Tuesday, April 15, 2014
"Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths"
The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed published yesterday. Authored by Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno, here is how it starts:
Facing a critical shortage of lethal injection drugs, prison officials in a number of states have recently engaged in an unseemly scramble to obtain new execution drugs, often from unreliable and even illegal sources. Not only does this trend raise serious questions about the constitutionality of executions, it also undermines the foundations of our democratic process. In the name of security, states are now withholding vital information about their death penalty procedures — from death row prisoners’ lawyers and from judges, whose stamp of approval they need to impose the ultimate sanction, as well as from the public, in whose name the sentence is carried out.
States have long shielded the identities of executioners, a reasonable policy that should not interfere with judicial review of execution procedures. But in the past year, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and other states have expanded the reach of their secrecy laws to include not just the execution drugs used, but even the pharmacies that supply them.
These laws hide the information necessary to determine if the drugs will work as intended and cause death in a humane manner. For states to conceal how they obtain the execution drugs, whether those purchases comply with the law and whether the drugs themselves are legitimate prevents courts from analyzing the legality and constitutionality of death penalty procedures. And that deprives the public of informed debate.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
"Bombshell or Babystep? The Ramifications of Miller v. Alabama for Sentencing Law and Juvenile Crime Policy"
The title of this post is the title of this symposium foreword authored by Paul Litton and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This short essay, which serves as the Symposium Foreword, argues that the rationale of Miller is incoherent insofar as it permits juvenile LWOP sentences and that the Court misidentifies the foundational principle of Roper.
First, in banning mandatory juvenile LWOP sentences, the Court invokes Woodson, which bans mandatory death sentences. The Court maintains that Woodson, from its capital jurisprudence, applies because juvenile LWOP is “akin to the death penalty” for juveniles. But if the Court’s capital jurisprudence is binding based on that equivalence, Roper should imply that juvenile LWOP, like the death penalty, is unconstitutional for juveniles. This essay briefly explores whether there is a principled reason for the Court to invoke Woodson but not Roper from its capital jurisprudence.
Second, the Court does cite Roper for its “foundational principle,” which is, according to the Court, “that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.” However, this principle cannot be the bedrock of Roper. Since Lockett, state capital sentencing schemes have not proceeded as though juvenile offenders were not children. Juvenile capital defendants could introduce their youth and accompanying characteristics in mitigation. Roper, therefore, is based on a much stronger principle, one that requires categorical removal of juveniles from the universe of death-eligible defendants and, thus, should imply the same for penalties equivalent to death.
This Foreword also provides a guide to the symposium’s wonderful contributions by Nancy Gertner, Will Berry, Frank Bowman, Josh Gupta-Kagan, Michael O’Hear, Clark Peters, Mary Price, and Mae Quinn. In doing so, it highlights a fascinating theme running through many authors’ answer to whether Miller represents a “bombshell or babystep”: Miller’s implications for the Court’s methodology for conducting proportionality analyses and, specifically, for the role of “objective indicia” of public attitudes in such analyses.
April 12, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Friday, April 11, 2014
Is New Hampshire on the verge of becoming the next state to abolish the death penalty?
As reported in this local AP article, headlined "On revote, N.H. Senate panel endorses death penalty repeal measure," the Granite State appears to have now moved a step closer to possible repeal of capital punishment. Here are the details:
The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday revisited the idea of repealing New Hampshire’s death penalty and recommended that it pass, setting up a potentially historic vote in the chamber next week. The bill represents the most energetic recent effort to repeal the state’s centuries-old death penalty. It passed the committee by a 3-2 vote, days after the same panel issued a tie vote that could have sounded the death knell on the repeal effort.
The House has voted resoundingly for repeal, and the governor supports it. The Thursday vote in the Republican-controlled Senate is said to be too close to call. “I think it will be a tight vote,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley told the Associated Press. “I think it will not break down all that much on party lines.”...
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 2-2 Tuesday with one member absent, an outcome that would have automatically sent a message to the Senate to kill the repeal measure. The committee reconsidered the issue yesterday in deference to Democrat Donna Soucy of Manchester, who missed Tuesday’s meeting due to a family medical issue. There was no debate.
Sens. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat, Sam Cataldo, a Farmington Republican, and Soucy voted for repeal. Sens. Sharon Carson of Londonderry and David Boutin of Hooksett, both Republicans, voted against it.
The state is the closest to repealing the death penalty that it’s been since 2000, when both houses of the Legislature approved repeal, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would sign the repeal measure, because it wouldn’t affect the death sentence of Michael Addison – convicted of killing Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Addison is the only death row convict in the state, which has not seen an execution since 1939.
Death penalty opponents greeted yesterday’s vote with cautious optimism. Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in separate crimes, has not wavered in his opposition to the death penalty through nearly two decades of sponsoring repeal measures.
“Everybody’s a swing vote,” Cushing said after yesterday’s vote. “It’s not a party issue,” he added. “There are a lot of senators genuinely wrestling with this.”
The House last month voted 225-104 in favor of repeal. The vote in the 24-member Senate – with 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats – could come down to a one-vote margin. A tie vote would kill the measure.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
"Death Delayed Is Retribution Denied"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Russell Christopher now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Does death row incarceration for upwards of thirty years or more impermissibly impose the suffering of additional punishment or permissibly bestow the benefit of death delayed and thus the enjoyment of life extended? Most commentators conceive of it as an unconstitutional additional punishment that is either cruel and unusual or disproportionally excessive. Most courts construe it as a constitutional nonpunishment that the death row prisoner opts for and benefits from. Sparking a long-running debate at the Supreme Court, Justices Stevens and Breyer view prolonged death row incarceration as unconstitutional additional punishment. Terming their view as “meritless” and “a mockery of our system of justice,” Justice Thomas finds it constitutional.
Attempting to break this impasse, this Article undertakes the first comprehensive assessment of death row incarceration under what the Supreme Court enthrones as the primary justification for the constitutionality of capital punishment — retributivism. Assuming that retributivism does justify capital punishment per se, this Article demonstrates that the combination of capital punishment plus substantial death row incarceration violates retributivism. Whether such incarceration constitutes additional punishment aggravating capital punishment or a life-extending, beneficial mitigation of capital punishment, the combination is unjustified under retributivism and thus perhaps unconstitutional.
Tuesday, April 08, 2014
NY Times debates "What It Means if the Death Penalty Is Dying"
Last week, lawmakers in New Hampshire heard testimony on a bill outlawing the death penalty. If passed, the law would make New Hampshire the 19th state to abolish capital punishment. The United States, the only country in the Americas to practice the death penalty last year, executed 39 people, four fewer than the year before, and Texas accounted for 41 percent of them, according to Amnesty International.
As executions become concentrated in fewer and fewer states and racial disparities continue, does the application of capital punishment make it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual?
Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:
"Rare and Decreasing" by Richard Dieter
"Punishment Needs to Be Punishment" by Robert Blecker
"No Justice for Victims of Color" by Khalilah Brown-Dean
"Of Course, It’s Cruel and Unusual" by Kirk Bloodsworth
"Claims of Racial Disparity Are Misleading" by John McAdams
"The Most ‘Unusual’ It’s Ever Been" by Paul Butler
Saturday, April 05, 2014
"Is the Death Penalty Starting to Make a Global Comeback?"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Slate commentary. Here are excerpts:
An Indian court today sentenced three men to death for the horrific gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai last year. They are the first to be sentenced under India’s tough new anti-rape law.
The sentence hammers home something that’s been obvious for some time now: After appearing to be on the verge of abolishing the death penalty entirely, India has now firmly rejoined the ranks of the world’s executioners. It’s one of a number of countries — including some of the world’s largest democracies — that have recently re-embraced capital punishment.
A 1983 Indian Supreme Court decision allows for capital punishment in only the “rarest of the rare” cases, and from 2004 to 2011 the country didn’t carry out any executions at all. From 1995 to 2012, it carried out only three. Then in 2012, Ajmal Kasab, the last surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, was hanged in secret in what appeared to be an unusually swift and haphazard execution. The Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru was hanged under similar circumstances last year. Seventy-two people in total were sentenced to die in India last year, including four of the men involved in the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi in 2012 — a case that shocked the country and prompted the drafting of laws aimed at speeding up the prosecution of rapists.
India’s not the only country heading in this direction. Amnesty International’s 2013 death penalty report noted that executions were up 15 percent last year — and that’s not even counting China, where the number of executions is a state secret. Just three countries — Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia — accounted for 80 percent of executions, but to my mind, the most interesting recent trend has been been the countries that, like India, have been bucking the general global movement away from the death penalty.
In 2012 Japan carried out its first executions since 2010. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, four rounds of “secret executions” have taken place. Nigeria carried out its first executions in seven years last year and Indonesia its first in five years. Vietnam resumed them after an 18-month pause with the execution of seven people by lethal injection.
It’s true that in terms of number of countries, the world is moving away from the death penalty. According to Amnesty’s numbers, 37 countries had the death penalty in 1994, compared with 22 today. In Europe and Latin America, the practice has essentially been entirely banished and an increasing number of African countries are reviewing their laws.
On the other hand, with the exception of Brazil, where it’s banned, and Russia, where it’s legal but abolished in practice, the world’s 10 biggest countries are all death penalty states. With India, Japan, and Indonesia rejoining the U.S., the world’s largest democracies are death penalty countries and the practice has heavy popular support in all of them.
UPDATE: This interesting international article highlights related death penalty developments under the headline "Vietnam is sentencing corrupt bankers to death, by firing squad."
Thursday, April 03, 2014
Serial killer hoping SCOTUS will be troubled by execution drug secrecy in Texas
As highlighted in this AP article, a legal challenges based on execution drug secrecy is now before the Supreme Court after a Texas death row defendant has won and then lost on lower courts in his effort to block his execution. Here are the basics:
Attorneys for a serial killer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution set for Thursday in Texas as they challenge that state's refusal to release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug.
Lawyers for Tommy Lynn Sells made the plea after a federal appeals court allowed the execution to stay on schedule. A lower court had stayed the execution Wednesday, ordering Texas to reveal more information about its drug supplier, but the ruling was quickly tossed on appeal. "It is not in the public interest for the state to be allowed to be deceptive in its efforts to procure lethal injection drugs," Sells' attorneys told the high court.
The appeal was one of two separate issues pending before the justices. Another before the court since last month asked for the punishment to be stopped to review whether Sells' legal help at his trial was deficient, and whether a court improperly denied him money to hire investigators to conduct a probe about his background.
Sells, who was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old South Texas girl in 1999, claims to have committed as many as 70 killings across the U.S. The 49-year-old is scheduled to be lethally injected Thursday evening in Huntsville. Sells' attorneys argue that they need to know the name of the company now providing the state with pentobarbital, the drug used during executions, in order to verify the drug's quality and protect Sells from unconstitutional pain and suffering.
But 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas prison officials, who argued that information about the drug supplier must be kept secret to protect the company from threats of violence. It also found that the stock of the pentobarbital, a powerful sedative, falls within the acceptable ranges of potency. The court said that had Texas wanted to use a drug never used before for executions or a completely new drug whose efficiency or science was unknown, "the case might be different."
It's unclear how the Supreme Court would rule. Last month it rejected similar arguments from a Missouri inmate's attorneys who challenged the secrecy surrounding where that state obtained its execution drugs, and the condemned prisoner was put to death....
A batch of pentobarbital that Texas purchased from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston expired at the end of March. The pharmacy refused to sell the state any more drugs, citing threats it received after its name was made public. That led Texas to its new, undisclosed suppler.
The court case challenging the state's stance also included 44-year-old Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, who is scheduled for execution next week. But the 5th Circuit ruling affected only Sells. Maurie Levin, an attorney for the inmates, said Sells' case would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Levin said the lower court ruling, which had ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to give defense attorneys details about the drug supplier and how the drug was tested, "honors the importance of transparency in the execution process."
If Sells' execution is carried out Thursday, it would be the fifth lethal injection this year in Texas, the nation's busiest death-penalty state.
Sells had dubbed himself "Coast to Coast," a nod either to his wandering existence as a carnival worker or to his criminal history. Court documents said he claimed as many as 70 murders in his lifetime in states including Alabama, California, Arizona, Kentucky and Arkansas. "We did confirm 22 (slayings)," retired Texas Ranger John Allen said this week. "I know there's more. I know there's a lot more. Obviously, we won't ever know."
UPDATE: This AP story reports that Sells "was put to death Thursday in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyers' demand that the state release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug."
Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Reviewing the state of the death penalty in the Buckeye State
The Attorney General of Ohio has a statutory obligation to report on the state's administration of capital punishment each year, and this local article highlights parts of the latest version of the AG's Capital Crimes Report (which can be accessed in full here):
Ohio continues to add more people to Death Row — four last year — even though the lethal injection process is mired in legal controversy.
The 2013 Capital Crimes Report, issued today by Attorney General Mike DeWine, says 12 executions are scheduled in the next two years, with four more pending the setting of death dates....
Ohio has carried out 53 executions since 1999, including three last year, the same as in 2012. The annual status report on capital punishment in Ohio, which covers calendar year 2013, does not mention the problems during the Jan. 16, 2014, execution of Dennis McGuire when he gasped, choked and struggled for more than 10 minutes before succumbing to a two-drug combination never before used in a U.S. execution.... The next scheduled execution is Arthur Tyler of Cuyahoga County on May 28.
DeWine’s report notes that 316 people have been sentenced to death in Ohio since 1981 when capital punishment was restored after being overturned as being unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The report cites 18 gubernatorial commutations of death sentences: four by Kasich, five by Gov. Ted Strickland, one by Gov. Bob Taft, and eight by Gov. Richard F. Celeste.
For the first time this year, a group opposed to the death penalty issued its own report in response to the official state document. Ohioans to Stop Executions concludes, “While Ohio's overall use of the death penalty is slowing, it has become clearer than ever before that the race of the victim and location of the crime are the most accurate predictors of death sentences in the Buckeye State.” The group said 40% of death sentence originate in Cuyahoga County.
Ohio prosecutors filed 21 capital murder indictments last year, a 28 percent drop from 2012, as life without the possibility of parole sentences became more prevalent.
I do not believe the report from the group Ohioans to Stop Executions is available yet, but I assume it will be posted on OTSE's website before too long.
Saturday, March 29, 2014
"What’s the Best Way to Execute Someone?"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Slate commentary. Here is an excerpt:
Without an expert in the room, states often rely on executioners who don’t really know what they’re doing. As one anesthesiologist told me, “the executioners are fundamentally incompetent. They have neither the technical skill nor the cognitive ability to do this properly.” Another added, “In medicine, the burden of proof is on the doctor to show that something is safe. We would never give a new drug to a patient until it’s been tested, approved by the FDA, etc. With the death penalty, the burden of proof has been inverted. These compounds, which are clearly causing patients to suffer, are deemed safe until proven otherwise. Yet the department of corrections prevents the release of information pertaining to how the lethal injection is carried out, making it impossible for a lawyer to make a strong case that this method is cruel and unusual.” Georgia is in fact working on a Lethal Injection Secrecy Act.
As our understanding of cruelty continues to evolve — let’s not forget that drawing and quartering was once an acceptable method of execution — future generations may wonder why lethal injection was performed so poorly and carelessly, and with so little oversight. Part of the problem is the terminology: Words like injection and cocktail and gurney give the illusion that this form of capital punishment is civil. This allows, regrettably, for a softening of the perception of what is actually happening: Medications that were designed to heal have been repurposed to kill.
And it’s not just the wrong doses — it’s the wrong drugs. A professor of anesthesiology at a large academic medical center said, “We have the drugs to do it in a way that doesn’t cause suffering. I read the doses they were using and thought, ‘That’s not enough! Who is coming up with this? Whoever did certainly doesn’t do this for a living.’ You need two components for lethal injection: amnesia and analgesia. This ensures the person is not aware and not in pain. Drugs like potassium chloride and pancuronium (a paralytic) — the drugs approved by the Supreme Court — are unnecessary. When they euthanize a dog, they don't use potassium or a paralytic. You don’t even need an anesthesiologist! Any physician could look up the proper dosing in a textbook.”
While I was researching this piece and discussing with friends the nuances of optimizing lethal injection, a number of them stopped me midsentence and asked, “Who cares?” Should it be our concern that a monster may have experienced profound discomfort in his or her final minutes? Recounting precisely what happened to Dennis McGuire — who was convicted of the 1989 rape and murder of 22-year-old Joy Stewart, who was about 30 weeks pregnant at the time — led some to express the hope that he did suffer. But regardless of your stance on the death penalty, the story of McGuire’s slow asphyxiation should lead you to wonder whether it violated our Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment....
A compelling case can be made that based on efficacy, diffusion of responsibility, and inexpensiveness, death by firing squad is a better option. (Or perhaps the guillotine.) Some organs would remain intact for donation, and although it might appear grisly, it’s quick, and it is the only method of execution for which we already train people. Interestingly, in states that have offered both shooting and hanging — which also fulfills many of the above criteria — inmates usually opt for the firing squad. One could argue that if properly done, lethal injection would be more humane than either of these methods, but we can no longer expect that it will be properly done.
Friday, March 28, 2014
Could Oklahoma ruling declaring drug secrecy unconstitutional impact execution plans nationwide?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Reuters article, headlined "U.S. executions set for possible delay after Oklahoma court decision." Here are excerpts:
An Oklahoma judge ruled on Wednesday the state's secrecy on its lethal injections protocols was unconstitutional, a decision that could delay executions in other states where death row inmates are planning to launch similar challenges.
County district court judge Patricia Parrish ruled the state violated due process protections in the U.S. Constitution by not providing the name of the drug supplier, the combination of chemicals and the dosages used in executions. Oklahoma's attorney general said the office will appeal.
Oklahoma and other U.S. states have been struggling to obtain drugs for executions. Many pharmaceutical firms, mostly in Europe, have imposed sales bans because they object to having medications made for other purposes used in lethal injections. The states have looked to alter the chemicals used for lethal injection and keep the suppliers' identities secret. They have also turned to lightly regulated compounding pharmacies that can mix chemicals.
But lawyers for death row inmates argue drugs from compounding pharmacies can lack purity and potency and cause undue suffering, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. "Judge Parrish's decision is a major outcome that should have a reverberating impact on other states that are facing similar kinds of transparency issues," said Fordham Law Professor Deborah Denno, who specializes in the legalities of lethal injections....
Legal experts expect more states to face challenges that will delay executions, but if they settle transparency issues, many will resume putting inmates to death. "Almost every state is hiding part of the process, or is attempting to," said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center....
For now, several of the 32 states with the death penalty are keeping mum about business transactions for execution drugs. Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any other state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, has obtained a fresh batch of the drug it uses for its executions. But Texas will not identify the supplier, citing "previous, specific threats of serious physical harm made against businesses and their employees that have provided drugs used in the lethal injection process," the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a statement.
Alabama said this week it has run out of one of the main drugs it uses, putting on hold executions for 16 inmates who have exhausted appeals and face capital punishment. It is also looking at ways to keep the name of drug providers secret. Inmates in Missouri, which carried out an execution this week, have sued the state over execution protocols that include layers of secrecy.
Arizona said on Wednesday it had to change its lethal injection cocktail because it could not obtain the drugs it once used. "Being lost in the conversation and political maneuvering is the fact that family of murdered loved ones are paying the ultimate price as they wait for justice to be carried out," Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said in a statement.
Some related prior posts:
- Is undue "secrecy" in the execution process a constitutional problem?
- "Lethal Injection Secrecy Post-Baze"
- "Compound Sentence: States keep mum on where lethal injection drugs are made"
Thursday, March 27, 2014
"Global Executions Rise With Help From Iran and Iraq"
The title of this post is the headline of this new piece via Time reporting on new worldwide execution data assembled by Amnesty International. Here are the basics:
A steep rise in the number of people executed in Iran and Iraq caused the total number of executions worldwide to rise 15 percent last year, Amnesty International said Thursday. Almost 80 percent of all known executions were recorded in only three countries: Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2013, the number of executions in Iraq went up to 169, while Iran saw them rise to 369. At least 778 people were put to death in 2013, the rights group said, compared to 682 in 2012.
China is still thought to execute the most people, though exact numbers are kept secret. Kuwait, Nigeria, Indonesia and Vietnam last year all resumed their use of capital punishment. But there has been a general decline in the total number of countries using capital punishment in the last 20 years. Many countries who executed people in 2012 did not do so in 2013, including Gambia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
"Victim Gender and the Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by a whole bunch of folks at Cornell Law School and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Previous research suggests that cases involving female victims are more likely to result in death sentences. The current study examines possible reasons for this relationship using capital punishment data from the state of Delaware. Death was sought much more for murders of either male or female white victims compared to murders of black male victims. Analyzing capital sentencing hearings in Delaware from 1977-2007 decided by judges or juries, we found that both characteristics of the victims and characteristics of the murders differentiated male and female victim cases. The presence of sexual victimization, the method of killing, the relationship between the victim and the defendant, and whether or not the victim had family responsibilities all predicted the likelihood of a death sentence and help to explain why cases with female victims are more likely to be punished with a death sentence.
March 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Could 2014 be a "comeback" year for state executions?
Because last Saturday my fantasy baseball league had its annual auction, I have spent time recently thinking about which MLB players might have a big "comeback" year after struggling through 2013. (As I Yankee fan, I am hoping Derek Jeter has a great comeback; as a fantasy GM, I am hoping Beckett might reward me for using a roster spot to pick him up.) With comeback concerns in mind, I have lately been thinking about whether state executions might also end up staging something of a comeback after struggling through varied challenges with lethal injection protocols and drug shortages though 2013.
As detailed in this yearly execution chart from the Death Penalty Information Center, there were only 39 executions in 2013. That was the second lowest yearly total in nearly two decades, and the other recent year with less than 40 executions (2008) was the direct result of SCOTUS halting all executions for a number of months while it considered the constitutionality of lethal execution protocols in Baze. Opponents of the death penalty celebrated the low number of executions in 2013, and they surely were hoping execution difficulties would drive down execution numbers even further in 2014.
Details from DPIC here and here, however, report that there have already been 12 executions in 2014 and that there are another 12 "serious" execution dates scheduled for the next six weeks. If most of these executions go forward, and especially if states like Texas and Florida continue to be able to find drugs to continue with executions, it seems very possible that there could end up being 50 or more executions in 2014.
Friday, March 21, 2014
"Why conservatives should oppose the flawed death penalty, too"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Salon commentary authored by Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford and Alex Gibney. Here are excerpts:
For the last two decades, each of us has examined the criminal justice system in our own work. And so with the political debate over capital punishment once again intensifying, we came together this past year to explore the human dramas inside this institution – from cases resulting in exonerations to those still in limbo to those involving indisputable guilt. In the process, we discovered disturbing patterns that reveal systemic problems. These include:
Arbitrariness: A convict’s chances of ending up on death row today depend as much on the crime as on the convict’s race and geographic location. This was most recently documented by a University of Maryland study of Harris County, Texas. This one area in greater Houston has executed more people than any other state in the country. County data showed African American defendants were three times more likely to face the death penalty than similarly situated white defendants. Additionally, African Americans were more than twice as likely as similarly situated whites to receive death sentences from juries....
Law enforcement misconduct: Cases of suppressed evidence often exemplify how the quest for death penalty convictions can foster a culture of unaccountable lawlessness inside the justice system. And as we discovered in our investigation of the John Thompson case in New Orleans, such a culture can become almost impossible to curtail....
Cost: When accounting for pretrial hearings, trials, appeals, security and prison expenses, the death penalty costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Spending that much money on capital punishment costs lives. Why? Because those resources are being diverted from potentially lifesaving programs that could put more police officers on the street, investigate cold cases and prevent recidivist crime.
Failure to deter crime: If the death penalty was deterring crime, perhaps its costs could be justified. But there is far more evidence that it is failing to deter crime. For example, the aggregate homicide rate in death penalty states has been consistently higher than the rate in non-death-penalty states.Likewise, a survey of the nation’s criminologists found 88 percent saying that capital punishment does not deter crime....
As most recently evidenced by the Obamacare websites, the most straightforward government tasks often involve errors and imperfections. Even the most ardent law-and-order conservatives should be able to admit the same truism applies to the government-administered death penalty. If we cannot blindly trust the government to safeguard health, can we trust it to administer death?
Whether Democratic or Republican, legislators can no longer ignore the fatal flaw in the justice system. At a minimum, we must insist that they find a way to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct that canl — if intentional — amount to premeditated murder. More broadly, we should insist that lawmakers face the most harrowing question from all of our death row stories: if the institution of capital punishmentl — with consequences so final and irreversible — can never be a perfect instrument of criminal justice, is the institution itself a criminal injustice?
March 21, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Texas officials get hooked up by special secret (capital) drug dealer
As reported in this AP story, headlined "Texas finds new execution drug supply," Texas officials seem to have special abilities to acquire the drugs needed to continue with executions. Here are the (cloak-and-dagger?) details:
Texas has obtained a new batch of the drugs it uses to execute death row inmates, allowing the state to continue carrying out death sentences once its existing supply expires at the end of the month. But correction officials will not say where they bought the drugs, arguing that information must be kept secret to protect the safety of its new supplier. In interviews with The Associated Press, officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also refused to say whether providing anonymity to its new supplier of the sedative pentobarbital was a condition of its purchase.
The decision to keep details about the drugs and their source secret puts the agency at odds with past rulings of the state attorney general's office, which has said the state's open records law requires the agency to disclose specifics about the drugs it uses to carry out lethal injections. "We are not disclosing the identity of the pharmacy because of previous, specific threats of serious physical harm made against businesses and their employees that have provided drugs used in the lethal injection process," said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.
The dispute in the state that executes more inmates than any other comes as major drugmakers, many based in Europe, have stopped selling pentobarbital and other substances used in lethal injections to U.S. corrections agencies because they oppose the death penalty. Until obtaining its new supply from the unknown provider, Texas only had enough pentobarbital to continue carrying out executions through the end of March. Earlier this week, a court rescheduled two executions set for this month in Oklahoma — another leading death penalty state — because prison officials were having trouble obtaining the drugs, including pentobarbital, needed for its lethal injections.
Such legal challenges have grown more common as the drug shortages have forced several states to change their execution protocols and buy drugs from alternate suppliers, including compounding pharmacies that are not as heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as more conventional pharmacies....
Alan Futrell, an attorney for convicted murderer Tommy Sells, whose scheduled April 3 execution would make him the first to be put to death with Texas' new drug supply, said the issue could become fodder for legal attempts to delay his sentence. "This might be good stuff," he said. "And the roads are getting very short here."
But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment organization, said it was doubtful that Texas would get to a point where a lack of drugs led officials to fully suspend capital punishment. "There are a lot of drugs, and Texas can be creative in finding some," he said.
Texas' current inventory of pentobarbital, the sedative it has used in lethal injections since 2012, will expire April 1. The state executed one inmate, Ray Jasper, on Wednesday evening and has scheduled executions for five more, including one next week. That execution, like Wednesday's, will draw from the existing stockpile purchased last year from a suburban Houston compounding pharmacy, Clark said. The new batch of drugs presumably would be used for three Texas inmates set to die in April, including Sells, and one in May.
Sixteen convicted killers were executed in Texas last year, more than in any other state. Jasper's execution was Texas' third this year, bringing the total to 511 since capital punishment in the state resumed in 1982. The total accounts for nearly one-third of all the executions in the U.S. since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling allowed capital punishment to resume....
Policies in some states, like Missouri and Oklahoma, keep the identities of drug suppliers secret, citing privacy concerns. Clark, in refusing AP's request to answer any specific questions about the new batch of drugs, said after prison officials identified the suburban Houston compounding pharmacy that provided its existing supply of pentobarbital, that pharmacy was targeted for protests by death penalty opponents. It sought to have Texas return the pentobarbital it manufactured, and prison officials refused.
Texas law does not specifically spell out whether officials can refuse to make the name of drug suppliers public, but Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office has on three occasions rejected arguments by the agency that disclosing that information would put the drug supply and manufacturers at risk. In a 2012 opinion, his office rejected the argument that disclosing the inventory would allow others to figure out the state's suppliers, dismissing the same kind of security concerns raised this week....
Clark said the prison agency planned to ask Abbott to reconsider the issue. "We're not in conflict with the law," Clark said. "We plan to seek an AG's opinion, which is appropriate in a situation like this, and the AG's office will determine whether it's releasable."
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Idaho officials struggle to calculate capital case costs
As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Idaho death penalty cost report finds limited data," officials in The Gem State has been finding it hard to do a complete accounting of capital case costs. Here are the details:
A new report from Idaho's state auditors shows that sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole is less expensive than imposing the death penalty. But the Office of Performance Evaluations also found that the state's criminal justice agencies don't collect enough data to determine the total cost of the death penalty. The report was presented to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Wednesday by Hannah Crumrine and Tony Grange.
Idaho is one of 32 states with the death penalty, but two of those states — Oregon and Washington — have moratoriums on executions. Idaho has executed 29 people since 1864, but only three since 1977. Keith Eugene Wells was executed in 1994, Paul Ezra Rhoades was executed in 2011 and Richard Leavitt was executed in 2012.
It's difficult to determine just how much imposing the death penalty costs, Crumrine told the committee, in part because most of the needed data is unavailable. Law enforcement agencies typically don't differentiate between the costs of investigating death penalty murder cases and non-death penalty murder cases, and jail and prison staffers don't track the transport costs to bring a condemned prisoner to court cases versus a regular prisoner.
The researchers were able to determine some costs, however: Eleven counties have been reimbursed more than $4.1 million for capital defense costs since 1998, and the state appellate public defender's office has spent nearly half a million dollars on death penalty cases between 2004 and 2013. The Idaho Department of Correction spent more than $102,000 on executing Leavitt and Rhoades.
In any case, it's clear that death penalty cases cost more than sentencing an offender to life without parole, according to the report, in part because it takes longer for the appeal process to come to an end in death penalty cases. And the ultimate penalty is seldom imposed: The report found that of the 251 first-degree murder cases filed from 1998 to 2013, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 42 and it was imposed in just seven cases.
Of the 40 people sentenced to death in Idaho since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, 21 have had their sentences overturned on appeal or are no longer sentenced to death for other reasons, 12 are still appealing their cases and four died in prison. Just three were executed during that time span.
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote a letter responding to the report, stating that he believes state agencies have been diligent in accounting for and containing costs. Otter wrote that though the report raises the question of whether tax dollars are spent wisely on capital punishment, he continues to support the death penalty laws.
Oklahoma court postpones two executions due to drug shortages
As reported in this AP article, an "Oklahoma court on Tuesday rescheduled a pair of executions set for this week and next, so state prison officials will have more time to find a supply of drugs for the lethal injections." Here is more about the latest challenge facing a state trying to carry out a death sentence:
The decision came in a lawsuit in which two inmates had sought more information about the drugs that would be used to execute them later this month. The inmates had sought a stay of their executions, but the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals said that request was moot because the state Department of Corrections doesn't have enough drugs on hand to carry out their death sentences. "The attorney general's attestations give this court no confidence that the state will be able to procure the necessary drugs before the scheduled executions are carried out," the court wrote.
Oklahoma and other states that have the death penalty have been scrambling for substitute drugs or new sources for drugs for lethal injections after major drugmakers — many based in Europe with longtime opposition to the death penalty — stopped selling to prisons and corrections departments. While the judges didn't rule on the merit of the inmates' stay request, they pushed their executions back a month — Clayton Lockett to April 22 and Charles Warner to April 29....
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he is upset the executions have been delayed, but said Warner and Lockett will ultimately still be punished for their crimes. "This delay is not about the facts of the case, nor does it seek to overturn the convictions of these two murderers. Instead, it's about outside forces employing threats, intimidation, and coercion to keep the state of Oklahoma from imposing the punishment handed down for these heinous crimes," Pruitt said. "It's not a matter of if these punishments will be carried out, but it is only a matter of when."
Lockett, who was to be executed Thursday, was found guilty in the 1999 shooting death of a 19-year-old Perry woman. Warner was set to be executed on March 27 for the 1997 rape and murder of his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter. In their lawsuit, Lockett and Warner said they feared the drugs to be used might be contaminated and cause them undue harm, in violation of a constitutional guarantee against cruel or unusual punishment. A hearing in Oklahoma County District Court is set for March 26 on whether it's proper for the state to keep execution procedures behind a "veil of secrecy."
"We are relieved that the OCCA's decision allows Mr. Warner and Mr. Lockett to proceed on their constitutional challenge to Oklahoma's execution-secrecy law and execution protocol," Madeline Cohen, a federal public defender who previously represented Charles Warner, said. "We hope that no execution will go forward until we are able to obtain full information about how Oklahoma intends to conduct those executions, including the source of its execution drugs."
In briefs filed with the Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday, the state attorney general's office said prison officials were having difficulty finding pentobarbital, a sedative, and vecuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant. The state also uses potassium chloride to stop an inmate's heart. "The state declared it had pursued 'every feasible option to obtain the necessary execution drugs' but its 'Herculean' efforts so far had been unsuccessful," the court wrote.
State lawyers warned that, if it is required to find different drugs, it would have to write a new execution protocol that would likely face another court challenge. Judge Gary L. Lumpkin dissented Tuesday's decision. He said the inmates had failed to meet their burden for a stay but said the court shouldn't have granted a delay because the state hadn't asked for one.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Despite legislative abolition, Connecticut jury imposes death sentence on triple murderer
This local article from Connecticut reports on the outcome of the last capital case that was still in the works when the state abolished, prospectively only, the punishment of death. The article is headlined "Roszkowski gets death row for triple murder," and here are the basics:
A career burglar from Trumbull became the 12th and last resident of Connecticut's death row when a jury found he should die by lethal injection for the execution-style murders of a mother, her 9-year-old daughter and a Milford landscaper. "I won't have any trouble getting to sleep tonight because I know we did the right thing," said juror Cedric Grech, shortly after a state Superior Court jury on Monday handed down the penalty for Richard Roszkowski.
"Right now I'm emotionally drained," said juror Ladawn Newton. "But I know that mother, her little girl and Mr. Gaudet and their families can finally have peace in their lives, and that makes me feel good that we made the right decision."
The fact that he will now be in the history books -- albeit for one of the worst crimes in the city's history -- didn't appear to affect the 48-year-old Roszkowski, who sat emotionless at the defense table as the verdict was read by Court Clerk Thomas Saint John.
It was certainly not lost on his lawyer, Michael Courtney, who had bragged in the courtroom during the two-month trial that he had never lost a Connecticut death case. Courtney's face turned bright red and he shook his head mouthing, "No, no, no" as the verdict was announced. Meanwhile, his co-counsel, Corrie-Ann Mainville, moved up to Roszkowski and began massaging his back and shoulder, whispering in his ear.
"This verdict was for Kylie," said C. Robert Satti Jr., who prosecuted the case along with Margaret Kelley, referring to the murdered girl. Satti's father, C. Robert Satti Sr., had successfully prosecuted the last man executed in this state, serial killer Michael Ross, who died by legal injection in 2005 after 20 years on death row. "It was an extremely conscientious jury that weighed the facts and the evidence and came to the appropriate verdict," Satti said.
Several jurors said it was the brutality Roszkowski showed the girl that earned him the death penalty. "There was just no excuse for what he did to the little girl," Grech said....
In a strange twist in the case, the president of Poland -- Roszkowski is of Polish descent -- is demanding that the U.S. not execute him; the courts have not yet addressed the issue.
In April 2012, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a law eliminating the death penalty, but kept it in place for the 11 people now on death row. The Roszkowski case, which was pending at the time the law was signed, is the state's last death-penalty trial.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
The state of the death penalty in the Sunshine State
This lengthy new Orlando Sentinel article, headlined As death penalty wanes in U.S., Florida executes even more killers," provides a review of capital realities in a state that now leads even Texas in number of executions in 2014 so far. Here are some of the details:
Robert Lavern Henry is set to be executed this week for killing two women in 1989 by beating them with a hammer and setting them on fire in a Deerfield Beach fabric store. He would be the 16th prisoner executed under Gov. Rick Scott's watch, more than any other modern Florida governor in a single term.
At a time when other states are curtailing or outlawing executions, Florida is bucking the trend. A swelling number of death sentences handed down in the 1990s are reaching the ends of their appeals. Florida also is experiencing a rare window of relatively few legal challenges, botched executions or political infighting over the issue....
Florida has been more likely to hand out death sentences and is the only state that doesn't require unanimous jury recommendations for the death penalty. Florida's 15 death sentences and California's 24 accounted for nearly half of the death sentences dealt nationwide in 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Only nine states carried out executions in 2013, and Maryland became the sixth state in six years to outlaw the death penalty. Meanwhile, Florida executed seven people in 2013, second only to Texas with 16. Florida leads the country with three executions so far this year.
Yet some experts say the Sunshine State's death-penalty system needs sweeping change. Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt, chaired the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Assessment Team, which in 2006 issued a study that pronounced Florida capital punishment deeply flawed. It recommended a top-to-bottom review to ensure innocent people weren't being executed. But that never happened. "As far as I can tell, the Florida system remains in just as much disarray as when we looked at it," he said.
Some lawmakers are still trying to carry out one of the team's proposals to require unanimous jury sentencing recommendations for the death penalty. "Florida is an outlier," said Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat sponsoring the bill, HB 467.
Instead, lawmakers and governors have tried repeatedly during the past three decades to accelerate executions....
The latest example is the 2013 "Timely Justice" law, which required the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court to certify a list of cases ready for death warrants. In October, the clerk sent a list of 133 names where appeals had been exhausted to Scott's office, out of the about 400 people on death row.
The law set timelines for when Scott must act on those names, although his office still solely determines when the clemency process has been exhausted. "I think over time we'll see the average amount of time people spend on death row decrease exponentially," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R- Fort Walton Beach, who sponsored the bill. "The effect is clear." Florida death-row inmates wait about 14 years on average to die, the Department of Corrections says....
This past summer, a group of lawyers representing death-row inmates challenged the "Timely Justice" law as a violation of separation of powers and due process for inmates. The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments last month but hasn't ruled yet. Lawyers last week asked the court to delay Henry's execution until a decision is rendered, but the justices Friday denied that request.
Saturday, March 15, 2014
"Stop turning death row inmates into tragic celebrities"
The title of this post is the headline of this recent commentary from the Dallas Morning News, which gets started this way:
Want to end the death penalty in Texas? Quit being a sucker. Stop turning death row inmates into tragic celebrities. Quit letting your opposition to criminal punishment policy make romantic political prisoners out of sociopaths and killers.
The current case-in-point is Ray Jasper III, who is scheduled for execution by injection next week. Earlier this month, he became an Internet sensation when the news blog Gawker published his long and well-written critique of the U.S. justice system in general and the Texas death penalty in particular [available here].
Jasper, 33, quotes Gandhi, Thoreau, Martin Luther King. He equates modern-day executions with lynchings and the Holocaust. He writes knowledgeably about the law of parties, Texas’ felony murder rule that says an accomplice — like a lookout or a getaway driver — is just as guilty as the co-defendant who personally pulled the trigger or wielded the knife. “The facts are undisputed that I did not kill the victim,” he writes, yet under Texas law, “I’m criminally responsible for someone else’s conduct.”
“My life is a testament to what it is to be young and black in America,” he dramatically writes, as part of his lengthy treatise on racism, oppression and the “prison-industrial complex.” He conjures up a powerful analogy between the plight of prison inmates and that of antebellum slaves.
All of this made opponents of capital punishment, who routinely deride Texas for its “barbaric” imposition of the death penalty, swoon. The letter was picked up, copied, translated into foreign languages. Enthusiastic bloggers called it “beautiful,” “profound,” “eye-opening,” “gut-wrenching” and “startlingly eloquent and thought-provoking.”
It’s also a large dish of self-serving baloney. It skillfully parrots all the most fashionable tropes favored by the “ain’t-Texas-backwards” crowd. And it tidily sidesteps the pertinent facts of Jasper’s crime.
The facts, according to court records, are these: In 1998, Jasper, an aspiring rap singer, made plans to rob and kill David Alejandro, a San Antonio musician who ran a small independent recording studio. Jasper recruited two accomplices. The three went to the studio and spent two hours recording. Then Jasper walked over to Alejandro, who was running the soundboard, yanked his head back by the hair, and cut his throat open with a kitchen knife.
With blood pouring out of his neck, Alejandro desperately fought back. Jasper shouted for an accomplice, who rushed over and stabbed Alejandro more than 20 times. The assailants threw a tarp over the dead man while they loaded the studio equipment into their cars. They were caught within a few days.
Jasper maintains that he isn’t guilty of murder because the medical examiner said it was the stab wounds rather than the cut throat that technically caused death. Thus, after planning the crime, cutting the victim’s throat and confessing all this to the police, he maintains that he’s “not a killer” and that he “never killed anyone.” If Texas says different, he maintains, it’s because Texas is a backwater police state of racism and oppression.
Nobody would have bothered challenging Jasper’s “startlingly eloquent” message had not the victim’s brother written Gawker a letter in response [available here]. If you want startling eloquence, read what Steven Alejandro, a lifelong capital punishment opponent, says to anti-death-penalty activists:
“Keep up your fight. It is an honorable one. But do not use this man, Ray Jasper, as your spokesperson, as your example of why the death penalty should be abolished. The death penalty should be abolished because it is wrong to kill another human being. Ray Jasper is not worthy of your good and kind hearts. He has never accepted culpability or expressed remorse.”