Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Should the Supreme Court reflect the country's "disenchantment with capital punishment"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times commentary by Linda Greenhouse headlined "The Supreme Court's Death Trap."  Here are excerpts:

You wouldn’t know it from the death penalty proceeding about to take place in the Boston Marathon case, or from Utah’s reauthorization of the firing squad, or the spate of botched lethal injections, but capital punishment in the United States is becoming vestigial.

The number of death sentences imposed last year, 72, was the lowest in 40 years. The number of executions, 35, was the lowest since 1994, less than half the modern peak of 98, reached in 1999.  Seven states, the fewest in 25 years, carried out executions.

California has the country’s biggest death row, with more than 700 inmates.  Many more of them die of natural causes — two since mid-­March — than by execution.  Last July, a federal district judge, Cormac J. Carney, concluding that California’s death penalty had become “dysfunctional,” “random” and devoid of “penological purpose,” declared it unconstitutional; the state is appealing.

But if there’s one place that seems to stand apart from the tide of disenchantment with capital punishment, it’s the Supreme Court....

Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court correspondent for The Times, has highlighted the disturbing way the court handled a challenge to Missouri’s lethal­-injection protocol back in January: first, over four dissenting votes, permitting the state to execute Charles F. Warner, one of four inmates who had filed appeals, only to agree a week later to hear the appeals of three identically situated inmates.  The court then granted stays of execution to the three and will hear their case, Glossip v. Gross, on April 29....

A Texas death­-row inmate, Lester Leroy Bower Jr., managed to win a stay of execution in February to enable the justices to decide whether to hear his challenge to the state courts’ handling of his mitigating evidence.  Last week, the Supreme Court turned down his appeal, thus dissolving the stay, over the dissenting votes of Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor; Justice Breyer, not given to overstatement, wrote that “the error here is glaring.” Since at least two others must have voted for the stay, where were they? Perhaps after carefully considering the merits of Mr. Bower’s appeal, they found itinsufficient. Fair enough. But shouldn’t they have felt moved to tell us something — anything?

An argument on Monday was simply dispiriting. A Louisiana inmate, Kevan Brumfield, with an I.Q. of 75, was sentenced to death before the Atkins decision barred the execution of mentally disabled people.  At trial, his lawyer had presented some evidence of his disability, but not in the detail a court would expect in the post-­Atkins world.  The question for the justices in Brumfield v. Cain was whether he should have received a new hearing. The obvious answer would seem to be: Of course, why on earth not?  But the justices seemed more concerned about whether Mr. Brumfield and his lawyer were trying to game the system.

In 2008, two years before he retired, Justice John Paul Stevens renounced the death penalty.  His nuanced opinion in Baze v. Rees rewards rereading.  No current justice has taken up the call. I’m not so naïve as to predict that a majority of the Supreme Court will declare the death penalty unconstitutional anytime soon.  But the voice of even one member of the court could set a clarifying marker to which others would have to respond. And it just might over time point the way to freeing the court — and the rest of us — from the machinery of death.

April 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Another pharmacy group expresses opposition to involvement in executions

As noted in this prior post, last week a trade group for compound pharmacists has discouraged its members from preparing or dispensing drugs for executions.  Now, as reported in this new NBC News article, the "American Pharmacists Association voted Monday to oppose participation in executions, declaring that helping put prisoners to death violates the goals and oath of the profession." Here is more about these developments:

Neither policy is binding, but they could dissuade specialty pharmacists — now the only source for lethal injections in many states — from selling their products to prisons for executions. "It adds to the difficulty," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment. "It's unfortunate that groups such as this would allow themselves to be dragged into a political dispute."

But Corinna Lain, a professor at the Richmond School of Law, said it has more to do with the bottom line. With just 35 executions across the country last year, lethal injections are not a big profit center. "The cost of these drugs has skyrocketed from something like $83 a vial to $1,200 to $1,500 a vial. But that's still a drop in the bucket for a pharmacy's total sales. And look at the downside — the negative publicity is tremendous. Executions are bad for business for compounding pharmacies for the same reason they were bad for business for the pharmaceutical companies."...

Scheidgger said he hopes that at least a few compounding pharmacies will buck the trade groups and continue to sell their products to prisons until a new source is found. "I expect states will eventually find a supply and this problem will go away," he said.

March 31, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 30, 2015

California and Ohio facing capital congestion without a functioning execution chamber

Theses two local stories concerning death row realities in two states strike a similar note:

From California here, "California's death row, with no executions in sight, runs out of room." This story starts this way:

With no executions in nearly a decade and newly condemned men arriving each month, the nation's largest death row has run out of room.  Warning that there is little time to lose, Gov. Jerry Brown is asking the California Legislature for $3.2 million to open nearly 100 more cells for condemned men at San Quentin State Prison.  The proposed expansion would take advantage of cells made available as the state releases low-level drug offenders and thieves under a new law voters approved last year.

California's death penalty has been the subject of a decade of litigation. One case led to a halt to executions in 2006. Another resulted in a federal judge's ruling last July that the state's interminably slow capital appeals system is unconstitutionally cruel.  Through it all, the death row population has grown from 646 in 2006 to 751 today.

From Ohio here, "Backup of killers awaiting execution is building."  This story starts this way:

Midway through Ohio’s two-year death penalty moratorium, a backup of men awaiting execution is building.  There are 20 inmates either scheduled for execution or for whom prosecutors are seeking execution dates from the Ohio Supreme Court, according to the Capital Crimes Annual Report released today by Attorney General Mike DeWine. [The report also indicates 145 murderers are on Ohio's death row now.]

Especially because no state other than Texas ever shown a consistent ability to conduct more than 10 executions in any given year, these data necessarily mean many years (and likely many decades) will be needed to actually carry out a significant number of imposed capital punishments in these states when (if?) these states get their death machineries operating again.

March 30, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

SCOTUS grants cert on collection of capital cases from Kansas

The state of Kansas has not carried out a death sentence since 1965.  But even though the Sunflower state has not truly utilized its system of capital punishment for a full half-century, the Supreme Court apparently believes it is important to review three capital cases from the state as evidenced by its cert grants this morning in Kansas v. Jonathan Carr, Kansas v. Reginald Carr and Kansas v. Sidney Gleason.

This AP article provides this summary of the underlying crimes and defendants whose cases are now before the Justices:

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Kansas' appeal to reinstate death sentences for two brothers in the fatal shootings of four people and for another man convicted of killing a couple.

The justices said they will review rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court that threw out the sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr and Sidney Gleason. The Kansas court hasn't upheld a death sentence since the state enacted a new capital punishment law in 1994. The state's last executions, by hanging, took place in 1965.

The Carr brothers were sentenced to death for the four killings, which occurred in Wichita in December 2000 and followed dozens of other crimes, including robbery and rape. Gleason was sentenced to die over the couple's deaths, in the central Kansas town of Great Bend in February 2004.

March 30, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Previewing the little SCOTUS capital case examining what procedure Atkins may require

On the last Monday of March 2015, the only case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is a quirky capital case from Louisiana, Brumfield v. Cain, which appears only to concern the process by which a state rejects a defendant's claim that he is intellectually disabled and thus prohibited from execution after Atkins.  Here are the questions presented:

(1) Whether a state court that considers the evidence presented at a petitioner’s penalty phase proceeding as determinative of the petitioner’s claim of mental retardation under Atkins v. Virginia has based its decision on an unreasonable determination of facts under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); and (2) whether a state court that denies funding to an indigent petitioner who has no other means of obtaining evidence of his mental retardation has denied petitioner his “opportunity to be heard,” contrary to Atkins and Ford v. Wainwright and his constitutional right to be provided with the “basic tools” for an adequate defense, contrary to Ake v. Oklahoma.

Lyle Denniston provides this SCOTUSblog preview, which notes that the lone amicus brief filed in this case highlights that Louisiana's "state courts have now established procedures for fully evaluating a mental disability claim, making Brumfield’s case an aberration."  In short, it seems unlikely that the Brumfield case will be of great consequence for anyone other than killer Kevin Brumfield. But one never knows what the Justices will do with a capital case.

March 29, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Should states try harder to condemn and execute women to overcome death penalty's sexism?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary about the Jodi Arias case headlined "Why the death penalty in America is sexist." Here are excerpts:

It took only one juror to spare Jodi Arias the death penalty for the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2008. Considering the United States has executed only 13 women in the last 40 years, a death sentence would have been highly unusual.

Women committed less than 10% of all murders in America between 2000 and 2010, a Wall Street Journal analysis of crime data found. Women defendants, however, only make up 2% of death row, according to a recent report by the NAACP.

Even fewer women actually get executed, Death Penalty Information Center executive director Richard Dieter told Business Insider. "There's just less enforcement of the death penalty at almost every stage for females," he said.

Two major factors contribute to the low number of women who get capital punishment: the nature of the crime and how juries view women in general. The death penalty is often used for killers who also commit other felonies like robbery or rape, law professor Victor Streib has previously told the LA Times. Many of the murders women commit, on the other hand, involve people they're related to.

While women commit about 10% of murders, they were responsible for 35% of murders of intimate partners between 1980 and 2008. Most juries consider these crimes of passion arising from disputes — one-time offenses, Dieter said. Because of the high rate of domestic violence against women, though, juries don't give men the same benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, most states consider killing a child an aggravating factor, or a reason for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Hiring someone to do the work could also land a woman on death row. "If a woman hires someone, there's a coldness, a calculation. It's different than something that arises out of an argument," Dieter said. Teresa Lewis, for example, plotted to kill her husband and stepson for the insurance money. "Instead of pulling a trigger on a gun, she pulled a couple of young men in to pull the trigger for her," prosecutor David Grimes told a judge at the time, The Washington Post reported. She was the first woman Virginia sentenced to die in more than 100 years.

But the second factor — the jury's perception of the "fragile" female psyche — can overpower aggravating factors. "It's just easier to convince a jury that women suffer emotional distress or other emotional problems more than men," Streib told the LA Times....

"These 12 people [the jury] are asked to see if this person has any redeeming qualities. And they often see their own mother or wife or grandmother, not someone who will continue to be a threat to society," Dieter said. "Jurors just see women differently than men."

Of course, most women aren't going to argue for gender parity in the death penalty, Dahlia Lithwick has written in Slate. Only 59% of women favor the death penalty compared to 67% of men, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. "For equality's sake, you think that women would want the death penalty pursued more often," Dieter said. "But of course, they don't."

March 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, March 27, 2015

Has modern "death penalty politics radically, shockingly changed"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Salon piece which carries this full headline: "'We’re seeing it among Evangelicals': How death penalty politics radically, shockingly changed." The piece reports on an interview with National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty executive director Diann Rust-Tierney, and here is how the Q&A is introduced:

The recent release of Debra Milke, an Arizona woman who spent 23 years on death row for a crime she did not commit, is first and foremost a tragic story of injustice. But it’s something else, too: another arresting example of how the reality of the criminal justice system in the U.S., which has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, falls well short of its supposed intentions. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by law-and-order drug warrior Ronald Reagan, told Congress earlier this week, the system is, “[i]n many respects … broken.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are more willing to discuss making serious changes to American justice than they have been in more than a decade, but one of the most stark and disturbing manifestations of the system’s flaws still often goes unmentioned. We’re thinking, of course, about the death penalty. But if one considers the great attention paid by the media and the public to recent botched executions in Oklahoma and Arizona — as well as Utah’s decision to bring back firing squads — there’s reason to think that, too, may soon change.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty executive director Diann Rust-Tierney about her group’s work and the changing politics of capital punishment.

March 27, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Are compounding pharmacies likely to cut off drug dealing to states for executions?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable Wall Street Journal article headlined "Compound Pharmacists Trade Group Discourages Supplying Execution Meds." Here are excerpts:

As more states turn to compounding pharmacies to supply medicines for executions, the leading trade group for compound pharmacists is now discouraging its members from preparing or dispensing drugs for this purpose.

The move reflects growing concern among some compound pharmacists that some states – in response to ongoing controversy over the supply of drugs for lethal injections – may decide to alter regulations in ways that would cause pharmacists to face legal problems, according to the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists. “We have concerns about what may occur,” says David Miller, the IACP chief executive. The trade group represents approximately 3,700 pharmacists who compound medicines, a process that involves customizing ingredients for a specific use.

Separately, the American Pharmacists Association will also consider adopting a similar position at a meeting that begins later this week, according to an official of the trade group, which represents about 62,000 pharmacists nationwide. The vast majority of APA members work for traditional pharmacies that dispense medicines manufactured by drug makers.

Until now, the IACP had not taken any position on supplying drugs for executions, but adopted this new stance after a growing number of drug makers began restricting the use of their medicines for executions. At least nine drug makers have formally taken this step, according to Reprieve, an advocacy group in the U.K. that has been pressuring companies to withhold their medicines for executions.

As a result, more states have gradually turned to compound pharmacies to supply drugs for lethal injections. To date, nine states have either used or indicated they intend to use compounded medicines for lethal injections, according to the Death Penalty Information Center....

Currently, pharmacists are permitted by law to dispense medications for executions if a licensed doctor writes a legitimate prescription, says Carmen Catizone, the executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which represents the state boards, the government agencies that regulate pharmacy practice. At the moment, he says there is no indication that any state legislature is considering a change to its regulations that might pose legal problems for pharmacists.

However, he explains that new policy statements may attract attention from state boards, especially given ongoing controversy over executions and the availability of medicines. “For any change in regulations or rule, the state boards would have to take action.” says Catizone, “But a change in policy can be significant because it may prompt our members to take a closer look at an issue.”

For his part, Miller says the IACP is concerned that state boards may decide to consider such action and, as a result, its members could eventually face legal action. “We definitely think it’s a possibility,” he says. At the same time, the trade group also worries pharmacists who supply drugs may face harassment if their identities become known. The IACP points to a recent episode in Tennessee where the name of a compound pharmacist was inadvertently disclosed. The IACP notes that nearly a dozen states are considering legislation to provide confidentiality.

March 25, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"The Executioners' Dilemmas"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article by Eric Berger now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Despite several prominent recent botched executions, states usually resist external pressure to improve their lethal injection procedures. This symposium contribution explores why states fail to address lethal injection’s systemic risks and, relatedly, why they so vigorously resist requests to disclose execution procedure details.

This analysis is necessarily speculative; it is impossible to know for certain what drives states’ behavior in this area, and motivations likely differ from state to state and from official to official. That said, a constellation of epistemic, structural, strategic, and political factors likely shape much official behavior in this area.

Examining those factors more closely can help us better understand why so many states have acted so irresponsibly in designing and implementing their lethal injection procedures. Of course, these explanations hardly excuse states’ frequent indifference to the risk of pain their execution procedures create. Collectively, however, they help shine important light more generally on why state officials sometimes seem insensitive to constitutional values.

March 24, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, March 23, 2015

"WBUR Poll: Most In Boston Think Tsarnaev Should Get Life In Prison Over Death Penalty"

0323_dems-copy-620x363The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new press report on an intriguing new poll about an on-going federal capital case.  Here are the basics: 

As the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev moves ahead, a new WBUR poll (topline, crosstabs) finds most Boston residents believe the admitted Boston Marathon bomber should receive life in prison instead of the death penalty if convicted.

In a survey of 229 registered Boston voters, 62 percent said Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, while 27 percent said he should receive the death penalty. That preference held true for the broader Boston area, defined as communities inside and along Route 128 — but the margin is slimmer. Of 504 registered Boston area voters surveyed by telephone March 16-18, 49 percent think Tsarnaev should get life in prison, while 38 percent feel he should be sentenced to death....

Across different demographics, the preference for punishment varied a bit more. Men were more in favor of the death penalty in this case than life in prison, while women more strongly favored life in prison over the death penalty. Across all age groups, more people felt Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison rather than the death penalty — but the widest margin was among young people ages 18 to 29, where 55 percent chose life in prison and 32 percent chose the death penalty.

Among minorities, there was also a wide margin — 64 percent believe Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison, while 25 percent think he should get the death penalty. Among whites, 46 percent chose life in prison and 41 percent chose the death penalty.

Kozcela said the findings across demographics are also in line with partisan views on the death penalty. “The groups that tend to lean more Democrat also tend to be more opposed to the death penalty,” he said.

Ultimately, Tsarnaev’s fate will be decided by a jury. But the demographics of that jury is an issue defense attorneys raised in February, in their second attempt to get the case dismissed. Tsarnaev’s lawyer’s argued that the jury — which is all white and made up of eight men and 10 women — wasn’t diverse enough. (Twelve of those jurors will determine the final verdict.) Defense attorneys took issue with the way potential jurors were reordered when the final jury pool was summoned to fill out questionnaires. The defense argued the renumbering pushed African-Americans, young people and Boston residents — groups our poll shows favor life in prison over the death penalty — down the list of potential jurors, decreasing their chances of being seated on the jury.

Judge George O’Toole Jr. denied the defense’s motion in early March. The defense also tried unsuccessfully four times to get the trial moved out of Boston, arguing they could not get a fair trial here. However, as our poll shows, most Boston residents prefer to give Tsarnaev life in prison — a position the defense hopes the jury will take....

So far in the trial, the prosecution has been laying out its case against Tsarnaev with graphic videos and photos, emotional victim testimony and evidence gathered from Watertown and the Tsarnaevs’ residences. Once the prosecution wraps up its case, the defense will present its case. The defense already admitted Tsarnaev carried out the bombing, but they are trying to save his life by convincing the jury he was influenced by his older brother.

March 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Three Justices lament SCOTUS failure to do death-penalty error correction in Texas case

Though the big Supreme Court sentencing news today is the cert grant in another Miller retroactivity case from Louisiana (basics here), also notable for sentencing fans is this dissent from the denial of certiorari in a Texas capital case authored by Justice Breyer (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor). Here are snippets from the start and end of the opinion:

On April 28, 1984, petitioner Lester Leroy Bower was convicted in a Texas court of murdering four men. Each of the four men had been shot multiple times. Their bodies were left in an airplane hangar, and an ultralight aircraft was missing.

The State sought the death penalty. Bower introduced evidence that was, in his view, mitigating. He noted that he was 36 years old, married, employed full-time, and a father of two. He had no prior criminal record. Through the testimony of Bower’s family members and friends, the jury also heard about Bower’s religious devotion, his commitment to his family, his community service, his concern for others, his even temperament, and his lack of any previous violent (or criminal) behavior.

At the time of Bower’s sentencing, Texas law permitted the jury to consider this mitigating evidence only insofar as it was relevant to three “special issues”...

[The] Texas Court of Criminal Appeals believed that the use of the special issues proceeding in Bower’s sentencing proceeding did not constitutionally entitle him to resentencing.

Bower now asks us to grant certiorari and to reverse the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In my view, we should do so. Penry’s holding rested on the fact that Texas’ former special issues did not tell the jury “what ‘to do if it decided that [the defendant] . . . should not be executed’” because of his mitigating evidence. Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233, 256 (2007) (quoting Penry, supra, at 324). Bower’s sentencing procedure suffered from this defect just as Penry’s did. The distinction that the Texas court drew between Penry’s and Bower’s evidence is irrelevant. Indeed, we have expressly made “clear that Penry . . . applies in cases involving evidence that is neither double edged nor purely aggravating, because in some cases a defendant’s evidence may have mitigating effect beyond its ability to negate the special issues.” 550 U.S., at 255, n. 16. The trial court and the Fifth Circuit both recognized that Bower’s Penry claim was improperly rejected on that basis.

The Constitution accordingly entitles Bower to a new sentencing proceeding.  I recognize that we do not often intervene only to correct a case-specific legal error.  But the error here is glaring, and its consequence may well be death.  After all, because Bower already filed an application for federal habeas relief raising his Penry claim, the law may bar him from filing another application raising this same issue.  See 28 U.S.C. §2254(b)(1). In these circumstances, I believe we should act and act now.  I would grant the petition and summarily reverse the judgment below.  I dissent from the Court’s decision not to do so.

March 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pope Francis categorically condemns death penalty as "inadmissible" in today's world

As reported in this piece from Vatican Radio, which describes itself the "voice of the Pope and the Church in dialogue with the World," Pope Francis spoke about capital punishment during a meeting with members of an international anti-death penalty group. Here are details:

Capital punishment is cruel, inhuman and an offense to the dignity of human life. In today's world, the death penalty is "inadmissible, however serious the crime" that has been committed. That was Pope Francis’ unequivocal message to members of the International Commission against the death penalty who met with him on Friday morning in the Vatican.

In a lengthy letter written in Spanish and addressed to the president of the International Commission against the death penalty, Pope Francis thanks those who work tirelessly for a universal moratorium, with the goal of abolishing the use of capital punishment in countries right across the globe.

Pope Francis makes clear that justice can never be done by killing another human being and he stresses there can be no humane way of carrying out a death sentence. For Christians, he says, all life is sacred because every one of us is created by God, who does not want to punish one murder with another, but rather wishes to see the murderer repent. Even murderers, he went on, do not lose their human dignity and God himself is the guarantor.

Capital punishment, Pope Francis says, is the opposite of divine mercy, which should be the model for our man-made legal systems. Death sentences, he insists, imply cruel and degrading treatment, as well as the torturous anguish of a lengthy waiting period before the execution, which often leads to sickness or insanity.

The Pope ... makes quite clear that the use of capital punishment signifies “a failure” on the part of any State. However serious the crime, he says, an execution “does not bring justice to the victims, but rather encourages revenge” and denies any hope of repentence or reparation for the crime that has been committed.

March 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Effective discussion of nitrogen gas as execution method alternative

Images (1)This new Atlantic article, headlined "Can Executions Be More Humane?: A law professor suggests an untested procedure as an alternative to lethal injection," provides an interesting account of the person and story behind a novel execution method proposal.  Here are excerpts:

Michael Copeland has a unique resume: former Assistant Attorney General of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, professor of criminal justice at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma — and now, the proponent of a new execution method he claims would be more humane than lethal injection.

Copeland is one of the brains behind House Bill 1879 proposed by Oklahoma State Representative Mike Christian.  The bill, passed by the Oklahoma House last week, would make “nitrogen hypoxia” a secondary method to lethal injection.  Oklahoma State Senator Anthony Sykes will be introducing it to the senate shortly.

Copeland explained the execution method last September to the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee at Christian’s invitation.  Copeland says that Christian had been suggesting the firing squad, but Copeland thought there might be a better way.  Along with two other professors from East Central University, Christine C. Pappas and Thomas M. Parr, he is drafting a white paper about the benefits of nitrogen-induced hypoxia over lethal injection....

Hypoxia occurs when a person lacks an adequate supply of oxygen.  “Normally, the air we breathe is 79 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen,” Copeland explains. Nitrogen hypoxia during an execution “would be induced by having the offender breathing a gas mixture of pure nitrogen.” Copeland points out that “nitrogen is an inert gas, and therefore doesn’t actually cause the death.  It is the lack of oxygen that causes death.”

According to Copeland, death from nitrogen hypoxia is painless. “In industrial accidents, it often happens because the victim does not know they are in a hypoxic environment,” he said.  “That suffocating feeling of anxiety and discomfort is not associated with hypoxic deaths.”  He says nitrogen-induced hypoxia is well-researched, although the ideal delivery system for an execution has not yet been established.  Two ideas include a medical-grade oxygen tent around the head or a facemask similar to those used by firefighters.

The condemned person might not even know when the “the switch to pure nitrogen occurs, instead he would simply lose consciousness about fifteen seconds after the switch was made,” he added.  “Approximately thirty seconds later, he would stop producing brain waves, and the heart would stop beating about two to three minutes after that.”...

Copeland says that conditions for lethal-injection executions will only get worse.  States are scrambling to find the drugs and the health professionals to use them, and both are required for lethal injection to take place.  “You have anti-death penalty zealots around the globe that protest, that bring attention to the manufacturers of these drugs,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt told a local chamber of commerce last summer. Pruitt said that as long as activists pressure manufacturers, there will be supply issues....

From its first use in the execution of Gee Jon in Nevada in 1924 to its link to Nazi gas chambers, lethal gas as method of execution has a problematic history.  American lethal-gas executions typically used hydrogen cyanide as the mechanism of death.  Inmates were strapped to chairs in gas chambers and the ensuing chemical reaction would cause visible signs of pain and discomfort: skin discoloration, drooling, and writhing.

But nitrogen hypoxia would likely not produce the gruesome deaths that resulted from cyanide gas executions. Copeland says that “you don’t have to worry about someone reacting differently.” The condemned person would feel slightly intoxicated before losing consciousness and ultimately dying.

Other death-penalty experts are more skeptical.  “It’s only been partially vetted, superficially researched, and has never been tried,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.  “Using it would be an experiment on human subjects.” State death rows would be strapping someone down without any idea what would happen next, he feared.  “We’d need testimony from the best experts on this,” Dieter says. “Right now, this is sailing through a legislature and not a peer-review process. I’m no doctor, but let’s hear from them.  I don’t completely dismiss the idea that this could become approved or that it’s as good as they say because lethal injection is in a bind.”

If the bill becomes law and Oklahoma successfully executes someone using this method, it could spread from to state very quickly, Dieter says.  Older methods like firing squads are a little too brutal for the American public, but something new could be accepted. If so, he says, “it could lead to an awkward spurt of executions.”  Copeland says he is not a death penalty absolutist. “I think the state has a unique obligation for justice — it’s the state’s obligation,” he explains.  “But I don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent compared to life without parole.”  If we must have the death penalty, he argues, it should be humane.

Copeland thinks that it is death penalty abolitionists who have made executions inhumane by restricting access to drugs.  It will only get worse.  Some corrections officials at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections agree.  On February 18, they submitted a report to the state House of Representatives proposing the use of nitrogen-induced hypoxia and cited Copeland’s forthcoming paper.

Copeland says that it’s a logical and humane next step. “Nitrogen is ubiquitous. The process is humane, it doesn’t require expertise, and it’s cheap,” he explained. “I think of it as a harm-reduction thing — like you’d rather people not use heroin, but if they do, you want them to use clean needles.”

A few recent and older related posts:

March 21, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Victim's wife: Keep me out of death penalty fight"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article out of Philadelphia which highlights how victims often can and will get victimized again by the political debates over the death penalty.  Here is how the piece starts:

Since Gov. Wolf declared his moratorium on the death penalty last month, proponents of capital punishment have rallied around one case to push their cause - the scuttled execution of Terrance Williams, a Philadelphia man sentenced to die in 1986 for the beating death of a Germantown church volunteer.

But on Thursday, the widow of Williams' victim had a message for critics of the governor's action: Leave me out of it. In a publicly circulated letter, Mamie Norwood, whose husband, Amos, was killed by Williams in 1984, accused State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams of using her husband's slaying for political gain.

"You have never spoken to me and do not speak for me," Norwood wrote, adding that she had forgiven Terrance Williams long ago and did not want to see him put to death. She added: "Please don't use me . . . to get your name in the news. You should be truly ashamed of yourselves."

Norwood's letter was distributed by a group of Terrance Williams' supporters who run the website www.terrywilliamsclemency.com.

Norwood's letter is available at this link.

March 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Death penalty symbolism and Robert Durst

Everyone interested in pop culture criminal law is now busy talking about the seeming confession of infamous real estate figure Robert Durst during the final episode of the HBO documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." Though I find interesting the debate over the potential meaning and use of Durst's statement that he "killed them all," as a sentencing fan I find even more notable this headline about these headlines about case:

Because Durst is aged 71 and California has not executed anyone in nearly a decade, the odds that Durst would be sentenced to death and executed before he dies of natural causes are about the same as the odds that a 16 seed will win the NCAA basketball tournament. But, as in true in so many cases, here a death penalty penalty charge is not really about seeks a true punishment but rather about symbolically sending a message that Durst is among the worst of the worst criminals.

I am always ambivalent about the value of state actors spending lots of time, money and energy on seeking a form of punishment that will never actually be carried out. But the Durst case serves as a great example of why the death penalty (and sometimes other punishments like Bernie Madoff getting 150 years in prison) is often much more about criminal justice symbolism than punishment reality.

March 18, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Might Utah's gov veto the effort to provide for a firing squad execution back-up plan?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP piece headlined "Death Penalty Opponents Urge Veto of Utah Firing Squad Bill." Here are the basics:

Death penalty opponents are urging Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill allowing execution by firing squad if the state cannot obtain lethal injection drugs. Ralph Dellapiana of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty delivered a petition and a letter to Herbert's office Tuesday. Dellapiana calls firing squads archaic and barbaric.

Herbert, a Republican, has declined to say if he will sign the proposal but says it could offer Utah a backup if it cannot get execution drugs. Utah lawmakers passed the bill last week as states struggle to obtain lethal injection drugs amid a nationwide shortage.

Republican Rep. Paul Ray of Clearfield sponsored the proposal and says a team of trained marksmen is faster and more humane than the drawn-out deaths that occur when lethal injections are botched.

March 18, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Notable empirical review of what happens to most death sentences

This new Washington Post piece by two researchers provides an interesting review of the state and fate of most modern death sentences. The piece is headlined "Most death penalty sentences are overturned. Here’s why that matters," and here are excerpts:

If a person is given a death sentence, what is his or her chance of actually being executed? Based on a review of every death sentence in the United States since 1973, the beginning of the modern era of the death penalty, we have found that the most likely outcome isn’t being executed or even remaining on death row as an appeal makes its way through the courts.  In fact, the most common circumstance is that the death sentence will be overturned....

From 1973 to 2013, 8,466 sentences of death were handed down by U.S. courts, and 1,359 individuals were executed — only 16 percent.  Even excluding those who remained on death row as of 2013, only about 24 percent of condemned inmates have been executed. Those sentenced to death are almost three times as likely to see their death sentence overturned on appeal and to be resentenced to a lesser penalty than they are to be executed.  Here is a summary of the outcomes:

  • 8,466 death sentences were imposed across the United States from 1973 through 2013.
  • 3,194 were overturned on appeal, composed as follows. For 523, the underlying statute was declared unconstitutional. For 890, the conviction was overturned. For 1,781, the death penalty was overturned, but guilt was sustained.
  • 2,979 remain on death row as of Dec. 31, 2013.
  • 1,359 were executed.
  • 509 died on death row from suicide or natural causes.
  • 392 had their sentence commuted by the governor to life in prison.
  • 33 had some other outcome or a miscellaneous reason for being removed from death row.

Execution is in fact the third most likely outcome following a death sentence. Much more likely is the inmate to have their sentence reversed, or to remain for decades on death row....

In the early years of the modern death penalty, many were removed from death row because the underlying statute under which they were condemned was ruled unconstitutional. In fact, of 721 individuals sentenced between 1973 and 1976, just 33 were eventually executed.  Other reversals have come because inmates’ individual convictions were overturned, and some were exonerated entirely.

But by far the most likely outcome of a U.S. death sentence is that it will eventually be reversed and the inmate will remain in prison with a different form of death sentence: life without the possibility of parole.

Why would reversal of the sentence be the single most common outcome of a death sentence? Capital trials have many unusual characteristics, but a key one is that there is an automatic (or “direct”) appeal through the state appellate courts and, if the death sentence is not overturned by the state appellate or supreme court, a review by a federal judge....

States differ greatly in the degree to which they carry out their legal promise of death, but most operate systems consistent with the trends above: They sentence far more inmates to death than they actually execute....

The average state has a 13 percent likelihood of carrying out a death sentence. Some states — such as Texas, South Dakota, Missouri, and Oklahoma — significantly higher rates, though none of these states reaches a level of 50 percent. In fact, only one state, Virginia, has executed more than half of the inmates it has condemned....

Texas, Florida, and California have all condemned more than 1,000 individuals to death in the modern period. However, the numbers of executions in these states are 508, 81, and 13, respectively. Virginia has sentenced 152 individuals to die, and 110 have been put to death.

I find these numbers notable and interesting, but I find not at all compelling the reasons stated in this commentary (and left out of the excerpt above) for why we should find these numbers troubling. If lawmakers and voters want to have a death penalty system that works very hard to ensure only the worst of the worst get executed after providing the accused with a form of super due process, it makes sense that the system will, through checking and double checking of every death verdict, screen out any and all suspect cases. This is a costly and time-consuming process for all involved, but so is every aspect of American government if and when we devote extraordinary resources to making sure everything has been done just right.

In addition, it bears noting that there were roughly 800,000 murders in the United States from 1973 to 2013.  Thus, arguably far more remarkable than the relatively few executed from among those given a death sentence is the amazingly few murderers given a death sentence during this period.  Because only a little over 1% of all murderers were given death sentences, I am not sure why I should be especially troubled that only a portion of these condemned actual were executed.

March 17, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Monday, March 16, 2015

"The free-market case for opposing the death penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece from The Week magazine.  Here are excerpts:

There are lots of ways to execute a prisoner. But in the U.S., at least, the 32 states that still execute prisoners have decided on lethal injection. On its face, lethal injection seems like a clinical, modern, hopefully low-pain, and usually low-key way to kill somebody. Except when it isn't, as we saw in last year's crop of botched executions.

The prolonged, evidently painful deaths of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood in Arizona, and Dennis McGuire in Ohio were tied to experimental drug cocktails necessitated by a shortage of traditional death drugs. This shortage is due largely to a ban by European countries on exporting certain drugs to U.S. states that practice capital punishment. The free market is making a case against capital punishment. So far, the states that actively execute prisoners have been willfully plugging their ears....

With just a single dose of pentobarbital left and 317 inmates on death row, Texas is stocking up on midazolam. It's not clear if Texas can't get pentobarbital because the compounding pharmacies are refusing to sell it to them, or because they can't get the raw ingredients — the Professional Compounding Centers of America told The Texas Tribune that it stopped providing pentobarbital ingredients to its customers in January 2014.

Most compounding pharmacies aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and their products are uneven. Which compounding pharmacies are Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Georgia, Missouri, and other states buying drugs from? They're not saying. Why not? "Disclosing the identity of the pharmacy would result in the harassment of the business and would raise serious safety concerns for the business and its employees," Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark explained to The Texas Tribune last month....

Providing lethal injection drugs to state prisons is so toxic that no European country will do it and no American company is willing to do it openly. Gunmakers and abortion clinics advertise their services, but pharmacies and drugmakers won't publicly associate with a form of punishment approved of by 63 percent of Americans. That's the market talking, and it's saying it wants no part of this.

March 16, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

New York Times editorial assails death decided "by a single vote" in Alabama and Florida

This new New York Times editorial, headlined "Death Sentences, With or Without a Jury," uses the recent Supreme Court cert grant in Hurst to assail a capital punishment system it views as "warped by injustice and absurdity." Here are excerpts:

In Florida and Alabama, death row inmates are challenging perverse state laws on the jury’s role in capital trials. The Supreme Court, which has been intervening more often in death penalty cases, last week agreed to review the Florida law.

In death penalty trials, juries that reach a guilty verdict are usually required in the trial’s subsequent penalty phase to make factual findings, such as whether the crime was especially heinous, that will determine whether the defendant is sentenced to death.

But Florida lets the judge make these findings, and does not require that the jury be unanimous in voting for a death sentence. After Timothy Lee Hurst was found guilty of a 1998 murder of a co­worker in Pensacola, his jury split 7 to 5 in favor of executing him, with no record of whether the majority even agreed on the reason. (Mr. Hurst claims he is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible to be executed.) In other words, Mr. Hurst was effectively condemned by a single vote by an unidentified juror.

Alabama also allows death to be decided by a single vote: that of the judge, who may override a jury verdict of life in prison and replace it with a death sentence, relegating the jury’s status to that of an advisory body. The Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the Alabama law in 2013, prompting a sharp dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She concluded that the state’s judges, who are elected — and who have unilaterally imposed death sentences 101 times after the jury voted for life — “appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”

The Alabama law, Justice Sotomayor wrote, undermines “the sanctity of the jury’s role in our system of criminal justice,” and very likely violates the court’s own rulings requiring juries, not judges, to find any fact that would increase a defendant’s sentence. Two new challenges to that law are before the court — one involving a death sentence imposed by a judge after a jury voted 12 to 0 for life — but it hasn’t decided whether to take them up.

This disregard for the jury’s role is all the more offensive given the Supreme Court’s reliance on jury verdicts as a key measure of America’s “evolving standards of decency,” the test it uses to decide whether a punishment is so cruel and unusual that it violates the Constitution. How can those “evolving standards” be accurately measured if the “verdicts” for death are so deeply divided or are in fact imposed by a judge who is rejecting the jury’s call to spare a life?

The Florida and Alabama jury laws are only more proof of the moral disgrace of capital punishment in this country. In Georgia, officials hide their lethal-­injection drug protocol behind state-­secret laws. Missouri has executed an inmate before the Supreme Court ruled on his final appeal. Texas has been trying for years to kill a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

Prior related posts:

March 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Death of the death penalty by lethal injection shortage?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Chicago Tribune column.  Here is how it starts:

A reliable supply line is crucial to any business. That's no less true when the business is death. States can't carry out death sentences if their prisons can't stock the lethal sedatives needed for court-sanctioned lethal injections. And that has become a serious problem of late.

Pharmaceutical companies such as Lake Forest-based Hospira in recent years have moved — pushed by activists and overseas regulators — to keep their drugs from being co-opted in the executioners' cocktails. The well is running dry.

Just in the last week:

•  Texas' pantry is quite nearly bare. The state reportedly is left with a single dose of pentobarbital because European manufacturers of the anesthetic are prohibited from allowing it to be used by prisons.

•  Georgia postponed its first execution of a woman in 70 years because the blend to be injected appeared unusually cloudy.

•  And Utah's legislature sent the governor a bill that would authorize the return of firing squads when the state can't get its hands on the requisite toxins.

March 14, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack