Monday, September 22, 2014

Serious talk about a serious alternative (nitrogen) to lethal injection in Oklahoma

NgWhether one is a supporter or opponent of the death penalty, any and all fans of good government should be encouraged by this editorial from The Oklahoman headlined "Death penalty treated seriously in Oklahoma interim study."  Here are excerpts:

Oklahoma was a trailblazer in the use of one form of execution — lethal injection. Could it play that role again with the use of nitrogen?

A legislative study requested by Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, reviewed the potential merits of using nitrogen to execute death row inmates in Oklahoma.  To state lawmakers’ credit, this study was conducted with appropriate seriousness.  There was reason to worry it might instead turn into a forum for grandstanding, partly because of Christian’s own past comments and actions.

In April, Christian called for the impeachment of Oklahoma Supreme Court justices who supported a temporary stay of execution for Clayton Derrell Lockett.  “I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don’t care if it’s by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, guillotine or being fed to the lions,” Christian, a former state trooper, said then.  “I look forward to justice being served.”

Yet the problems that occurred during Lockett’s execution, once it did move forward, prompted renewed national debate about the death penalty and led Christian to request a review.  When he filed that request in June, Christian said the study would explore the idea of giving condemned prisoners the option of death by firing squad, hanging or the electric chair, with firing squads made the primary, default option.....

Despite Christian’s past “fed to the lions” rhetoric, he appears to have put serious thought into this issue.  At the House study, he shifted focus from using firing squads to using nitrogen for executions.  Faculty members from East Central University discussed research on nitrogen hypoxia.

A 1961 study involving human volunteers who hyperventilated on nitrogen found that subjects lost consciousness after just 20 seconds and reported no physical discomfort. There is little sense of suffocation involved.  Many euthanasia organizations reportedly support the use of nitrogen gas. 

The use of nitrogen would eliminate the need to find execution drugs for lethal injection, which has become increasingly difficult.  And the process of administering an execution would be much simpler.

Those are good selling points.  Still, it’s reasonable to wonder: Why has no other state adopted this method of execution if it’s superior?  In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution, although Texas was ultimately the first state to employ the procedure.  But that was a different era.  Being the first state to authorize a new execution method today would undoubtedly prompt numerous legal challenges, increasing taxpayer costs and slowing executions once again.

This is a debate with no easy answers, no cure-all for logistical challenges, and no permanent consensus achievable regarding the ultimate morality of the death penalty and its practical application.  But state lawmakers, Christian in particular, deserve credit for taking a serious, thoughtful approach to this ultimate application of government power.

A few recent related and older posts:

September 22, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Long-incarcerated mass murderer given right to end his life in Belgium

A helpful reader alerted me to this fascinating article from overseas headlined "Serial murderer and rapist, 50, given right to die under controversial Belgian euthanasia laws." Here are excerpts:

A serial murderer and rapist has been given the right to end his life under controversial Belgian euthanasia laws, it has emerged.  Frank Van Den Bleeken, 50, has been behind bars for 30 years and has no hope of release because of his intensely violent urges.  Now judges in Brussels have agreed that Van Den Bleeken can commit suicide with the help of medics.

Jos Vander Velpen, the prisoner’s lawyer, said: ‘Over recent years, he has been seen by several doctors and psychologists and their conclusion is that he is suffering, and suffering unbearably.’

It will be the first time that a Belgian legal ruling about euthanasia which specifically applies to a serving prisoner has been handed down.  It was rubber stamped by the country’s Justice Ministry, which is ultimately responsible for everyone serving time in jail.

In all cases, patients must be conscious and have presented a ‘voluntary, considered and repeated’ request to die.  Mr Vander Velpen said his client met all such conditions, and for the past four years had felt he ‘couldn’t stand to live like this any longer and could no longer accept the pain’.

Van Den Bleeken will be transferred from his prison in Bruges to a hospital, where he will be euthanised.  Like every other country in the Union, Belgium does not have a death penalty, and technically doctors will only be helping Van Den Bleeken die.

Van Den Bleeken himself said in recent TV documentary: ‘If people commit a sexual crime, help them to deal with it.  Just locking them up helps no one — neither the individual, society or the victims.  ‘I am a human being, and regardless of what I’ve done, I remain a human being.  So, yes, give me euthanasia.’

Despite being a mainly Roman Catholic country, Belgium has always been at the forefront of liberalising euthanasia laws.  It made euthanasia legal in 2002, making it only the second country in the world to do so after Holland.  Last year alone, Belgium euthanised a record 1,807 people.

Van Den Bleeken has only left prison once in the past three decades — to attend his mother’s funeral.  A Belgian justice ministry spokesman said Van Den Bleeken would be euthanised ‘shortly’ at this own request.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the decision to grant Van Den Bleeken a right to die, as evidenced by this companion commentary piece headlined "Why should our sister's killer be allowed to die with dignity when our suffering goes on?". Here is an excerpt of that piece providing some more context:

Van Den Bleeken is the first serving prisoner to be granted the right to die because of psychological torment. Another Belgian inmate was euthanised last year but he suffered from an incurable physical illness. But, as a direct result of the ruling, 15 other Belgian prisoners have already applied for euthanasia, even though the death penalty was abolished in 1996.

The case has renewed controversy about state-sanctioned suicide and raised serious ethical concerns. But it also calls into question the very nature of punishment and whether murderers and rapists should “suffer” for their heinous crimes or get treatment and rehabilitation.

Medics warn that euthanasia must not become an alternative to treatment while prison reformers insist it must not become a back-door return to the death penalty.

The country’s leading euthanasia advocate is also opposed to Van Den Bleeken’s death. Professor Wim Distelmans, chairman of the Belgian Board of Control for Euthanasia ... said: “It is wrong to allow him to end his life like this.” But Nikhil Roy, Director of Programmes at Penal Reform International, said: “While people are in prison it is the responsibility of the prison authorities to provide adequate care and opportunities for rehabilitation. This case highlights the lack of adequate therapy for prisoners and the fact that mental health issues are widespread in prisons around the world.”

September 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Texas poised to execute a second female murderer in one year

As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Court Declines To Stop North Texas Woman’s Execution," it appears as though Texas is not facing any impediments to completing a notable execution on Wednesday.  Here are the basics:

When paramedics responding to a 911 call arrived at a North Texas apartment, they found on the bathroom floor a dead boy clad only in bandages and a disposable diaper. He appeared to be 3 to 5 years old. Further investigation determined Davontae Williams actually was 9.

His emaciated body weighed only 36 pounds, about half of what a boy his age should weigh. Evidence showed he had been restrained repeatedly at his wrists and ankles. A pediatrician later would testify that he had more than 250 distinct injuries, including burns from cigarettes or cigars and scars from ligatures, and that a lack of food made him stop growing.

On Wednesday, Lisa Ann Coleman, the live-in girlfriend of Davontae’s mother, is set to be executed for the child’s July 2004 death in Arlington. Coleman’s trial lawyers said his death was an accident, that the boy had mental health issues, was difficult to handle and she and Marcella Williams, his mother, didn’t know how to deal with him in a positive manner.

Coleman, 38, would be the ninth Texas inmate to receive a lethal injection this year. She would be the sixth woman put to death in the nation’s busiest capital punishment state since executions resumed in Texas in 1982 and the second this year.

Nationally, she would be only the 15th woman executed since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, nearly 1,400 men have been executed.

After a Tarrant County jury in 2006 convicted Coleman and gave her a death sentence, Marcella Williams, facing similar charges, took a plea deal and accepted a life prison term. Now 33, she not eligible for parole until 2044.

Attorneys for Coleman argued in appeals that prosecutors improperly defined Davontae’s restraints and confinement in a closet as kidnapping to find an aggravating factor so Coleman could be eligible for the death penalty. They also argued that jurors who convicted her of capital murder did so because her trial lawyers were deficient. “It has never been Lisa Coleman’s position that she should not be punished for what she did,” attorney John Stickels said in an appeal the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which was rejected Tuesday....

Photos of Davontae shown to jurors were “horrendous” and illustrated his suffering, trial defense attorney Fred Cummings acknowledged, but he believed a life sentence also would have been appropriate for Coleman. “It just doesn’t seem that the system was fairly applied here,” Cummings said last week.

Evidence showed child welfare officials repeatedly investigated Marcella Williams but would lose track of her because she kept moving to evade them, fearing they would take away her son and two younger daughters.

The Death Penalty Information Center has this effective webpage that assembles information about the handful of women who have been executed in the modern death penalty era.  That page reveals that it has been more than a decade since two female murderers were executed in the same calendar year.  It also shows that Texas will still lag behind one other state for the most executions of women in a single year: in 2001, Oklahoma completed executions of three women.

September 16, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Claiming his innocence, convicted Florida murderer requests judge to impose death penalty

I have often told my sentencing classes that, if I was unlucky enough to be wrongly convicted of capital murder, I would likely request to be sentenced to death in the hope of bringing more attention to my case and cause.  This local story from Florida, headlined "Defendant Dares Judge to Give Death Penalty," suggests that at least on Florida defendant has a similar philosophy. Here are the details:

A South Florida man convicted of murdering two people during a string of Dunkin’ Donuts robberies in 2008, dared a judge Friday to sentence him to death.  “Honestly and truly, I’m not asking you to spare me,” James Herard said in Broward County courtroom on Friday. “Go ahead and do what you gonna do.  I pretty much dare you to give me the death sentence because I’m innocent.”

Herard, 25, was convicted on 18 of 19 counts by the Fort Lauderdale jury in May. The same jury that convicted him has recommended the death penalty for Herard. Herard did not testify during the trial, so Friday was his last chance to speak in court before the judge hands down his sentence.

“I’m actually hoping you give me the death penalty because I know the Supreme Court won’t allow me to die for something I didn’t commit,” Herard said Friday.

Prosecutors say Herard didn’t pull the trigger in the 2008 murder of 39-year-old Eric Jean-Pierre. But, they say he, along with other members of a gang, were part of a “body count competition” and Herard pushed Tharod Bell to murder Jean-Pierre.

“They’re claiming I encouraged Tharod Bell to shoot someone, and how I did that, I don’t know,” Herard told the court....

Herard was previously convicted of the murder of 58-year-old Kiem Huynh in 2008.  He received sentences of life imprisonment for Huynh’s death.

September 14, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Recent posts of special note from "Hercules and the Umpire"

I regularly read U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf's notable blog, "Hercules and the Umpire," an the last few weeks have brought more than the usual must-read posts from the judge on topics that should be of special interest to sentencing fans.  Here are a couple of posts on a couple of topics that I thought meritted special mention:

On the death penalty and debates thereover:

On the recent domestic violence conviction of U.S. District Court Judge Mark Fuller:

September 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Despite another round of drug-based appeals, Missouri and Texas both able to complete executions today

As reported in AP article here and here, both Missouri and Texas completed execution today.  Here are the leads from the two AP piece:

From Mizzou: "A Missouri inmate was put to death Wednesday for killing two people during a restaurant robbery in 1998, the eighth execution in the state this year and the 10th since November.  Earl Ringo Jr., 40, and an accomplice killed delivery driver Dennis Poyser and manager trainee JoAnna Baysinger at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Columbia in the early hours of July 4, 1998.  Poyser and Baysinger were shot to death at point-blank range.

"The Department of Corrections said Ringo was executed at 12:22 a.m. by lethal injection and pronounced dead at 12:31 a.m.  Courts and Gov. Jay Nixon had refused to halt the execution over concerns raised by Ringo's attorneys, who, among other things, questioned Missouri's use of a pre-execution sedative, midazolam.  Attorneys argued that the drug could dull Ringo's senses and leave him unable to express any pain or suffering during the process."

From Texas: "A man convicted of gunning down his former common-law wife and her brother more than two decades ago in Houston was put to death by lethal injection Wednesday evening.  Willie Trottie's execution was carried out about 90 minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last-day appeals. He had contended he had poor legal help at his trial and questioned the potency of the execution drug."

September 10, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Pitching argument to pitch death penalty as failed government policy

Daniel LaChance has this notable new op-ed in today's New York Times headlined "What Will Doom the Death Penalty: Capital Punishment, Another Failed Government Program?". Here are excerpts:

To opponents of the death penalty, recent accounts of botched executions and DNA-based exonerations of death-row prisoners have revived hope that judges and voters will finally see capital punishment for what it is: an intolerable affront to human dignity.

But while such optimism is understandable, it is misplaced....

[F]ederal oversight of capital cases ..., more than wrongful convictions and botched executions, is what is distinctive about the contemporary American death penalty.  New layers of appeals and new issues to litigate at both the state and federal levels meant that inmates put to death in 2012 had waited an average of almost 16 years for their execution date.  The deeply unsatisfying, decades-long limbo that follows a death sentence today is without precedent.  The 3,054 men and women languishing on the nation’s death rows have become the unwitting cast of a never-ending production of “Waiting for Godot.”...

Efforts to remedy the problem by reforming the appellate process have been unsuccessful. In 1996, when the average stay on death row was approaching 11 years, Congress enacted legislation restricting death-row inmates’ access to federal courts, in order to speed up executions.  But it didn’t work; since then, the time between sentencing and execution has grown by over 50 percent.

The problem, it turns out, isn’t foot-dragging by defense lawyers or bleeding-heart judges. It’s money.  In California, for instance, the low wages paid by the state to qualified lawyers who take on indigent inmates’ appeals have meant that there aren’t enough lawyers willing to do the work.  Inmates wait an average of three to five years after sentencing for a government-appointed lawyer to handle their appeal.  And that’s just the beginning of a process — sometimes lasting 25 years or more — that a federal judge recently determined was so protracted that it made capital punishment in California unconstitutionally cruel and unusual....

As depressing as it may be to abolitionists driven by a commitment to human rights, Americans, most of whom are white and live above the poverty line, find it hard to sympathize with members of an indigent, mostly minority death-row population who have been convicted of horrible crimes.  Preaching to the congregation rather than the choir, then, ought to focus on the failure of capital punishment to live up to the promise of retributive justice it once held.

Casual supporters of the death penalty can be made to recognize that the death penalty has become inextricably mired in the very bureaucracy and legalism it was once supposed to transcend, and that the only solutions to the problem — an elimination of appellate lawyers for death-row inmates or a financial bailout — are unlikely to be legal or feasible.

Resources for fighting the death penalty are scarce, and for too long, abolitionists have spent them appealing to the humanistic ideals they wished most Americans shared, instead of one they actually do: distrust of government.  Arguing that the death penalty is an affront to human dignity just doesn’t work.  But portraying it as another failed government program just might.

September 9, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, September 08, 2014

"The Dilemmas of Excessive Sentencing: Death May Be Different But How Different?"

The title of this post is the title of this essay by Michael Meltsner now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article is adapted from a speech given by the author in honor of Hugo Adams Bedau, inaugurating the Hugo Adam Bedau Memorial Lecture Series at Tufts University. The article explores the differences and substantial similarities of a prisoner being sentenced to death row versus being sentenced to life without parole.

The article strongly advocates granting parole eligibility to those with life sentences. It provides several examples detailing why this is so difficult politically, and highlights how Supreme Court rulings in Miller v. Alabama and Graham v. Florida, holding mandatory life without parole as unconstitutional for minors, implicate the same set of issues. The piece ends with a list of systemic reforms that would improve the criminal justice landscape.

September 8, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Oklahoma releases extensive report concerning problems with Lockett execution

As reported in this lengthy Tulsa World article, headlined "IV errors, lack of training cited in Oklahoma botched execution report," the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety released today this lengthy official report concerning the seemingly ugly execution of Clayton Lockett by the state back in April. Here is a rough summary of the report's findings via the news report:

Despite some problems, the execution drugs did what they were supposed to do, the Department of Public Safety said Thursday morning at a news conference on a report into Clayton Lockett's execution....

Lockett died April 29 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary 43 minutes after his execution began. Witnesses watched as he writhed, strained and mumbled on the gurney inside the execution chamber....

The stress of two planned executions in one day, a lack of proper equipment and no backup plan hampered Clayton Lockett's execution, according to the DPS report released earlier today.  The report also found that the Department of Corrections lacked a longer needle and other equipment that medical professionals requested to insert the IV.  It also states that officials took no steps to revive Lockett after his execution went awry and the blinds were closed....

Gov. Mary Fallin’s staff began preparing a stay of execution for Lockett, but he died before it could be issued, the report states. “There was conversation inside the chamber about administering life-saving measures to Lockett, including transporting him to the emergency room, but no order was given,” the report states.

A paramedic who assisted in the execution also said he felt “stressed” because two executions had been scheduled on the same day.  “It was apparent the stress level at OSP was raised because two executions had been scheduled on the same day,” the report states....

The report makes 10 recommendations for changes in the state’s execution process, including more training requirements and better communication between executioners and officials in the death chamber.  “The current processes, including the use of color pencils and hand signals, could be used as a contingency if other modern methods fail,” the report states.

Executions should also not be scheduled within seven days of each other due to manpower limitations, the report recommends.  DPS investigators interviewed more than 100 witnesses as part of the investigation, including a Tulsa World reporter who witnessed the execution....

The report states that problems with Lockett’s IV were the main reason the lethal drugs were not properly delivered into his bloodstream.  “This investigation concluded the viability of the IV access point was the single greatest factor that contributed to the difficulty in administering the execution drugs,” the report concludes.

An autopsy cites evidence on Lockett’s body that the execution team had difficulty starting his IV, taking about 45 minutes.  It notes at least 14 needle marks and incisions showing multiple attempts to start an IV in his elbows, groin, neck, jugular and foot.

Needles requested by the physician were not available at the prison, the report states. “The physician requested a longer needle/catheter for the femoral access … but none were readily available.  The physician also asked for an intraosseous infusion needle, but was told the prison did not have those either,” the report states....

The execution was the first in Oklahoma to use midazolam, a sedative that has been linked to several botched executions in other states.  Officials resorted to the drug after running out of pentobarbital, which had been used in previous executions.  “This investigation could not make a determination as to the effectiveness of the drugs at the specified concentration and volume,” the report states.  “They were independently tested and found to be the appropriate potency as prescribed.  The IV failure complicated the ability to determine the effectiveness of the drugs.”...

Despite DOC claims that Lockett had “purposefully dehydrated himself,” an autopsy by the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office did not find that Lockett was dehydrated, the report notes.

The paramedic assisting with the execution had participated in nearly every Oklahoma execution, the report states.  It does not explain why DOC documents repeatedly referred to the person as a phlebotomist, an occupation not required to be licensed in Oklahoma.

The physician overseeing the execution had only participated in one execution before Lockett’s, the report states. “This was his second execution with the first being four to five years earlier. The physician understood his duties were to assess Lockett to determine if he was unconscious and ultimately to pronounce his death,” the report states. “He was contacted two days prior to the execution date and asked to fill in for another physician that had a scheduling conflict.”...

Anita Trammell, warden at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, and Patton told investigators that DOC employees received “inadequate” training before the execution. “Warden Trammell stated the only training she received was on-the-job training and that DOC had no formalized training procedures or processes concerning the duties of each specific position’s responsibility,” the report states.

“The warden and director both indicated DOC had no training protocols or contingency plans on how to proceed with an execution if complications occur during the process.” The report states that DOC lacks training requirements for medical professionals and executioners taking part in executions.  “It was noted there was no formal training process involving the paramedic, the physician or the executioners and their specific roles. They were not involved in any pre-execution training or exercises to ensure they understood the overall process,” it states.

Notably, as the Tulsa World article highlights, this report and its recomendations could surely have some impact on Oklahoma's significant upcoming execution plans:

The state plans to review its protocols before the three executions it has scheduled. The execution of a second inmate, Warner, scheduled to be executed two hours after Lockett was stayed until Nov. 13.

Two additional executions have been scheduled after Warner’s execution.  State officials have not said whether they will have enough time to implement any recommended changes in protocol in time for the next scheduled execution.

Legal challenges to the state’s process could also delay upcoming executions. Claiming the state is experimenting on “captive and unwilling human subjects,” 21 Oklahoma death-row prisoners filed a federal lawsuit in June challenging the state’s execution protocols.

September 4, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

New report that Missouri is using controversial execution drug despite claims to the contrary

A helpful readers altered me to this notable new NPR affilate story headlined "Missouri Swore It Wouldn’t Use A Controversial Execution Drug. It Did."  Here is how the lengthy piece gets started:

In Ohio, the execution took 26 minutes, as the inmate gasped and snorted. In Oklahoma, it took 43 minutes until a conscious inmate died of what the state said was a heart attack. In Arizona, it took nearly two hours, with the inmate "gulping like a fish on land."

The three worst botched executions this year had at least one thing in common: The states all used a drug called Midazolam to sedate the inmate, with varying levels of success.

Botched executions in other states led to questions in Missouri, a state as secretive as the others. Top Missouri officials were asked about the state's methods. They defended their own protocol each time, pointing out that Missouri doesn’t use the same drugs as those other states.

But an investigation by St. Louis Public Radio shows that wasn't entirely true. According to documents we obtained, Missouri has used Midazolam in every execution since November of last year. In all nine executions since then, Missouri's execution team has injected the condemned with significant amounts of the sedative.

This is occurring in spite of the fact that Missouri's top corrections officials testified Midazolam would never be used in a Missouri execution.

September 3, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Noting the halting of executions in Mississippi ... and nationwide in nearly all states

This local AP article, headlined "Mississippi may be on death row execution hiatus," reports on modern capital punishment practical realities that exist in the majority of US jurisdictions these days. Here are the details from the Magnolia State:

Mississippi hasn't had an execution in two years, and state Attorney General Jim Hood says he can't predict when another might occur. No Mississippi death row appeals are presently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

"We usually make predictions on timing based on cases pending before that court," Hood told The Associated Press this past week. "There is no way to really know an exact timeline on any of these type cases," he said. "They are all making their way through the system at various paces. We have some nearing the end of their normal track of appeals, but there is just no way to know when we might have a case that would warrant the filing of a motion to set an execution date."...

The most recent execution in Mississippi was June 20, 2012. Gary Carl Simmons Jr., a former grocery store butcher, was executed for dismembering a man during a 1996 attack in which he also raped the man's female friend.  Before that, Jan Michael Brawner was executed on June 12, 2012, for fatally shooting his 3-year-old daughter, his ex-wife and her parents in a crime in which authorities say he also stole his slain mother-in-law's wedding ring and used it to propose to his girlfriend. The Mississippi Supreme Court blocked executions in 2013 and 2014.

It appears Mississippi is headed for another execution hiatus, but one that may not last as long as in the 1990s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1990 in a Mississippi death penalty case that described a capital crime to juries as "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel" without further definition was unconstitutionally vague.  The ruling resulted in nearly two dozen Mississippi death sentences being overturned.  For the rest of the 1990s, no executions took place in the state.  The July 2002 execution of Tracy Allen Hansen was Mississippi's first since 1989. Hansen was executed for gunning down a policeman in 1987.

From 1955 to 1964, Mississippi executed 31 men.  Another four were put to death in the 1980s.  Since 2002, including Hansen, 17 executions have taken place.  Mississippi had 60 inmates on death row as of Friday....

[In the modern capital era,] 1,385 inmates have been executed in 34 states through August.  More than a third of those were in Texas alone, and in recent years, only a handful of other states have carried out executions on a somewhat regular basis, among them Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma.  The number of death penalty prosecutions has been dropping, in large part because of the availability of lifetime prison sentences without parole.

Mississippi's longest serving inmates still have appeals moving through state and federal courts....  Richard Gerald Jordan, 68, has been on death row the longest -- 37 years calculated from his date of conviction, according to Department of Corrections' records. Jordan was convicted of capital murder committed in the course of a kidnapping.  James Billiot, 53, has been on death row 31 years.  He was convicted of using sledgehammer to kill his mother, stepfather and 14-year-old stepsister.  Roger Thorson, 56, has been on death row 25 years.  He was sentenced to die for killing a former girlfriend on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Intriguingly, at this page at the Death Penalty Information Center highlights, Mississippi had a pretty active execution chamber from 2010 to 2012. Indeed, sixteen different states had at least one execution during this period and eight states averaged two or more executions during these years. In notable contrast, over the last two years, only nine states have completed executions and only five have averaged two or more executions during this period. (And two of these "still active" execution states, Ohio and Oklahoma, have had their plans to conduct more executions halted due to ugly execution events earlier this year.)

Prior to the recent execution drug problems, I had come to think that the "death penalty is dying" narrative was losing steam, especially as the United States consistently averaged about four executions each month during the first term of the Obama era. But last year saw less than 40 executions nationwide, and there is a real possibility that this year will have fewest total executions in two decades.

September 2, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Could capital reprieve cost Colorado Gov his office?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Denver Post article, headlined "Colorado's pro-death penalty voters could make Hickenlooper pay." Here are excerpts:

The cold-blooded murders of three teenagers and a manager late one night in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora two decades ago has taken center stage in the political theater of this year's race for governor. Gov. John Hickenlooper has weathered political blows from the right since May 2013,when he granted the killer, Nathan Dunlap, a reprieve on his death sentence.

Hickenlooper's actions then reignited the hot topic over the weekend after Todd Shepherd of The Complete Colorado presented audio of Hickenlooper suggesting to a CNN film crew, in an interview for a segment of a documentary series set to air the evening of Sept. 7, that he could grant Dunlap clemency if he were to lose his re-election bid in November.

Besides reintroducing a wedge issue — capital punishment — that has a perception of marshaling Republican voters, the incumbent Democrat gave fresh life to Republicans' campaign narrative that Hickenloooper doesn't make forceful decisions. Republican nominee Bob Beauprez has repeatedly vowed on the campaign trail to execute Dunlap — an applause line for GOP voters....

Polling last April indicated Colorado voters support the death penalty 2-to-1. "This is a big issue," Owen Loftus, spokesman for the Colorado Republican Committee, said of the death penalty. "He's making it a bigger issue. The question of whether Gov. Hickenlooper is going to enforce justice or not — that gives people pause."...

When he ran for governor four years ago, Hickenlooper was vocal about being pro-capital punishment. His decision-making around the issue in 2013 has left some in his own party, and nearly everyone who opposes him, questioning his rationale.

The governor explained in his Dunlap decision that he believed Colorado's capital punishment system was "imperfect and inherently inequitable." The arguments began anew last weekend when news surfaced that Hickenlooper raised the possibility of clemency — which no Colorado governor has ever granted in a death penalty case. The governor reiterated his evolution on the issue this month when he told a television news reporter he opposes the death penalty....

Paul Teske, dean of the school of public affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, questioned whether Hickenlooper would lose any voters he might have had otherwise. "It could have a small influence, but the voters who are likely to be motivated by this issue probably weren't going to vote for Hickenlooper anyway," he said. But it could fit into a larger narrative. "I think Republicans will pair this with the gun issue to say that Hickenlooper is soft on public safety."

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said Hickenlooper can only blame himself for repeatedly reviving an issue that repeatedly hurts him. The issue was part of Hickenlooper's tipping point in 2013, Ciruli said, when he granted Dunlap the reprieve, helping drive down his approval ratings from results above and just below 60 percent to the low 40s.

"It was the first issue that clearly put him on the wrong side of the public," Ciruli said. "He had been a pretty popular governor up to that point in his first term, and it handed a very good issue to the Republicans to hammer him with. But it had kind of gone away. But now (since the CNN interview) he's reopened it."

By saying he might grant clemency if he loses, Hickenlooper didn't portray himself as a thoughtful leader, the pollster said. "Speaking in a hypothetical about what if he loses, what he might do, that comes across as politically manipulative," Ciruli said.

A Quinnipiac University poll in February indicated Coloradans by a 36 percent to 28 percent margin disapproved of Hickenlooper's handling of the Dunlap case. Meanwhile, 63 percent favored keeping the death penalty while 28 percent supported abolishing it. "There has been strong, unwavering support for the death penalty and a sense that the governor's 'not on my watch' position on the issue could hurt him on Election Day," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac's polling operation.

Colorado has three [defendants on death row]. Colorado has executed only one person in the last 47 years, kidnapper, rapist and murderer Gary Lee Davis, who was put to death in 1997.

August 30, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, August 25, 2014

What's the likely Ninth Circuit timeline for deciding the fate of California's death penalty in Jones v. Chappell?

As first noted in this post a few days ago, California Attorney General Kamala Harris has officially noticed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here), the remarkable case in which U.S. District Judge Carney declared all of California's death penalty system unconstitutional.  Because the stakes are so high in California and for modern death penalty jurisprudence generally, I expect this Ninth Circuit capital appeal will get considerable attention in the weeks and months ahead and that lots of different death penalty advocates (both pro and con) will be filing amicus briefs with competing claims about the constitutionality of California's death penalty system.

As the question in the title of post highlights, though I am sure the Jones v. Chappell appeal will get garner lots of attention, I am not sure how quickly (or slowly) the Ninth Circuit will hear and decide this case.  As death penalty fans know, federal capital habeas appeals have a (well-earned) reputation for proceeding either (1) very slowly, in part because a death row defendant raises so many case-specific claims concerning errors in a state trial and sentencing, or (2) very quickly, in part because there is a looming serious state execution date and the state highlights that all reasonable claims of error have been considered and rejected before.  In Jones v. Chappell, however, at issue on appeal is just one basic system-wide constitutional concern which is being considered in a case in which no serious execution date is looming.  Consequently, there is little reason to expect this appeal to move especially slowly or especially quickly.

Notably, a bit of irony attends the question in the title of this post because the constitutional issue in Jones v. Chappell centers on lengthy delays in appellate review in California and the apparent arbitrariness of which cases get through reviews more quickly or slowly.  Arguably, the longer the Ninth Circuit appellate process takes in Jones v. Chappell, the stronger the capital defendant's claims become.  That  bit of irony aside, I am eager to hear from any infomed Ninth Circuit capital habeas practitioners or observers concerning what kind of timelines are likely in play now in Jones v. Chappell.  Is this case likely to be fully briefed before the end of this year?   Can/should we reasaonally expect oral argument to take place in the early part of 2015 and a ruling not long thereafter?

I ask these questions not only because I am genuinely wondering what kind of pacing we all should expect in this matter, but also because this case necessarily should impact any political plans that California death penalty supporters and opponents may have for the big looming 2016 election.  Supporters of a more efficient and effective California death penalty system are already on record expressing interest in a voter initiative to reform the state's capital appellate process, and steadfast opponents of the death penalty also seem likely to eye a 2016 capital repeal initiative.  Not just how, but also exactly when, the Ninth Circuit rules in Jones v. Chappell could greatly impact initiative planning and advocacy.

Recent related posts:

August 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Perspective on victims' perspectives on the death penalty

Today's Washington Post has this intriguing new commentary headlined "Death penalty debate isn’t simple for families of victims." Here are excerpts:

Botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona and continuing problems with lethal-injection drugs have put the death penalty back in the news.  After a brief moratorium following Oklahoma’s debacle, my state, Missouri, has resumed executing its death-row prisoners. One of the condemned men there murdered the wife of the man I would later marry....

For most people, the death penalty debate falls along ideological lines — liberals are opposed and conservatives are in favor.  But for the families of victims, the debate is not so simple and the solution is not so clear.  They cringe when they hear left-leaning commentators repeatedly describe the chilling details of a botched execution without repeating the far more chilling details of the crime the condemned man committed.  But they also cringe when they hear right-leaning commentators who promote the sanctity of life but do not question state-sanctioned death.

The killing that forever changed my husband’s life is the kind of crime that reinforces the beliefs of both sides.  Advocates of the death penalty see an unspeakably brutal murder, committed with no known motivation against a woman alone in her upscale home. Opponents see an African American male suspect convicted by a white jury and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman, with no eyewitnesses, no DNA evidence and no confession.  They are both right.  The murder cried out for justice, but the conviction and sentencing fit a disturbing pattern of racial bias and rush to judgment....

Families of the victims, for the most part, do not weigh in on the debate.  For them, it is not a question of politics or policy.  It is personal, and whether the condemned killer dies alone in his cell or suffers an excruciating death at the hand of the state, their pain will not be erased by his.

Death penalty supporters talk of closure.  That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims.  Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings.  Our excruciatingly slow justice system has put my husband through more than 15 years of this. The killer may be getting what he deserves, but my husband will not be getting what he deserves: an end to the horrific memories that haunt him day and night.

As Missouri moves methodically through its backlog of condemned men and the killer’s last day is finally set, the crime will be back in the headlines.  Reporters will be calling my husband for comment, the condemned man’s lawyers will be interviewed, last-minute appeals on other grounds will be filed.  In the end, we can only hope that the execution drugs will be swift and effective, that the person administering them has been properly trained and that this will finally bring an end to killing in our lives.

August 23, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, August 22, 2014

California Attorney General seeking appeal in Jones v. Chappell capital case

As reported in this Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "California AG Kamala Harris to appeal ruling against death penalty," the Ninth Circuit will now be called upon to consider the remarkable decision last month by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruling that all of California's death penalty system is unconstitutional.  The ruling in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here), has already generated lots of thoughtful discussion (as reflected in posts last month  here and here), and now I suspect the case is going to generate lots of thoughtful amicus briefs on both sides.

For a host of reasons, I am not very surprised and I am very pleased that California AG Harris has decided to appeals the important and consequential ruling in Jones v. Chappell.  The facts stressed and conclusions reached in that decision merit greater attention and scrutiny, and proceedings in the Ninth Circuit will help ensure the cases and its issues get a wider airing.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if the Ninth Circuit ends up having both a regular panel and an en banc panel consider the issues in Jones v. Chappell all as a prelude to an (inevitable?) cert petition by the losing party on appeal.  In other words, stay tuned death penalty followers.

Recent related posts:

August 22, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"15 years without an execution: the death penalty in Pennsylvania"

The title of this post is the headline of this local article highlighting Pennsylvania's remarkably long de facto moratorium on executions despite sending a significant number of murderers to death row." Here are the details:

Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Corbett has issued his thirty-sixth execution warrant. Michael Parrish, from Monroe County, is scheduled for execution in October after being convicted of killing his girlfriend and baby.

But according to experts, if the current trend continues, it could be decades before that ever happens. "Anyone who fights the death penalty today can go on for 15 to 25 years on death row," said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.

Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the United States for the most people on death row. Close to 200 people currently have a death sentence, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. But the state has executed just three people in the last 35 years.

Morganelli said lengthy appeals are a factor, but not the sole, or biggest influence. "We have federal judges who constantly block these executions…It has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It is because the federal judges are philosophically opposed to the death penalty," Morganelli said. Other experts said overturned death sentences are also a reason.

Notably, Pennsylvania's modern experience with the death penalty seems somewhat comparable to what has transpired in California; the facts and factors in Pennsylvania thus seem similar to those stressed in Jones v. Chappell, last month's controversial federal district court ruling that California's death penalty is unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment (basics here). I would think more than a few savvy defense lawyers representing death row defendants in Pennsylvania are likely adding Jones claims to their appeals.

Some related posts:

August 20, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"An Empirical Evaluation of the Connecticut Death Penalty System Since 1973: Are There Unlawful Racial, Gender, and Geographic Disparities?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article recently posted on SSRN and authored by John J. Donohue III.  Here is the abstract:

This article analyzes the 205 death-eligible murders leading to homicide convictions in Connecticut from 1973-2007 to determine if discriminatory and arbitrary factors influenced capital outcomes.  A regression analysis controlling for an array of legitimate factors relevant to the crime, defendant, and victim provides overwhelming evidence that minority defendants who kill white victims are capitally charged at substantially higher rates than minority defendants who kill minorities, that geography influences both capital charging and sentencing decisions (with the location of a crime in Waterbury being the single most potent influence on which death-eligible cases will lead to a sentence of death), and that the Connecticut death penalty system has not limited its application to the worst of the worst death-eligible defendants.  The work of an expert hired by the State of Connecticut provided emphatic, independent confirmation of these three findings, and found that women who commit death-eligible crimes are less likely than men to be sentenced to death.

There is also strong and statistically significant evidence that minority defendants who kill whites are more likely to end up with capital sentences than comparable cases with white defendants.  Regression estimates of the effect of both race and geography on death sentencing reveal the disparities can be glaring. Considering the most common type of death-eligible murder — a multiple victim homicide — a white on white murder of average egregiousness outside Waterbury has a .57 percent chance of being sentenced to death, while a minority committing the identical crime on white victims in Waterbury would face a 91.2 percent likelihood.  In other words, the minority defendant in Waterbury would be 160 times more likely to get a sustained death sentence than the comparable white defendant in the rest of the state.

Among the nine Connecticut defendants to receive sustained death sentences over the study period, only Michael Ross comports with the dictates that “within the category of capital crimes, the death penalty must be reserved for ‘the worst of the worst.’”  For the eight defendants on death row (after the 2005 execution of Ross), the median number of equally or more egregious death-eligible cases that did not receive death sentences is between 35 and 46 (depending on the egregiousness measure).  In light of the prospective abolition of the Connecticut death penalty in April 2012, which eliminated the deterrence rationale for the death penalty, Atkins v. Virginia teaches that unless the Connecticut death penalty regime “measurably contributes to [the goal of retribution], it is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering, and hence an unconstitutional punishment.”  Apart from Ross, the evidence suggests that the eight others residing on death row were not measurably more culpable than the many who were not capitally sentenced.

Moreover, Connecticut imposed sustained death sentences at a rate of 4.4 percent (9 of 205).  This rate of death sentencing is among the lowest in the nation and more than two-thirds lower than the 15 percent pre-Furman Georgia rate that was deemed constitutionally problematic in that “freakishly rare” sentences of death are likely to be arbitrary.

August 19, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Notable new follow-ups to recent ugly executions in Arizona and Ohio

Coincidentally, this week has brought two distinct follow-up article examining the backstories that may have contributed to two distinct ugly executions in Arizona and Ohio.  The Arizona follow-up story comes via this new New York Times article headlined "Arizona Loose With Its Rules in Executions, Records Show," and it starts this way:

In an execution in 2010 in Arizona, the presiding doctor was supposed to connect the intravenous line to the convict’s arm — a procedure written into the state’s lethal injection protocol and considered by many doctors as the easiest and best way to attach a line. Instead he chose to use a vein in an upper thigh, near the groin. “It’s my preference,” the doctor said later in a deposition, testifying anonymously because of his role as a five-time executioner. For his work, he received $5,000 to $6,000 per day — in cash — with two days for practice before each execution.

That improvisation is not unusual for Arizona, where corrections officials and medical staff members routinely deviate from the state’s written rules for conducting executions, state records and court filings show. Sometimes they improvise even while a convict is strapped to a table in the execution chamber and waiting for the drugs coursing through his veins to take effect.

In 2012, when Arizona was scheduled to execute two convicted murderers, its Corrections Department discovered at the last minute that the expiration dates for the drugs it was planning to use had passed, so it decided to switch drug methods. Last month, Arizona again deviated from its execution protocol, and things did not go as planned: The convicted murderer Joseph R. Wood III took nearly two hours to die, during which he received 13 more doses of lethal drugs than the two doses set out by the state’s rules.

The Ohio follow-up story comes via this new New Republic article headlined "Exclusive Emails Show Ohio's Doubts About Lethal Injection: The state worried new drugs could make prisoners "gasp" and "hyperventilate" — and used them anyway." Here is how it gets started:

In July 23, Arizona took 117 minutes to execute a convicted murderer named Joseph Rudolph Wood III. It was not the nation’s first execution to last that long. In September 2009, Romell Broom entered the Ohio death chamber and exited two hours later still breathing — the only inmate in U.S. history to survive a lethal injection. The executioners had scoured his arms, legs, hands, and ankles for veins in which to stick their needles. But they repeatedly missed the vessels with the IVs. After at least 18 failures, Ohio had no choice but to cancel the execution.

In Wood’s execution, the trouble began when the drugs began to flow.  Arizona’s executioners first injected Wood with a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, two drugs they had never used before in an execution. When the first dose failed to stop his heart, the executioners administered a second.  And then a third. The execution team injected 15 doses in total before a doctor finally pronounced death. An Arizona Republic reporter witnessing the execution said Wood gasped more than 640 times and that he “gulped like a fish on land.”

IDespite their different problems, the attempted execution of Broom and the execution of Wood are connected by more than just their lengths.  Had executioners in Ohio been able to insert IVs into Broom’s veins, Wood’s execution might have gone much more smoothly. That’s because the Broom debacle led Ohio to write a “Plan B” for lethal injections, introducing into the death chamber for the first time the untested drugs Arizona would use years later to kill Wood.  And emails I obtained from Ohio reveal some of the state's internal debates and concerns about these drugs—including fears that an inmate could “gasp” and “hyperventilate” as he died.

IDoctors warned from the beginning that midazolam and hydromorphone could create “a distasteful and disgusting spectacle.”  And yet the drugs spread from Ohio across the country, revealing the lengths states will go to in order to carry out death sentences despite constant IV trouble, drug shortages, and problematic executions.

August 19, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Waking the Furman Giant"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new article by Sam Kamin and Justin F. Marceau available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In its 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, the Supreme Court — concerned that the death penalty was being imposed infrequently and without objectively measurable criteria — held that the penalty violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. In the four decades since Furman there has been considerable Eighth Amendment litigation regarding capital punishment, but almost none of it has focused on the Court’s concern with arbitrariness and infrequency. But this may be about to change. With a growing body of quantitative data regarding the low death sentencing rates in several states, Furman is poised to return to center stage. While previous challenges attacked the form of various state capital statutes, new empirical data is leading condemned inmates to challenge the application of state sentencing statutes.

This article announces the return of Furman — a splintered opinion that nonetheless remains binding precedent 42 years after it was decided — and provides a reading of that case that can guide courts as they consider the latest round of challenges to the application of capital punishment. A careful revisiting of Furman is necessary and overdue because the critical underpinnings of American death penalty jurisprudence — narrowing, eligibility, and individualization — are currently being conflated, or forgotten altogether by both courts and capital litigants. This Article, is a timely guidepost for the inevitable next wave of Furman litigation.

August 12, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, August 11, 2014

Federal district judge extends Ohio's death penalty moratorium based on execution challenges to January 2015

As reported in this Reuters article, a "federal judge has added five months to a moratorium on executions in Ohio amid scrutiny of a double-drug cocktail the state wants to use." Here is more:

U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost, in a one-page ruling issued on Friday, said more time is required “in light of the continuing need for discovery and necessary preparations related to the adoption and implementation of the new execution protocol.”

Ohio Governor John Kasich, who since 2011 has commuted death sentences for four men on death row, had no comment about the judge's decision, a spokesman for his office said.

Frost initially ordered a halt to executions in May, barring state officials from carrying out executions until Aug. 15. That decision came after a botched execution in Oklahoma brought renewed scrutiny to lethal injection, and after a lengthy Ohio execution in January that used an untested combination of drugs. Ohio now plans to use those same two drugs in increased dosages.

The decision on Friday also followed the July 23 execution in Arizona of inmate Joseph Wood, who witnesses said "gasped and snorted" for more than 90 minutes as he was put to death at a state prison complex....

The moratorium issued by Frost on Friday is set to remain in effect until January 15, 2015. Frost's actions come after the state said in April it would increase the dose of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone used in its lethal injections.

The last execution in the state took place in January when inmate Dennis McGuire, 53, became the first in the country to be put to death using the midazolam and hydromorphone combination. His execution took 25 minutes and witnesses said McGuire was gasping for breath for at least 15 minutes. McGuire was convicted of the rape and murder of a pregnant woman. After reviewing the execution, state officials said they would increase the dosage of the drugs used in future executions.

Before issuing the extended moratorium, Ohio was set to resume executions on Sept. 18 with the lethal injection of Ronald Phillip, convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in 1993.

August 11, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack