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 and Glossip lethal injection cases, 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 and Glossip lethal injection cases, 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 and Glossip lethal injection cases, 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 and Glossip lethal injection cases, 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 and Glossip lethal injection cases, 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 and Glossip lethal injection cases, 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 and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Jones, Lackey, and Teague"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by J. Richard Broughton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In a recent, high-profile ruling, a federal court finally recognized that a substantial delay in executing a death row inmate violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Courts have repeatedly rejected these so-called “Lackey claims,” making the federal court’s decision in Jones v. Chappell all the more important. And yet it was deeply flawed. This paper focuses on one of the major flaws in the Jones decision that largely escaped attention: the application of the non-retroactivity rule from Teague v. Lane.

By comprehensively addressing the merits of the Teague bar as applied to Lackey claims, and making the case for applying the bar, this paper adds to, and challenges, the existing literature on capital punishment, Lackey claims, and Teague doctrine. This paper dissects the Jones ruling on the application of Teague, examining the Supreme Court’s “new rule” case law and concluding that Lackey claims, when viewed at the appropriate level of generality, propose a new rule. It then addresses the more complicated aspect of applying Teague in this context, recognizing that the first Teague exception poses the most likely basis for avoiding the Teague bar on a Lackey claim. At a minimum, Lackey claims (like Miller v. Alabama claims, now the subject of substantial Eighth Amendment litigation on collateral review) sit at the intersection of procedural and substantive rules. Nonetheless, this paper makes the case for viewing the claim as procedural and therefore Teague-barred. Ultimately, then, this paper emphasizes a point that could substantially influence existing litigation: litigators and federal judges should take the Teague bar more seriously when considering Lackey claims on federal habeas review, particularly when viewed in light of modern habeas rules and doctrine that limit relief and protect the interests of the states. But the paper also emphasizes an important point about death penalty policy and politics: if the state is to have a death penalty at all, it should be prepared, and willing, to ensure that death sentences are actually carried out.

March 13, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Colson Task Force highlights " biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders"

Images (2)As reported in this Crime Report piece, the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force has just released this notable new research brief titled "Drivers of Growth in the Federal Prison Population." Here are excerpts from the document (with emphasis in original):

The federal prison population has grown by 750 percent since 1980, resulting in rapidly increasing expenditures for incarceration and dangerous overcrowding.  In response, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to examine trends in correctional growth and develop practical, data-driven policy responses.  Following the example of many states that have recently engaged in criminal justice reform, the first step for the Task Force is to understand the underlying drivers of growth in the prison population.

The biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders, almost all of whom were convicted of drug trafficking.  In fiscal year (FY) 2013, there were almost 50,000 more drug offenders in federal prisons than there were in FY 1994.  Incarceration for drug offenses disproportionately affects nonwhite offenders: in FY 2013, over 75 percent of all drug offenders in federal prison were black or Hispanic....

The population growth is driven by both the number of people who are admitted to prison for drug crimes every year and the length of their sentences.   In FY 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison for drug crimes than any other crime type, and the average sentence for those entering prison was almost six years.  Every year, about 95 percent of federally sentenced drug offenders receive a term of incarceration as part of their sentence, up from about 76 percent in the year before the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which established mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offenses.

In particular, length of stay for drug offenders, often dictated by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, has driven most of the recent growth.  Though the number of admissions has remained largely constant over time, the number of drug offenders in federal prison has increased because of people serving longer sentences.

March 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Mizzou lawyers spotlight problems poised by rapid pace of executions

As reported in this Kansas City Star article, headlined "Attorneys struggle to keep up with Missouri’s execution pace," the Show Me State's recent pattern of showing condemned inmates to the execution chamber on a regular basis has prompted a notable expression of concern from lawyers. Here are the details:

[F]or the small group of lawyers who take on the burdens of defending inmates on the cusp of execution in Missouri, the sheer volume of cases is overwhelming their ability to do that work.

That’s the message four law professors and lawyers delivered to the Missouri Supreme Court this week as they called for execution procedure changes that would give lawyers more time for each client. “These amendments are necessary because the capital defense bar is in crisis because of its recent workload,” the group wrote.

Since November 2013, Missouri has executed 13 men. A handful of lawyers who specialize in capital litigation have represented most of them. They also represent most of Missouri’s other defendants with a pending execution date or who soon are expected to see one set.

The state’s fast execution pace — Missouri tied Texas for most in the country last year with 10 — has left those lawyers struggling to meet their legal obligations to multiple clients at the same time, according to the letter by members of an American Bar Association death penalty assessment team that recently studied Missouri’s execution system. “The legal proceedings in death penalty cases are notoriously lengthy and complex,” they wrote. “Establishing a detailed understanding of those proceedings is a time consuming task and a basic prerequisite to competent performance.”

In addition, the cases take an intense emotional toll on attorneys who get to know the clients intimately before watching them die, the letter said. “No matter how professional the relationship between a death-sentenced client and his counsel, having a client executed is a uniquely taxing professional experience,” the letter stated. One attorney has represented five of the last nine men executed and has two other clients with an “imminent risk of execution,” the letter noted....

The four members of the assessment team who sent the letter to the Supreme Court — University of Missouri law professor Paul Litton, St. Louis University law professor Stephen Thaman, retired Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Hal Lowenstein and Douglas Copeland, a partner in a St. Louis law firm — recommended three amendments to the state’s rules.

The first would limit any one lawyer from representing a client who has an execution date set within six months of any of the lawyer’s other clients. Second, they also ask that a minimum notice of six months be given before an execution can be carried out. The third proposal would allow lawyers to prioritize caseloads to concentrate on cases with pending execution dates while being granted more time to deal with other clients’ cases.

“These are common-sense solutions to a serious problem affecting virtually every scheduled execution,” according to the letter.

The problems have mounted only recently in Missouri, where the lawyers pointed out that only two executions took place in the seven years from 2006 through 2012. But this has been a long-term issue in other death penalty states. “For decades it has been widely recognized … that unreasonable workloads among capital litigators can severely challenge the effectiveness of their representation,” said national death penalty expert Deborah Denno, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law.

Though it will be up to the Missouri Supreme Court to adopt or reject the rule changes, the court has shown some flexibility in the past. Last July, it changed the rules to limit executions to no more than one per month.

And last August, the court withdrew an execution warrant it had issued the previous month after the inmates’ attorneys said they wouldn’t have enough time to do everything required in the case while balancing work they had in other pending cases. They were given additional months before that man’s execution was carried out in November....

Jennifer Herndon, a St. Louis-area lawyer who has represented several death row inmates, said the proposals are all good ideas that are badly needed. “People don’t understand the pressure, particularly in the last 30 to 45 days before an execution,” she said. “If you don’t work on it 24 hours a day, you’re thinking about it 24 hours a day.” Facing that same kind of pressure month after month makes it virtually impossible to operate at 100 percent “no matter how hard you try,” she said.

The helpful folks at The Marshall Project have uploaded a copy of the letter reference in this article at this link.

March 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Utah legislature brings back firing squad as alternative execution method

Firing-squadAs detailed in this Reuters piece, "lawmakers in Utah voted on Tuesday to bring back executions by firing squad if lethal injections are unavailable, which would make it the only state in the country to permit the practice." Here is more:

Utah used firing squads for decades before adopting lethal injections in 2004. The Republican-sponsored bill, which passed the state Senate by 18-10, was introduced amid national concerns about the efficacy of lethal injections.

The measure, approved last month by the Utah House of Representatives, says a firing squad should be used if "the state is unable to lawfully obtain the substance or substances necessary to conduct an execution by lethal intravenous injection 30 or more days" before the date set for the procedure.

Several U.S. states have had to search for new drugs for their lethal injection cocktails after many pharmaceutical companies, mostly in Europe, imposed sales bans about four years ago because they objected to having medications made for other purposes being used in executions.

Supporters of the legislation said three states - Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona - recently carried out lethal injections that led to inmates' physical distress and drawn-out deaths, and that death by firing squad was more humane.

Republican state Representative Paul Ray of Clearfield, the bill's sponsor, said someone executed by gunfire typically dies in three to five seconds. "It's a quick bleed-out," he said.

Utah previously used firing squads, including in the execution of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer who in January 1977 became the first person to be put to death in the United States in 10 years, after insisting the sentence be carried out....

The last person to be executed in Utah by firing squad was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Gardner was convicted of murdering a lawyer inside a Salt Lake City courthouse in 1985.

The bill now goes to Utah Governor Gary Herbert. In a statement, a spokesman for the Republican governor said he had not yet decided whether to sign the measure.whether to sign the measure. 

March 11, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Might drug shortages in Texas grind its machinery of death to a halt?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article headlined "Dearth Row: Texas Prisons Scrambling to Find More Execution Drug." Here are excerpts:

Texas' prison agency is scrambling to find a supplier to replenish its inventory of execution drugs, which will be used up if the state goes forward with two lethal injections scheduled for this week and next. Prison officials only have enough pentobarbital for the scheduled executions of Manuel Vasquez on Wednesday and Randall Mays on March 18, but they don't know how they will conduct lethal injections on four others scheduled for April.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to say why it has not been able to obtain more pentobarbital from the same compounding pharmacy that provided the current batch of the powerful sedative last March. The state switched to that source several months after its previous supplier cut ties, citing hate mail and potential litigation after its name became public through an open records request from The Associated Press.

Prison officials have since waged a legal battle to keep the name of its latest supplier secret, but it's unclear how much longer they can do so after a state judge last year ordered the agency to divulge the source. That ruling is on hold pending the outcome of the state's appeal....

Although Texas, traditionally the nation's busiest death penalty state, faces the most imminent deadline for replenishing its pentobarbital supply, other states are experiencing similar problems. Texas has executed a nation-leading 521 inmates since 1982, when it became the first state to use lethal injection. It's now been nearly three years since Texas began using pentobarbital as its only capital punishment drug, switching in July 2012 after one of the chemicals in the previous three-drug mixture no longer was available.

The last 17 Texas executions, stretching back to September 2013, have used compounded pentobarbital, and the last nine from compounding pharmacies the state has refused to identify. Texas officials have insisted the identity should remain secret, citing a "threat assessment" signed by Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw that says pharmacies selling execution drugs face "a substantial threat of physical harm." Law enforcement officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of those threats.

The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, has refused to block punishments based on challenges to secrecy laws. However, the high court is reviewing Oklahoma's lethal injection method, resulting in a hold on executions there, after a punishment using the sedative midazolam followed by two other drugs went awry. Oklahoma lawmakers now are considering a switch to nitrogen gas as the first alternative to injection while officials in other states are considering a return to firing squads or the electric chair.

Despite all the controversies over lethal injection protocols and problems with drug supplies nationwide in recent years, Texas has been able to keep its machinery of death humming.  And because so many executions take place in Texas (basic DPIC data here), a halting of executions in that one state would functionally diminish the overall number of US executions quite significantly.

Given that Texas has a long modern history of finding ways to move forward with executions, this drug story is especially interesting and dynamic because it might lead the Lone Star State to get serious about other possible execution methods.  I assume some officials in Texas are already quietly exploring the possibility of executions using nitrogen gas or firing squads, and perhaps a Texas discussion of such matters will become public at some point soon if the state struggles to secure needed execution drugs.

March 10, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 09, 2015

What is SCOTUS reviewing in Hurst as it considers Florida's capital sentencing process?

As noted in this post, this morning the US Supreme Court today finally decided to decide whether Florida's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring.  But, as this new SCOTUSblog post about the cert grant spotlights, it actually is not entirely clear just what the Supreme Court has decided to decide:

The Florida death penalty case now up for review involves Timothy Lee Hurst of Pensacola, who faces a death sentence for the 1998 murder of a woman who was an assistant manager at a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant where Hurst also worked.

Hurst’s public-defender lawyers asked the Court to rule on two broad questions: one about the jury’s role when an accused individual claims a mental disability, and one about the jury’s role in the death-sentencing process, including an issue of whether its verdict must be unanimous. (His jury split seven to five in recommending death.) The second question was based on a claim that Florida courts fail to follow a 2002 Supreme Court decision on death sentencing, Ring v. Arizona.

In agreeing to rule on the case, the Court rewrote the question it will consider in an apparent attempt to simplify it: whether Florida’s approach to death sentencing violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment “in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.”

Because the Ring decision is all about the Sixth Amendment, and the role of the jury in deciding whether a murder was committed in an “aggravated” form, it is not clear just what the Court had in mind in linking an Eighth Amendment issue to the Ring precedent. It could be, although this was not plain from the order, that the Court is looking at Hurst’s case on Eighth Amendment grounds on his claim of mental disability, on the lack of jury unanimity, and on the general fairness of a death sentence for this particular individual. Presumably, that will become clearer as the briefs are filed in the case in coming months.

Helpfully, this extended post at Crime & Consequences reviews some of the legal background and possible implication of the Hurst case, which includes these observations:

The U.S. Supreme Court only rarely specifies the question for review itself and that often occurs when the Court wants the latitude to consider overruling prior precedent. This case is on direct appeal from a re-sentencing trial at which Hurst challenged the constitutionality of Florida's capital sentencing procedure.  Therefore, there is no limitation on the Court's authority to create new law in this case.  The Florida capital sentencing procedure is substantially different from the procedure employed by most death penalty States.  Therefore, the Court's ruling in this case is not likely to affect death penalty cases in those other States.  However, we can expect that attorneys representing prisoners in capital cases will argue the contrary.

Because of the maelstrom of potential legal issues raised by this particular Florida case, I am not sure what to expect from the Justices. I am sure any and everyone who does not like how Florida does its capital sentencing (including the nearly 400 murderers currently on Florida's death row) may be inclined to present varied constitutional arguments to SCOTUS to urge a reversal of the death sentence in this intriguing new case.

March 9, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

SCOTUS finally takes up whether Florida's capital system is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring

One big question that arose way back in 2000 when the Supreme Court issued its landmark Apprendi decision was whether capital sentencing schemes that incorporated judicial death penalty determinations were still constitutional.  In 2002, in Ring, the Supreme Court somewhat clarified matter when it found Arizona's capital sentencing scheme problematic in light of Apprendi.  Now, finally and remarkably, the Supreme Court has decided to decide whether Florida's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring.

This new SCOTUS order list has just one new cert grant, and here it is:

HURST, TIMOTHY L. V. FLORIDA: The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis is granted. The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: Whether Florida's death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment in light of this Court's decision in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).

Notably, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's data, Florida has carried out 39 executions since the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Ring in 2002, and I suspect a good number of those Florida condemned (and now dead) murderers asserted that their death sentencing violated the Sixth Amendment and/or the Eighth Amendment in light of Ring.  If there is some kind of afterlife for executed murderers, I expect there will now be some interesting SCOTUS talk in the Florida section of that netherworld.

March 9, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"Questions raised about the death penalty in Ohio"

Death-penalty-art1-gpu10obcu-10308-gfxdeathpenaltychart-epsThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy front-page article appearing today in my own home-town Columbus Dispatch.  The subheading of the piece summarizes its themes: "Dozens of inmates sentenced to die have been removed from Death Row in the past 12 years. Add that to botched executions and lingering questions about lethal-injection drugs, and it raises questions about the death penalty in Ohio." Here is how the extended article gets started:

The Cincinnati man had ordered his last meal and was going to be executed the next day when the governor spared his life largely because the DNA on his shoes did not match the blood of the victim.

A Cleveland man, originally sentenced to Death Row, was freed from prison after serving nearly 40 years when a witness confessed that he lied at the original trial about seeing the killing.

An Akron man was sentenced to die but spared from execution after officials confirmed that he was mentally disabled and had the intellect of a second-grader.

In the wake of such cases and other questions about the death penalty, key Ohio lawmakers say that while there’s no movement to eliminate capital punishment from Ohio’s criminal-justice books, some have proposed changes in the law.

Ohio has removed 20 inmates from Death Row since 2003 because investigations or evidence raised questions about their guilt, they were found to be mentally disabled or governors granted them clemency.

Another five men, who were removed from Death Row in the 1970s when Ohio abolished the death penalty for a short period, have been exonerated and released during the past 12 years. There were another 28 men spared from execution during the same period whose cases involved constitutional violations and procedural issues.

All of this has contributed to a slowdown in executions. Last year, for example, 35 people were executed across the U.S., the lowest number in 20 years. And while Ohio has executed 53 inmates since 1999 — an average of slightly more than three a year — it put to death only four in the past two years. The next execution is set for January 2016.

This all raises issues that should be addressed by the legislature, said Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, but are not reasons to kill the death penalty. “I won’t say never, but right now there is no way (abolishing it) is going to happen,” Seitz said. “But if we’re going to retain the death penalty, and I’m firmly committed to its retention, we ought to take away most of the serious objections.”

Lawmakers are poised to introduce new laws in the next few weeks. Seitz and Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, are working on four bills incorporating 14 of the 56 recommendations made by the Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force in April 2014. The bills focus on significant recommendations: preventing execution of seriously mentally disabled inmates; establishing a statewide indigent death-penalty litigation fund in the Ohio Public Defender’s office; requiring certification for coroner’s offices and crime labs, and prohibiting convictions based solely on uncorroborated information from a jailhouse informant.

Seitz said he expects “tough sledding” in the legislative debate, adding that it’s too soon to predict whether any of the bills will become law. But he was clear that the debate likely won’t include ending executions because a majority of state lawmakers support the death penalty.

March 8, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, March 06, 2015

Examining some statistical realities behind federal death penalty administration

This intriguing Voactiv piece, headlined "Here Are The Odds The Boston Bomber Will Get The Death Penalty," draws on the Boston bomber federal capital trial as an opportunity to looks at some basic federal capital sentencing data. The piece is subheaded "Turns out, it's pretty hard to get a jury to vote for execution," and here are excerpts:

As the [Tsarnaev] trial wraps up its first week, we looked at how often the U.S. Attorney General has asked for the death penalty over the past two decades, and how often it has been able to get the jury to agree.  Between 1989 and 2009, some 2,795 cases were eligible for the death penalty.  Of those, the federal government brought 262 death- cases to trial and only 70, or about 25 percent, ended in a death sentence, according to the most recent statistics from the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel.  In the vast majority of the 262 cases, the juries recommended a life sentence instead.

Many death-penalty cases, another 201, never saw the inside a courtroom because they were settled before the trial....  [And] the federal government rarely pursues it even in cases that are eligible.  The U.S. Attorney General has approved death penalty prosecution for only 15 percent of all eligible cases over the past 20 years....

Even if Tsarnaev does get the death penalty, the execution isn’t likely to happen any time soon: Of the 70 people who have been sentenced to death in federal trials around the country in the last two decades, most are still waiting on death row.  Only three people have been executed since 1977, the latest in 2001.  Some defendants have been waiting on death row for over 20 years.

March 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Despite spending many millions, Arizona prosecutors again fail to convince a sentencing jury to send Jodi Arias to death row

I have been interested in the Jodi Arias case from Arizona since she was found guilty of murder two years ago, not principally because of all the media attention her case generated, but because of the extraordinary efforts Arizona prosecutors were prepared to make AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE to try to get Arias on to the state's death row.  Last year in this post, I guessed that Arizona prosecutors were spending more than $5,000,000 in taxpayer funds in their effort to have Jodi Arias sent and kept on death row rather than in another part of Arizona's prison system.  

As this new AP report from Arizona highlights, all those taxpayer costs created by the prosecutors in this one state capital case have now officially achieved nothing:

Convicted murderer Jodi Arias was spared the death penalty Thursday after jurors deadlocked on whether she should be executed or sent to prison for life for killing her lover in 2008.

It marked the second time a jury was unable to reach a decision on her punishment — a disappointment for prosecutors who argued for the death penalty during a nearly seven-year legal battle.  It means the judge will sentence Arias on April 13 to either life in prison or a life term with the possibility of release after 25 years.

Family members of victim Travis Alexander wept when the judge announced that jurors couldn't reach a decision after deliberating for about 26 hours over five days.  The family sobbed as they left the courtroom, with one covering her eyes as she walked out. Arias' mother, Sandra, received a hug from a friend moments after the verdict was read....

Arias' 2013 trial became a sensation with its tawdry revelations about her relationship with Alexander and that she shot him in the head and slit his throat so deeply that he was nearly decapitated.  It was broadcast live and TV audiences heard how Arias had stabbed and slashed Alexander nearly 30 times then left his body in his shower at his suburban Phoenix home, where friends found him about five days later.

The jury convicted her of first-degree murder but deadlocked on punishment, prompting the sentencing retrial that began in October.  Prosecutors say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row.  Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who decided to seek the death penalty a second time, told reporters that "regret is a place in the past I can't afford to live in."

Arias initially courted the spotlight after her arrest, granting interviews to "48 Hours" and "Inside Edition."  She testified for 18 days at her first trial, describing her abusive childhood, cheating boyfriends, relationship with Alexander and her contention that he was physically abusive.  She did more media interviews after the jury convicted her of murder.

Spectators lined up in the middle of the night to get a coveted seat in the courtroom for the first trial. However, attention was dampened during the penalty retrial after the judge ruled cameras could record the proceedings but nothing could be broadcast until after the verdict.

The proceedings revealed few new details about the crime and dragged on months longer than expected amid a series of expert witnesses and a surprising late October decision by Judge Sherry Stephens to remove reporters and spectators from the courtroom so Arias could testify in private. A higher court halted the testimony on its second day after complaints from news organizations. At the end of the retrial, Arias passed up a chance to address the jury. She said she wanted to make such comments but refused to do so unless the courtroom was cleared. She cited potential personal safety threats in declining to speak in the open courtroom.

I am not at all surprised to hear the Arizona prosecutors now "say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row."  After all, these prosecutors got the opportunity to work for two more years on a high-profile and exciting case and they likely will not suffer any professional consequences for wasting an extraordinary amount of taxpayer resources now twice failing to convince a jury that Jodi Arias ought to die for her crimes.

Especially because, as I said before in prior posts, it was extremely unlikely Arias would ever be executed even if she had been sentenced to death, this case is now for me exhibit #1 in the extraordinary misallocation of resources that the death penalty can often engender because prosecutors generally get all the political benefits and suffer none of the true economic costs of capital punishment systems.  The folks who should really regret how this case has been handed are crime victims and others in need of social services and programming in Arizona.  As I noted in a prior post, the Arizona Crime Victims Programs — which is under the authority of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and "provides support to all agencies that assist and compensate the victims of crime" — has an annual budget of around $5,000,000.  I feel pretty confident a lot more good throughout Arizona could have been done if state tax resources were allocated to doubling the funds for crime victim programming rather than enabling prosecutors to keep seeking a death verdict for Jodi Arias (which itself was never likely to get carried out).

Some prior posts on the Arias case:

March 5, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Evolving Standards of Domination: Abandoning a Flawed Legal Standard and Approaching a New Era in Penal Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper by SpearIt now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article critiques the evolving standards of decency doctrine as a form of Social Darwinism. It argues that evolving standards of decency provided a system of review that was tailor-made for Civil Rights opponents to scale back racial progress.  Although as a doctrinal matter, evolving standards sought to tie punishment practices to social mores, prison sentencing became subject to political agendas that determined the course of punishment more than the benevolence of a maturing society.  Indeed, rather than the fierce competition that is supposed to guide social development, the criminal justice system was consciously deployed as a means of social control.  This evolutionary model was thus betrayed by Court opinions that allowed states nearly unfettered authority over prison sentencing and use of solitary confinement, a self-fulfilling prophecy — a deep irony in the expanded incarceration of poor, uneducated, minorities — the very population that might be expected under an evolutionary frame.

The Article urges the Supreme Court to abandon evolving standards as a flawed and pernicious concept, and simultaneously, accept the duty to reinterpret the Eighth Amendment for prison sentencing and solitary confinement.  Looking forward, the Article advances a blueprint for employing research and science as a means of reimagining the scale of imprisonment.  It challenges the Court to do something never done before in American penal history — justify the length of prison sentences with more than just random and arbitrary figures.  The Court has been trying to implement objective standards to guide punishment practices for decades, but has constantly fallen prey to its own subjective inclinations.  This Article suggests that the objectivity the Court has been seeking all along is there for the taking, provided it abandons the sociological myth of “survival of the fittest” along with the idea that American society is ever-progressing in humane decency.  The Court must move beyond its obsessive tinkering with the death penalty and focus on the realities of “doing time” in America.

March 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania

As reported in this local article, folks in Pennsylvania unhappy with "Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to criticize that decision that they say was reached without input from crime victims or law enforcement officers." Here is more:

They came together on the day that death row inmate Terrence Williams was scheduled to be executed; his being the first death sentence to be reprieved as a result of the moratorium.

"Pennsylvania crime victims deserve justice. What they are receiving from the governor is politics," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, at the news conference. "He could approach the Legislature to try to get the law changed or he could have filed a lawsuit in court and seek an injunction in death penalty cases. The governor chose to pursue neither of those options."

Instead, with the stroke of his pen on Feb. 13, he signed an executive order to put capital punishment in Pennsylvania on hold until he reviews a Senate-ordered study of the issue that is due later this year....

Many are awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit filed by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenging Wolf's authority to impose the moratorium. The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear the case.

In the meantime, Vereb has introduced a resolution calling on the governor to reverse his decision and obey the law that now exists in Pennsylvania allowing for capital punishment. While he admits that won't carry the force of law, Vereb said it at least sends a message to the governor.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., said he plans to have at least two committee hearings on the issue of capital punishment, starting with one in Philadelphia on March 26 and the other scheduled for June. This month's hearing will focus on testimony from family members of murder victims.

Throughout the news conference, legislators along with the crime victims and district attorneys standing in front of a line of photos of murder victims criticized Wolf for failing to seek their input....

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said victims are best suited to explain the impact of Wolf's actions. He then proceeded to read a letter from Pauline Smith, whose mother June Rose Ohlinger, was murdered in 1995 in Schuylkill County by serial killer Mark Spotz who is among the 186 inmates now on death row. In her letter, Smith described the governor's decision as "a slap in the face to all of the victims of heinous crimes."

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Cloudy with (less of) a chance of executions in Georgia

ImagesAs reported in this Time piece, headlined "Georgia Postpones 2 Executions Over ‘Cloudy’ Drugs," the forecast in the Peach State just got peachier for those on the state's death row as the state deals with uncertainty concerning its execution drugs.  Here are the details:

Georgia's supply of lethal injection drug pentobarbital may have gone bad.  Georgia indefinitely postponed two executions Tuesday to allow officials to analyze its current batch of lethal injection drugs, which “appeared cloudy” prior to an execution that had been scheduled Monday night.

The execution of Kelly Gissendaner, who would’ve been the first woman put to death in the state in 70 years, was called off by the Georgia Department of Corrections Monday night after the state discovered its supply of pentobarbital, a short-acting barbiturate, looked murky.  Georgia officials made the decision after consulting with a pharmacist, according to The New York Times, even though state officials said that its pentobarbital supply had been tested and was cleared for use.

The state then announced Tuesday that the executions of both Gissendaner and Brian Keith Terrell, who was set to die by lethal injection on March 10 for the 1992 murder of John Henry Watson, were indefinitely postponed.  Gissendaner was convicted of arranging the 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner.

A number of states have had trouble carrying out executions due to problems obtaining drugs.... Like many states, Georgia has turned to compounding pharmacies, which are not under federal oversight, for their drug supplies while also passing a secrecy law that keeps participating pharmacies anonymous.  Georgia has not released the name of its drug supplier, and it’s unclear when its current batch of pentobarbital was due to expire.

March 4, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium

As reported in this local article, headlined "Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take death penalty moratorium case: Philadelphia DA calls governor’s actions lawless and unconstitutional," a fascinating case concerning state executive powers in the Keystone State is officially to be considered by the state Supreme Court. Here are the details:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take a case filed by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium implemented last month on capital punishment in the state. District Attorney R. Seth Williams asked the court to take up the matter involving a defendant named Terrance Williams, who was scheduled for lethal injection today.

Although Seth Williams asked that the court take the case on an expedited basis, the court refused, and it will be heard on a standard calendar, which means that both sides will file briefs and replies over the next several months, and oral argument will be scheduled at a date in the future.

It will probably be more than a year before any decision is reached, and University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it could be even longer if the court decides it wants two new justices, who will be elected later this year, to consider the case as well.

Mr. Wolf announced on Feb. 13 that he was instituting a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that it was not an “expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes.” Instead, he continued, it was “based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” He cited nationwide statistics that show 150 people have been exonerated from death row, including six in Pennsylvania....

But in his filing, Seth Williams argues that Mr. Wolf’s action was lawless and unconstitutional. “Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so,” the prosecutor’s filing said.

Instead, it continued, “At all times in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has meant one thing and only one thing: a temporary stay of a criminal judgment for a defined period of time, for the purpose of allowing the defendant to pursue an available legal remedy. The current act of the governor is not a reprieve. Nor, indeed, could it be. There is no remaining legal remedy available to defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for.”

To halt the imposition of the death penalty on a defendant, the district attorney’s office continued, the sentence must be commuted, which can be done only with unanimous agreement by the state Board of Pardons. Seth Williams accused the governor of usurping judicial function.

But in the governor’s response, his attorneys said what he was doing is temporary — a reprieve — and requires no input from the Board of Pardons. “The governor has ‘exclusive authority’ and ‘unfettered discretion to grant a reprieve after imposition of sentence and on a case by case basis,’ ” they wrote, quoting an earlier court case.

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Jury seated and ready for opening arguments in Boston bombing trial

As reported in this AP article, to culminate "two months of jury selection, a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates was seated Tuesday for the federal death penalty trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev." Here is more about a high-profile federal capital proceeding:

The all-white panel consists of eight men and 10 women. Jurors include a self-employed house painter, an air traffic controller, an executive assistant at a law firm and a former emergency room nurse. Opening statements in the case are scheduled for Wednesday.

Tsarnaev, 21, faces 30 charges in connection with twin bombings at the finish line of the marathon April 15, 2013. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured. He is also charged in the killing of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer days after the bombings.

If the jury convicts Tsarnaev, the trial will move on to a second phase to determine his punishment. The only two options available for the jury are life in prison or the death penalty....

During the jury selection process, Tsarnaev's lawyers tried repeatedly to get the trial moved out of Massachusetts, saying he could not find a fair and impartial jury because of the emotional impact the bombings had in the state. O'Toole rejected three change-of-venue motions, saying the process of carefully questioning jurors to detect bias was successful in finding impartial jurors. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice refused to order the trial moved.

Some prior related posts:

March 3, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Concerns about lethal drug creates reprieve for condemned Georgia woman

As reported in this CNN piece, for "the second time, a Georgia woman's execution has been postponed -- this time because of concerns about the drugs to be used." Here is why:

Kelly Renee Gissendaner was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. ET Monday.  "Prior to the execution, the drugs were sent to an independent lab for testing of potency.  The drugs fell within the acceptable testing limits," the Georgia Department of Corrections said in a statement.

"Within the hours leading up to the scheduled execution, the Execution Team performed the necessary checks.  At that time, the drugs appeared cloudy.  The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed."

The 47-year-old was originally scheduled to die on Wednesday, but that execution was called off because of winter weather.

If I were a deeply religious person, I might be inclined to contend that some higher power is doing all it can to keep Georgia from being able to execute Gissendaner.

March 3, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

Georgia scheduled to execute only female murderer on its death row

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "After weather delay, Georgia ready to perform rare execution of a woman," the Peach State appears poised this evening to end the life of a bad apple notable for her gender. Here are the details:

After getting a temporary reprieve when her execution was postponed because of winter weather conditions forecast to hit the state, the only woman on Georgia's death row is again set for execution Monday. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson, but the Department of Corrections postponed it to Monday at 7 p.m., citing the weather and associated scheduling issues.

Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she plotted his death with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen.... Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at the Gissendaners' home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said

Owen pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence with eligibility for parole after 25 years. He testified at Gissendaner's trial, and a jury convicted her and sentenced her to death in 1998.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, on Wednesday denied Gissendaner clemency. A federal judge in Atlanta rejected a request to halt her execution, and her lawyers have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Gissendaner's execution happens, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Lena Baker, a black maid, was executed in 1945 after being convicted in a one-day trial for killing her white employer. Georgia officials issued her a pardon in 2005 after six decades of lobbying and arguments by her family that she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will. Baker was the only woman to die in the state's electric chair. P>Execution of female inmates is rare with only 15 women put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, about 1,400 men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal that was offered to Owen, but she turned it down. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, Gissendaner's lawyers argued in a clemency petition. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death. "I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.

Victor Streib, a retired Ohio Northern University law professor and an expert on the death penalty for women, said it's clear that women are condemned to die far less frequently than men, but that there are so few cases that it's tough to draw any general conclusions. "Statistically, yes, if you've got two cases and everything about them is exactly the same and one case is a woman and the other case is a man, the man is more likely to be sentenced to death," Streib said, but added that he wouldn't count on that as a legal strategy.

One reason women aren't sentenced to death as often is that they don't commit as many murders and when they do they generally aren't the "worst of the worst" murders that lead to the death penalty, Streib said. Juries may also be more likely to believe a woman was emotionally distressed or not in her right mind at the time of a killing, which can spare them a death sentence, he said.

March 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Must one study lynchings past to understand US punishments present?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this article discussing a recent speech by a prominent civil rights activist.  The piece is headlined "Angela Davis equates lynchings with prisons, death penalty," and here are excerpts:

Iconic civil rights leader Angela Davis opened her lecture Wednesday evening at Purdue University by evoking Black History Month — setting the stage for a moving presentation that connected past stories of oppression to today's movements for freedom....

During her talk at Purdue, Davis tied the historical tradition of the black struggle against oppression to multiple contemporary movements against racist violence, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and able-ism.  "The black radical tradition can be claimed by anyone who believes that freedom is a worthy cause and that the struggle for freedom links our contemporary aspirations with many struggles of the past," she said.

She connected the history of black lynchings to today's issues of mass incarceration and capital punishment. "The death penalty's roots are sunk deep into the legacy of lynching," she said. "… If we fail to take into account the central role of lynching, then we will never truly understand the way racism worked its way into the criminal justice system."

March 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"The Politics of Botched Executions"

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

For decades now, America’s death penalty has been beset by serious problems in its administration, but what has finally gotten the public’s attention is a spate of botched executions in the first half of 2014.  Botched executions are, like the death penalty’s other woes, nothing new. But having to manage the public relations nightmare that has followed these high-profile events is new, and tells a story of its own.  What are the politics of botched executions?  Officials have lowered the blinds so witnesses could not see what was happening inside the execution chamber, called for an “independent review” by other arms of the state, minimized concerns by comparing the execution to the condemned’s crimes, even denied that a botched execution was botched in the first place.

In this symposium contribution, I recount the four botched executions of 2014 and state responses that accompanied them.  I then make three observations — one about states’ fealty to the death penalty, one about backlash politics, and one about the changing cultural construct of lethal injection in the United States.  Finally, I surmise how state responses to botched executions (or the lack thereof) might impact the constitutionality of lethal injection and prove true the old adage about politics making strange bedfellows: the inept executioner may prove to be the abolitionist’s best friend.

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Can life in prison be worse than death" ... for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

The question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable Washington Post article discussing the current (and likely future) prison realities for the Boston marathon bomber.  Here are excerpts: 

What’s worse – being sentenced to be executed or to spend the rest of one’s life in prison?

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense team includes two attorneys famous for ensuring that the former is replaced with the latter: Judy Clarke from San Diego, who has brokered many high-profile plea deals, and her frequent litigation partner David Bruck of Virginia.  During the jury selection process, which is wrapping up in Boston this week, they have focused on drawing out jurors’ views on the death penalty, and with some regularity have elicited the response that life imprisonment is the harsher of the two options while the death penalty is “the easy way out.”

These potential jurors may have a point.  Tsarnaev, 21, has been in solitary confinement for a year and a half.  Like a handful of other inmates in the U.S., he has also been subjected to “special administrative measures,” or SAMs, while in pretrial detention; if he is sentenced to life imprisonment, SAMs will almost certainly remain in force....

According to a Human Rights Watch report, inmates under SAMs are usually fully isolated from other prisoners. Solitary confinement usually means spending 23 hours a day alone in a cell; SAMs often mean that this cell is in a special block from which the inmate can never see or hear other prisoners, even by knocking on a wall or peering through a window.

Under SAMs, Tsarnaev can make phone calls only when allowed to do so by the prison authority, and only to immediate family members – in his case, this would include his parents, living in Dagestan, and his two sisters, living in New Jersey. He has been calling his mother once a week.... All phone calls are monitored by an FBI agent...

The same rules apply to visits and correspondence: immediate family only. Tsarnaev’s sisters have visited him – his parents have not entered the United States since he was arrested, though one or both of them may travel here for the sentencing phase of the trial. A prison employee or FBI agent is always present during the visits, which include no physical contact – meaning they talk using telephone receivers, through glass.

Tsarnaev’s communication with his lawyers is also limited by the SAMs, but not nearly to the extent that his other communication is: His lawyers can visit without restriction, they can have physical contact with him, and their communication is privileged, which means that no one else is present. If Tsarnaev is convicted and sentenced to death, these visits will continue for the many years the appeals process is likely to last....

On Wednesday, as the court continued to interview potential jurors, the Boston Bar Association issued a statement calling on the Justice Department to take the death penalty off the table and arguing that a plea agreement in exchange for a life sentence would be in the interests of justice. If a plea agreement were to happen, Tsarnaev would stay alone in his cell, under SAMs: He could never have physical contact or a private conversation with anyone except a prison guard for the rest of his life.

Some prior related posts:

February 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tie vote ends effort to end the death penalty in Montana

As reported in this local article, headlined "House deadlocks on bill to abolish death penalty in Montana," a very red state came had a death penalty repeal bill come (surprisingly?) close to passage.  Here are the details:

The state House deadlocked Monday 50-50 on a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana, likely killing the measure for the 2015 Legislature. Rep. David “Doc” Moore, R-Missoula, the sponsor of House Bill 370, told members to “just vote your conscience” moments before the vote.

He said later that he’s undecided whether to ask the House on Tuesday to reconsider its action on HB370, saying it could be difficult to pick up a single, additional vote to force another emotional debate and vote on the floor.

Monday’s vote fell largely along party lines, with most Republicans against it — but it took three of the House’s 41 Democrats voting “no” to reject the bill, which would abolish the death penalty in Montana and substitute it with life in prison without parole. Montana has two murderers on death row.

The vote also marked the closest that death penalty opponents have come to getting a bill through the Montana House, which has blocked similar efforts for years. Bills to abolish the death penalty have been approved by the state Senate in recent legislatures, only to see them die in the House.

Supporters of the bill argued the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and costs the state millions of dollars on appeals and other prosecutorial costs. Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, also said state prison workers shouldn’t be put in the position of having to operate “the machineries of death.”...

One longtime supporter of abolishing the death penalty, Rep. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, spoke as though he thought supporters had the votes to pass HB370 on Monday. “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives,” he said. “It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history."...

Opponents, however, offered their own emotion-charged testimony against the measure, saying the death penalty can help prosecutors extract plea bargains out of terrible criminals and spare both the state and the victims’ families the financial and emotional cost of a trial. “How can you put a price on my emotions and what I was going through, with my family?” asked Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, whose son was brutally murdered a dozen years ago. “All this bill does is reward the murderer, handicap the prosecutor … and penalize victims like me.”

Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, who opposed the bill, said those who want to abolish the death penalty should take it to the Montana public as a referendum — but they won’t, because they know they would lose. The public overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, he said.

February 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor

Images (2)As reported in this new Reuters piece, headlined "New Oregon Governor Kate Brown to extend death penalty moratorium," a change in leadership at the top of the executive branch in the Beaver State is apparently not going to bring any change to the state's current peculiar death penalty practices. Here are the details:

Oregon's new Democratic Governor Kate Brown said on Friday she planned to extend a moratorium on executions that her predecessor enacted in 2011, well before an influence-peddling scandal forced him from office earlier this week.

But like fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, Brown stopped short of formally commuting death sentences for the 34 inmates currently awaiting execution in the state, which has executed only two people in the past half century, both in the 1990s.  “There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said in her first press briefing since she took Oregon's helm on Wednesday.  "Until that discussion, I'm upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.” 

In a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, Kitzhaber imposed a blanket reprieve on all Oregon death row inmates in 2011, saying he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.  He had faced growing calls in the waning days of his administration to commute all Oregon death sentences to life in prison before leaving office following an ethics scandal over accusations his fiancée used her role in his office for personal gain.

But Kitzhaber, who has not been seen publicly since announcing his resignation last week, remained silent on that issue, although he did commute the prison sentence of a young man serving time for attempted murder in a non-capital case.

Brown, who had been Oregon's secretary of state before this week, said she met with Kitzhaber on Monday and he advised her of his legislative priorities and recommendations. In addition to her death penalty plans, Brown told reporters she supports raising the minimum wage, increasing transparency and improving access to public records. 

Four years seems to me like plenty of time for the policy-makers and the public in Oregon to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state. Notably, since Kitzhaber put the moratorium in place, I believe the Oregon legislature has enacted other forms of sentencing reform dealing with prison sentences as well as significant state health-care reforms.  In addition, Oregon public policy groups placed on the ballot in both 2012 and 2014 significant legal reform intended to "fix" perceived problems with marijuana laws and policies in the state.  If the last four years (and a number of election cycles) have not provided sufficient time for Oregonians to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system," I have a hard time imagining that the next few years are likely to engender such a discussion.

In the end, I seriously doubt that the new Oregon governor (or many others in the state) are really looking forward to having a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state.  Rather, I think this phrase was the one that the new gov thought would best allow her to duck a controversial, high-profile issue for the time being (and maybe even for the full duration of her term).  For a handful of advocates, death penalty policy and practices in any state are very important, but for most citizens and voters the death penalty is a high-salience but low-significance concern.  Keeping Kitzhaber's execution moratorium in place allows the new gov to focus on other issues without the distorting distractions that death penalty politics can often create.

Some recent related posts:

February 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Philadelphia DA sues Pennsylvania Gov asserting execution moratorium is "lawless" and "flagrantly unconstitutional"

Images (1)As reported in this local article, "Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has sued Gov. Tom Wolf over the death penalty moratorium he imposed last week." Here the basics:

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Williams asks the state Supreme Court to rule Wolf's move a "lawless act," claiming the governor had no legal right to grant a reprieve to convicted murderer Terrance Williams....

The lawsuit filed by the city's Democratic district attorney is the second one the Democratic governor has faced since he was sworn in to office Jan. 20. The Republican-controlled Senate sued Wolf in Commonwealth Court over his decision to fire the executive director of the Open Records Office, which the Legislature created when it updated the state's Right-to-Know Law in 2008.

Wolf's death penalty moratorium, announced Friday, fulfilled a campaign promise. It was criticized by district attorneys, law enforcement and some lawmakers. Some religious leaders and other lawmakers praised it....

Wolf said he will grant a reprieve each time a death row inmate is scheduled for execution but keep the inmates' death sentences intact, which was what he did in the case of Terrance Williams. Williams was scheduled to be executed March 4 for the 1984 robbing and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia.

"The governor took the action to place a moratorium on the death penalty because Pennsylvania's capital punishment system is flawed — it's ineffective, expensive, and many times unjust," Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said Wednesday. "As he stated Friday, the governor will wait for the report being produced by the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established by the state Senate, and the recommendations within the report are addressed satisfactorily."

Wolf was within his legal right to grant a reprieve under Article 4, Section 9 of the state constitution, Sheridan added. That section also gives the governor the power to commute sentences and issue pardons.

In his lawsuit, Williams says the governor can grant reprieves only as a temporary measure to allow a defendant to pursue "an available legal remedy." The governor cannot grant open-ended reprieves in cases where there are no legal questions surrounding guilt, the suit states. "Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so," Williams wrote, citing a successful 1994 lawsuit Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli filed against Gov. Robert P. Casey to enforce the death penalty against Martin D. Appel and Josoph Henry....

"The scope of the reprieve power is not mysterious or vague, and it is limited," Williams' lawsuit states. "Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor an unlimited at-will power of clemency, without which it is not even possible to posit an arguable ability to impose a moratorium."

The filing by Philadelphia DA Williams, which is styled an&"Emergency Commonwealth Petition For Extraordinary Relief Under King's Bench Jurisdiction," was filed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and is available at this link.  I find the filing quite effective and compelling, and I thought these passages were especially notable:

On February 13, 2015, the Governor issued a purported reprieve in connection with his publicly-announced assumption of a constitutionally-nonexistent power to declare a “moratorium” on death sentences in Pennsylvania.

This lawless act by the Governor, improperly and inaccurately characterized as a reprieve — for the act issued in this case is not, in fact, a reprieve — is not within the constitutional powers of the Governor, usurps judicial review of criminal judgments, and is in direct violation of his duty to faithfully execute Pennsylvania law under Article IV, § 2. It is unconstitutional, illegal, and should be declared null and void by this Court....

The alleged reprieve, which is not a reprieve at all, violates the constitutional separation of powers.  The constitution requires due process, not the Governor’s personal standard of absolute perfection; and the task of assuring that criminal judgments meet that correct standard is assigned to the judiciary, not the executive.Exercise, by another branch, of an extra-constitutional attempt to disturb settled judgments in criminal cases is an impermissible usurpation of the exclusive function of the judiciary....

In law and in reality, therefore, the Governor seeks to nullify valid, final judgments of sentence in usurpation of the judicial function, and seeks to subject the law governing capital sentencing to the test of his personal standard of satisfaction,which in this instance happens to be a test of infallibility that is impossible for mere mortals to satisfy. This is not permissible in a government that is founded on the principle that the people are to be ruled by laws enacted by their representatives in the legislative process, and not the personal whims of a king or dictator. The constitutional role of the Governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it.

February 20, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

AP report details that, functionally, California kills many more sex offenders than murderers

Formally, California sends many more murderers to its death row than any other state and it has more condemned capital prisoners than two dozen other US death penalty states combined.  But California has only managed to actually execute fourteen of those sentenced to die and nobody has been executed by the state in nearly a decade.  Meanwhile, as this new AP report details, over the last eight years, while California has not moved forward with an execution of a single condemned murderer, a total of 78 sex offenders have been slaughtered inside California's prisons.  Here are the basics:

California state prisoners are killed at a rate that is double the national average — and sex offenders ... account for a disproportionate number of victims, according to an Associated Press analysis of corrections records.

Male sex offenders made up about 15 percent of the prison population but accounted for nearly 30 percent of homicide victims, the AP found in cataloging all 78 killings that corrections officials reported since 2007, when they started releasing slain inmates' identities and crimes.

The deaths — 23 out of 78 — come despite the state's creation more than a decade ago of special housing units designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, often marked men behind bars because of the nature of their crimes.

In some cases, they have been killed among the general prison population and, in others, within the special units by violence-prone cellmates. Officials acknowledge that those units, which also house inmates trying to quit gangs, have spawned their own gangs.

Corrections officials blamed a rise in the prison homicide rate on an overhaul meant to reduce crowding. As part of the effort, the state in 2011 began keeping lower-level offenders in county lockups, leaving prisons with a higher percentage of sex offenders and violent gang members....

The problem is most acute with sex offenders. Last fall, the corrections department's inspector general reported that so many homicides occurred in the "increasingly violent" special housing units reserved for vulnerable inmates that the department could no longer assume that inmates there could peacefully co-exist. The report looked at 11 homicide cases that were closed in the first half of 2014 and found that 10 victims were sensitive-needs inmates. Using corrections records, the AP found that eight of them were sex offenders.

For a variety of reasons, most states have special facilities incorporated into their "death row," and condemned prisoners on death row are often eager to be well behaved in the hope of increasing their odds of getting out from under a death sentences eventually. Consequently, it can often be much safer for certain prisoners to be condemned and confined to death than to be in the general population. And this new AP report reinforces my sense that a serious California criminal likely would lead a more peaceful and safe life in prison if and when he murders and gets condemned to death than if he just commits a sex offense. (In addition to being a disturbing practical reality, these dynamics might perhaps prompt and incentivize a "rational rapist" in California to murder one or more his victims in order to ensure he can potentially avoid the dangers of the general prison population and live out his life peacefully pursuing appeal after appeal while safe and secure on death row.)

February 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Florida Supreme Court stays lethal injection pending SCOTUS case, and AG Holder urges national execution halt

As reported in this Reuters piece, "Florida’s highest court put executions on hold Tuesday while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether use of a controversial general anesthetic constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment of condemned killers." Here is more:

The state Supreme Court stopped the execution of Jerry William Correll next week because the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a challenge some Oklahoma inmates brought against use of midazolam hydrochloride as the first of three drugs used in lethal injections. Florida uses essentially the same formula, the court said in a 5-2 ruling.

The state switched to midazolam as an anesthetic in 2013 when some foreign drug manufacturers quit supplying other drugs previously used in executions. The Department of Corrections said 11 lethal injections have been carried out with midazolam in Florida since then. Florida courts have approved midazolam, but the nation’s highest court agreed Jan. 23 to hear an appeal by 21 Oklahoma inmates in a case citing prolonged executions and signs of pain reported in that state, Arizona and Ohio.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote that if the nation’s highest court rules in favor of the prisoners, “then Florida’s precedent approving the use of midazolam and the current Florida three-drug protocol will be subject to serious doubt as to its continued viability.”

Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented, saying Florida should proceed with Correll’s execution unless the U.S. Supreme Court stays it. Canady wrote that a stay in another state does not automatically require one in Florida, and that agreeing to review Oklahoma’s use of the drug means the justices will forbid it.

Meanwhile, as reported in this piece in The Hill, US Attorney General Eric Holder suggested today that all states ought to follow Florida's lead while the Supreme Court lethal injection case is pending:

Attorney General Eric Holder called Tuesday for a national moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue later this year...

Late last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal the from death row inmates in Oklahoma who are challenging the state’s procedures for lethal injections. "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate," Holder said.

February 17, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Would you urge out-going (and apparently corrupt) Oregon Gov Kitzhaber to commute all death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Frank Thompson, a retired assistant director of institutions and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.  Here are excerpts:

I know what it is like to execute someone. I am a retired prison superintendent who conducted the only two executions that have taken place in Oregon in the past 53 years.

The death penalty in Oregon comes at a high cost to our state in both human and fiscal resources.  I call on Gov. Kitzhaber to convert 35 death sentences to life without the possibility of release before he leaves office at mid-morning on Wednesday.

Based on my experiences as a correctional professional, capital punishment is a failed public policy — especially in Oregon where we have funded a death penalty system for over 30 years, yet only put to death two inmates who volunteered themselves for execution by abandoning their appeals. No other corrections program exemplifies such a complete failure rate.

During my more than two decades of running correctional facilities, I saw the population of those who are capable of extreme violence up close. I have no doubts at all that these offenders did not think about the death penalty for one second before committing their violent acts. Instead, research has been shown that public safety is greatly improved when our limited tax dollars are redirected to law enforcement agencies to solve cases and prevent crimes.

I understand exactly what is being asked of public employees whose jobs include carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary to end another person's life.  The burden weighs especially heavily on my conscience because I know firsthand that the death penalty is not applied fairly or equally in Oregon.  I have known hundreds of inmates who are guilty of similar crimes yet did not get the death penalty because they reached a plea bargain of life without parole simply because they had the means for professional legal assistance.

I also understand, from my experiences in corrections, the potential awful and lifelong repercussions that can come from participating in the execution of prisoners.  Living with the nightmares is something that some of us experience.  This is particularly the case with those of us who have had more hands-on experience with the flawed capital punishment process, and/or where an execution under our supervision did not go smoothly.

I am never troubled when people make a forceful argument that "capital punishment is a failed public policy."  But I find it troubling that this argument is being made now to a disgraced (apparently corrupt) out-going governor rather than to the new incoming governor and other public-policy officials who are going to be staying in their jobs and would need to deal with the administrative and political implications and consequences of their actions.

Notably, it is not just Oregonians urging out-going Gov Kitzhaber to clear the state's death row.  Professors Charles Ogletree and Rob Smith have this new Huffington Post commentary headlined "Gov. Kitzhaber: Your Job Is Not Yet Done." here is how it concludes:

Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty back in 2011. He labeled the State's practice of imposing death sentences "neither fair nor just" and concluded that a "compromised and inequitable" capital punishment system is not befitting of Oregon. Nothing has changed and nothing will: the death penalty in Oregon is too broken to fix.

In his resignation letter, Governor Kitzhaber told us that he was proud to not have presided over any executions. Yet, as Governor, he presided over a state that has sentenced people to death under the same unjust system that led him to impose the moratorium. The Governor has the power to leave the troubled history of this disreputable death penalty system in Oregon's rearview mirror; and doing so would enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system without compromising public safety.

Governor Kitzhaber: You lit the torch in 2011; and now, in these few remaining hours, please carry that torch across the finish line.

February 17, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2015

"The United States Execution Drug Shortage: A Consequence of Our Values"

The title of this post is the title of this commentary authored by Ty Alper available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The recent inability of states to obtain drugs for use in executions has led to de facto moratoria in a number of states, as well as gruesomely botched executions in states that have resorted to dangerous and unreliable means to obtain these drugs. The refusal of some pharmaceutical companies to provide drugs to U.S. prisons has significantly impeded the imposition of the death penalty in a number of states. Despite this, it is the anti-death penalty activists who tend to draw the attention of the media, state officials, and politicians charged with carrying out executions. The media focuses particular attention on advocates in Europe who have campaigned to pressure European drug companies to stop distribution of their products to U.S. prisons for use in executions.

This paper challenges that narrative and posits instead that it is the drug companies that have long sought to avoid the use of their products in executions, for moral and financial reasons, as well as to comply with European law. When we look back on the fourth decade of the modern era of capital punishment in the United States, we may consider it the decade that marked the beginning of the end. If so, it will not be the result of a handful of activists successfully thwarting the administration of capital punishment. Rather, it will be the consequence of U.S. states imposing the death penalty in the context of a modern world that generally abhors the practice, using a method of execution that is very much dependent on major players in that world.

February 16, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tennessee Supreme Court to consider electric chair as back-up execution method

I am pleased and intrigued to see, via this local article, that the "Tennessee Supreme Court will decide whether a death row inmate can challenge the state's back-up method of execution: the electric chair." Here is more about this notable litigation:

The court agreed to take the case — which stems from a Davidson County Chancery Court battle — on Friday. Arguments are set for May 6 in Knoxville. The state says that inmates who are challenging the electric chair as unconstitutional cannot do so because none of the inmates is facing that method of execution.

A group of 34 inmates previously challenged the state's primary protocol, lethal injection, and then added a challenge to the electric chair when it was deemed a back-up method.

The appeal to the Supreme Court, as well as another seeking the release of names of people involved in the execution process, come from the pending chancery court case. Once the Supreme Court decides the issues, the chancery court case will be able to move forward.

I fear that this case might resolve only whether and when a Tennessee defendant can challenge a back-up method of execution. Nevertheless, I find it notable and potential important that a state supreme court is now going to consider in any way an execution method other than lethal injection.

February 16, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

Pennsylvania Gov declares moratorium on state death penalty

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Gov. Tom Wolf declares moratorium on death penalty in Pa.," there is some headline-making news about capital punishment administration emerging from the Keystone State: 

Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium Friday on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, potentially halting the process for 186 prisoners who've received a death sentence. Since 1693, the commonwealth has executed 1,043 prisoners, the last of which was Philadelphia torture killer Gary Heidnik in 1999. That execution took place, in large part, because Heidnik gave up his right to appeal.

In a statement released Friday, Wolf said the state's current death penalty is "a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive."...

Wolf's first action was a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Williams was convicted of two murders he committed as a teenager in 1984. "Today's action comes after significant consideration and reflection," Wolf said. "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes."

Shortly after Wolf's announcement, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said he reintroduced his bill Friday to abolish the death penalty altogether. "I am extremely grateful that our governor will stop spending our tax dollars to, in the words of former US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, tinker with the machinery of death," he said, in a written statement.

Gov. Wolf's detailed four-page statement justifying his decision today is a fascinating read (which I am going to make my sentencing students read and re-read). The full statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts:

Pursuant to authority granted in Article IV, § 9 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, I am today exercising my power as Governor to grant a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrence Williams. A death warrant for this case was signed on January 13, 2015 by my predecessor, acting pursuant to Section 4302 of the Pennsylvania Prisons and Parole Code. The execution was scheduled for March 4, 2015.

The reprieve announced today shall remain in effect until I have received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment (established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011), and any recommendations contained therein are satisfactorily addressed. In addition, it is my intention to grant a reprieve in each future instance in which an execution is scheduled, until this condition is met....

There are currently 186 individuals on Pennsylvania’s death row. Despite having the fifth largest death row in the nation, the death penalty has rarely been imposed in modern times. In the nearly forty years since the Pennsylvania General Assembly reinstated the death penalty, the Commonwealth has executed three people, all of whom voluntarily abandoned their right to further due process.

In that same period, Governors have signed 434 death warrants. All but the three noted above have subsequently been stayed by a court. One inmate has been scheduled for execution six times, each of which has been cancelled due to a state or federal appeal. Two inmates have remained on death row for more than three decades. This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences. The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.

While the pace of the process frustrates some, the fail-safes of appellate review are essential in avoiding a catastrophic miscarriage of justice. Since reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania....

If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s sy stem is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible....

[A]administering the death penalty, with all the necessary legal appeals and safeguards as well as extra security and individual cells on death row, is extremely expensive. A recent analysis conducted by the Reading Eagle estimates that the capital justice apparatus has cost taxpayers at least $315 million, but noted that this figure was very likely low. Other estimates have suggested the cost to be $600 million or more. The Commonwealth has received very little, if any, benefit from this massive expenditure.

February 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Spotlighting the administrative challenges posed by high-profile capital cases

This New York Times article, headlined "Jury Pool for Trial in Aurora Shooting Is Pressed on Death Penalty," highlights the various administrative difficulties a high-profile capital case formally gets underway in Colorado.  Here are excerpts:

Lawyers on Wednesday began questioning potential jurors for the trial of the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding 70 during a showing of a Batman film in a packed Colorado movie theater in 2012.

The defendant, James E. Holmes, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, though his lawyers admit he was the gunman. The district attorney is seeking the death penalty, and prosecutors and defense lawyers focused most of their questioning on how prospective jurors feel about that sentence....

Officials sent jury summonses to 9,000 people here — a number that dwarfs even the 1,300 or so potential jurors who filled out questionnaires in the trial of the man accused in the Boston Marathon bombings. The pool of potential jurors has since been whittled to about 2,000. Questioning of those people is expected to take 16 weeks, during which the pool will be reduced to 120, who will receive further questioning, and finally to 12 jurors and 12 alternates.

The trial, to be held in this Denver suburb, could last from early spring to October, with testimony expected from police officers, crime scene experts, witnesses and mental health experts. The shooting took place July 20, 2012, at a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora, where about 400 people were attending a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”... 

Two and a half years later, the effects of the massacre continue to ripple through the region, with victims and their families grappling with depression and post­traumatic stress disorder and divided over the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty. Some have argued that it is the only way to ensure justice; others have said it will cause years of appeals, an excruciating prospect for those seeking a degree of closure.

Recent and older related posts (with lots of comments):

February 12, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Update on a decade-long (lack of) effort (not) to fix lethal injection in California

California has long been a state leader in spending lots of time, energy and money on the death penalty without achieving much.  This commentary by Debra Saunders, headlined "Yes, California, there is a death penalty," provides a critical review of the lethal injection part of this story that has played out over the last decade. Here are excerpts:

What happened to California’s death penalty? There has not been an execution since 2006, when a federal judge ruled against the state’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld three-drug executions. It didn’t matter. Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris both personally oppose capital punishment, but as candidates promised to uphold the law. In real life, they’ve let things slide. Fed up, two men related to murder victims have filed suit to push the state to carry out the law.

Kermit Alexander wants to see the law work on Tiequon Cox, convicted of killing the former football player’s mother, sister and two nephews in 1984 — Cox went to the wrong address for a $3,500 contract killing. Bradley Winchell is sick of waiting for the execution of Michael Morales, who raped, hammered, strangled and stabbed to death his 17-year-old sister, Terri, in 1981. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shellyanne Chang ruled in their favor Friday after Harris challenged them on the dubious grounds that crime victims and the general public “lack standing” to sue the state.

Brown had directed the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in April 2012 to develop rules that should pass court muster. What’s taking so long? Spokesman Jeffrey Callison answered that his department has been working on “a single drug protocol” but “nationwide, there is a problem with access to execution drugs and that is complicating efforts.”

California has used lethal injection since 1996 to spare condemned inmates unnecessary pain. Even still, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel stayed Morales’ execution as the judge perceived a 0.001 percent chance the convicted killer might feel pain.

In other states not headed by Hamlets, leaders have found ways to anticipate court sensibilities and keep faith with voters.  Many adopted one-drug protocols.  Death penalty foes responded by using their considerable muscle to bar importation and choke the supply of lethal-injection drugs.  Flat-footed Sacramento stuck with the unused three-drug protocol for too long. While Brown’s Corrections Department was working on a one-drug rule, Texas executed 38 killers with pentobarbital. The next time you hear the cerebral governor argue that high-speed rail is doable, remember that he couldn’t pull off a legal procedure that didn’t daunt former Texas Gov. Rick Perry....

In 2012, California voters rejected a ballot measure to get rid of capital punishment. Alexander and Winchell shouldn’t have to sue their government to enforce the law.

As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I do not think officials in California have any real interest in fixing its execution protocol.

February 11, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

As SCOTUS considers Oklahoma lethal injections, Oklahoma considers a gas chamber

As this AP article reports, now that "executions in Oklahoma [are] on hold amid a constitutional review of its lethal injection formula, Republican legislators are pushing to make Oklahoma the first state in the nation to allow the use of nitrogen gas to execute death row inmates." Here is more:

Two separate bills scheduled for hearings this week in legislative committees would make death by "nitrogen hypoxia" a backup method of execution if the state's current lethal injection process is found to be unconstitutional.

"You wouldn't need a medical doctor to do it. It's a lot more practical. It's efficient," said Rep. Mike Christian, an Oklahoma City Republican and former Oklahoma Highway patrolman who conducted a hearing last summer on hypoxia, or the depletion of oxygen in the bloodstream.

The U.S. Supreme Court currently is reviewing Oklahoma's three-drug method in a challenge sparked by a botched lethal injection last spring in which an inmate groaned and writhed on the gurney before a problem was discovered with an intravenous line. The case centers on whether the sedative midazolam properly renders an inmate unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered. Three scheduled lethal injections in Oklahoma have been delayed pending the high court's review.

Oklahoma officials concede midazolam is not the preferred drug for executions, but death penalty states have been forced to explore alternatives as manufacturers of more effective drugs refuse to sell them for use in lethal injections. Tennessee passed a law last year to reinstate the electric chair if it can't get lethal drugs, and Utah is considering bringing back the firing squad. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has urged legislators to consider the creation of a state compounding pharmacy to produce the drugs itself.

A fiscal analysis of the Oklahoma bill projects it would cost about $300,000 to build a gas chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. A similar bill is pending in the Oklahoma Senate. Christian said unlike traditional gas chambers that used drugs like cyanide that caused a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, breathing nitrogen would be painless because it leads to hypoxia, a gradual lack of oxygen in the blood, similar to what can happen to pilots at high altitudes.

Four states currently allow the use of lethal gas — Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming — but all have lethal injection as the primary method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. No state has ever used nitrogen gas or inert gas hypoxia to execute an inmate. The last U.S. inmate executed in a gas chamber was Walter LaGrand in Arizona in 1999.

A few recent and older related posts:

February 10, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack