Missouri has carried out 18 "rapid and painless" executions since it went to the one-drug method in November 2013.
Saturday, October 31, 2015
Might California get two completing capital punishment propositions to consider in 2016?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Los Angeles Times article headlined "Voters may weigh competing death penalty measures on 2016 ballot." Here are excerpts:
A pro-death penalty group unveiled a ballot measure Friday that would require death row inmates to work in prison and provide new deadlines intended to expedite appeals. The measure, which would appear on the November 2016 ballot, is aimed at speeding up executions in California. The state has executed 13 inmates since 1978, but nearly 750 remain on death row, the largest in the nation. Most condemned inmates die of suicide or illness.
A proposed anti-death penalty initiative also has been submitted for state review, creating the possibility that voters next year will weigh competing initiatives on capital punishment. Both measures would require current death row inmates to work and pay restitution to victims, but one would keep the death penalty, and the other scrap it for life without parole.
Backers of the death penalty estimate their new measure would reduce the time from conviction to execution from as long as 30 years to 10 to 15 years. San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos, one of several supporters who spoke about the measure at a Los Angeles news conference, said it would honor the more than 1,000 victims — including 229 children and 43 peace officers — who have been murdered by inmates on California’s death row.
Neither side in the death penalty debate has yet raised the commanding sums needed to assure ballot placement. The pro-death penalty group said it has raised $1 million so far. The opposition has raised $350,000. An estimated $2 million is probably needed to gather the required signatures.
Friday's news conference came a few days before the state plans to release a revised method of execution. The new protocol will involve a single drug rather than the three-drug cocktail previously used. Court rulings have prevented the state from executing anyone since 2006. A federal judge ruled that the former method exposed inmates to inhumane suffering if one of the three drugs failed to work....
The measure announced Friday is similar to one that death penalty supporters launched more than a year ago. The earlier proposal did not get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. A key difference is that the former was a proposed constitutional amendment, which requires more signatures than a mere change in state law.
Like the earlier measure, the newest one would allow the revised lethal injection method to take effect without exhaustive public comment. Death row inmates would be housed throughout the prison system.
The state’s voters narrowly defeated a ballot measure in 2012 that would have abolished the death penalty. Eight states have rescinded capital punishment laws since 2000.
Ana Zamora, the criminal justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, which sponsored the 2012 initiative to end the death penalty, said Friday’s proposal would just cause more delays. “The only solution is to keep murderers in prison until they die,” she said.
But Kermit Alexander, whose mother, sister and two young nephews were killed in 1984, said families deserve the execution of those who killed their loved ones. Choking back tears, the former football star said the killer, now on death row, had mistakenly gone to the wrong house when he killed Alexander’s family. “If you prey upon the elderly or massacre our children,” Alexander said, “you should be required to pay the ultimate price. It's the law. … Justice isn't easy. Justice isn't gentle. But justice denied isn't justice.”
As some readers may know, I am a huge fan of direct democracy and thus I am always generally support of any and all efforts to bring important issues directly to voters through the initiative process. In addition, because I generally view the death penalty to be an issue that can be effectively and soundly addressed through the initiative process, I am now rooting for both capital reform proposals to make it to California voters. (Indeed, I have of late been thinking/hoping someone might have the resources and inclination to bring some kind of initiative reform concerning the death penalty to Buckeye voters in my own state of Ohio.)
Friday, October 30, 2015
Florida finally completes execution three decades after triple murderer sentenced to death (nonunanimously)
As reported in this local article, headlined "Orlando man on death row executed for 1985 murders," Florida carried out a notable death sentence last night. Here are the basics, which highlight that the case involved issues that the Supreme Court has taken up in recent years:
Though it took 30 years for Jerry Correll to receive his death sentence, the process to kill him took 10 minutes. Correll, one of Orange County's most notorious killers, was pronounced dead at 7:36 p.m. Thursday at Florida State Prison after receiving a lethal injection that included the controversial sedative midazolam.
About two dozen witnesses watched as the 59-year-old Orlando man lay on a gurney covered with a white sheet from the neck down, his hands covered in bandages, his wrists strapped down and IVs in his arms. When the curtain surrounding him rose, Correll looked to his right and mouthed the words, "Thank you," to a man wearing a cross in the front row. Asked whether he wanted to say any last words, Correll responded to the leader of the execution team, "No, sir."
Correll had been on death row for three decades after stabbing to death his ex-wife, Susan; their 5-year-old daughter, Tuesday; and Susan's mother and sister in 1985. Police and prosecutors described the murders at the Conway-area home as among the most bloody and gory they had ever seen....
The victims' family members released a statement saying they were "at peace in knowing justice had finally been served." "Jerry Correll chose to take the lives of four beautiful, innocent people on June 30, 1985," the statement said. "People who are still loved and missed by their family and friends 30 years later. The consequences of those actions should be no less than death itself."...
The execution was the first in the nation since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that allowed the use of midazolam, a sedative that is part of the three-drug protocol used in Florida executions.... Correll becomes the second inmate executed in Florida this year and the 91st since 1979, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
A U.S. Supreme Court case regarding whether all death-penalty decisions should require a unanimous jury verdict in sentencing death ... is pending.... A jury of 10 women and two men, selected in Sarasota because of the publicity locally, convicted Correll of four counts of first-degree murder after a weeklong trial. Jurors voted 10-2 that he should die.
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Extraordinary tales of extraordinary government dsyfunctionality in execution business
In this recent post I spotlighted the remarkable reporting by BuzzFeed News about the peculiar fellow in India who has become a central figure in some states' efforts to get their machinery of death up and running again. Continuing their great investigavtive journalism in this space, BuzzFeed now has up two additional reports documenting how a trio of states apparently violated federal laws in order to try to import lethal injection drugs from this fellow. Here are links to the two pieces with their extended headlines:
"Arizona, Texas Purchased Execution Drugs Illegally Overseas, But FDA Halts The Import: Both Arizona and Texas attempted to illegally import sodium thiopental in July, but the shipments are still being held at the airports. Nebraska also attempted to import the same drug illegally this summer, as previously reported."
"Three States Bought Illegal Execution Drugs From Supplier In India: Chris Harris, the execution drug salesman who has been the focus of ongoing reporting by BuzzFeed News, sold drugs to Texas, Arizona, and Nebraska."
Here is how the second of these two articles concludes:
The FDA has consistently maintained that importing sodium thiopental would be illegal, but the states proceeded regardless. FDA records first reported on Thursday by BuzzFeed News show that two shipments of sodium thiopental made their way to the Phoenix and Houston airports in late July.
On Friday, TDCJ’s Clark told BuzzFeed News that, after obtaining an import license from the DEA prior to the shipment, TDCJ filed the required notice with the agency of the anticipated shipment.
After the shipments were held upon arrival, Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan wrote to the FDA in August, asking them to release the drugs. “The Department will not use, or attempt to use, the cargo until it is either unconditionally released by FDA or the Department is otherwise permitted to do so by a Court Order, whichever comes first,” Ryan wrote. “I am writing to advise you that we need to take possession of the shipment.”
The FDA was not persuaded. Domenic Veneziano, who heads the FDA division that handles imports, replied, “FDA has determined that this shipment should not be allowed to move to destination at this time and thus will not be requesting that CBP lift its detention.”
For its part, Texas isn’t giving up yet, with TDCJ’s Clark telling BuzzFeed News on Friday that it “is going through internal proceedings set up for addressing the lawful status of imports with the Food and Drug Administration and is awaiting their decision.”
The FDA confirmed to BuzzFeed News on Friday that it was still holding the shipments. “Courts have concluded that sodium thiopental for the injection in humans is an unapproved drug and may not be imported into the country for this purpose. FDA has notified the state correctional facilities of the status of their respective shipments,” spokesperson Jeff Ventura wrote.
Asked whether, given the FDA’s repeated statements that such importation of sodium thiopental would not be allowed, TDCJ is challenging that position, TDCJ’s Clark responded, “We disagree with your characterization of the FDA’s statement as to the legality of importing sodium thiopental, we are appealing the detention of the drugs through the FDA’s internal proceedings.”
As if this story of government dysfunctionality was not ugly enough on its own terms, this post by Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences contends that the federal government is the one really acting outside the rightful reach of the law. His post is titled "FDA Blocks Execution Drug Importation Based on Erroneous Court of Appeals Decision," and it makes the case (as was made in a slightly different way by Ohio officials) that the FDA is off-base and over-reaching in this arena.
In addition to wanting to note that my expertise on the death penalty comes up short when the issues is federal and state squabbles over federal drug and import laws, I am now especially eager to stress that I have been calling for Congress for nearly a decade to conduct hearings and investigate all the difficulties states have been facing with lethal injections protocols and securing executions drugs. But, as one commentors suggested in response to my post on this topic in May 2014, perhaps the only way we woud get hearing on this topic in short order would be if there was some link to Benghazi.
Some prior related posts:
- Investigating the international drug dealer working with some death penalty states
- "FDA warns Ohio not to illegally import execution drugs"
- Ohio tells FDA it can be legal to import sodium thiopental to carry out death sentences
- How could (and should) Congress clean up the lethal injection mess? (from April 2006)
- A lethal hearing (in the wrong place?) (from Sept 2006)
- Shouldn't Congress be holding hearings to explore federal and state execution methods? (from April 2014)
Thursday, October 22, 2015
"Heroin as an execution drug?"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable Columbus Dispatch article discussing the legislative conversation starting to emerge in the wake of the recent decision by Ohio Gov Kasich to extend the state's de facto moratorium on executions due the the continuing difficulty securing lethal injection drugs (noted here). Here are excerpts:
As Ohio continues to struggle to find the drugs needed to carry out executions of death row inmates, the president of the Ohio Senate says it may be time to find other methods. “If we can’t get the drugs that our protocol calls for, either we need to change our protocols, or we need to think about other solutions,” said Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina.
“There are a lot of people out there talking about other solutions. I’ve heard everything from using heroin, to using nitrogen, to going back to the electric chair. That’s a debate we probably need to have.”
The state's has not executed an inmate since Jan. 16, 2014, when Dennis McGuire struggled and gasped for several minutes before succumbing to a combination of drugs being used for the first time anywhere in the U.S. The state last week canceled all executions for 2016 and there are now 24 inmates with executions scheduled into 2018.
A law that Gov. John Kasich signed in December allowing prison officials to secretly buy lethal-injection drugs from compounding pharmacies has not worked in getting Ohio the necessary drug mixture. Pharmacies have generally been unwilling to participate in a process that leads to little in sales but a potential for harsh blowback from the public if they are discovered.
The federal government has thus far blocked Ohio’s efforts to import the drugs from overseas, though the state continues to seek ways to do that. Asked if the state would bring back the electric chair known as “Old Sparky,” Faber said, “there are options out there.”
A few prior related posts:
- "FDA warns Ohio not to illegally import execution drugs"
- Ohio tells FDA it can be legal to import sodium thiopental to carry out death sentences
- In defense of Ohio officials trying to figure out how to get execution drugs legally
- Ohio Gov Kasich extends de facto execution moratorium into 2017
Investigating the international drug dealer working with some death penalty states
BuzzFeed this week published this fascinating report on a curious person who has become a central figure in some states efforts to get their machinery of death up and running again. The article's full headline highlights why the piece merits a full read: "This Is The Man In India Who Is Selling States Illegally Imported Execution Drugs: When states ran out of execution drugs, they started paying tens of thousands of dollars to Chris Harris, a salesman in India with no pharmaceutical background." Here is how the extended article gets started:
Eight thousand miles from the execution chamber at the Nebraska State Penitentiary is Salt Lake City — a planned satellite town in Kolkata, the capital city of India’s West Bengal state. It’s a modern mecca of swanky office complexes, colleges, shopping malls, and restaurants. Here, on the eighth floor of a plush glass building overlooking a lake, is an office where Nebraska’s lethal injection drug supplier says he makes his drugs.
A laminated paper sign stuck on the door of room 818 reads “Harris Pharma - manufacturer and distribution.” The office, with powder-blue walls and a frosted glass facade, is one of 61 spaces on the floor rented out to various companies.
This is the facility in India where a man named Chris Harris, a salesman without a pharmaceutical background, claims his manufacturing and distribution business is based. He has sold thousands of vials of execution drugs for corrections officials in the U.S. who are desperate to find drugs to carry out the death penalty. An employee who works at the facility, however, said the office is not being used to make drugs.
Saurav Bose, a customer relations officer at the office rental company who has met Harris twice since he started working here a few months ago, said Harris did not manufacture drugs in this rented office. Harris’s office, which was shut on a Tuesday morning when a reporter from BuzzFeed News visited, is much like the other ready-to-use, standardized workspaces available to rent by Regus — an international firm operating in 900 cities across the world, including the more well-known Salt Lake City in Utah. It appeared highly unlikely that the rented office would accommodate laboratory equipment required to manufacture pharmaceutical drugs.
“He comes only two to three times in a month,” Bose said, adding that most of his communication with Harris was limited to email. Bose, who described Harris as being “fickle” with his visits to the office, said he rarely had any clients or other people in the office.
BuzzFeed News identified several such inconsistencies after reviewing thousands of pages of court records, emails, and invoices; interviewing his past business partners; and visiting the locations in India from which Harris claims to run his business. BuzzFeed News spent more than four months trying to talk to Harris over emails, via phone calls and during a visit to his office in India. Each time, Harris refused to talk.
“Quote me on this. I don’t speak to reporters as they always say what is not true,” Harris told BuzzFeed News when first contacted for comment in June. After months of reporting on his sale to Nebraska, Harris again declined to talk with BuzzFeed News in September, writing, “Do and say what you want. But I will never give a reporter 2 min of my time. As all print what they want. Not the true story. They need a scandal to get sales and keep they jobs.”
BuzzFeed News has been able to confirm four times that Harris sold execution drugs illegally to four death penalty states, and documents indicate there is likely a fifth. His sales follow a typical script: The legal issues are fixed this time, don’t worry about it. Other states are buying it, too. You aren’t the only one. You just need to make it a “minimum order” to make it worth the while. Payment in advance. The documents show little effort by states to investigate Harris’s qualifications or the legalities of importing drugs.
Harris has gotten states to pay tens of thousands of dollars for his drugs, but each time, after concerns were raised over the legality of the purchase, the drugs have gone unused. Somehow, states are still falling for it.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Arkansas Supreme Court stays execution to allow lethal injection litigation
As reported in this AP article, a partial ruling in favor of the state today by the top court in Arkansas was insufficient to allow the state to move forward with a number of scheduled executions. Here are the details:
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a lower-court judge overstepped his jurisdiction by halting the executions of eight death row inmates. But the high court immediately granted its own stay to give the inmates time to challenge a new state law that bars Arkansas from disclosing its execution-drug supplier.
The justices sided with the state in agreeing to toss this month's order by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. Still, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she was disappointed that the executions, the first of which was scheduled for this week, remained on hold. "While the Supreme Court's decision is not about the merits of the case, it is unfortunate that this further delays justice for the victims. I will continue to defend Arkansas's lethal injection statute and fight for the victims and their grieving families," Rutledge wrote in a statement Tuesday.
The high court also refused to order Griffen to schedule an earlier hearing in the case. He set the next hearing for March, just months before one of the state's execution drugs is set to expire. The attorney general's office had asked for a faster timetable, arguing that defense attorneys were trying to delay the case until the drug was no longer usable.
The prisoners are challenging the constitutionality of the state's new secrecy law, saying they need information about where and how the state's execution drugs were made to determine whether they will lead to cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that the law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information, but the state has said the agreement was not a binding contract.
The inmates also are challenging Arkansas' three-drug execution protocol, focusing on the use of the drug midazolam. The sedative was implicated after inmates gasped and groaned during longer-than-expected executions in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona. "We realize there is a lot of litigation yet lying in front of us. But we feel the decision of the Supreme Court was the appropriate decision in this case," said Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the inmates. "The state made a binding commitment to provide us with this information and we are entitled to this information."
Ohio Gov Kasich extends de facto execution moratorium into 2017
Earlier this year during SCOTUS oral argument in the Glossip lethal injection case, Justice Alito complained about what he saw as a "guerrilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment." For anyone inclined to accept that characterization, today brings news that the warriors have scored another significant victory. This new AP piece, headlined "Ohio delays executions until 2017 over lack of lethal drugs," provides the basic details:
Ohio is putting off executions until at least 2017 as the state struggles to obtain supplies of lethal injection drugs, delaying capital punishment for a full two years, the prisons department announced Monday. Execution dates for 11 inmates scheduled to die next year and one scheduled for early 2017 were all pushed into ensuing years through warrants of reprieve issued by Gov. John Kasich.
The result is 25 inmates with execution dates beginning in January 2017 that are now scheduled through August 2019. Ohio last put someone to death in January 2014.
Ohio has run out of supplies of its previous drugs and has unsuccessfully sought new amounts, including so-far failed attempts to import chemicals from overseas. The new dates are needed to give the prisons agency extra time, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in a statement.
The agency “continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court ordered executions, but over the past few years it has become exceedingly difficult to secure those drugs because of severe supply and distribution restrictions,” the statement said....
The next execution was scheduled for Jan. 21 when Ronald Phillips was to die for raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. Phillips’ execution was rescheduled for Jan. 12, 2017.
The handwriting has been on the wall for months that Ohio would have to make such a move, said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, expressing his frustration at a new set of delays. These delays come in cases where inmates have long exhausted their appeals and there’s no question of their guilt, he said. “It seems that in those states that authorize assisted suicide, there has been no impediment to securing drugs, and as time marches onward, victims wonder why they must continue to wait for justice,” O’Brien said in an email.
Ohio abandoned the two-drug method after McGuire’s execution and announced it would use either of two older drugs that it had previously obtained for capital punishment, but did not currently have supplies of. One of those drugs, sodium thiopental, is no longer manufactured by FDA-approved companies and the other, pentobarbital, has been put off limits for executions by drug makers.
Ohio obtained a federal import license to seek supplies overseas, but has been told by the FDA that such a move is illegal. Ohio raised the issue again with the FDA earlier this month, asserting the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug from overseas without violating any laws. The FDA has yet to respond.
A few prior related posts:
- "FDA warns Ohio not to illegally import execution drugs"
- Ohio tells FDA it can be legal to import sodium thiopental to carry out death sentences
- In defense of Ohio officials trying to figure out how to get execution drugs legally
Friday, October 16, 2015
Oklahoma AG officially agrees not to seek state executions anytime soon
As reported in this new local piece, headlined "All executions may be put on hold until 2016, court documents show," a new court filing suggests Oklahoma now has another de facto temporary moratorium on executions in place. Here is why:
Attorneys for death row inmates and the Oklahoma attorney general's office jointly filed a motion in federal court early Friday morning requesting that executions and a legal challenge to the state's death penalty be put on hold. If granted, the request would mean no executions would take place in Oklahoma until 2016, at the earliest.
All of Oklahoma's scheduled executions were put on hold last month after the execution of inmate Richard Glossip was halted when corrections officials noticed they'd received the wrong drug for the procedure. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the indefinite stay made it unnecessary to litigate challenges to the state's execution protocol brought by Glossip's attorneys.
“As I have previously stated, my office is conducting a full and thorough investigation into all aspects of the Department of Corrections' handling of executions," Pruitt said. "The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted the state's request for an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions. My office does not plan to ask the court to set an execution date until the conclusion of its investigation."
In the filing, both parties agree the state should not seek any new execution dates until all on-going federal and state investigations into Oklahoma's death penalty have been completed, any investigations and changes to protocol are made available to the extent they are public, and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is able to comply with its execution protocol.
A multicounty grand jury will hear testimony on Tuesday from Corrections Department Director Robert Patton and other officials as part of a state investigation, and the attorney general's office is conducting an internal inquiry into recent lethal drug mix-ups.
Some recent prior posts:
- Oops: "Oklahoma used wrong drug in January execution, autopsy report shows"
- Is anyone surprised to learn of government dysfunction as Oklahoma operates machinery of death?
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Texas completes its 12th execution of 2015
While many other states continue to struggle to acquire execution drugs (as highlighted here) or to properly administer the drugs they have (as highlighted here), Texas continues to have its machinery of death humming. This AP article, headlined "Texas Executes Inmate for Killing Dallas Police Officer," reports on the state's latest execution:
A Texas man already being sought for a neighbor's slaying when he killed a Dallas police officer outside a club was executed Wednesday. Licho Escamilla was put to death for the November 2001 death of Christopher Kevin James who was trying to break up a brawl involving Escamilla. The 33-year-old prisoner was pronounced dead at 6:31 p.m. CDT — 18 minutes after the lethal injection began.
Escamilla became the 24th convicted killer executed this year in the United States. Texas has accounted for 12 of the executions. Before dying, Escamilla looked at the slain officer's daughter, who was seated a few feet away watching through a window, and told her: "God bless your heart."
He turned to his relatives watching through another window and said he loved them and everyone who supported him. "Pope Francis, God's children has asked the state of Texas to switch my death sentence to life in prison," he said. "But the state of Texas has refused to listen to God's children. They will have to take that up with God," he added.
He took two breaths as the sedative pentobarbital took effect, then became still. His sister cried and screamed for God not to take him. The rumbling of motorcycles could be heard outside the prison where bikers supporting the punishment had gathered....
James and three other uniformed officers were working off-duty when the brawl started. Escamilla pulled out a gun and opened fire on the officers as they tried to end the fight. The bullets from his 9 mm semi-automatic handgun struck James twice, knocking him to the ground. Escamilla then calmly walked up to the officer and fired three more shots into the back of his head before running and exchanging shots with other officers, witnesses said. A second officer wounded in the shootout survived. A wounded Escamilla was arrested as he tried to carjack a truck.
About a half-dozen Dallas police officers stood at attention and saluted as relatives of the slain officer entered the prison in Huntsville ahead of the execution. "It's taken longer than we would have liked," Frederick Frazier, first vice president of the Dallas Police Association, said. He said he and others showed up to support James and make sure he's remembered for the work he did. While officers know they're risking their lives every day, James' death has been difficult for them because of how it happened, Frazier added.
Monday, October 12, 2015
Is anyone surprised to learn of government dysfunction as Oklahoma operates machinery of death?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this latest local story from a state that has spotlighted how jurisdictions are continue to struggle with lethal injection protocols. The piece is headlined "Emails from Gov. Fallin's office show state agencies' struggle to respond to scrutiny over execution," and it begins this way:
An examination of more than 40,000 pages of records released Thursday by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s office in response to an open-records request provides a picture of multiple state agencies scrambling under pressure to send coordinated, consistent responses to reporters and each other after an April 2014 execution went awry.
The Tulsa World requested the documents 17 months ago after Clayton Lockett’s April 29, 2014, execution — the first in Oklahoma to be carried out using the sedative midazolam — ended 43 minutes after it began in what records later called a “bloody mess” carried out by inexperienced medical staff who were using the wrong size needles to start IVs in Lockett’s veins.
Lockett was set to die for the murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman of Perry ahead of Charles Warner, who received a death sentence for the rape and murder of 11-month-old Adrianna Waller. The state issued a temporary stay for Warner after realizing Lockett’s lethal injection had gone wrong.
An autopsy report released to the World on Thursday, the contents of which were first reported by The Oklahoman, shows that Warner was executed Jan. 15 using potassium acetate rather than potassium chloride, the latter of which is required according to Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol. In correspondence to attorneys representing Lockett and Warner, John Hadden, an assistant attorney general, told them potassium chloride would be used as part of a three-drug cocktail in the lethal injection.
Many of the records provided Thursday had little to do with the World’s or other media outlets’ requests, but the emails exchanged between Fallin’s office, Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s staff and Department of Corrections personnel show numerous people were involved in drafting replies to media inquiries. Officials from each agency appeared not to know on multiple occasions whether they, or a spokesperson from the Department of Public Safety, should comment publicly on questions about the fallout from Lockett’s execution and subsequent DPS investigation.
Friday, October 09, 2015
In defense of Ohio officials trying to figure out how to get execution drugs legally
This new AP story, headlined "Ohio Challenges FDA's Stand on Execution Drug," provides more details and context for the notable letter sent today by Ohio officials to the FDA (first reported here). Here are excerpts (with my bold emphasis):
With two dozen scheduled executions in limbo, Ohio sent a forceful letter to Washington on Friday asserting that the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug from overseas without violating any laws.
The letter to the Food and Drug Administration stopped short of suggesting Ohio is moving forward to obtain the powerful anesthetic sodium thiopental. However, the state asked to begin discussing with federal officials about acquiring the substance legally.
The FDA had warned Ohio in June that importing the restricted drug could be illegal as a result of recent federal court decisions, setting up the latest roadblock to carrying out the death penalty.
Ohio hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when condemned killer Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted repeatedly during a 26-minute procedure with a two-drug method that had yet to be tried. Ohio abandoned that method in favor of other drugs it now can't find.
Pharmaceutical companies have discontinued the medications traditionally used by states in executions or put them off limits for use in lethal injections. Stephen Gray, chief counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, said the state has no intention of violating the law to obtain such drugs — but "the responsibility to carry out lawful and humane executions when called upon by the courts to do so is enormous, and it is a responsibility that ODRC does not take lightly."
Death penalty opponents have seized on trouble with lethal injections, as in McGuire's case, and difficulty in obtaining drugs as further justification for ending it. Supporters of capital punishment encourage states to continue to pursue legal avenues for getting the drugs — or find alternatives — so that condemned killers can be brought to justice.
Ohio's latest correspondence comes as the state is set to resume executions in a little over three months. The state is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips on Jan. 21 for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in 1993. Another 23 executions have been scheduled into 2019.
In part because I know and respect, both professional and personally, a number of Ohio executive officials, I have highlighted parts of the story above that I suspect may have led many of them to feel duty-bound to explain to FDA why Ohio thinks it legally could (and perhaps sensibly should) seek to import lethal injection drugs. Ohio has a long (and sometimes ugly) history with its lethal injection protocols, but Ohio officials have always seemed (at least to me) to be willing and eager to make reasonable efforts to adjust its execution protocols in order to try to carry out lawful death sentences in the most humane way possible. I perceive that an effort to find a legal way to import sodium thiopental is another example of Ohio officials making this effort.
Of course, opponents of the death penalty are often quick to say that no execution is humane and that Ohio's troubles with executions protocols and drug acquisition provide further reasons for the state to get entirely out of the capital business. Ironically, I suspect many Ohio executive officials personally share this perspective, especially because their jobs would surely get easier if they did not have to worry about the next scheduled execution (or the 23 others right behind it). But all executive officials, short of perhaps Ohio Gov John Kasich, are duty-bound to apply the existing law enacted by Ohio's elected representatives, not the law as would serve their own personal interests. (Indeed, in neighboring Kentucky, Kim Davis recently highlighted the ugliness that can ensure when executive officials seek to elevate personal law over the actual law.)
Consequently, unless and until the Ohio General Assembly repeals the death penalty or Gov Kasch uses his clemency authority to create an execution moratorium, it strikes me as defensible (and arguably obligatory) for Ohio executive officials to look to secure drugs needed for execution by any and all lawful means. And it will now be especially interesting to see if FDA official will be willing and able to work with Ohio officials to help the state lawfully secure execution drugs (assuming, as I think all should, that this is what Ohio would like to be able to do).
Prior related post:
- "FDA warns Ohio not to illegally import execution drugs"
- Ohio tells FDA it can be legal to import sodium thiopental to carry out death sentences
Ohio tells FDA it can be legal to import sodium thiopental to carry out death sentences
In this post a few months ago, I reported on a letter sent by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation Correction (ODRC) expressing concern that Ohio might be trying to import illegally the drug it needed to carry out scheduled executions. Now I can report on an interesting official response sent today from ODRC back to FDA. In a four-page letter, ODRC provides an extended explanation for how, in Ohio's view, it could be legal for it to import certain drugs needed to carry out executions.
The full letter from ODRC to FDA, which is available for downloading below, merits a careful read by anyone closely following the challenges many states are having securing needed drugs for executions. As a kind of summary, here is how the ODRC letter starts and concludes:
Your June 26, 2015 letter to Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), Gary Mohr, referenced some unspecified information you had received about Ohio's "inten[t] to obtain bulk and finished dosage forms of sodium thiopental." Based on this information, you referenced two federal court decisions, Beaty v. FDA, 853 F. Supp. 2d 30 (D.D.C. 2012) and Cook v. FDA, 733 F.3d 1(D.C. Cir. 2013), and sought to "remind [Ohio] of the applicable legal framework" for importation of sodium thiopental. Contrary to the implication in your letter that the importation of sodium thiopental is currently prohibited, there is a legal framework for a state, if it so chooses, to import sodium thiopental in accordance with both the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the June 2012 Court Order issued by Judge Leon in Beaty. Further, please be advised that if at some point in the future the State of Ohio should choose to pursue the importation of sodium thiopental or any other drug that may be used to carry out a sentence of lethal injection, Ohio has no intention of breaking any federal laws or violating any court orders in an attempt to procure the legal drugs necessary to carry out constitutionally approved and court-ordered death sentences....
Given the specific facts and parameters of those [above-referenced] decisions, it is clear that importation of sodium thiopental is not completely prohibited by Judge Leon's 2012 Orders. That is, importation of sodium thiopental is not prohibited provided that [five key conditions are met]....
Thus, we believe that if a state were to attempt to import sodium thiopental under these five conditions, then the specific terms of the Beaty injunction would not apply. In other words, the FDA would not be permanently enjoined from permitting that shipment into the United States, and that it would be lawful and permissible for a state to proceed with such lawful importation.
The responsibility to carry out lawful and humane executions when called upon by the courts to do so is enormous, and it is a responsibility that ODRC does not take lightly. To that end, ODRC has no intention of attempting to procure drugs for lethal injection in a manner that would violate a proper interpretation of the FDCA. And, as the federal agency tasked with enforcing the FDCA and subject to the Court Order in Beaty, we would be happy to begin a dialog with the FDA as to how best achieve this goal.
Prior related post:
Thursday, October 08, 2015
Oops: "Oklahoma used wrong drug in January execution, autopsy report shows"
The title of this post is the headline of this article (with a little extra commentary) from The Christian Science Monitor. Here are the details:
The wrong lethal injection drug was used in an Oklahoma execution in January, an autopsy report obtained by an Oklahoma newspaper shows. The Oklahoman reported Thursday that potassium acetate, instead of potassium chloride as required under the state's protocol, was the final drug administered to stop Charles Frederick Warner's heart during his Jan. 15 execution.
Mr. Warner, convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-month-old in 1997, is the last murderer to be executed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. His punishment was carried out almost nine months after the execution of murderer Clayton Lockett, whose botched execution triggered an investigation into the combination of drugs used that went all the way up to the Supreme Court on the grounds of Eighth Amendment rights infringement -- that is, whether or not Oklahoma failed to protect Mr. Lockett from “cruel and unusual” punishment....
The same incorrect drug found in Warner’s autopsy report were delivered to corrections officials Sept. 30 for the scheduled execution of another convicted murderer, Richard Glossip. After learning of the mistake, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin granted a last-minute stay and postponed off the executions of two additional death row inmates.
An investigation into the circumstances surrounding Warner's execution was announced by Attorney General Scott Pruitt shortly after. On Wednesday, Mr. Pruitt said the investigation will cover any previous drug mistake, The Oklahoman reports.
“I want to assure the public that our investigation will be full, fair, and complete and includes not only actions on Sept. 30, but any and all actions prior, relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride,” Pruitt said.
Governor Fallin said Wednesday night she supports further inquiry into Warner's execution, and told the newspaper it “became apparent” on Sept. 30 when Glossip’s execution was delayed that a similar mix-up may have occurred in Warner’s case....
“It is imperative that the attorney general obtain the information he needs to make sure justice is served competently and fairly,” Fallin said in an email to The Oklahoman. “Until we have complete confidence in the system, we will delay any further executions.”
She said she and the attorney general delayed Glossip's execution as a precaution, despite the doctor and the pharmacist working with corrections officials agreeing that potassium chloride and potassium acetate are medically interchangeable. “The active ingredient is potassium, which, when injected in large quantities, stops the heart,” the governor said.
She said “it became apparent” during the discussions Sept. 30 about a delay that the Corrections Department may have used potassium acetate in Warner's execution. “I was not aware nor was anyone in my office aware of that possibility until the day of Richard Glossip's scheduled execution,” she said. On Tuesday, Fallin said she has hired an outside attorney “to look at the whole process” and provide oversight.
Highligthing that states, despite Glossip ruling, continue to struggle with lethal injections
This lengthy new New York Times article, headlined "Death Penalty States Face Hurdles in Carrying Out Executions," reports on the (surprising?) reality that the Supreme Court's recent Glossip ruling has not made it significantly easier for states to complete scheduled lethal injections. Here are excerpts:
Despite a Supreme Court ruling allowing a controversial drug to be used for lethal injections in Oklahoma, deathpenalty states are finding it harder to carry out executions as they struggle to obtain and properly use limited supplies of everchanging combinations of lethal injection drugs.
Prison officials in Texas and Virginia have improvised a short-term solution by trading drugs for lethal injections. Both Ohio and Nebraska have sought to buy a drug no longer available in the United States from overseas only to be told by the federal Food and Drug Administration that importing the drug is illegal.
Executions in Mississippi have been postponed for months over a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s three-drug protocol. The delay will stretch into next year, with a trial scheduled in July 2016. And in Montana on Tuesday, a judge blocked the state from carrying out executions, ruling that one of the two drugs it planned to use did not comply with the state law governing lethal injections. The only way Montana can resume executions with that drug, the judge said, is by having the State Legislature modify the law.
“Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” said Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School and an expert on lethal injections.
Oklahoma last week halted the execution of Richard E. Glossip, who was part of the challenge the Supreme Court had turned down, after officials realized two hours before it was to take place that the state’s supplier had sent prison officials the wrong drug. The error led to a court-ordered stay of the three executions scheduled in October and November while officials conduct an investigation....
The scramble for drugs has caused some states to embrace or consider more unusual or more antiquated ways of putting inmates to death. In 2014, Tennessee authorized prison officials to use the electric chair if lethal-injection drugs were unavailable. Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah signed a bill into law in March approving firing squads when drugs cannot be obtained.
In April, Oklahoma made nitrogen gas its new backup method. In Louisiana, where executions have been postponed following a federal lawsuit over its lethal-injection system, prison officials recommended in a report in February that nitrogen gas be adopted as an alternative method, through the use of a mask or other device but not a gas chamber.
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Texas completes lethal injection not long after Montana judge finds state's lethal drugs problematic
Two notable lethal injection developments in two states on late Tuesday. Here are the headlines and parts of the stories:
Texas on Tuesday executed its 11th inmate of this year — a man who killed a former missionary during an $8 robbery when he was a teenager. Juan Garcia, 35, received a lethal injection and was was pronounced dead at 6:26 p.m. (7:26 p.m. ET). He was executed for the 1998 murder of Hugh Solano, who had just moved to Houston from Mexico to give his children a better education.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Garcia's clemency bid in a 5-2 vote last week. Garcia in the past fought execution with claims of mental impairment, but had no appeals pending Tuesday morning.
Garcia apologized to Solano's relatives in Spanish ahead of the execution, and Solano's wife and daughter sobbed and told the inmate they loved him. "The harm that I did to your dad and husband — I hope this brings you closure," Garcia said. "I never wanted to hurt any of you all."
As the dose of pentobarbital began, he winced, raised his head and then shook it. He gurgled once and snored once before his movement stopped. He was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.
A Helena district judge on Tuesday ruled that Montana’s method of lethal injection does not comply with state law, effectively staying all executions in the state indefinitely. District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock wrote that the state’s current protocol for executing inmates by lethal injection relies on a drug that is not an “ultra-fast-acting barbiturate,” as required by state law.
The challenge to Montana’s execution methods went to trial last month, when attorneys for prisoners Ronald Allen Smith and William Gollehon — Montana’s only two death row inmates — argued that the drug, pentobarbital, does not adhere to a state law requiring that an “ultra-fast acting” barbiturate must be used during execution.
Montana’s lethal injection law calls for use of an ultra-fast acting barbiturate as well as a paralytic agent. The state’s execution protocol lists sodium pentothal as the barbiturate, with pentobarbital as a substitute; however, sodium pentothal is no longer available for use in executions in the United States, and its importation is illegal because it is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The state’s revised protocol indicates it will use pentobarbital as a substitute barbiturate, despite the fact that pentobarbital is an intermediate-acting barbiturate, which isn’t allowed under the state’s lethal injection protocol. In his order, Sherlock wrote that by using the term “ultra” in its statute, the Legislature limited the state to using only drugs in the fastest category of barbiturates. Sherlock ruled that “while pentobarbital may operate in a fast nature, it is not ultra-fast as is required to comply with Montana’s execution protocol.”
Friday, October 02, 2015
Top Oklahoma court puts all executions on hold upon state request after drug snafu
As reported in this AP piece, "Oklahoma's highest criminal court unanimously agreed Friday to halt all of the state's scheduled executions after the state's prison system received the wrong drug for a lethal injection this week." Here is more:
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted the state's request and issued indefinite stays of execution for Richard Glossip, Benjamin Cole and John Grant. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested the stays to give his office time to investigate why the Oklahoma Department of Corrections received the wrong drug just hours before Glossip was scheduled to be executed Wednesday.
Just hours before Glossip was set to die, prison officials opened a box of lethal drugs and realized they received potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride, the third drug utilized in Oklahoma's lethal injection formula. The court ordered the state for status reports every 30 days, "including any proposed adjustments to the execution protocol."
Oklahoma's execution protocols were overhauled after last year's botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on a gurney and struggled against his restraints before being declared dead more than 40 minutes after the procedure began.
On Thursday, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton insisted that those new protocols were properly followed. But the attorney general expressed concerns about the department's ability to properly carry out an execution. "Until my office knows more about these circumstances and gains confidence that DOC can carry out executions in accordance with the execution protocol, I am asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to issue an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions," Pruitt said in a statement after requesting the stays.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Oklahoma Gov grants 37-day "stay" of Richard Glossip's scheduled execution
As detailed in this official press release, "Governor Mary Fallin has issued a 37 day stay of Richard Glossip’s execution to address legal questions raised today about Oklahoma’s execution protocols." here is the rest of the text of the press release:
The stay will give the Department of Corrections and its attorneys the opportunity to determine whether potassium acetate is compliant with the state’s court-approved execution procedures.“Last minute questions were raised today about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection,” said Fallin. “After consulting with the attorney general and the Department of Corrections, I have issued a 37 day stay of execution while the state addresses those questions and ensures it is complying fully with the protocols approved by federal courts.”The new execution date will be Friday, November 6.“My sincerest sympathies go out to the Van Treese family, who has waited so long to see justice done,” said Fallin.
Amusingly, as noted here by Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences, Gov Fallin technically granted Glossip a reprieve, not a stay, according to the terms of the Oklahoma Constitution. But I suppose we should not expect a Gov or her legal staff to be concerns about such semantics. Intriguingly, as reported here by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, this order came after the Supreme Court had formally rejected Glossip's various last-minute appeals and stay requests and only Justice Breyer dissented from that decision.
Saturday, September 26, 2015
Latest Glossip kerfuffle concerns whether Texas could make and export "better" execution drugs
The latest intriguing issue to arise in the ugly world of execution administration concerns whether Texas could supply "better" lethal injection drugs to other states. This BuzzFeed article about the latest filing in the (never ending?) Glossip case explains:
The state of Texas is making its own execution drugs and has sold them to at least one other death penalty state, an inmate facing execution in Oklahoma alleges in a court filing Thursday. His attorneys point to documents that show the Texas Department of Criminal Justice sold pentobarbital to Virginia in late August.
Pentobarbital is a sedative that many death penalty states, including Oklahoma, have claimed is impossible for them to get their hands on. As a result, some states have turned to midazolam, a drug that critics argue is significantly less effective. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam in executions this June.
The records submitted as part of the new filing show that Virginia received 150 milligrams of the drug. Under the heading “Name of Supplier,” the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is listed. The labels do not identify the pharmacy that prepared the drug. However, the lawyers for the Oklahoma inmate state that the labels were created by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which they also allege “is compounding or producing pentobarbital within its department for use in executions.”
On Friday, Texas confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it sent the execution drugs to Virginia. A spokesman said it was to repay Virginia for having given Texas drugs in the past. “In 2013, the Virginia Department of Corrections gave the Texas Department of Criminal Justice pentobarbital to use as a back up drug in an execution,” spokesman Jason Clark said. “Virginia’s drugs were not used.”
“The agency earlier this year was approached by officials in Virginia and we gave them 3 vials of pentobarbital that [were] legally purchased from a pharmacy. The agency has not provided compounded drugs to any other state. Texas law prohibits the TDCJ from disclosing the identity of the supplier of lethal injection drugs.”...
The lawyers raise these issues to make the argument that Oklahoma could avoid the use of the controversial midazolam drug in its executions. It could do so, they argue, by purchasing pentobarbital from Texas, like Virginia, or by “compounding or producing pentobarbital in the same manner as does TDCJ.”
States have struggled to obtain execution drugs for years after makers enacted more stringent guidelines to keep them away from states that would use them for executions. The idea of a state-run lab making its own death penalty drugs is something Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster raised last year, although many wondered how it could be done. Missouri, like Texas, has had no trouble obtaining pentobarbital.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Is Arkansas about to jump back seriously into execution business?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent local article from the Natural State, headlined "Dates to die set for 8 inmates: State resuming executions; first two scheduled for Oct. 21." Here are the details:
After nearly a decade since an Arkansas inmate was put to death, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday announced the execution dates for eight. Barring intervention from a court, the state will first mete out capital punishment, by lethal injection, to convicted murderers Bruce Ward and Don Davis. They have the earliest of the execution dates, Oct. 21.
Hutchinson said he expects the execution dates to be challenged in court, but he thinks the eight offenders have gotten "finality" in their cases and have exhausted all of their standard appeals.
Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the governor is "fulfilling" a duty of his office by setting the dates. "It's not something he takes lightly at all," J.R. Davis said. "But these crimes were heinous, and they were sentenced to death because of these crimes. He will carry those out."
Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the eight men, said he will seek a court injunction to delay the executions. He noted that a lawsuit filed in June seeking disclosure of the source of the drugs used in executions is still pending. Act 1096, which was passed during this year's legislative session, prohibits the Arkansas Department of Correction from disclosing the source of the execution drugs, but Rosenzweig said his clients have a right to know who made the drugs. "There are some very serious issues, starting with the fact that the state wants to hide what drugs they're using or where they got them from. They want to hide that," Rosenzweig said. Divulging that information "tells us if it's a legitimate supplier or some fly-by-night operation. If it's a fly-by-night operation, it's torture."...
A combination of legal challenges and a lack of availability of lethal-injection drugs has halted executions in Arkansas for nearly a decade. The state's last execution was that of Eric Nance in November 2005. Nance was convicted of the 1993 murder of 18-year-old Julie Heath of Malvern. He was put to death using a three-drug cocktail of phenobarbital, potassium chloride and a paralytic agent.
As of Wednesday, a Department of Correction spokesman said, there were 26 other inmates on death row.
The eight executions will occur in pairs, J.R. Davis said, because "it's more efficient to do two on one date." He and Judd Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said all eight have exhausted their appeals....
The eight men whose execution dates are now set are challenging in Pulaski County Circuit Court the legitimacy of the state's death-penalty laws.
In 2013, then-Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's office reached a settlement with the men, promising to disclose the source of the drugs that would be used in their executions. Act 1096 barred the release of that information, so Rosenzweig and other attorneys sued.
Rosenzweig conceded that several similar challenges have failed in federal courts across the country but said none of those challenges involved a pre-existing agreement between the prisoners and the state to share that information. Rosenzweig argues that his clients have a right to make sure the execution drugs come from a reputable source so that the risk of pain during the executions can be minimized. "We have a situation that the other states didn't have ... it's very different from us wandering into the court and saying 'Tell me this!' We're dealing with a commitment, a contract, an agreement made by the state," Rosenzweig said. "This has ramifications far beyond executions."
Until recently, state officials had difficulties obtaining lethal-injection drugs. In 2011, the state handed over its supply of the execution drug sodium thiopental to federal drug agents after the state's prison department got the drug from a wholesaler operating out of a driving school in London. In June, the state obtained potassium chloride, vecuronium bromide and midazolam at a cost of $24,226.40.
Midazolam's effectiveness as a sedative in executions has been questioned after some botched executions, including that of Clayton Lockett, who struggled and convulsed for 43 minutes during his April 2014 execution in Oklahoma. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected claims that Oklahoma's use of midazolam violated death-row inmates' Eighth Amendment rights, and ruled that midazolam could continue to be used in executions.
On Aug. 6, the Arkansas Department of Correction formalized its policies and procedures for carrying out executions. On Sept. 1, Rutledge asked that the governor schedule the executions.
Sunday, September 06, 2015
Ohio queue of condemned keeps growing as state struggles with its death machinery
This new AP article, headlined "Ohio Death Row Quandary: 2 Dozen Executions, No Lethal Drugs," highlights the distinctive problem Ohio now has with the administration of capital punishment. Here are the details:
The state now has two dozen condemned killers with firm execution dates, but with four months before the first one, it still doesn't have the lethal drugs it needs to carry them out. The state's inability to find drugs has death penalty opponents calling for the end of capital punishment in Ohio. Supporters say the state needs to keep looking or find alternatives to provide justice for killings that are in some cases decades old.
"Rather than frustrate that process it would seem to me their goal ought to be to carry out that process," said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who's contacted the prisons department, the attorney general and the governor's office for updates on their progress finding drugs. One option he'd like Ohio to consider: nitrogen gas, approved by Oklahoma in April as an execution alternative.
On Jan. 21, the state is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction "continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court-ordered executions," said spokeswoman JoEllen Smith, using the same statement the agency has offered for months. "This process has included multiple options."
On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court set a March 2017 date for Gary Otte of Cleveland for the shooting deaths of two people in a 1992 robbery spree. The remaining executions are scheduled clear into 2019.
The state hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when condemned killer Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted repeatedly during a 26-minute procedure with a then untried two-drug method. Ohio abandoned that method in favor of other drugs it now can't find. Like other states, Ohio has struggled to obtain drugs as pharmaceutical companies discontinued the medications traditionally used by states or put them off limits for executions.
The state's latest attempt, to obtain a federal import license to buy drugs from overseas, ran into a roadblock when the FDA informed Ohio such actions are illegal because the drugs in question aren't FDA-approved.
That's the kind of thing that happens when dates are set without drugs on hand, said Tim Young, the state public defender. "That continual setting of dates seems to bring to bear unfortunate pressure to drive the choices with untested drugs, untested processes," he said.
Gov. John Kasich said other states won't give Ohio their drugs and lawsuits may tie up attempts to import approved drugs. But he said there's still time before the January execution. "I want to continue forward with the death penalty, but if I don't have the drugs it becomes very difficult," Kasich said.
Ohio appears to have the most killers with execution dates because of the state's system for scheduling them. Texas, which still leads the nation in the number of executions annually, sets dates a maximum of 90 days out. Missouri, which has a similar system, has a maximum 60-day window which extends up to 120 days next year.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Might Tennessee soon have its machinery of death up and running?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP story headlined "Judge upholds Tennessee lethal injection method." Here are the basics:
A Tennessee judge on Wednesday upheld the state's lethal injection process for executing inmates.
Davidson County Chancery Judge Claudia Bonnyman said from the bench that the plaintiffs, 33 death row inmates, didn't prove that the one-drug method led to a painful and lingering death. She also said the plaintiffs didn't show during a lengthy trial that there have been problems in states where the method has been used. "Plaintiffs were not able to carry their burdens ... on any of their claims," Bonnyman said.
Plaintiffs' attorney Kelley Henry said they plan to appeal.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery said in a statement he hoped the families of victims would be comforted by the ruling. "The State of Tennessee has worked very hard to make sure the protocol used is reliable and humane, today the Court recognized that," the statement said. While much of the focus of this case has been on the inmates, we should not forget the victims and the heartache suffered by their families."
Tennessee's protocol calls for the use of pentobarbital mixed to order by a pharmacist, because the only commercial producer of the drug has placed restrictions on its distribution to prevent it from being used in executions. Tennessee has not executed an inmate for more than five years because of legal challenges and problems in obtaining lethal injection drugs.
Lawmakers moved from a three-drug lethal injection method to a one-drug method and to reinstate the electric chair as a backup. Both changes brought challenges, and all previously scheduled executions have been put on hold.
This ruling and the planned appeals by the death row defendants suggests that Tennessee might be a good state to watch to see if the Supreme Court's ruling in Glossip can really help states finally get their death penalty machinery back up and running. In the wake of Glossip and absent any evidence of illicit chicanery by Tennessee officials, any appeals in this case ought to be resolved fairly expeditiously (especially if Tennessee were now set execution dates for some condemned murderers). But, of course, the condemned still have every reason, and surely will seek every opportunity, to continue to extend the lethal injection litigation for as long as possible in both state and federal courts. I have thought that Glossip should speed things along in this state and others, but only time will tell.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Despite Glossip, federal judge orders halt to Mississippi's lethal injection plans
I had thought that the Supreme Court's big Glossip Eighth Amendment ruling a couple of month ago could make it at least somewhat easier for states to get their condemned murderers to execution chambers. But, intriguingly, only two executions have been carried out since Glossip was decided, and the United States thus remains on track in 2015 for the lowest yearly total of executions in a quarter-century.
Moreover, as reported via this (somewhat confusing) AP article, headlined "Federal judge halts executions in Mississippi," even claims that would seem to have been resolved by Glossip are still disrupting state execution efforts in a least one state. Here are the basic details:
A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the state of Mississippi from using two drugs in executions, shutting down the death penalty in the state for now.
U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate issued a temporary restraining order saying Mississippi officials cannot use pentobarbital or midazolam, two drugs used to render prisoners unconscious. Mississippi law requires a three-drug process, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a drug that stops an inmate's heart.
Jim Craig, a lawyer for two inmates, said Wingate gave the order verbally Tuesday in a phone conference with him and other lawyers. Wingate was supposed to issue a written order, but no written copy was yet available later in the day.
Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, wrote in an email that the order bars the state from using any drug to execute a condemned inmate. The state quickly filed notice Tuesday saying it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn Wingate's order.
"We are extremely disappointed that the federal court has frustrated the State of Mississippi's lawful duty to enforce its criminal sentence of capital punishment," Attorney General Jim Hood said in a statement. "Just months ago the United States Supreme Court approved Oklahoma's method of lethal injection. Mississippi's method follows that of Oklahoma. We feel strongly that the district court misapplied the law."
Craig expects Wingate to issue a preliminary injunction that could freeze executions until the case is complete. Craig said Wingate told lawyers he would expedite the case.
Mississippi is one of a number of states facing legal challenges to lethal injections. Hood's office asked the state Supreme Court in July to set a Thursday execution for convicted murderer Richard Jordan, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, but the state court never acted.
Prisoners say they face risks of excruciating pain and torture during an execution, and that such pain violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The suit says there's no guarantee Mississippi can mix a safe and effective anesthetic to knock out prisoners, and even then, prisoners could remain conscious during execution.
As the case was proceeding, Hood's office told Wingate that Mississippi was abandoning its plans to use pentobarbital and instead would use midazolam to knock out prisoners. Mississippi officials have said they've struggled to buy pentobarbital as death penalty opponents pressured manufacturers to cut off the supply.
Thursday, July 09, 2015
Richard Glossip and SCOTUS co-petitioners get new Oklahoma execution dates
As reported in this local piece, headlined "Oklahoma to execute 3 men in September, October," the condemned murderer whose surname will surely conctinue to play a lively role is constitutional capital punishment debates for many years is himself now scheduled to play a lively role on death row for only a few more months. Here are the details why:
Three Oklahoma inmates who lost a legal challenge over a drug used in lethal injections now know when they are to be executed. The state Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday ordered a Sept. 16 lethal injection for Richard Eugene Glossip, 52. Benjamin Robert Cole, 50, is to be put to death Oct. 7. John Marion Grant is to be executed Oct. 28.
“The families of the victims in these three heinous crimes have waited a combined 48 years for justice,” Attorney General Scott Pruitt said. “With the setting of execution dates, these families now have certainty that justice will finally be served for their loved ones.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, last month that the state’s planned use of the sedative midazolam would not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Another drug paralyzes the condemned man, and a third stops his heart.
“Despite what a thin majority of the Supreme Court said, midazolam cannot maintain anesthesia throughout the execution procedures,” said Dale Baich, an attorney for the men. “That’s clear from both the scientific information about the drug and the botched executions that have resulted from the use of midazolam. Because Oklahoma plans to use a paralytic as part of the drug formula, we will never know if prisoners will suffer during the execution process.”
Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said the state has access to the drugs needed to carry out all three executions and will move forward with the dates set by the court....
Glossip was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1997 beating death of Barry Alan Van Treese at a west Oklahoma City motel. A co-defendant confessed to beating Van Treese, but said he did so at Glossip’s direction. Glossip has maintained his innocence.
Grant was sentenced to die for the 1998 stabbing death of Gay Carter, a prison worker at the Dick Connor Correctional Center in Hominy. Prosecutors say Grant dragged Carter into a mop closet and stabbed her 16 times. Cole was convicted of first-degree murder in Rogers County for the December 2002 beating death of his 9-month-old daughter, Brianna Cole.
Tuesday, July 07, 2015
Still more interesting discussion of Glossip a week later
I have previously highlighted here and here and elsewhere a lot of the notable commentary that the Supreme Court's big Glossip death penalty ruling quickly generated. I have now seen a few more pieces that seemed worth flagging here:
Friday, July 03, 2015
If you want to go on gorging on Glossip gossip...
here is still more of the copious commentary one can find as the work week closes on the biggest death penalty ruling of the SCOTUS Term just concluded (listed here only by title/headline as with this prior review, sources and authors varied):
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
If you are eager to gorge on Glossip gossip...
here is just a smidgen of some of the copious commentary one can find before the ink is really dry on the biggest death penalty ruling of the SCOTUS Term just concluded (listed here only by title/headline, sources and authors varied):
- The Most Dangerous Precedent (or, A Silly Extravagance)
- The Wonderland rules for method-of-execution claims
Monday, June 29, 2015
SCOTUS rules 5-4 against capital defendant's challenge to execution protocol in Glossip v. Gross
The Supreme Court handed down this morning the last big opinion of likely interest to sentencing fans via Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7599 (S. Ct. June 29, 2015) (available here). Here is how Justice Alito's opinion for the Court gets started:
Based on a too-quick read, the majority opinion seems like a big win for states seeking to move forward even with new and questionable execution methods. I doubt Glossip will halt all the lower-court litigation on state execution protocols, but it certainly should provide lower court judges a much clearer standard and basis for rejecting Eighth Amendment claims in this setting.
Prisoners sentenced to death in the State of Oklahoma filed an action in federal court under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, contending that the method of execution now used by the State violates the Eighth Amendment because it creates an unacceptable risk of severe pain. They argue that midazolam, the first drug employed in the State’s current three-drug protocol, fails to render a person insensate to pain. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied four prisoners’ application for a preliminary injunction, finding that they had failed to prove that midazolam is ineffective. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed and accepted the District Court’s finding of fact regarding midazolam’s efficacy.
For two independent reasons, we also affirm. First, the prisoners failed to identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain, a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-ofexecution claims. See Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 61 (2008) (plurality opinion). Second, the District Court did not commit clear error when it found that the prisoners failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.
Friday, June 12, 2015
Canvassing the "most likely outcomes" of the SCOTUS case on death penalty drugs
Though I think we are still a few weeks away from getting a ruling (and multiple?) opinions in the SCOTUS case (Glossip v. Gross) considering Oklahoma's lethal injection history and plans, it is certainly not too early to begin speculating about what that Court might end up doing in the case. Helpfully, this extended new Vox article, headlined "The most likely outcomes of the Supreme Court's death penalty ruling," provides a great overview of what we might expect from the ruling. Here are excerpts, along with six possibilities for Glossip's outcome:
The Supreme Court is considering a legal challenge to Oklahoma's use of lethal injection this month — but chances are the effects of a ruling will be quite limited.
The case follows several botched executions in the past couple of years, particularly that of Clayton Lockett in April 2014. Lockett's execution, in which experimental drugs were used because of a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, took an excruciating 43 minutes. It led Oklahoma inmates to file a lawsuit challenging the state's lethal injection protocol, eventually putting all executions in the state on hold once the Supreme Court accepted the challenge.
Specifically, the inmates are contesting the state's use of midazolam, a sedative used as part of a three-drug protocol to execute death row inmates. Midazolam is supposed to put someone to sleep, allowing the painless application of other drugs that actually kill the inmate. But Lockett appeared to groan and violently struggle during his execution, suggesting the first drug wasn't adequate — and may violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Several death penalty experts and court watchers told Vox what they think the most likely outcomes of a Supreme Court ruling are. They largely rejected the possibility that the Court would make a sweeping decision against lethal injections or the death penalty in general, since most justices consider the death penalty constitutional. They instead outlined six possibilities — most of which would have a very narrow effect, and would likely allow lethal injections to continue in the US. Of course, it's entirely possible that the Court, which tends to be full of surprises, takes another approach, but these are the outcomes that seem most likely.
1) Oklahoma messed up, but midazolam isn't necessarily a problem....
2) Midazolam is constitutional....
3) Midazolam is unconstitutional....
4) Midazolam is unconstitutional as part of a three-drug protocol....
5) Inmates have not proven midazolam leads to cruel and unusual punishment....
6) Send the case back to a lower court
Monday, June 08, 2015
"Does failed execution attempt mean Ohio prisoner can avoid death penalty?"
The question in the title of this post is both the headline of this Columbus Dispatch article and the notable novel constitutional question facing the Ohio Supreme Court this week. Here is the backstory:
Ohio’s unusual pending death-penalty case, involving an inmate the state already tried but failed to execute, will be argued on Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court. Attorneys for Romell Broom contend that the state would be guilty of unconstitutional double jeopardy if it tries to execute him a second time. They said in a court filing that the state’s contention that their client didn’t suffer physically during a botched execution on Sept. 15, 2009, “ignores the unnecessary psychological suffering Broom endured during two hours of lawless chaos."
Representatives for Attorney General Mike DeWine counter that what happened on Sept. 15, 2009, wasn’t a failed execution but a breakdown in the lethal-injection process, and a new execution should proceed. They argue that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t promise that executions will be pain-free and that what happened to Broom wasn’t unconstitutional “cruel and usual punishment.”
The attempted execution of Broom, 59, on Sept. 15, 2009, was called off by Gov. Ted Strickland after a prison medical team spent two tense hours unsuccessfully trying to attach IV lines for lethal injection. The execution was rescheduled but never took place because Broom’s public defender attorneys filed numerous appeals.
Broom was convicted and sentenced to death for abducting, raping and stabbing to death 14-year-old Tryna Middleton of Cleveland as she walked home from a football game on Sept. 21, 1984. All evidence in the case, including DNA test results, showed Broom was the girl’s killer.
Thus, the failed execution, and not Broom’s guilt or innocence, will be the focus of oral arguments at 9 a.m. on Tuesday before the Ohio Supreme Court. Broom’s case is unique in Ohio’s modern capital-punishment history, being one of only two known cases nationally in which an execution was halted after it began. The other one was Willie Francis, a 17-year-old killer who died on the second try in Louisiana’s electric chair on May 9, 1947, having survived a botched execution a year earlier.
Friday, June 05, 2015
Is Missouri becoming the "new Texas" when it comes to death penalty administration?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by two notable new stories showing some notable new details about how the Show Me state (1) has recently become a new national leader in actually carrying out death sentences, and (2) now seems well positioned to complete more executions in the near future than any other state. This lengthy Mashall Project piece focused on capital defense in Mizzou provides this background:
[Jennifer Herdon's] condemned clients were convicted of monstrous crimes, but at least a few presented powerful issues for appeal. Among them were a man diagnosed as schizophrenic who hallucinated clouds of flies and insisted on never speaking aloud the number “between 31 and 33”; a man so intellectually impaired that, as a child, he couldn’t understand hide-and-seek and who, at age 16, functioned like someone age 4-to-7; and a man whose claim of innocence was sufficiently compelling to convince a journalism class to dive into the case.
In the past two years, while much of the country has retreated from the death penalty, Missouri has gone the opposite direction. It has accelerated executions – last year, tying Texas for most in the country, with 10 – to such an extent that the “capital defense bar is in crisis,” according to a letter written to the Missouri Supreme Court by four members of an American Bar Association death-penalty assessment team.
Those four members – two law professors, a retired state appellate judge, and the chairman of the Missouri State Public Defender Commission – wrote in March that a mere “handful” of attorneys have represented most of the state’s executed inmates, despite the “notoriously lengthy and complex” nature of capital appellate work, coupled with “the emotional toll of losing client after client.” The team recommended that for attorneys handling capital appeals to be able to do their jobs adequately, the execution dates for clients should be staggered by at least six months.
Herndon, starting in November 2013, had five clients executed in just 15 months. In all, she’s had seven clients executed since 2003. And she has another execution scheduled next week. Herndon may be the most extreme example of how Missouri’s quickened pace of executions is swamping the defense bar, but she is not alone. Last year, six attorneys in addition to Herndon had multiple clients executed.
That list would have been longer if not for a stay granted by the U.S. Supreme Court before Mark Christeson’s scheduled execution in October. Christeson’s two attorneys, who had represented another inmate executed earlier in the year, missed a crucial filing deadline, not even meeting with their client until six weeks after it had passed. “Cases, including this one, are falling through the cracks of the system,” more than a dozen former state and federal judges wrote in a brief.
Paul Litton, a University of Missouri law professor and one of the four signatories on the letter from the ABA’s death-penalty assessment team, says: “With the executions happening month after month after month, and with so few attorneys handling these cases, the workload is just overwhelming.”
On Tuesday, Herndon and her co-counsel filed a request for a stay of execution for Richard Strong, scheduled to be executed June 9. The motion’s basis was their workloads, in particular Herndon’s. The motion says that when Herndon’s last client was executed in February, she put in more than 225 hours, “knowing that much more should have been done …” For the pending execution, she has 20 banker’s boxes of materials to review. Herndon “is struggling to fulfill her duties,” the motion says.
“Mr. Strong is at least entitled to a ‘fair fight.’ Such is impossible when defense counsel come in bloody and bruised, while the government has a seemingly endless supply of fresh reinforcements …,” the motion says.
Meanwhile, as now highlighted by this notable new Buzzfeed article (from which I got the graphic here), it would appear that Missouri has figured out some way to get all the execution drugs they could possibly need even as other states struggle mightily in this arena. The Buzzfied piece carries this full headline: "Missouri Is Mysteriously Building A Massive Stockpile Of Execution Drugs: Missouri now has enough drugs for 16 lethal injections. But how? The drugs often used in executions generally have a short expiration date." Here is an excerpt:
State officials changed drug suppliers in February 2014, after their previous supplier, the Apothecary Shoppe, was sued for, among other things, selling execution drugs when it wasn’t licensed to do so in Missouri. Until February 2014, Missouri’s drug stockpile hovered around zero, presumably because the compounded drugs expired so quickly. Since changing drug suppliers, however, the state’s drug supply has exploded, according to records obtained by BuzzFeed News.
With FDA-approved suppliers either discontinuing the manufacture of pentobarbital or enacting stringent guidelines to prevent states from getting ahold of their drugs, it led some capital attorneys to believe the state is resorting to veterinary pentobarbital — something that would be much easier to find, but illegal to use on humans.
When two attorneys, Cheryl Pilate and Lindsay Runnels, approached the Department of Corrections, officials refused to say whether the drug is veterinary. “The response has been very evasive,” Pilate said. “We made several requests about the use of veterinary drugs, and instead of getting the response of “Of course we would never use a veterinary drugs,” they [were] refusing to say.”
When BuzzFeed News asked the state’s corrections department whether the state is using veterinary drugs in executions, spokesperson David Owen said, “No.” Owen would not answer any questions about how the state could be holding onto drugs for so long, given the short shelf life of compounded drugs. Gov. Jay Nixon’s Office would not answer questions, either, and a spokesperson with Attorney General Chris Koster’s office declined to comment.
“It’s the ease with which they’re getting it,” Pilate said. “Other states are having serious problems getting ahold of their drugs. Why not Missouri?”
Tuesday, June 02, 2015
California agrees to model new lethal injection protocol on whatever SCOTUS says is good enough
As reported in this local piece, headlined "California death penalty: state agrees to propose execution method," a state with a remarkable inability (and disinclination?) to get its machinery of death operational has now agreed that the Supreme Court's latest review of lethal injection will provide a script for its next efforts. Here are the details:
California's death penalty system, dormant for nine years, might soon move slowly toward resuming executions. As part of a court settlement reached on Tuesday, the state's corrections department agreed to unveil a new execution method by the fall that will be tied to the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected sometime this month in a challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol.
While California is still far from executing one of the 750 condemned killers on death row, the development marks movement on the issue for the first time in years. There are at least 17 inmates on death row who have exhausted their legal appeals and would be eligible for execution dates.
State prison officials resolved a lawsuit filed last year by the families of victims of condemned killers who argued the state has a legal obligation to implement an execution method. A Sacramento judge earlier this year found the state should be required to move forward in a case brought by two families, including former UCLA and NFL star Kermit Alexander, whose mother, sister and nephews were murdered 31 years ago by a man now on death row. Death penalty supporters have accused state leaders such as Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris of dragging their feet in getting executions back on track. The state has not had an execution since 2006 as a result of legal challenges to its lethal injection method.
Several years ago, the courts invalidated one state effort to revise its three-drug execution method, prompting California to explore switching to a single lethal drug as other states have done. But the state had not made progress until Tuesday's settlement.
The Supreme Court is expected to clarify the legality of lethal injection methods in the case out of Oklahoma, which still has a three-drug procedure. Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the California corrections department, confirmed that the prison system, which has been developing its regulations, will submit its new execution method within 120 days of the Supreme Court's ruling.
Lawyers for the families said it "made sense" for California to await that ruling. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said he expects the state to adopt a single drug method using a sedative he maintains can be obtained. However, states around the country, including California, have encountered problems securing supplies of execution drugs because drug manufacturers have refused to sell the drugs to prisons.
Monday, June 01, 2015
Seriously exploring — finally! — execution alternatives to lethal injection
The Supreme Court is expected to declare any day whether the injection of a drug called Midazolam violates the Eighth-Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Given the difficulty of procuring other suitable drugs, states devoted to the death penalty are lining up alternative ways to efficiently end human life. In Oklahoma (48 prisoners on death row), the answer seems to be nitrogen gas, a method favored by some proponents of assisted suicide but not something that has been employed in an execution chamber. Utah (nine on death row) proposes to revive the firing squad. Tennessee (67 on death row) is preparing to fire up its electric chair. Decisions, decisions. The Marshall Project took a closer look at the thinking that goes into the logistics of execution....
The [Oklahoma] bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Christian, told a German online newspaper that nitrogen inhalation “is the most humane way to die. You just sit there and a few minutes later, you’re dead.” Whatever the method, he added, “We will put these beasts to death.” Christian first conceived of using nitrogen for execution after watching a BBC documentary called “How to Kill a Human Being,” in which a retired member of the British parliament sampled various execution protocols (obviously stopping short of death) before deciding that nitrogen was “a perfect killing device.”...
It’s been a year and a week since Tennessee became the first state in the nation to require the use of the electric chair for executions should the primary means of capital punishment, lethal injection, become unavailable for one reason or another. And it has been about eight months since that new law was challenged in court by ten death row inmates who argue that the mandated use of “Old Sparky” would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Going from lethal drugs back to electrical currents as a means of killing, the condemned contend, is legally inconsistent with the “evolving standards of decency” that the U.S. Supreme Court employs in Eighth Amendment cases....
In March, Utah governor Gary Herbert signed a law to reinstate the firing squad as a legal method of execution in his state. Utah had abandoned the method in 2004 only to be swayed back by a shortage of lethal injection drugs. Herbert called the punishment “a little bit gruesome,” but the practical concerns were overwhelming; even if the state can find lethal injection drugs, defending them in court would be expensive, and Utah already has in place a formal protocol for death by firing squad. It involves a blindfold, sandbags, four loaded rifles, and one with a non-lethal wax bullet so executioners will never know who fired the fatal shots.
Lawmakers have publicly considered the firing squad as a backup plan for lethal injections in Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, and Wyoming. Idaho maintained the method as an option until 2009. It is on the books in Oklahoma, as a fourth option after lethal injection, nitrogen gas, and the electric chair. The firing squad has consistently been found to be more reliable than many of the alternatives. Botches — in the form of bullets that miss the heart — have been rare. In 1938, a Utah murderer named John Deering allowed doctors to hook him up to an electrocardiogram as he faced the guns. His heart stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets hit. Lethal injection, at its fastest, takes minutes.
Long-time readers know that I have been talking for a long time about the need for states (and Congress) to get serious about alternatives to lethal injection for carrying out death sentences. But now, nearly a decade after lethal injection protocols were starting to be subject to serious legal scrutiny, it has taken a drug shortage and still more SCOTUS litigation to get serious consideration of execution alternatives. But I fear, based in part on the oral argument in Glossip, that the latest round of Supreme Court litigation is not likely to require many more states to get much more serious about finding other viable methods of state killing.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
After Boston bomber's condemnation in liberal Massachusetts, is the death penalty really "withering away"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new commentary by George Will carrying the headline "Capital punishment’s slow death." Here is the full commentary, which claims to be making a "conservative case against capital punishment":
Without a definitive judicial ruling or other galvanizing event, a perennial American argument is ending. Capital punishment is withering away.
It is difficult to imagine moral reasoning that would support the conclusion that an injustice will be done when, years hence, the death penalty finally is administered to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon terrorist who placed a bomb in a crowd and then strolled to safety. Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality. This is, however, purchased with disproportionate social costs, as Nebraska seems to be concluding.
Nebraska is not a nest of liberals. Yet on Wednesday its 49-member unicameral legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty 32 to 15. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vows to veto it.
This comes at a time when, nationwide, exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent. Nebraska’s death penalty opponents, including a majority of Nebraskans, say it is expensive without demonstrably enhancing public safety or being a solace to families of murder victims. Some Nebraska families have testified that the extended legal processes surrounding the death penalty prolong their suffering. That sentiment is shared by Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son was killed by Tsarnaev.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether one component of a three-drug mixture used in lethal injection executions — and recently used in some grotesquely protracted ones — is unreliable in preventing suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” States use the drug in question because more effective drugs are hard to acquire, partly because death penalty opponents are pressuring drug companies not to supply them.
For this, Justice Antonin Scalia blamed a death penalty “abolitionist movement.” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked, “Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty, which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wondered, “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that it’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty? What relevance does that have?”
The answers are: Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning. And it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to “countenance” this or that social advocacy.
The conservative case against capital punishment, which 32 states have, is threefold. First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program. Since 1973, more than 140 people sentenced to death have been acquitted of their crimes (sometimes by DNA evidence), had the charges against them dismissed by prosecutors or have been pardoned based on evidence of innocence. For an unsparing immersion in the workings of the governmental machinery of death, read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated. And the expensive, because labyrinthine, legal protocols with which the judiciary has enveloped capital punishment are here to stay. Granted, capital punishment could deter: If overdue library books were punishable by death, none would be overdue. But many crimes for which death is reserved, including Tsarnaev’s crime of ideological premeditation, are especially difficult to deter.
Those who favor capital punishment because of its supposed deterrent effect do not favor strengthening that effect by restoring the practice of public executions. There has not been one in America since 1937 (a hanging in Galena, Mo.) because society has decided that state-inflicted deaths, far from being wholesomely didactic spectacles, are coarsening and revolting.
Revulsion is not an argument, but it is evidence of what former chief justice Earl Warren called society’s “evolving standards of decency.” In the essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus wrote, “The man who enjoys his coffee while reading that justice has been done would spit it out at the least detail.” Capital punishment, say proponents, serves social catharsis. But administering it behind prison walls indicates a healthy squeamishness that should herald abolition.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Has death penalty administration now become a "testing ground for toxic drugs"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the subheadline of this lengthy new New Republic piece: "Lethal Entanglements: Lethal injection was supposed to be a cleaner, more humane version of capital punishement. Over the past five years, it has become a messy, largely unmonitored testing ground for toxic drugs." Here are is a passage from the center of the lengthy article:
Lethal injection was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1977 as a less violent alternative to the gas chamber and the electric chair. Over the next 25 years, almost every death-penalty state copied Oklahoma’s three-drug formula: first the barbiturate sodium thiopental to knock the prisoner out, then the paralytic pancuronium bromide to immobilize him, and finally potassium chloride to stop his heart. The second and third drugs would cause intense suffering on their own, but the Supreme Court ruled that the method was constitutional in Baze: As long as the thiopental rendered the prisoner unconscious, he would be insensate to the agonizing effects of the next two drugs. Just one year after the Baze decision, though, in late 2009, the pharmaceutical company that sold thiopental to every death-penalty state, Hospira, reported a shortage.
As a consequence, the death penalty has undergone in the past five years its biggest transformation since states began switching to lethal injection decades ago. As thiopental disappeared, states began executing prisoners with experimental one-, two-, or three-drug cocktails. States have essentially been improvising what is supposed to be one of their gravest and most deliberate duties, venturing deep into the shadows to carry out executions. They have turned to mail-order pharmaceutical suppliers and used untested drugs. They have sidestepped federal drug laws, minimized public disclosure, and, on multiple occasions, announced changes to execution protocols just hours before prisoners were set to die. The machinery of death in the United States has become a kluge.
In April, the Supreme Court acknowledged this when it heard oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross. A group of prisoners from Oklahoma — including Richard Glossip, a convicted murderer — challenged the state’s use of a drug called midazolam because they feared it would not anesthetize them. The court had hoped Baze would obviate future lethal injection lawsuits, but the thiopental shortage had stripped the decision of any practical relevance almost as soon as it was issued. Now, just seven years later, the justices were considering whether they should invalidate a specific method of execution for the first time in U.S. history. The court’s decision won’t overturn the death penalty, but it will define the way we practice it for years to come.
Though the challenge comes from Oklahoma, it is Arizona that provides the best case study of the rapid, slipshod evolution of lethal injection since Baze. The desert state hasn’t executed the most prisoners since the thiopental shortage began — that distinction belongs, as always, to Texas — but it has used more methods than any other state, killing prisoners with four different drug combinations. No other state has been quite so dogged in its determination to carry out executions. And no other state has left so detailed a paper trail. Judges, lawyers, and journalists (most notably Michael Kiefer at The Arizona Republic) have brought much of the abuses to light over the years, but the story has been told in disparate pieces: a deposition here, an uncovered email there. The complete narrative is more troubling than any one of its components.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Extended coverage of messy Oklahoma execution and execution methods
The just-released June issue of The Atlantic magazine has a lengthy cover story headlined "Cruel and Unusual: The botched execution of Clayton Lockett — and how capital punishment became so surreal." This piece is a long and valuable read, and these excerpts provides a flavor of its coverage beyond the events of a single capital case:
Since the mid-1990s, when lethal injection replaced electrocution as America’s favored method of execution, states have found drug combinations that they trust to quickly and painlessly end a life. They often use three drugs. The first is an anesthetic, to render the prisoner unconscious. The second is a paralytic. The third, potassium chloride, stops the heart.
What many people don’t realize, however, is that choosing the specific drugs and doses involves as much guesswork as expertise. In many cases, the person responsible for selecting the drugs has no medical training. Sometimes that person is a lawyer — a state attorney general or an attorney for the prison. These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past. So naturally, they prefer not to experiment with new drugs. In recent years, however, they have been forced to do so....
[In early 2014], Mike Oakley, the general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, had returned from vacation to find the department in a near-frenzy. Before he’d left, the department had ordered pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy for the executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, a 46-year-old man convicted in 2003 of raping and killing his roommate’s 11-month-old baby. But compounding pharmacies had come under pressure to stop selling drugs for executions, and Oklahoma’s supplier had backed out. With the executions scheduled for March 20 and March 27, one of Oakley’s deputies began driving around the state, walking into pharmacies and asking for pentobarbital, without success.
Oakley didn’t know why the task of finding drugs for executions fell largely to him: he had no medical training. But he wanted to help his colleagues — especially the warden, whom he considered conscientious and hardworking — because he knew how much strain carrying out a death sentence put on them. He had gone into corrections, 25 years earlier, because Oklahoma was doing interesting work in mediation between victims and offenders. Now he was about to retire, and he found himself, as his swan song, developing a new execution cocktail.
The Atlantic also hasin its June issue this companion piece headlined "A Brief History of American Executions: From hanging to lethal injection." Here is how it starts:
Hanging is perhaps the quintessential American punishment. In the pre-revolutionary era, criminals were also shot, pressed between heavy stones, broken on the wheel, or burned alive. (An estimated 16,000 people have been put to death in this country since the first recorded execution, in 1608.) But the simplicity of the noose triumphed, and its use spread as the republic grew.
In theory, a hanging is quick and relatively painless: the neck snaps immediately. But hangings can be grisly. If the rope is too short, the noose will slowly strangle the condemned. If the rope is too long, the force of the fall can decapitate the person.
The Supreme Court has never struck down a method of execution as unconstitutional. But states have at times tried to make the process more humane. “Hanging has come down to us from the dark ages,” New York Governor David B. Hill told the state legislature in 1885. He asked “whether the science of the present day” could produce a way to execute the condemned “in a less barbarous manner.”
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Electrifying Tennessee fight over electric chair as back up execution method
BuzzFeed has this interesting new article about an interesting legal fight unfolding in Tennessee. This extensive headline provides the basics: "Tennessee Officials Fight Inmates’ Attempt To Challenge Electric Chair Plans: The electric chair is Tennessee’s plan B if the state can’t get ahold of lethal drugs. The inmates argue it’s unconstitutional, but the state argues that they can’t challenge it yet." Here are some details from the start of the article:
Can death-row inmates challenge the constitutionality of electrocution? The Tennessee Supreme Court will soon decide.
Death penalty states once phased out the electric chair in favor of drugs — for humane reasons. Now that drugs have become hard to obtain, states like Tennessee have turned to older execution methods like the chair as a backup.
On Wednesday, the state court will weigh whether death-row inmates can challenge the method’s constitutionality. Thirty-four inmates allege electrocution is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment — that the electric chair disfigures the body and is an affront to evolving standards of decency.
But Tennessee has pushed to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the inmates can’t challenge the method because none of them are actually scheduled to face electrocution.
Tennessee’s preferred method is lethal injection, using pentobarbital made from a secret compounding pharmacy. Lawmakers passed a law last year that makes electrocution the contingency plan if either drug makers or the courts make lethal injection impossible.
“The[y] are asking the court in this case to… consider hypothetical situations involving uncertain or contingent future events that may or may not occur as anticipated or, indeed, may not occur at all,” Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office wrote.
Friday, May 01, 2015
"How a Death Row Inmate's Request to Give His Organs Kept Him Alive"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable lengthy Newsweek article discussing the array of remarkable developments that have surrounded the application of the death penalty in Ohio over the last few years. Here are excerpts which provide a unique spin on the saying that it's always better to give than to receive:
On November 13, 2013, prison officials transferred Ronald Ray Phillips from death row, where he had resided for 20 years, to the “death house” in southern Ohio. He had finally run out of appeals. In less than 24 hours, they would strap him to a gurney and inject a fatal drug combination into his veins. Just days before his scheduled death, however, Phillips made an unprecedented request—one that has kept him alive until today. He asked to give his heart to his sister, who had a heart condition, and his kidney to his mother, who was on dialysis....
In the fall of 2013, Ohio had just instituted a new lethal injection protocol as its primary method of execution, and its effects were uncertain. The fatal drug cocktail might destroy Phillips’s organs. On the other hand, if Phillips went to the operating room beforehand and doctors removed his heart while he was unconscious, they could save it. But since he couldn’t survive without his heart, they would simultaneously complete the execution in a novel method that had never been considered in Ohio’s capital punishment laws.
Phillips was scheduled to die at 10 the next morning. Just before 4 p.m., as prison employees headed home for the evening, the death house received a call from the governor. “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues, then we should allow for that to happen,” Republican Governor John Kasich said in a statement to the press hours before the scheduled execution. Kasich granted Phillips a reprieve, removing him—temporarily, at least—from the death house....
But the agencies that govern transplantation refused his organs, calling the idea “morally reprehensible.” Parceling out the organs to strangers could be a human rights violation. Because Phillips was a prisoner, he couldn’t voluntarily consent to these procedures. The idea of saving “innocent” lives could also incentivize prosecutors and judges to favor the death penalty. Ohio denied Phillips’s request to donate non-vital organs to strangers.
Yet [a former attorney for the mother of Phillips' victim] counters, “Why doesn’t an inmate have a right to donate his or her kidney? Why is that seen as one of the rights that they’ve given up because they’re incarcerated?”...
Because of Phillips’s reprieve, convicted killer Dennis McGuire took his place. Reporter Alan Johnson witnessed McGuire’s execution. Approximately six minutes into it, McGuire “suddenly starts gasping—deep gasps. His chest would compress, his stomach started going out," Johnson says....
The McGuire fiasco prompted a federal judge to temporarily halt all Ohio executions. Nevertheless, Arizona used Ohio’s protocol that summer to execute Joseph Wood. The execution lasted over two hours, with Wood gasping 640 times. It provoked another moratorium on the death cocktail.
In January 2015, before Phillips’s fourth execution date, Ohio rescinded its controversial mixture, announcing a return to the pentobarbital drug class. Because Ohio has been unable to obtain this drug from Lundbeck, executions will resume in 2016 at the earliest. Phillips’s fifth execution date remains unscheduled.
Phillips’s unprecedented request set off a chain of events that have kept him alive till today. For over a year, he’s been next up on Ohio’s list of scheduled executions. But he’s ridden the wave of botched executions and may transition from a temporary reprieve to a permanent one. Phillips and his attorneys declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Timely (but incomplete) report on political debates as de facto moratorium on federal executions continues
The New York Times this morning has this new front-page article discussing a remarkable national death penalty story that seems never to get nearly as much attention it merits. The article is headlined "Obama Adminintration Steps Back From Effort to End Federal Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:
For a moment last year, it looked as if the Obama administration was moving toward a history-making end to the federal death penalty. A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift and President Obama, declaring that it was time to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions,” directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review capital punishment.
At the Justice Department, a proposal soon began to take shape among Mr. Holder and senior officials: The administration could declare a formal moratorium on the federal death penalty because medical experts could not guarantee that the lethal drugs used did not cause terrible suffering. Such a declaration would have pressured states to do the same, the officials reasoned, and would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel punishment.
But the idea never gained traction, and Mr. Obama has seldom mentioned the death penalty review since. Now, as the Supreme Court considered arguments Wednesday over whether lethal injection, as currently administered, was unconstitutional, the obstacles the Obama administration faced provide vivid examples of just how politically difficult the debate remains.
“It was a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor and a death penalty opponent who met with administration officials as part of the review. The Justice Department, he added, has been refusing to say what he thinks senior officials there believe: “We’ve had too many executions that didn’t work and killing somebody’s not the answer.”
In remarks last May after a prisoner in Oklahoma regained consciousness and writhed and moaned during a lethal injection, Mr. Obama, who has supported the death penalty, seemed to raise expectations for a policy change. He lamented its racial disparities and the risk of executing innocent people. He referred the matter to Mr. Holder, a liberal stalwart who opposed capital punishment. But privately the White House was cautious, sending word to the Justice Department to keep its focus narrow, administration officials said.
Mr. Obama called for the review at a time when there had not been a federal execution since 2003, when Louis Jones Jr. was killed for raping and murdering a 19-year-old female soldier. Since 2010, the federal government has effectively had a moratorium on executions — all are carried out by lethal injection — because manufacturers in Europe and the United States refused to sell the government the barbiturates used to render prisoners unconscious. States, however, found alternatives, including the sedative midazolam, which was used in the gruesome execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma last year.
As the Justice Department sought advice from experts on both sides of the issue, opposition to the idea came from unexpected corners. Some of the most outspoken voices against the death penalty also urged the most caution, fearful that a federal announcement would actually do more harm than good. “From my view, we’re better off with things bubbling up in the states,” said Henderson Hill, the executive director of the Eighth Amendment Project and one of several people consulted by the administration last year....
Advocates in particular worried that having Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as the faces of the anti-death penalty movement would stoke conservative support for capital punishment at a time when some libertarian-minded Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal Democrats appeared to be finding common ground in opposition to it. “I’m not sure that what the administration would have to say would be inherently influential in Nebraska,” Mr. Hill said.
Opposition to the death penalty was growing in Nebraska last year and lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this month to replace it with life in prison, setting up a veto fight with Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican.
Advocates were further worried that if lethal injections were eliminated, states would bring back older methods of execution, a concern borne out in Utah, where officials said they would bring back firing squads if lethal drugs were not available. Other states are reviving plans to use the electric chair or gas chambers.
Inside the Justice Department, some officials opposed a formal moratorium because it would eliminate the option for the death penalty in terrorism cases like the one against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who faces a possible death sentence for the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon. Others worried that eliminating the death penalty would make it harder to persuade Congress to move terrorist suspects from the island prison at Guantánamo Bay to the United States for trial. There were also logistical hurdles.
Advocates and administration officials asked what would happen to the roughly five dozen people on federal death row. Would Mr. Obama, who has said the death penalty was appropriate in some cases, commute the sentences of men who raped and murdered people? There were no clear answers.
In the end, the question never made it to Mr. Obama’s desk. Last fall, Mr. Holder announced plans to resign, and officials said it would be inappropriate to recommend a major policy change on his way out of office, then leave it up to his successor to carry it out. In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of three convicted murderers who challenged the lethal injection drugs. Now with the issue before the justices, the review at the Justice Department has come to a halt because any administration action could be seen as trying to influence the court.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who was sworn in this week, told senators during her confirmation hearing that the death penalty “is an effective penalty.” But she did not elaborate. Emily Pierce, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the review continued. “And we have, in effect, a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime.”
The last line in this excerpt highlights for me the federal death penalty story that continue to fail to get nearly as much coverage, legally, politically and practically, as I think it should. The feds have, I believe, a significant number of capital murderers on federal death row who have completed all their appeals but who have been escaping their imposed punishment since 2007 because of all the state lethal injection litigation that resulted in the Supreme Court's Baze ruling and all the subsequent uncertainty that has followed.
I have long been troubled that the Bush Administration starting in 2007, and the Obama Administration in the years that have followed, have made no apparent effort to try to carry out existing federal death sentences. Whatever the reasons for a nearly-decade-long de facto executive moratorium on the federal death penalty, I believe federal prosecutors should feel some obligation to defendants, victims and the general public to provide some public explanation about what the heck is going on with the actual administration of the federal death penalty.
April 30, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Intriguing reports on Supreme Court oral argument about Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol
Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has this report on the oral argument today in the Supreme Court case concerning Oklahoma's lethal injection protocols. It starts this way:
For months, the Supreme Court has given no explanation as it refused to give inmates awaiting execution any chance to learn about the methods by which they would be put to death, and has said nothing as it allowed states to experiment with new lethal-drug combinations even after some of those executions were seriously botched. It allowed one inmate to be put to death even before it decided whether to hear his case. In other words, the regime of capital punishment went forward without any new constitutional assessment of it by the Justices; they have not done so on lethal-drug executions for seven years.
On Wednesday, the nation may have gotten the beginnings of an explanation. What appears to be a clear majority of the Court has grown frustrated with the repeated constitutional assaults on the death penalty, especially since that penalty is still constitutionally permitted. That frustration almost boiled over as the Court heard the case of Glossip v. Gross.
That case, at its core, is only about whether the first drug Oklahoma uses in its three-drug lethal combination is capable of making the inmate sufficiently unconscious that he feels little or no pain as the next two, highly toxic drugs paralyze and then kill him. The grim possibility of that particular protocol was described alarmingly by Justice Elena Kagan as “burning alive, from the inside.”
And Wednesday’s argument started out as if it would proceed through a detailed examination of the properties of that first drug — midazalom — and how two lower courts had analyzed its effect in the execution chamber. There was much discussion about judicial fact-finding and what was open to the Supreme Court to second-guess about that.
But the tone and the substance of the argument changed abruptly, when Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., moved aggressively into an exchange with the Oklahoma death-row inmates’ lawyer, Robin C. Konrad. “Let’s be honest about what’s going on here,” Alito began. He mentioned how controversial the death penalty is, and said its opponents would be free to continue to try to get it abolished. But, he said, until that happens, “is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?”
This Reuters article about today's arguments, headlined "Lethal injection case exposes U.S. top court's death penalty divide," develops similar themes in its review of the arguments. It starts this way:
Tensions on the Supreme Court over America's use of the death penalty boiled over on Wednesday as the justices appeared badly split in a case challenging Oklahoma's lethal injection method as a breach of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The nine-member court's five conservatives seemed likely to side with Oklahoma in the case brought by three death row inmates, while its four liberals expressed doubt about the propriety of using the drug at the center of the dispute. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts deciding votes in close cases, said nothing to suggest he would side with the liberals.
The full oral argument transcript is available at this link.
Recent related posts:
- Just what will SCOTUS focus on when reviewing Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol?
- "The Supreme Court Is About to Decide the Future of Lethal Injections"
"The Supreme Court Is About to Decide the Future of Lethal Injections"
The more I think about the Glossip lethal injection case being considered by the Supreme Court today (basics previewed here), the more I think the Justices will be inclined to issue a very narrow ruling that only clearly impacts the lethal injection protocol in Oklahoma and perhaps a few other states. However, this National Journal article which carries the headline I used in the title of this post, seems to think it will be a huge deal whatever SCOTUS does in the case. Here is how the piece starts:
How much pain is constitutionally acceptable for a prisoner sentenced to death to feel during his or her execution? What, exactly, is cruel and unusual punishment?
Though not the precise question presented before the justices, the Supreme Court will be forced to wrestle with those nagging Eighth Amendment concerns Wednesday as it hears arguments in a case challenging the application of a combination of lethal drugs that have been linked to a string of grisly botched executions over the past year.
In Glossip v. Gross, the Court is being asked to determine whether the use of of a sedative known as midazolam by Oklahoma and a number of other states is reliable and effective enough to use as part of three-drug lethal cocktail to execute prisoners on death row.
Midazolam has been subject to rising scrutiny since it was first used by Florida in 2013 as a replacement for another drug that became difficult for states to acquire, amid boycotts from European drug manufacturers opposed to capital punishment.
Even a narrow ruling striking against the use of midazolam could reverberate much more widely and further disrupt states' ability to carry out death sentences—a penalty that has grown increasingly rare in recent years as only a handful of states continue the practice. States scrambling to find suitable lethal cocktails are finding the task increasingly difficult, as fewer and fewer options remain available.
Recent related post:
Saturday, April 18, 2015
Oklahoma now able to use nitrogen gas as execution method if needed
As reported in this CNN piece, headlined "Oklahoma approves nitrogen gas as backup execution method," the Sooner State is now officially able to use a novel execution method sooner or later. Here are the details:
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill on Friday that would allow the state to perform executions with nitrogen gas if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or becomes unavailable. Nitrogen causes a quick loss of consciousness and then death from lack of oxygen, Fallin's office said in a press release.
CNN affiliate KFOR says it's never been used in an execution in the United States. "The person will become unconscious within eight to 10 seconds and death a few minutes later. In other words, a humane, quick and painless death," said Rep. Mike Christian, one of the bill's authors, according to KFOR....
Oklahoma's executions have been put on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court reviews its use of lethal injections. Last year, the state came under scrutiny when it took 43 minutes to kill convicted killer Clayton Lockett.
Fallin reaffirmed her support for the death penalty. "Oklahoma executes murderers whose crimes are especially heinous," Fallin said. "I support that policy, and I believe capital punishment must be performed effectively and without cruelty. The bill I signed today gives the state of Oklahoma another death penalty option that meets that standard." The governor's office said the first alternative for execution is lethal injection, followed by nitrogen gas, the electric chair and the firing squad.
A few recent and older related posts:
- Is nitrogen gas the best modern execution alternative to lethal injection?
- Serious talk about a serious alternative (nitrogen) to lethal injection in Oklahoma
- As SCOTUS considers Oklahoma lethal injections, Oklahoma considers a gas chamber
- 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
- A worldly perspective on different execution methods
- Should problems with lethal injection prompt return of other execution methods?
- Effective discussion of nitrogen gas as execution method alternative
Monday, April 13, 2015
Tennessee Supreme Court postpones all scheduled executions while considering execution protocol
As reported in this AP piece, the "Tennessee Supreme Court postponed execution dates for four inmates, effectively halting all executions while the courts decide whether current protocols for putting people to death are constitutional." Here is more:
Tennessee last executed a prisoner in 2009. Since then, legal challenges and problems obtaining lethal injection drugs have stalled new executions. In 2013 and 2014, the state tried to jump-start the process with a new one-drug lethal injection method and the reinstatement of the electric chair as a backup.
Beginning in December 2013, the court set new execution dates for 11 inmates. One inmate died in prison, and the execution dates for the others have been postponed as they approach because of legal challenges to the new methods. On Friday, the court postponed the last of the scheduled execution dates. It will set new dates after the legal questions are settled....
Death row inmates challenging Tennessee's lethal injection method recently submitted an affidavit from University of Utah College of Pharmacy professor James H. Ruble that questions whether even a willing compounding pharmacist could provide the pentobarbital that Tennessee and several other states need for executions. Ruble says in the affidavit that the main ingredient for pentobarbital is unavailable from the six primary commercial sources that compounding pharmacists buy their ingredients from.
Tennessee last year reinstated electrocution as an alternative if lethal injection drugs are unavailable or a court rules the procedure unconstitutional. But that change has brought yet another legal challenge.