The secrecy imposed by Arizona on the source and quality of the lethal injection drugs it uses to kill death row inmates has been challenged in a new lawsuit brought by the Guardian and other media organizations.
In the lawsuit, filed with a federal court in Phoenix, the Guardian together with the Associated Press and four of Arizona’s largest news outlets argue that the state’s refusal to disclose any information about its lethal injection drugs is a breach of the public’s first amendment right to know about how the death penalty is being carried out in its name. It follows agroundbreaking first amendment case brought by the Guardian and others in Missouri in May....
Use of midazolam in executions in recent months has proved particularly problematic and contentious. It has been associated with gruesome and prolonged deaths in Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma. The Arizona complaint has been joined, in addition to the Guardian and the Associated Press, by two of the state’s most important newspapers, the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star. Two major television channels, KPNX-TV Channel 12 and KPHO Broadcasting Corporation, are also party to the suit.
The action is lodged in the US district court in Arizona and is directed against Charles Ryan, director of the department of corrections, and the state’s attorney general, Thomas Horne, both in their official roles. The Guardian and fellow plaintiffs are represented by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale law school, with the assistance of Ballard Spahr LLP in Phoenix.
Unlike most other lawsuits that have been brought relating to the creeping secrecy that surrounds lethal injection drugs – which have argued the prisoners’ constitutional rights have been violated – the Arizona lawsuit starts with the principle that the public has a right to know how capital punishment is being carried out.
The complaint argues that “the public cannot meaningfully debate the propriety of lethal injection executions if it is denied access to this essential information about how individuals are being put to death by the state.” It says that the established constitutional right of public access to aspects of government procedures means that the state should be obliged to reveal “the source, composition, and quality of drugs, as well as the protocols, that have been or will be used in lethal injection executions and to view the entirety of an execution”.
This is the fourth lawsuit that the Guardian has launched against various manifestations of secrecy in the US death penalty. As well as the actions in Arizona and Missouri, there are ongoing legal complaints currently before the courts in Pennsylvania and in Oklahoma, where the state is being challenged for having drawn the curtain halfway through the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April.
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Outgoing Maryland Gov commutes final four state death sentences to life
As reported in this CNN article, "Outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley took the state's last four inmates off death row Wednesday, commuting their sentences to life in prison without parole in one of his final acts in office." Here is more:
The move comes as the Democrat considers a run for president — a long-shot bid that many Democrats only expect to gain steam if Hillary Clinton opts not to run.
O'Malley's office announced the move in a release Wednesday morning, noting that the state's legislature had abolished the death penalty with a law that took effect in May 2013 and that the state's courts and attorney general have questioned whether the state has legal authority to carry out death sentences that were already imposed.
"In the final analysis, there is one truth that stands between and before all of us," O'Malley said in a statement. "That truth is this — few of us would ever wish for our children or grandchildren to kill another human being or to take part in the killing of another human being. The legislature has expressed this truth by abolishing the death penalty in Maryland."
The four inmates whose sentences were commuted are Vernon Lee Evans Jr. and Anthony Grandison Sr., who were convicted of the 1983 contract killing of two witnesses scheduled to testify in a federal drug trial; Heath William Burch, convicted of killing an elderly neighbor couple in 1995; and Jody Lee Miles, convicted of robbing and shooting a theater manager in 1997.
O'Malley said in the statement that he'd met with the families of the victims of the four convicted killers whose sentences he commuted, and said they would suffer through "the additional torment of an un-ending legal process."
"In my judgment, leaving these death sentences in place does not serve the public good of the people of Maryland — present or future," O'Malley said.
Prior relates posts:
- Can and should out-going Maryland Gov commute death sentences to ensure LWOP after state's capital repeal?
"Emotion, Authority, and Death: (Raced) Negotiations in Mock Capital Jury Deliberations"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article discussing notable new capital jury deliberation research authored by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article explores the role of emotion in the capital penalty-phase jury deliberations process. It is based on the qualitative analysis of data from ninety video-recorded four to seven person simulated jury deliberations that examined the influence of race on death sentencing outcomes. The analysis explores when and how emotions are expressed, integrated into the jury’s sentencing process, and deployed in penalty-phase decision making.
The findings offer critical new insights into the role that emotion plays in influencing these legal judgments by revealing how jurors strategically and explicitly employ emotion in the course of deliberation, both to support their own positions and neutralize or rebut the opposing positions of others. The findings also shed light on the various ways that white male capital jurors utilize a panoply of powerful emotion-based tactics to sway others to their position in a manner that often contributes to racially biased outcomes.
Monday, December 29, 2014
Split Ninth Circuit panel reverses Arizona death sentence over sharp dissent
The Ninth Circuit today issued a notable reversal of an Arizona death sentence by finding that the defendant's attorney was ineffective at sentencing even though the Arizona courts found to the contrary. The ruling in Mann v. Ryan, 09-99017 (9th Cir. Dec. 29, 2014) (available here), produced a notable dissent by Judge Kozinski starting this way:
Once more unto the breach. Time and again, we have been admonished for disregarding Congress’s clear instruction that federal judges in habeas proceedings must adopt a “highly deferential standard” under which “state-court decisions [are] given the benefit of the doubt.” Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). In clear violation of this principle, the majority today seizes upon imprecise language in a single sentence of a state court’s otherwise well-reasoned and comprehensive opinion, and uses it to sweep aside AEDPA’s restrictions on the scope of our review. The majority not only fails to faithfully apply Supreme Court precedent, it also creates a split with two other circuits.
If we are not summarily reversed, Mann’s death sentence will surely be reimposed by the state court. One way or the other, Mann will be executed, if he doesn’t die of old age first. But only after he — and the families of the two people he killed 25 years ago — endure what may be decades of further uncertainty. Where’s the justice in that? I respectfully dissent from Part III of the majority’s opinion.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Have messy executions in 2014 moved the death penalty debate in any way?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "Death penalty backers stand firm despite botched executions." Here are excerpts:
Oklahoma’s last execution went so badly that the state tried to cancel it before the end came. With the inmate writhing while the lethal drugs seeped into his body, his executioners drew the viewing gallery curtains, concealing what the warden later described as "a bloody mess."
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April and other troubling ones this year in Ohio and Arizona gave capital punishment opponents a flicker of hope that areas of the country most enthusiastically supportive of the death penalty might have a change of heart. They did not.
Although Governor Mary Fallin suspended executions so that Lockett’s death and Oklahoma’s methods could be reviewed, the state held a ceremony for its overhauled death chamber only months later and is scheduled to resume executions in mid-January.
And rather than causing states to question whether capital punishment is just or worth the risk of subjecting someone to a potentially agonizing death, the prolonged executions and problems states have had securing lethal injection drugs have led them to explore new, old, and more efficient ways of killing, including gas.
"I think we had a little flash of hope that it would help our cause, but all it did was generate a lot of conversation about it," said Lydia Polley, a member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "It just led to people thinking of better ways to kill them."...
Lockett’s execution did little to dampen support for the death penalty in Oklahoma, which has executed more inmates than any other state except Texas since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. In October, officials gave media tours of the renovated execution unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, which got a $104,000 overhaul after Lockett’s death and now stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the shabby, 106-year-old facility.
Not content with just the upgrades to the prison and lethal injection equipment, Oklahoma’s Republican-led House conducted a study on the use of nitrogen gas for executions and is expected to consider legislation early next year that would make Oklahoma the first state to adopt hypoxia by gas — the forced deprivation of oxygen — as a legal execution method.
Other conservative states are exploring alternatives to lethal injection because of the problems securing the drugs.... Tennessee passed a law to reinstate the electric chair if it cannot get lethal injection drugs and Utah is considering bringing back the firing squad....
Ralph Shortey, a Republican state senator from Oklahoma City who is pushing for Oklahoma to adopt alternative execution methods to lethal injection, estimates that 90 percent of his constituents strongly support the death penalty, despite what happened to Lockett. "The average Oklahoman is saying he got exactly what he deserves," Shortey said. "A lot of people think they should suffer even more than they do. They think the lethal injection is too easy for them."
Friday, December 26, 2014
Pennsylvania chief justice blames federal public defenders for death penalty problems
I highlighted a few weeks ago in this post the first article in a local series about the high costs and low productivity of the Pennsylvania death penalty system. Thanks to a helpful reader, I just now noticed this interesting final piece in the series headlined "State's chief justice cites 'meddling, intrusion' in death penalty cases." Here are excerpts:
The state's top judge, speaking after a Reading Eagle series examined the dysfunctional Pennsylvania death penalty system, blamed its failings largely on what he described as unethical intrusions and meddling by a group of federally funded attorneys.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made the comments in a telephone interview Thursday, the day after the newspaper's four-day series "When Death Means Life" ended. Also that day, state Sen. Daylin Leach, in a separate interview, said he believed the state was not getting its money's worth out of the death penalty and that there was momentum to abolish it.
The series delved into a system in which 429 death warrants have been signed since 1985 but only three people have been executed. Others who have extensive dealings with the system and read the newspaper stories spoke of the death penalty's expense and necessity, and of the need for caution in modifying its appeals process. The newspaper's research produced an estimate that the death penalty in Pennsylvania has cost more than $350 million, gave a glimpse of life on death row and detailed two death penalty cases....
[T]he Federal Community Defender Office [is] the group Castille singled out for criticism. The chief justice said the ... the organization prolongs death penalty proceedings, using unethical delaying tactics and summoning many experts.
Beyond that, he said, the FCDO's mission is supposed to be federal in nature. Funded by $17 million a year in federal taxpayer funds, the federal office has injected itself into many Pennsylvania-jurisdiction death row cases, creating more costs for state taxpayers, Castille said. "Tremendous extra costs," Castille said....
Paid for by state taxes, the death penalty is essentially a government program, said Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat who plans to reintroduce a bill next legislative session to abolish capital punishment. "Is this program getting us our money's worth? There's no way you can look at the death penalty and say that it is," Leach said. "The death penalty is far more expensive than life in prison."...
Richard Long, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said he didn't think anyone disputed the fact that the system was expensive. "We have to be careful that we don't compromise public safety and doing the right thing strictly because of dollars and cents."...
Gov.-elect Tom Wolf said that when he takes office in January, he'll place a moratorium on executions until concerns about the state's death penalty system, voiced by the state Supreme Court and the American Bar Association, are properly addressed.
Three years ago Pennsylvania lawmakers ordered a government-run study of the state's death penalty system, and though that study was created with a two-year deadline, it's still not done. Wolf said that once it's complete, he'll use the findings to help guide his actions regarding the death penalty....
Castille said it was up to the Legislature, not the courts, to change the system. But, he said, "The only way you will be able to change the system is to get the Federal Community Defender Office out of the system." Castille is nearing the end of his tenure as chief justice. Having reached the high court's mandatory retirement age of 70, Castille will retire at the end of the month.
I am inclined to assert that Chief Justice Castille's criticisms of the public defenders amounts to "shooting the messenger." But given that Pennsylvania cannot find its way to carrying out any death sentences, I suppose I should just say that Chief Justice Castille is blaming the messenger.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Ohio officials (and taxpayers) get a lethal injection lawsuit for the holidays
On the last day of Hanukkah which happened also to be Christmas Eve, a group of lawyers for a quartet of Ohio condemned prisoners gave the state a very predictable present: a lawsuit challenging Ohio's new lethal injection law. This local story, headlined "Death-row inmates challenge new execution-secrecy rules," provides the details (and this link to the suit):
Four death-row inmates are challenging the constitutionality of Ohio's new execution secrecy rules, their attorney announced Wednesday morning. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus, the inmates claim the new law, which shields the identities of most participants in Ohio's execution process, violates their rights to free speech and due process.
Proponents of the rules, signed into law by Gov. John Kasich last week, say they are needed to protect individuals involved with Ohio executions from harassment and potential harm.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday afternoon on behalf of death-row inmates Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, Robert Van Hook and Grady Brinkley. The first three are scheduled to be executed next year; Brinkley's execution date has not yet been set.
Under the new law, House Bill 663, Ohio must keep secret the names of people involved with executions, other than top officials. The law also protects the identity of small-scale drug manufacturers called compounding pharmacies if they make lethal-injection drugs for the state. The inmates' lawsuit claims these measures violate the First Amendment because they were passed to silence death-penalty critics and "foreclose all effective advocacy" against executions in Ohio.
The lawsuit also challenges other parts of the law that require courts to seal such information from the public and prevents the state's medical board from disciplining physicians who testify about Ohio's execution method. "These laws violate some of the most basic principles upon which our democracy was founded," said Timothy Sweeney, the inmates' attorney, in a statement. "Everyone should be deeply troubled by this bold piece of legislation which has been passed to artificially reduce public criticism of government actions in one of the most important areas in which it acts: the taking of a human life."
The defendants in the lawsuit are Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine, state prisons director Gary Mohr and Donald Morgan, warden of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, where Ohio's executions are carried out. DeWine spokeswoman Lisa Hackley said Wednesday that the attorney general's office is reviewing the lawsuit. Spokesmen for the governor's office and the state's prisons agency declined comment.
HB 663 is an attempt to overcome problems that Ohio — like many other states — has had obtaining lethal-injection drugs in recent years. Ohio ran out of its preferred lethal-injection drug, pentobarbital, last year because European pharmaceutical companies refused to continue selling it for use in executions....
Supporters of HB 663 say that the state could turn to compounding pharmacies to make pentobarbital, but the companies are reluctant to make lethal-injection drugs unless they can remain anonymous, for fear of public reprisal. DeWine and other proponents of the legislation have said the changes are needed if Ohio is to resume executions next February, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.
As long-time readers know, Ohio's execution problems, plans and procedures have been subject to extensive litigation over the last half-decade. Time will tell if this latest litigation will extend another half-decade. As the title of this post indicates, Ohio (and federal) taxpayers get the bill for all this litigation, and I cannot help but wonder how much Ohio costs its taxpayers by trying took keep its death penalty system alive and killing.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Are Arizona and Oklahoma likely to have their machineries of death operational early in 2015?
I blogged here a few days ago about steps taken by the Ohio legislations to get its lethal injection drugs and protocols shored up so the state can get back in the business of executing condemned murderers in 2015. Now I see from this New York Times report that Arizona and Oklahoma, two others states that had messy execution in 2014, now also appear poised to get their death chambers revved up again in the coming new year. Here are the basic details why:
A federal judge in Oklahoma City on Monday said that the state can resume executing prisoners this winter, rejecting the argument by some medical experts that using the same sedative involved in the bungled execution of Clayton D. Lockett in April amounted to an illegal experiment on human subjects.
Judge Stephen P. Friot of Federal District Court, ruling against condemned prisoners who sought to delay new executions, said that lethal injection was more humane than historical methods like hanging, and that since the sedative in question, midazolam, had been successfully used in a dozen executions elsewhere, it should not be considered new or experimental.
“Federal courts should not sit as a board of inquiry as to best practices,” Judge Friot said, adding, “The plaintiffs have failed to present a known and available alternative.” An occasional isolated episode does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, he said.
Also Monday, in a separate ruling on another prolonged execution by lethal injection, a report commissioned by corrections officials in Arizona said the killing of Joseph Wood in July had been conducted properly. Mr. Wood appeared to gasp for nearly two hours before dying, but the report concluded that he was unconscious during that time and did not feel pain.
The unusually protracted and, in the view of many witnesses, agonizing executions in the two states led to new questions about the reliability of lethal injection and whether it can be performed humanely. These states and others have also been forced to try new drugs and combinations as manufacturers have refused to supply the barbiturates traditionally used in lethal injections.
Dale A. Baich, a lawyer for the Oklahoma prisoners, said they would appeal Judge Friot’s decision. “We are still concerned about Oklahoma’s ability to carry out executions humanely using midazolam,” Mr. Baich said....
The Arizona report, by consultants hired by the State Department of Corrections, cited the Pima County medical examiner’s statement that Mr. Wood’s “gasps, snorting and body reflexes are the normal bodily responses to dying, even in someone highly sedated.” Arizona used midazolam in a different combination from Oklahoma, pairing it with the opiate hydromorphone. Medical experts cited in the report said they could not determine why it took so long for Mr. Wood to die.
Still, Arizona’s director of corrections, Charles L. Ryan, said Monday that the state would abandon that two-drug protocol. The state will continue to search for supplies of the barbiturates of choice, pentobarbital or sodium thiopental, Mr. Ryan said. But if they remain unavailable, Arizona will use midazolam in the same three-drug regimen planned in Oklahoma, with the sedative followed by a paralyzing agent and a caustic heart-stopping drug.
Oklahoma has had a moratorium on executions since April 29, when the lethal injection of Mr. Lockett went awry. Now, saying that improved procedures are in place and that they will boost the dosage of midazolam, they plan to execute four men in three months, starting with Charles F. Warner on Jan. 15.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
With new drug secrecy law, just when is Ohio really likely to get its machinery of death operational?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Columbus Dispatch account of the new Ohio law enacted last week to foster procurement of needed execution drugs by state authorities. The article is headlined "New law will keep lethal-injection drug supplier secret," and here are the details prompting my question:
A new Ohio law signed yesterday by Gov. John Kasich will shield from public disclosure the supplier of drugs used in future lethal injections effective on March 20. However, two executions are scheduled before that date: Ronald Phillips of Summit County on Feb. 11, and Raymond Tibbetts of Hamilton County on March 12.
There was no immediate word from Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine or the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction about how the Phillips and Tibbetts executions will be handled, or if they will be postponed. There are four additional executions scheduled for later next year.
A spokeswoman for Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said new drugs can’t be purchased until House Bill 663 takes effect. “Our assumption is if they go forward with those executions, they will have to do it under existing law,” Amy Borror said.
Existing law does not permit buying drugs from undisclosed sources. The two drugs used in the last Ohio execution on Jan. 16, appeared to cause Dennis McGuire to gasp, choke and struggle against his restraints for about 20 minutes before he died.
The lethal-injection measure ... will allow prison officials to buy drugs from some of the 61 compounding pharmacies in the state. Typically smaller, independent businesses, compounders mix drugs for specific customer needs. They can ask the state not to identify them as the provider of lethal drugs for 20 years. The law also will keep confidential forever the identities of execution-team members and physicians involved in the process, even in an advisory capacity.
Another provision of the law requires an overall review to be done of the state’s lethal-injection process.
As reported in this prior post, a federal district judge back in August extended his injunction precluding executions in Ohio through January 15, 2015. I expect that state officials will seek to formulate a new execution plan in light of this new law, and that defense attorneys will seek to preclude executions from starting again until such a new plan is fully formulated and fully examined through litigation.
In light of all these realities, I am inclined now to tentatively predict that we likely will not have another execution in Ohio until well into 2015. At the same time, if and when Ohio gets its machinery of death operational in 2015, it seems quite possible that the state will try to move forward with a new execution every six weeks.
Friday, December 19, 2014
"Six Reasons the Death Penalty is Becoming More Expensive"
The title of this post is the headline of this effective piece from The Marshall Project whihc served as something of a companion piece to its effective coverage (noted here) of how localities struggle with the economic realities of pursuing capital cases. Here are excerpts:
We know the basic reasons why death penalty cases are expensive: more lawyers, more experts, more time. Prosecutors and defense attorneys often spend more than a year preparing for death penalty trials. Every successful conviction is appealed to several state and federal courts, meaning the government pays for both prosecutors and defenders to pick over the trial transcript and for judges and clerks to spend hours reading appeals. While this is going on, it costs more to house prisoners on death row than in the general population....
But the death penalty is also growing more expensive with each passing year. A 2010 report prepared for the Judicial Conference of the United States found that between 1989 and 1997 the median cost of a federal death penalty case that went to trial was $269,139; between 1998 and 2004 it had grown to $620,932.
Nobody has methodically studied how costs have been growing in state death penalty cases, but in interviews with more than 30 prosecutors, defense attorneys and other experts the consensus was that costs are going up fast. Here are the main reasons they cited:
1. Attorney Pay...
A few recent and older related posts:
- Detailed examination of how local costs may slowly kill the death penalty
- Nevada completes detailed accounting of costs of death penalty cases
- Detailing the dysfunction of Pennsylvania's death penalty system
- "Could Abolishing the Death Penalty Help States Save Money?"
- Georgia struggles to pay for a costly capital syste
- Great new (though still dated) examination of the death penalty and plea bargaining
- "Opponents Focus On Cost In Death Penalty Debate"
- NY Times editorial assails "High Cost of Death Row"
- New DPIC report assails costs (and opportunity costs) of death penalty administration
- Is it true that nobody's view on the death penalty can be influenced by its costs?
Thursday, December 18, 2014
DPIC year-end report highlights "death penalty decline continues in 2014"
As detailed in this press release, the Death Penalty Information Center today released its high-profile annual report. The full report is available at this link, and here are highlights drawn from the press release:
With 35 executions this year, 2014 marks the fewest people put to death since 1994, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The 72 new death sentences in 2014 is the lowest number in the modern era of the death penalty, dating back to 1974. Executions and sentences have steadily decreased, as Americans have grown more skeptical of capital punishment. The states’ problems with lethal injections also contributed to the drop in executions this year.
Executions decreased 10% compared to 2013 — from 39 last year to 35 this year — continuing an overall decline since 1999, when there were 98 executions. The number of states carrying out executions — seven — was the lowest in 25 years. Just three states – Texas, Missouri, and Florida — accounted for 80% of the executions. For the first time in 17 years, Texas did not lead the country in executions, being tied with Missouri at 10.
Death sentences — a more current barometer than executions — have declined by 77% since 1996, when there were 315. There were 79 death sentences last year. This is the fourth year in a row that there have been fewer than 100 death sentences....
Seven people who had been on death row were exonerated in 2014, the most since 2009. Three men in Ohio were cleared of all charges 39 years after their convictions, the longest time of any death row exonerees. Two others in North Carolina were freed after 30 years in confinement. Since 1973, 150 people have been exonerated and freed from death row.
Individual state developments illustrate the growing isolation of death penalty use:
The number of executions has declined in 11 of the past 15 years. In 1999, 20 states carried out executions; in 2014, only 7 states did so.
For the seventh year in a row, Texas had fewer than a dozen death sentences, a sharp decline from 1999, when it had 48.
California (14) and Florida (11) provided 35% of the death sentences in the country.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that no executions would take place while he is governor, joining the governors of Oregon and Colorado in halting executions.
In California, a federal judge declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Detailed examination of how local costs may slowly kill the death penalty
The Marshall Project has this effective new piece on the modern realities of administering capital punishment. The piece is headlined "The Slow Death of the Death Penalty: The public supports it, but the costs are lethal." Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:
While many prosecutors are still reluctant to admit that finances play a role in their decisions about the death penalty, some of them – especially in small, rural counties – have been increasingly frank in wondering whether capital punishment is worth the price to their communities. “You have to be very responsible in selecting where you want to spend your money,” said Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in Liberty County, Texas. “You never know how long a case is going to take.”
Some prosecutors are far more blunt, and even hyperbolic, as they lament the state of affairs. “I know now that if I file a capital murder case and don't seek the death penalty, the expense is much less,” said James Farren, the District Attorney of Randall County in the Texas panhandle. “While I know that justice is not for sale, if I bankrupt the county, and we simply don't have any money, and the next day someone goes into a daycare and guns down five kids, what do I say? Sorry?”
Since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, the cost of carrying out a death penalty trial has risen steadily. Increasing legal protections for defendants have translated into more and more hours of preparatory work by both sides. Fees for court-appointed attorneys and expert witnesses have climbed. Where once psychiatrists considered an IQ test and a quick interview sufficient to establish the mental state of a defendant, now it is routine to obtain an entire mental health history. Lab tests have become more numerous and elaborate. Defense teams now routinely employ mitigation experts, who comb through a defendant’s life history for evidence that might sway a jury towards leniency at the sentencing phase. Capital defendants are automatically entitled to appeals, which often last for years. Throughout those years, the defendant lives on death row, which tends to cost more due to heightened security.
In states such as Texas, Arizona, and Washington, where county governments pay for both the prosecution and defense of capital defendants (nearly all of whom are indigent) when they go to trial, the pressure on local budgets is especially strong. To ease the fiscal burden, some states have formed agencies to handle the defense or prosecution of capital cases. Other states reimburse counties for the expenses of a trial.
But even with that help, county officials around the country have sometimes had to raise taxes and cut spending to pay for death penalty trials. District attorneys have taken note. Many remain reluctant to acknowledge how fiscal concerns affect their decisions — they don’t want to appear to be cheapening the lives of murder victims. But a few are surprisingly candid. Their statements suggest that money is more than ever part of the explanation for the steep decline in death-penalty cases over the past decade. That is particularly the case in Texas, where there are few political obstacles to carrying out executions.
In the six states that have abolished capital punishment over the past decade, Republican and Democratic officials have also emphasized the cost of the death penalty as a major rationale. Even in states that retain the punishment, cost has played a central role in the conversion narratives of conservative lawmakers, public officials, and others who question the death penalty as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The rising cost of capital trials disproportionately affects counties with small populations. While the number of death sentences in the United States has been dropping steadily since a peak in the mid-1990s, an overwhelming number of the cases still being filed come from urban counties. There, the tax bases are larger, and the impact of an expensive trial may be more easily absorbed. (Harris County, where Houston is located, has been responsible for more executions than Georgia and Alabama combined.) Texas counties with fewer than 300,000 residents sought the death penalty on average 15 times per year from 1992 to 1996. Between 2002 and 2005, the average was four.
Prosecutors don’t cite statistics when discussing the costs of the death penalty; they tell stories. In Texas, they point to Jasper County, near the Louisiana border, where in June 1998 three white supremacists killed a black man, James Byrd Jr., by chaining his ankles to the back of their pickup truck and dragging his body for more than three miles. The murder made international headlines and led to new state and federal hate crime legislation.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Detailing the dysfunction of Pennsylvania's death penalty system
This lengthy local article, headlined "Capital punishment in Pennsylvania: When death means life: Commonwealth's death penalty system called expensive and dysfunctional," provide a review of how the Keystone State has a capital punishment system that seems to function as if it were operated by the Keystone Cops. Here are excerpts from the article, which is the first is an extended series:
Pennsylvania's death penalty has cost taxpayers more than $350 million for a dysfunctional system that has sentenced hundreds but hasn't executed anyone in 15 years, a Reading Eagle analysis has found. The newspaper analysis comes three years after state lawmakers called for an intensive report on Pennsylvania's death penalty, and as a Montgomery County lawmaker maps out a proposal to abolish the system.
The long-overdue report is at least several months away from being issued. There still has been no reckoning of the system's massive financial or psychological cost — including the immeasurable agony of justice-seeking family members and the pain of families waiting for condemned relatives to be executed. "My sister didn't have a choice about when her life ended. Why should he?" said Diane Moyer of Robesonia, referring to convicted killer Glenn Lyons of Reading.
Lyons is one of 185 condemned inmates, making Pennsylvania's death row the fifth largest in the nation. He's also one of 12 death row inmates prosecuted for murders committed in Berks County, which along with York County has the second-highest number of death row inmates in the state behind Philadelphia's 69. It was 1937 when Pennsylvania last executed someone for a murder that took place in Berks.
Observers of the state's system both locally and nationally agreed it is deeply flawed. It is likely to get even more scrutiny as prosecutors move ahead with a death penalty case against Eric Frein, accused of ambushing and murdering a state trooper this year....
The newspaper's cost estimate is likely a conservative number. That's because the estimate, which relies on a 2008 Maryland study by the Urban Institute, was calculated using the Pennsylvania inmates now on death row. The estimate does not account for unsuccessful death penalty cases tried by prosecutors, nor does it include death row inmates whose sentences were overturned on appeal.
The 2008 study — which produced findings similar to other state studies — found that Maryland spent an average of $1.9 million more on cases that led to death sentences than on cases where the death penalty could have been sought but was not. At least two experts, including the researcher of the Maryland report, said the study was a fair comparison for estimating the cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers. Applying the Maryland per-case figure to Pennsylvania's current 185 death row inmates yields a Pennsylvania cost of $351.5 million....
The state has executed three men, all of whom gave up their appeals, since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. But with so few executions among the 429 death warrants Pennsylvania governors have signed since 1985, experts say it's critical lawmakers know the cost to justify budget expenses with a projected $1.85 billion state shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year. So far, the death penalty hasn't been part of the budget debate.
For the loved ones of the victims, like Moyer, the financial cost of the death penalty is outweighed by the emotional toll of likely never having the killer's execution carried out. Lyons used two kitchen knives to stab Leibig, 45, of Millcreek Township, Lebanon County, again and again, investigators said. The brutal attack lasted up to 15 minutes. Lyons, now 49, was convicted and sentenced to death by a Berks jury, but claims he didn't kill Leibig.
The state Supreme Court denied his appeal in 2013, and his execution was set for August, but a federal judge granted him a stay in July, and his appeal process continues. Leibig's family is frustrated and disappointed, knowing the state may never follow through with his execution. "He'll keep fighting and playing the system," Moyer said. "He had a fair trial, and he was guilty. Put him to death. Give him the injection."...
A death penalty that doesn't actually execute people frustrates those on both sides of the debate. Death penalty proponents blame an endless and costly appeals process. Opponents criticize a system with too little funding for poor defendants....
At least one Berks judge who once supported the death penalty has had a change of heart. The judge, who asked not to be identified, had thought execution was a just punishment for the state's worst offenders and a deterrent to others. But after seeing how cases continuously circle the courts, the judge now thinks the death penalty is a waste of time and money and is unnecessarily difficult on the victim's loved ones holding out hope for an execution.
"It's horrible for the families," the judge said. Death penalty rulings aren't foolproof and should be scrutinized, but there should also be a limit on appeals, the judge said. "Now there is hearing after hearing. It never ends," the judge said....
"There is a problem with a law that is never carried out," he said. State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, a Reading Democrat, said he's heard from victims' families how hard it is to sit and wait for the death penalty to be carried out. "They say: 'We lost a loved one. Why is he still living? Where is the justice?'" Caltagirone said. "And victim's rights groups are livid about the endless appeals." But Caltagirone also said he wonders whether it's appropriate for the state to execute someone. "I'm kind of torn on it," he said.
More than a dozen states have analyzed death penalty costs. Some states found the costs nearly 50 percent to 70 percent higher than non-death penalty cases. While the costs vary across the U.S., all found capital trials more expensive. The reason? Mostly because the process is more complicated at every point in the case. A death penalty case involves more attorneys, witnesses and experts. Jury selection is long, as are the trials. Also the cases usually have more pre-trial motions and require a separate trial for sentencing.
Incarcerating death row inmates in solitary confinement is also expensive — about $10,000 more a year than inmates serving a life sentence, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. And, the majority of death penalty trials on appeal are found to be flawed, some significantly, and must be redone, adding to the price tag.
The state has been studying a laundry list of issues since 2011 when lawmakers directed the Joint State Government Commission to research capital punishment. Berks officials did not know what the costs of trying capital cases are to taxpayers. "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," Adams said. "There's no way that we can put a financial number to that."...
"You can't choose to do it and not pay for," said Marc Bookman, a former public defender and director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia, a nonprofit resource center. "It's really expensive to do it properly and it's even more expensive to do it incorrectly," he said.
Last year, Maryland became the 18th state to abolish capital punishment. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley cited the cost — roughly three times as much as life without parole — as one of the factors for repealing the death penalty. John Ramon, author of "The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland," said the costs to Pennsylvania taxpayers are likely comparable, assuming trial and incarceration expenses are similar. "It's not as big as an assumption as it sounds," Ramon said....
Knowing the cost, Ramon and others said, changes the conversation on a very polarizing issue. "I think it changes the nature of the debate because what it's saying is let's not just ask if the death penalty is better than not having the death penalty," Ramon said. "It's saying, given the death penalty is far more expensive, is it still worth having?"
December 14, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Various appeals do not interfere with Georgia and Missouri completing final executions of 2014
As detailed in this lengthy AP/CBS article, headlined "Missouri, Georgia execute murderers, one a cop killer," two executions were carried out over the last 24 hours. Here are some of the details:
A Missouri inmate was put to death early Wednesday for fatally beating a 63-year-old woman with a hammer in 1998, the state's record 10th lethal injection of 2014, matching Texas for the most executions in the country this year. In Georgia, a man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy moments after robbing a convenience store in central Georgia was executed Tuesday night.
The Missouri case involved Paul Goodwin, 48, who sexually assaulted Joan Crotts in St. Louis County, pushed her down a flight of stairs and beat her in the head with a hammer. Goodwin was a former neighbor who felt Crotts played a role in getting him kicked out of a boarding house.
Goodwin's execution began at 1:17 a.m., more than an hour after it was scheduled, and he was pronounced dead at 1:25 a.m. Efforts to spare Goodwin's life centered on his low IQ and claims that executing him would violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally disabled. Attorney Jennifer Herndon said Goodwin had an IQ of 73, and some tests suggested it was even lower....
Missouri's 10th execution of 2014 matches the state's previous high of nine in 1999. Neither Missouri nor Texas has another execution scheduled this year. Texas, Missouri and Florida have combined for 28 of the 34 executions in the U.S. this year. Missouri has scheduled one execution each month since November 2013. Two were halted by court action, but 12 were carried out over the past 14 months.
In Georgia, Robert Wayne Holsey, 49, was declared dead at 10:51 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson, authorities said. Holsey was sentenced to die for the Dec. 17, 1995, killing of Baldwin County sheriff's deputy Will Robinson. A jury convicted Holsey in February 1997.
Holsey robbed a convenience store in the town of Milledgeville early on Dec. 17, and the store clerk immediately called police, describing the suspect and his car, prosecutors said. According to court documents, Robinson stopped a car at a nearby hotel minutes later and radioed in the license plate number. As Robinson approached the vehicle, Holsey fired at him, prosecutors said. The deputy suffered a fatal head wound....
Holsey's lawyers filed a number of last-minute appeals to stop the execution but they were all rejected. Holsey was executed nearly an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request for a stay....
Holsey's lawyers had argued in a clemency petition that their client should be spared lethal injection because his 1997 trial was mishandled by an alcoholic lawyer who was distracted by his own problems. The trial lawyer died in 2011. The original lawyer told the court that intellectual disability would not be a factor in the case, despite records showing Holsey was intellectually disabled, Holsey's lawyers argued. And the jury also didn't hear details about Holsey's childhood, which was characterized by horrifying abuse at the hands of his mother, according to the petition.
In their efforts to halt the execution, Holsey's lawyers argued that he was intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred execution of the intellectually disabled, but left the states to determine who is intellectually disabled. Georgia requires death-row inmates to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be spared execution on those grounds. Courts have consistently upheld Georgia's toughest-in-the-nation standard of proof on this issue....
The state of Georgia argued in court filings that Holsey is not intellectually disabled. An expert found that Holsey had a learning disability but was not disabled, and his siblings relied on him as a leader, the state's lawyers argued. The state also disputed the idea that Holsey's trial lawyer was ineffective, saying the prosecutor in the case and the judge both testified that the original lawyer performed very well.
Tuesday, December 09, 2014
Scheduled Georgia execution raising again issues of poor lawyers and intellectual disability
This New York Times article reports on the legal issues surrounding the fate of a condmned murderer scheduled to be executed tonight in Georgia. Here are the basics:
A parole panel in Georgia refused on Monday to grant clemency to a man who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday evening, apparently unpersuaded by evidence that he was ineptly represented at trial by a drunken lawyer, had an exceptionally harsh childhood and has a severe intellectual deficit.
But in what could be a legal decision with wider effects, lawyers for the man, Robert Wayne Holsey, were still waiting for the Georgia Supreme Court to respond to a last-minute appeal. They argued that the state’s standard for determining intellectual disability in capital cases — the country’s most stringent — runs afoul of a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court.
Mr. Holsey was convicted of armed robbery and murder in 1997 and sentenced to death. He had robbed a convenience store and shot and killed a pursuing officer. His trial lawyer later admitted that at the time he was drinking up to a quart of vodka daily and facing theft charges that would land him in prison. He said he should not have been representing a client.
On appeal, a Superior Court judge ruled that during the penalty phase of Mr. Holsey’s trial, his lawyer had failed to effectively present evidence that might have forestalled a death penalty, including facts about Mr. Holsey’s history and his intellectual deficit. That judge called for a new sentencing trial. But the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that the jury had heard enough evidence about mitigating factors during the initial trial....
That Mr. Holsey had received ineffective counsel seemed clear, said John H. Blume, a professor and director of the death penalty project at the Cornell Law School. “But the quality of representation in capital cases is often so low,” he said, “that it’s difficult to shock the courts.”
He and other legal experts said a more promising tack — if not for Mr. Holsey, then for defendants in the future — is the challenge to Georgia’s standard of proof for intellectual disability. The state requires defendants to prove that they are intellectually disabled “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For those near the borderline, often described as an I.Q. around 70, that standard is nearly impossible to meet. Many legal experts think it violates a Supreme Court ruling last May that said states cannot create “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”
In other states, either a “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence” is necessary to establish disability, said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor and death penalty expert at Hofstra University. Both are less stringent standards than the one used in Georgia.
In a landmark decision in 2002, the United States Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally disabled people, but largely left it to the states to set the criteria. In its decision in May, the court added new conditions, ruling in Hall v. Florida that the state could not rely on a simple I.Q. cutoff but rather must take a broad look at a person’s ability to function.
Mr. Holsey’s I.Q. has been measured at around 70.... The state, he said, had argued that because he could drive a car and had a girlfriend, Mr. Holsey could not be disabled....
Constitutional scholars say it is most likely that at some point either the Georgia Supreme Court or the federal Supreme Court will strike down the standard as an unreasonable outlier. “You’ve got a national constitutional rule that people with intellectual disability shouldn’t be executed, but it’s being applied differently in different states,” Mr. Blume of Cornell said
Friday, December 05, 2014
SCOTUS takes up new capital procedures case from Louisiana
As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court this afternoon granted cert on three new cases, one of which involves death penalty procedure. Here is Lyle Denniston's description of Brumfield v. Cain, the new capital case on the Supreme Court's agenda:
In accepting a Louisiana murder case for review on Friday, the Court agreed to sort out whether an individual accused of a capital crime has a right to an independent court hearing on whether he suffers from mental incapacity, and thus could not be sentenced to death. In the case of Brumfield v. Cain, the issue of Kevan Brumfield’s mental state was decided as an issue at the penalty phase of his murder trial, rather than at a separate inquiry.
Brumfield was sentenced to death for the shooting death of an off-duty Baton Rouge, La., police officer during an attempted robbery at a night deposit box at a bank in 1993. The officer had used a police car to transport a store manager on a trip to the bank to deposit the store’s proceeds. Brumfield was charged with killing the officer and wounding the store manager.
In taking the case to the Supreme Court, Brumfield’s lawyers argued that he has a serious defect in his intellectual capacity, but that state courts dealt with that only as an issue during his death sentencing hearing to determine whether it should mitigate the penalty. The petition contended that he was entitled to a separate hearing on that question. His petition raised a separate question on whether Brumfield was entitled to have the state pay for gathering evidence of his mental incapacity.
UPDATE: A lot more information about this crime and the defendant in this new SCOTUS case can be found in this local article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court to hear mental retardation claim of Baton Rouge convicted killer: Mental retardation, execution eligibility at heart of the matter."
Thursday, December 04, 2014
"The True Legacy of Atkins and Roper: The Unreliability Principle, Mentally Ill Defendants, and the Death Penalty's Unraveling"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by Scott Sundby now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In striking down the death penalty for intellectually disabled and juvenile defendants, Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons have been understandably heralded as important holdings under the Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence that has found the death penalty "disproportional" for certain types of defendants and crimes. This Article argues, however, that the cases have a far more revolutionary reach than their conventional understanding. In both cases the Court went one step beyond its usual two-step analysis of assessing whether imposing the death penalty violated "evolving standards of decency." This extra step looked at why even though intellectual disability and youth were powerful mitigators, juries were not able to reliably use them in their decision making.
The Court thus articulated expressly for the first time what this Article calls the "unreliability principle:" if too great a risk exists that constitutionally protected mitigation cannot be reliably assessed, the unreliability means that the death penalty cannot be constitutionally imposed. In recognizing the unreliability principle, the Court has called into serious question the death penalty for other offenders to whom the principle applies, such as mentally ill defendants. And, unlike with the "evolving standards" analysis, the unreliability principle does not depend on whether a national consensus exists against the practice.
This Article identifies the six Atkins-Roper factors that bring the unreliability principle into play and shows why they make application of the death penalty to mentally ill defendants unconstitutional. The principle, which finds its constitutional home in the cases of Woodson v. North Carolina and Lockett v. Ohio, has profound implications for the death penalty, and if taken to its logical endpoint calls into question the Court's core premise since Furman v. Georgia, that by providing individualized consideration of a defendant and his crime, the death penalty decision will be free of arbitrariness.
December 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Nevada completes detailed accounting of costs of death penalty cases
As reported in this local article, headlined "High cost of death penalty could affect its future in Nevada," the Silver State's audits have recently completed a detailed report on how much taxpayer gold is typically spent in capital cases. Here are the details:
Nevada’s criminal justice system spends nearly twice as much handling death penalty cases compared with murder cases where capital punishment isn’t sought, according to a report released Tuesday by state auditors.
The state-mandated study, which surveyed data from 27 state and local agencies, gives ammunition to death penalty opponents who have failed to defeat public support for capital punishment using moral objections. It is, by far, Nevada’s most comprehensive study on the controversial practice and will serve as a law makers' guide for years to come....
Auditors assembled the 105-page report by sampling data from 28 cases, calculating costs associated with legal counsel — both defense and prosecution — as well as for money spent on court proceedings and incarceration.
Here are three highlights from the document's release:
From a suspect’s arrest through his or her final days behind bars, officials spend at least $1.3 million on murder cases where convicts are sentenced to death but not executed — that’s $532,000 more compared with murder cases where capital punishment wasn't sought. Litigation costs, including the trial and appeal phase, averaged about three times more for death penalty versus non-death penalty cases. And expenses are similar for all death penalty cases, regardless of whether a sentence is given or not.
Among all prison inmates convicted of murder, costs are highest for people on death row. There were 83 people sentenced to death in Nevada as of late last year. Prosecutors could have potentially saved an estimated $44 million by never pursuing corporal punishment in those cases....
Nevada's per capita death penalty rate ranks fourth in the country and tops Texas and California, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. But the state's death chamber is seldom used, and only a dozen people have been executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the capital punishment in 1976. Of those, only one died against his will. The last execution in Nevada happened more than eight years ago.
It’s likely the study underestimated the cost of death penalty cases because of underreporting from government agencies....
The study’s findings fall in line with previous research examining the financial burden of capital murder cases — a study released this year by the Kansas Judicial Council found that defending a death penalty case costs as much as four times more than other murder cases.
Critics of the practice hope Nevada’s study will bolster efforts to erode support for capital punishment. “A lot of people who favor the death penalty think it’s cheaper,” said Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen, who also watched Tuesday's meeting from Las Vegas. “Once people understand and they’re informed, maybe things will change.”
The full 100+ page Nevada legislative audit document released this week, which carries the exciting title "Fiscal Costs of the Death Penalty," can be accessed at this link.
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
Fifth Circuit issues stay keepingTexas from executing mentally ill condemned murderer
As reported in this CNN piece, the Fifth Circuit today "stayed the execution of Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti, who was scheduled to be put to death at 6 p.m. Wednesday." Here is more:
Panetti's case has sparked debate for years over whether the state can execute someone who is severely mentally ill. During his trial for the 1992 slayings of his mother- and father-in-law, Panetti represented himself — dressed in a purple cowboy outfit — and called Jesus, John F. Kennedy and the Pope to the stand. The now-56-year-old was convicted of shooting them to death at close range, in front of his wife and daughter.
Panetti has suffered from schizophrenia for 30 years, his lawyers say, and he was hospitalized for mental illness numerous times before the murders. Though Panetti received initial evaluations of his mental health, his state of mind has deteriorated, his lawyer Kathryn Kase said. She noted in a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry that Panetti hasn't received a mental evaluation in seven years. Kase asked that Perry grant a 30-day stay to the scheduled execution so that that an evaluation can be done to determine if he understands his punishment....
"If he's executed there should be a sense of outrage," said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "There's no question he's mentally ill. If this happens, the message would be — 'we just don't care.'
"To execute him flies in the face of even supporters of the death penalty who say that it should be carried out with inmates who are the worst of the worst," Honberg continued. "It would be much more compassionate and practical to spend money treating inmates with mental illness rather than execute this man."
The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 7-0 to deny clemency in Panetti's case. There is still an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, in addition to the appeal the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Wednesday.
Monday, December 01, 2014
"What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get"
Opponents of the death penalty have had many occasions to celebrate in the new millennium. Four states have abolished the practice in the past five years, while others have legally or effectively set moratoriums on executions. Support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in four decades, and seems likely to fall further as the number of exonerations and gruesomely botched executions continues to grow.
But at what cost have these concessions been won? The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's latest “Death Row U.S.A.” report found 3,049 individuals awaiting execution in the United States. According to the Sentencing Project, at last count nearly 50,000 people were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole — a number that has more than tripled since the early 1990s. Over 159,000 were serving life sentences — many of them ... with minimums so long that they might as well be doing life without parole, too.
In many states, the expansion — and the very existence — of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment. Death penalty opponents often accept — and even zealously promote — life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world...
Complicating matters is the fact that life without parole rarely takes its place as simply a one-for-one alternative to the death penalty. In New York State, for example, life without parole did not exist before the state’s brief reinstitution of capital punishment from 1995 to 2004. During this period, there were never more than half a dozen men on New York’s death row, and no executions took place. Yet today, nearly 250 people are doing life without parole in New York, and more than 1 in 6 of the state’s prisoners is serving a life sentence.
Connecticut, in abolishing its death penalty in 2012, legislated a punishment even more harsh than simple life without parole. Thereafter, a new law decreed, those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would be condemned to live out their life without parole sentences in solitary confinement. The measure was reportedly backed as a way to win enough support for the repeal bill.
Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation. An unknown number of lifers have, like [New York lifer] William Blake, been placed in permanent or indefinite solitary confinement by prison officials, without benefit of any kind of due process. So have most of the individuals on the nation’s death rows, including the supposedly fortunate ones who live in states that have instituted moratoriums, and are therefore unlikely to ever face execution.
Research has confirmed that even brief periods in solitary alter brain chemistry and produce psychiatric symptoms ranging from extreme depression to active psychosis. Some prisoners who have spent longer amounts of time in isolation describe it as a condition that slowly degrades both their humanity and sanity, turning them into blind animals given to interminable pacing, smearing their cells with feces, or engaging in self-mutilation....
William Blake has said that while he cannot bring himself to take his own life, he would have welcomed the death penalty 27 years ago had he known what a lifetime in solitary confinement would be like. Perhaps the time will come when people like Blake — and the American public — are not forced to choose among such monstrous alternatives. In the meantime, it will be a shame if people who oppose state-sponsored death continue to advocate for state-sanctioned torture.
Long-time readers know that I largely share the perspective of these commentators. I find compelling the assertion that some (many?) LWOP sentences can often involve a fate worse than death, and I find moving the concern that too much of modern opposition to "state-sponsored death" in the United States tends to advocate, both formally and functionally, for a kind of "state-sanctioned torture."
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Noting some reasons the number of US executions in 2014 are so low
This new Christian Science Monitor article details some reasons why the US is on pace to have fewer than three dozen executions this year for the first time in decades. The piece carries this lengthy headline and subheading: "Death penalty in 2014: why US has seen fewest executions in 20 years: The downward trend in executions has several explanations, but experts say it’s probably not because of death penalty debates about innocence and guilt. Rather, they say, it’s the details of how the state goes about ending a condemned life." Here are excerpts:
In late November, a federal judge emptied Wyoming’s death row of its last remaining occupant, Dale Wayne Eaton. His lawyers don’t dispute that Mr. Eaton in 1988 raped and killed 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell after kidnapping her and holding her hostage in his compound. The problem, the court found, was that his defense team failed to present him as a three-dimensional human being at his sentencing, including pointing out the severe beatings he received as a child and how he was evaluated to have low intelligence.
The ruling seemed of the moment in a country that has seen sentiments about the death penalty continue to shift in 2014. So far this year, America has seen the fewest executions — 32 — in 20 years....
A series of botched and disturbing executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona has also contributed to the shifting debate, argues Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Death penalty states are being forced to come up with new lethal injection drug formulas as traditional suppliers of the drugs stop distributing them to states.
The downward trend in executions has several explanations, but experts say it’s probably not because of debates about innocence and guilt. Rather, they say, it’s the details of how the state goes about ending a condemned life, including the issues surrounding the lethal injection drugs.
Friday, November 28, 2014
Texas Justice calls for state's death penalty to be abolished
As reported in this local article, "Texas Court of Appeals Justice Tom Price on Wednesday denounced the death penalty, saying that Texas' 2005 life without parole law makes it unnecessary and that the possibility of executing a wrongfully convicted person is an 'irrational risk' that should not be tolerated by the criminal justice system." Here is more about this notable development which emerged in a legal challenge to a notable planned execution:
The Dallas Republican's comments, thought to be the first time such views have been voiced by a judge on the state's highest criminal appeals court, came in a strongly worded dissent to the court's Wednesday rejection of an appeal on behalf of Scott Panetti, a Fredericksburg double-killer said to suffer from schizophrenia. Panetti, 56, is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday.
"Based on my specialized knowledge of this process," Price wrote, "I now conclude that the death penalty as a form of punishment should be abolished because the execution of individuals does not appear to measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purpose served by the death penalty; the life without parole option adequately protects society at large in the same way as the death penalty option; and the risk of executing an innocent person for a capital murder is unreasonably high, particularly in light of procedural-default laws and the prevalence of ineffective trial and initial habeas counsel."
Price, 61, a former Dallas County state district judge, has served on the high appeals court since 1996. His term ends this year and he has said he will not seek re-election. In his statement, Price asserted that "society is now less convinced of the absolute accuracy of the criminal justice system."...
"In my time on this court I have voted to grant numerous applications for writs of habeas corpus that have resulted in the release of dozens of people who were wrongfully convicted," Price wrote. "I conclude that it is wishful thinking to believe that this state will never execute an innocent person for capital murder. ... I am convinced that, because the criminal justice system is run by humans, it is naturally subject to human error. There is no rational basis to believe that this same type of human error will not infect capital murder trials."
Price's comments were greeted with surprise by law professors and appellate attorneys active in death penalty cases. "I'm still absorbing it. It wasn't expected," said Maurie Levin, a former clinical law professor at the University of Texas who now is based in Philadelphia. "It's long overdue." While the concerns raised by Price have been "discussed and decried around the country for a number of years now ... for a high court judge, a CCA judge, to articulate them so forthrightly is extraordinary."...
Jani Maselli Wood, an assistant Harris County public defender, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston law school and a former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals staff attorney, said she doubts Price's statement will influence legislators or incoming juries. But, "it will impact his legacy for what he wants us to remember," Wood said. "He says we have life without parole, why do we need death convictions. He is remarkably brave. I think it is heroic."
Price's statement came in a dissent to the court's 6-3 vote not to consider a new appeal on behalf of Panetti that argues his mental condition "renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and 14th Amendments, because imposition of the death penalty on offenders with severe mental illness offends contemporary standards of decency." The court found the petition failed to meet requirements for applications of post-conviction writs of habeas corpus.
Judges Elsa Alcala and Cheryl Johnson issued a separate dissenting opinion, saying they would stay Panetti's execution to allow for an examination of his claim that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of seriously mentally ill individuals.
The full six-page "Dissenting Statement" by Justice Price can be accessed at this link, and here is one of a number of notable paragraphs from the opinion:
Some might argue that a victim’s family deserves the finality that comes with the execution of an offender. This is a misguided sentiment as the instant case demonstrates. Applicant has been on death row for about twenty years. The victims’ family has not gotten finality after twenty years due to the numerous appeals and writs filed by applicant in which he has contended that his mental status makes him ineligible for execution. And, perhaps, one would say that the answer is speeding up executions. But creating a more restrictive temporal limitation would only increase the risk of executing a wrongfully convicted person. In my experience, a victim’s family is more likely to quickly experience finality through the criminal justice system when an offender is sentenced to life without parole than when he is sentenced to death.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Some unusual suspects working to stop Texas from executing mentally ill condemned murderer
This new Mother Jones article reports on some of the interesting persons who are eager to prevent Texas from carrying out a notable death sentence next week. The article is headlined "Can Ron Paul and Conservative Evangelicals Save a Texas Death-Row Inmate? A rightwing crusade aims to stop the execution of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill convicted murder." Here are excerpts:
When Scott Panetti represented himself in a Texas capital murder case in 1995, wearing a purple cowboy suit and calling himself "Sarge," he called as a witness a veterinarian who once lived across the street from him. Panetti questioned the vet about the time he euthanized Little Blue, Panetti's old dog. The episode had nothing to do with the case. Other witnesses Panetti tried to call to the stand: John F. Kennedy and Jesus.
Trial transcripts, medical records, and expert witness testimony have documented that Panetti suffers from severe schizophrenia. He believes Texas is going to execute him to stop him from preaching the gospel — not because he shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and shot and killed his in-laws in 1992. The Supreme Court has declared that executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, but several Texas and federal courts — including the US Supreme Court — have reviewed Panetti's case, and each one has ruled that the state can proceed with his lethal injection. Now, with Panetti’s execution scheduled for December 3, the only thing that might save him is a national campaign being mounted by conservatives, including former Texas Republican congressman and libertarian icon Ron Paul.
Panetti's lawyers have filed a clemency petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, which can recommend that Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison without parole. That petition has received an outpouring of support from conservatives and evangelicals. In addition to Paul, this group includes Jay Sekulow, an evangelical lawyer famous for pressing religious liberties cases on behalf of social conservatives.
Paul's involvement in the case is unusual. Last year, he publicly endorsed a new advocacy group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, saying, "I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism." This was the result of a years-long evolution....
It’s also unusual for conservative Christians to support a clemency petition like Panetti's. The last time evangelicals really rallied en masse to prevent a pending execution was in 1998, in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who converted to Christianity in prison and became a conservative cause celebre. Despite the pleadings of evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, the Texas governor at the time, George W. Bush, went ahead with the execution, and Tucker became the first woman executed in the state since 1863.
The Panetti case is different. His religious fervor is the product of a brain disorder, and the evangelicals' opposition to his execution is not related to his religious proclamations. It is more of a reflection of the shift in public attitudes regarding capital punishment that has been driven by the growing number of exonerations of death-row inmates, the high number of mentally ill and disabled people sentenced to die, and the inefficient and expensive administration of capital punishment. "A lot of conservatives are late to realize that the whole criminal justice system is part of the government," says Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative leader and an ardent opponent of the death penalty.
Religious conservatives are increasingly joining those who would like to see the end of the death penalty, citing their movement’s commitment to a "culture of life," which has traditionally focused primarily on restricting abortion. Conservative evangelicals, says Beaudoin, have been animated by the Panetti case over the past few weeks. Her outfit has opposed other executions, but, she says, the Panetti case has hit a nerve. She has been surprised by the number of influential Christians who have signed on to the clemency petition, especially Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Coalition, who's on Time magazine's 2013 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who now runs a pro-life ministry for former abortion clinic employees, wrote an editorial in the Dallas News calling on Texas to spare Panetti.
"This is the largest outpouring of support on a death penalty case we've seen from evangelicals, and you can see why, given the ridiculous nature of this case," Beaudoin says. "A lot of folks who signed this [clemency] letter might have given pause about signing on to a letter opposing the death penalty generally, but they think we have no business executing Scott Panetti." She adds, "As Christians, we're called protect the most vulnerable. And there's just no question that Scott Panetti is in that number as someone who's suffered from severe mental illness. We all want to keep society safe, but I'm thankful there are other ways to do that than executing people."
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Can and should out-going Maryland Gov commute death sentences to ensure LWOP after state's capital repeal?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Baltimore Sun article discussing the interesting procedural and practical issues now surrounding the fate of Maryland's death row prisoners and the decisions facing the out-going Maryland Governor who signed the law repealing the state's death penalty. Here are excerpts from the article:
A western Maryland woman whose parents were killed by a man on death row urged Gov. Martin O'Malley in a phone conversation Monday not to commute the man's sentence. The conversation came days after The Baltimore Sun reported that O'Malley had reached out to two relatives of people killed by men on death row — moves that fueled speculation that, with two months left in office, the governor may be poised to take action on the death penalty cases.
"I said, 'Don't touch this [case], let it go back to court, let the judges decide,'" said Mary Francis Moore, 71, whose father and his wife were killed in 1995 by Heath William Burch. Moore said that in their roughly 15-minute phone conversation, O'Malley did not say what his plans were. But they discussed what might happen to Burch in light of another inmate's appeal. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has joined the appeal, arguing that the state no longer has the authority to execute anyone.
O'Malley "talked about the possibility that if it did go back to court, that these guys would get out, that they would only get life," not life without possibility of parole, Moore said. Moore said she concluded the conversation by asking O'Malley "to pray about it." The governor told her, she said, "I hope we meet some day."...
O'Malley has largely refused to discuss the fate of the men who were already sentenced to death when he and the General Assembly repealed the death penalty last year. The repeal did not apply to them.
Maryland's governor has broad power to pardon or reduce an inmate's sentence, but the authors of the death penalty repeal law included language spelling out that he could change a death sentence to life without parole — even if that sentence did not exist when the inmate committed his crime. Two men on death row commited their crimes before 1987, when Maryland lawmakers established the sentence of life without parole.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a proponent of repeal and the attorney general-elect, said Monday that a court would not be able to resentence an inmate to a penalty that did not exist at the time he was convicted, but the governor can.
Advocates on both sides of the issue have been watching to see whether O'Malley might commute the sentences of the four men remaining on death row....
Moore said she "begged" O'Malley not to grant Burch clemency, though he never clearly said he was considering that. She thinks Burch should be put to death. "I asked him, 'What are you going to do, governor?' I asked him two or three times, 'What are your plans?'"...
"The last thing I said to him was, 'I want you to really think about this, and I want you to pray about it, because I want you to do the right thing,'" she said. "The right thing to me is leave it alone."
Even before the death penalty repeal, the status of Maryland's death row inmates had been up in the air since 2006 when the state's regulations for executions were thrown out by a court. They were never replaced. Lawyers from the attorney general's office are scheduled to argue Dec. 8 before a state appellate court that Maryland can't issue new regulations now that capital punishment has been abolished.
An appeal by another death row inmate, Jody Lee Miles, faces an uncertain outcome in the courts. But Gansler has noted O'Malley's authority to commute death sentences to life without parole. Governors in Illinois and New Jersey commuted the existing death sentences in their states after the repeal of capital punishment....
Dorothy Atkinson, whose son was killed by Miles in 1997, said she, too, was contacted by the governor's office about a meeting.... Though Atkinson believes Miles deserves to be executed, she submitted a letter to O'Malley two weeks ago, asking him to commute Miles' sentence to spare her family from the ordeal of further legal wrangling.
I believe that, at least in some jurisdictions, convicted defendants are able to formally refuse to except a grant of clemency. Consequently, I am not entirely sure Gov O'Malley can ensure through a commutation decision that some of the death row prisoners get an LWOP sentence nor that a commutation decision will ensure there is no further legal wrangling over these cases. That said, the procedural and practical issues arising in this setting perhaps provide a strong reason for the out-going Gov to do exactly what the victims' families now request in each case whether that involves a request for commutation or a request to leave this matter to the state courts.
Monday, November 24, 2014
"Will Texas Kill an Insane Man?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:
On Dec. 3, Texas plans to execute an inmate named Scott Panetti, who was convicted in 1995 for murdering his in-laws with a hunting rifle. There is no question that Mr. Panetti committed the murders. There is also no question that he is severely mentally ill, and has been for decades.
During his capital murder trial, at which he was inexplicably allowed to represent himself, Mr. Panetti dressed in a cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena, among others, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. A standby lawyer said his behavior was “scary” and “trance-like,” and called the trial “a judicial farce.”
It was not an act. Mr. Panetti, now 56, was first diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 20, and in the years before the murders he was hospitalized several times for delusions and psychotic episodes.
In this respect, he is no different from the estimated 350,000 inmates around the country with mental illness — 10 times the number of people in state psychiatric hospitals. But Mr. Panetti is not just another insane prisoner; his name is synonymous with the Supreme Court’s modern jurisprudence about mental illness on death row. In Panetti v. Quarterman, decided in 2007, the justices held that it is not enough for a defendant simply to be aware that he is going to be executed and why — the previous standard the court had used in permitting the execution of the mentally ill....
But the justices refused to set precise guidelines for determining whether someone is competent enough to be executed, and they did not overturn Mr. Panetti’s sentence. Instead, they sent the case back to the lower courts for a fuller reconsideration of his current mental state.
By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent. But Texas, along with several other stubborn states, has a long history of finding the loopholes in Supreme Court rulings restricting the death penalty. The state has continued to argue that Mr. Panetti is exaggerating the extent of his illness, and that he understands enough to be put to death — a position a federal appeals court accepted last year, even though it agreed that he was “seriously mentally ill.”
Mr. Panetti has not had a mental-health evaluation since 2007. In a motion hastily filed this month, his volunteer lawyers requested that his execution be stayed, that a lawyer be appointed for him, and that he receive funding for a new mental-health assessment, saying his functioning has only gotten worse. For instance, he now claims that a prison dentist implanted a transmitter in his tooth.
The lawyers would have made this motion weeks earlier, immediately after a Texas judge set Mr. Panetti’s execution date. But since no one — not the judge, not the district attorney, not the attorney general — notified them (or even Mr. Panetti himself), they had no idea their client was scheduled to be killed until they read about it in a newspaper. State officials explained that the law did not require them to provide notification.
On Nov. 19, a Texas court denied the lawyers’ motion. A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti.
November 24, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Friday, November 21, 2014
"'Power and Greed and the Corruptible Seed': Mental Disability, Prosecutorial Misconduct, and the Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Michael Perlin available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that jurors can be counted on to apply the law in this area conscientiously and fairly. All our criminal procedure jurisprudence is based in large part on the assumption that prosecutors and judges will act fairly. I believe that these assumptions are based on nothing more than wishful thinking, and that the record of death penalty litigation in the thirty-eight years since the “modern” penalty was approved in Gregg v. Georgia gives the lie to them.
This article focuses solely on the role of prosecutors in this process, and the extent to which prosecutorial misconduct has contaminated the entire death penalty process, especially in cases involving defendants with mental disabilities. This is an issue known well to all those who represent such defendants in death penalty cases but, again, there is startlingly little literature on the topic. It is misconduct that is largely hidden and ignored. The article begins with some brief background on issues that relate to the treatment of persons with mental disabilities in the criminal justice system in general. It then discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the outcomes of that misconduct, with special attention to a cohort of appellate decisions in unheralded and rarely (if ever) discussed published cases that, in almost every instance, sanction such misconduct. Next, it demonstrates how some prosecutors purposely flaunt the canons of ethics in the prosecution of defendants with mental disabilities in death penalty cases, and then will discuss some solutions raised by scholars to (at least, partially) cure this problems, and concludes with some modest suggestions of my own.
Ohio and Utah moving forward with distinct fixes for lethal injection drug problems
As reported in this two article, legislatures in Ohio and Utah are taking quite different approaches to the problems poised by the unavailability of some drugs historically used for lethal injection executions. The headlined of these stories highlight the basics:
From the Wall Street Journal here, "Ohio House Passes Bill Shielding Execution Drugmakers: Measure Would Add Layers of Secrecy to Death-Penalty Procedures."
From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Firing squad executions back on the table in Utah Legislature"
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Hoping to help Kickstart a notable new death penalty documentary
I am eager to promote widely an important film project from some folks in London focused on modern US death penalty stories. (I am partial to the project in part because one of my former students, Allen Bohnert, OSU Moritz College of Law grad ('06), is one key subject being documented in his role as current lead counsel in the long-running Section 1983 litigation over Ohio's lethal injection protocols.)
This notable project is still in production, and the filmmakers are currently fundraising for financial support to help allow them to finish filming. The Kickstarter campaign is available here; lots of interesting items are available (such as signed copies of Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy, one-off pieces of art and the film itself) for any donation over $25. I have been told that they will not be able to effectively finish this film without additional help for further funding.
The film itself is titled The Penalty, and it is to be a 90-minute feature documentary examining the current state of America's capital punishment system. While some other documentaries have focused on death row stories through the lens of condemned prisoners, this film is focused more on people involved not on the row: lawyers, family members, politicians, campaigners, law enforcement, and others. A snippet from some filming so far is available at www.thepenaltyfilm.com.
I understand that the filmmakers have been particularly focused on following (1) my former student, Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Ohio Allen Bohnert, through Ohio's problematic execution of Dennis McGuire and its fallout, and (2) Louisiana death row exoneree Damon Thibodeaux as he tries to put his life back together after his wrongful conviction and later exoneration. I believe the filmakers are also incorporating lots of other characters from the capital punishment universe, including many experts in the field such as Debby Denno, Jeanne Woodford, David Dow, Kathryn Kase, Peter Neufeld, Richard Dieter and Clive Stafford-Smith.
Finally, I have been told that anyone has any ideas on stories that the filmmakers should look at, or have ideas for people they should be sure to talk to (e.g., grant-giving foundations, media outlets, campaign groups), they filmakers are eager to spread their network far and wide, and you can pass on ideas by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
"Death, Desuetude, and Original Meaning"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Stinneford now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
One of the most common objections to originalism is that it cannot cope with cultural change. One of the most commonly invoked examples of this claimed weakness is the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, whose original meaning would (it is argued) authorize barbaric punishment practices like flogging and branding, and disproportionate punishments like the death penalty for relatively minor offenses. This Article shows that this objection to originalism is inapt, at least with respect to the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. As I have shown in prior articles, the original meaning of “cruel and unusual” is “cruel and contrary to long usage,” or “cruel and new.” The primary purpose of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is to prevent legislatures and courts from imposing new punishments that are unduly harsh in light of the long usage of the common law.
This Article demonstrates that the Clause also incorporates the common law doctrine of desuetude, which holds that a once traditional punishment can become “unusual” if it falls out of usage long enough to show a stable multigenerational consensus against it. State courts and the Supreme Court of the United States employed this doctrine in decisions prior to 1958 to determine whether punishments such as ducking of a common scold, execution accompanied by torture, and imprisonment at hard labor for a minor offense were cruel and unusual. Under the original meaning of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the death penalty could become unconstitutional if it fell out of usage long enough to show a stable, multigenerational consensus against it. This process already occurred with respect to flogging, branding, and execution for relatively minor crimes like theft, and under the constitutions of states that abolished the death penalty several generations ago.
Missouri completes ninth execution of 2014
As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Missouri Executes Leon Taylor for 1994 Killing," the Show Me state showed another murderer that death sentences still get carried out in Mizzou. Here are the basic details:
A man who killed a suburban Kansas City gas station attendant in front of the worker's young stepdaughter in 1994 was put to death early Wednesday -- the ninth execution in Missouri this year.
Leon Vincent Taylor, 56, was pronounced dead at 12:22 a.m. at the state prison in Bonne Terre, minutes after receiving a lethal injection. With Taylor's death, 2014 ties 1999 for having the most executions in a year in Missouri.
Taylor shot worker Robert Newton to death in front of Newton's 8-year-old stepdaughter during a gas station robbery in Independence, Missouri. Taylor tried to kill the girl, too, but the gun jammed.
Taylor's fate was sealed Tuesday when Gov. Jay Nixon declined to grant clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his appeal. His body covered by a white sheet, Taylor could be seen in the execution chamber talking to family members through the glass in an adjacent room. Once the state started injecting 5 grams of pentobarbital, Taylor's chest heaved for several seconds then stopped. His jaw went slack and he displayed no other movement for the rest of the process.
Four of Taylor's family members sat in a room to his left and looked on without reaction as the drug killed Taylor in about eight minutes. At a time when lethal injections have gone awry in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona and taken an extended period to kill an inmate, Taylor's execution went off without any visible hitches or complications with the drug or equipment.
In a final statement, Taylor apologized to Newton's family because "our lives had to entwine so tragically" and thanked his family for their support and love. "I am also sorry to have brought all of you to this point in my life to witness this and/or participate," Taylor said. "Stay strong and keep your heads to the sky."
Speaking to reporters after the execution, Newton's brother, Dennis Smith, noted that it had been about 7,500 days since the killing and said the family has missed Newton every one of them. Smith described Newton as a hard worker, generous and with a memorable laugh. At times, Smith paused to compose himself as tears rolled down his cheeks. "It would just take a coward to want to hurt someone like him," Smith said.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"
The title of this post is the title of this very interesting article with empirical research on private prisons and time served. The piece, authored by Anita Mukherjee and now available via SSRN, has this abstract:
I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.
My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many. My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk.
These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.
Marshall Project investigation, "Death by Deadline," looks at capital appeals impact of AEDPA
As noted here yesterday, The Marshall Project, an important new reporting outlet focused on criminal justice issues, is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. And the big first feature from The Marshall Project is a lengthy two-part investigative report titled "Death by Deadline" focused on the legal and practical impact of the capital appeal restriction in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty ACt (AEDPA). Below are links and key passages from each part of the report.
An investigation by The Marshall Project shows that since President Bill Clinton signed the one-year statute of limitations into law — enacting a tough-on-crime provision that emerged in the Republicans' Contract with America — the deadline has been missed at least 80 times in capital cases. Sixteen of those inmates have since been executed — the most recent on Thursday, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida.
[A]n investigation by The Marshall Project has found that in at least 80 capital cases in which lawyers have missed the deadline — sometimes through remarkable incompetence or neglect — it is almost always the prisoner alone who suffers the consequences.
Among the dozens of attorneys who have borne some responsibility for those mistakes, only one has been sanctioned for missing the deadline by a professional disciplinary body, the investigation found. And that attorney was given a simple censure, one of the profession's lowest forms of punishment. The lack of oversight or accountability has left many of the lawyers who missed the habeas deadlines free to seek appointment by the federal courts to new death-penalty appeals.
Monday, November 17, 2014
"Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by James Gibson and Corinna Lain now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Across the country, executions have become increasingly problematic as states have found it more and more difficult to procure the drugs they need for lethal injection. At first blush, the drug shortage appears to be the result of pharmaceutical industry norms; companies that make drugs for healing have little interest in being merchants of death. But closer inspection reveals that European governments are the true instigators of the shortage. For decades, those governments have tried — and failed — to promote abolition of the death penalty through traditional instruments of international law. Turns out that the best way to export their abolitionist norms was to stop exporting their drugs.
At least three lessons follow. First, while the Supreme Court heatedly debates the use of international norms in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, that debate has largely become an academic sideshow; in the death penalty context, the market has replaced the positive law as the primary means by which international norms constrain domestic death penalty practice. Second, international norms may have entered the United States through the moral marketplace, but from there they have seeped into the zeitgeist, impacting the domestic death penalty discourse in significant and lasting ways. Finally, international norms have had such a pervasive effect on the death penalty in practice that they are now poised to influence even seemingly domestic Eighth Amendment doctrine. In the death penalty context, international norms are having an impact — through the market, through culture, and ultimately through doctrine — whether we formally recognize their influence or not.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Florida finally completes execution 22 years after murderer's horrific crime
As reported in this AP article, a "Florida man who fatally shot his sleeping wife and then raped and killed his young stepdaughter 22 years ago was put to death Thursday for the child's slaying." Here is more:
Chadwick Banks, 43, was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m. EST Thursday after a lethal injection at Florida State Prison, the office of Gov. Rick Scott said. Banks was condemned for the September 1992 killing of 10-year-old Melody Cooper. Banks also received a life sentence for the murder of his wife, Cassandra Banks, in the attack in the Florida Panhandle region.
Banks wore the white skullcap of the Muslim Brotherhood before the lethal drugs were administered, looking directly at the family of the victims when he delivered his final statement. "I'm very sorry for the hurt and pain I have caused you all of these years," Banks said. "Year after year I have tried to come up with a reasonable answer for my actions. But how could such acts be reasonable?"
Authorities said Banks was drinking and playing pool at a bar before going home around 3 a.m. the night of the slayings. Banks shot his wife point-blank in the head and then raped and shot his stepdaughter, according to authorities. Banks, who was 21 at the time of the killings, received a life sentence for his wife's murder, and a jury recommended the death penalty for the stepdaughter's slaying....
The execution was the eighth in Florida this year and the 20th since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. That's one fewer than under Gov. Jeb Bush during both of his terms. Bush presided over the most executions since capital punishment was reinstated in the state in 1979, but Scott was just re-elected to a second term.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Legislation to get Ohio back on track with lethal injections being fast-tracked
As reported in this local article, headlined "Death-penalty reform bill would protect execution drug makers, physicians who testify," it appears that the state legislative process is moving forward to enact new regulations to help Ohio get back into the business of executions. Here are the details (with my emphasis added at the end):
Makers of Ohio's lethal-injection drugs would be kept anonymous, and physicians who testify about the state's execution method couldn't have their medical license revoked, under House legislation introduced Monday. Attorney General Mike DeWine has said that lawmakers need to pass the reforms if Ohio is to resume executions next year, once a court-ordered moratorium ends.
Ohio, along with many other states, has been struggling to settle on an execution method, as many large pharmaceutical companies have refused to continue selling drugs used for lethal injection. The state's current two-drug cocktail is being challenged in court and has been used in controversial executions in Ohio and Arizona.
House Bill 663 would keep secret the identities of compounding pharmacies, small-scale drug manufacturers that create individual doses of lethal-injection drugs on demand. The proposed change is a sign that state officials could turn to compounding pharmacies for lethal-injection drugs that courts have upheld but that larger companies have stopped selling, such as pentobarbital. Rep. Jim Buchy, a Greenville Republican co-sponsoring the bill, said the measure would protect compounding pharmacies from lawsuits.
Another proposed change in the bill would prevent the Ohio State Medical Association from revoking or suspending the license of any physician who provides expert testimony on the state's death penalty. Such immunity is needed, supporters say, because the state is worried that doctors will refuse to testify in defense of Ohio's lethal-injection protocol for fear that they'll run afoul of medical ethics....
House Speaker Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican, and Senate President Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, each said last week they plan to pass the legislation. "That is something that we cannot leave in abeyance, otherwise we're going to have people who pass away prior to execution," Batchelder said.
I have a inkling that Speaker Batchelder's comments emphasized above may have been taken a little out of context, as the quote makes it seem he considers it is essential to fix quickly Ohio's machinery of death so that prisoners do not die on their own before being able to be killed by the state.
Friday, November 07, 2014
After state's capital repeal, Maryland AG argues the state cannot execute those already on death row
As reported in this Baltimore Sun piece, headlined "Gansler argues state must vacate sentences of death row inmates," Maryland's Attorney General has concluded that it would not be proper to see execution of those on state's death row after the legislature repealed capital punishment. Here are the details:
More than a year after the repeal of capital punishment in Maryland, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says the state has no choice but to change the sentences of its remaining death row inmates.
Gansler has filed a legal brief in support of an appeal by Jody Lee Miles, who is asking to be resentenced for the 1997 murder of an Eastern Shore musical theater director. Miles' lawyers — and Gansler — argue the state no longer has the authority to execute the four men already on death row because lawmakers abolished capital punishment in 2013. With repeal, they argue, legislators took away the state's power to issue the regulations necessary to put someone to death.
Instead, Miles should be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Gansler argued in a brief filed with the Court of Special Appeals. "Whether or not you agree with the death penalty, the recent repeal of capital punishment in Maryland nevertheless demands that we pursue a prison sentence that ensures Jody Lee Miles dies behind bars, where he belongs," Gansler said in a statement Thursday.
Speaking at a news conference, Gansler called capital punishment in Maryland "illegal and factually impossible." Though the brief relates only to Miles, Gansler acknowledged that his position has implications for the other death row inmates.
His position drew criticism from the family of Miles' victim, Edward Joseph Atkinson, and from the Wicomico County state's attorney, whose office prosecuted the case.
Atkinson's mother, Dottie Atkinson, said Miles should be put to death. "It's been appeal after appeal. We get some hope each time, and all these appeals have been in our favor, and all of a sudden we get this news. We've been let down," she told reporters on the Eastern Shore, according to The Daily Times. "It's an impact people shouldn't have to go through."
Wicomico County State's Attorney Matt Maciarello also denounced the decision. But he added that, if the state's position is set, Gov. Martin O'Malley should move to commute Miles' sentence and spare the family the court hearings and drawn-out process associated with appeals. "If the attorney general is committed to this approach, let's give this family some finality," Maciarello said. "It's cruel to put this family through more suffering."
Gansler noted that O'Malley, who supported repeal, could commute the death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. The governor has at least one petition — from inmate Heath William Burch — on his desk that he has yet to take action on, Burch's attorney said.
Through a spokeswoman, O'Malley declined to comment on Gansler's opinion, saying only that the attorney general "has a constitutional obligation to determine how the law applies." Regarding the governor's ability to commute sentences, the spokeswoman said O'Malley "continues to consider each case and will address the issue when a decision has been made."
Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and incoming attorney general Brian Frosh did not respond to requests for comment.
Gansler — who opposed the repeal legislation but never sought the death penalty as the top prosecutor in Montgomery County — said his office was obligated to weigh in on Miles' case before the Court of Special Appeals. He noted that after a court threw out Maryland's lethal injection procedure as unconstitutional in 2006, the state did not adopt new regulations. When his staff researched the issue, the conclusion was that the "uncertain enforceability" of the death penalty in Maryland threatened due process, he said....
His opinion contrasts with that of a Queen Anne's County judge, who rejected Miles' argument last year. In that case, Judge Thomas G. Ross found the lack of rules for executions "troubling" but said even after the repeal went into effect the Division of Correction retained the authority to develop new rules....
Miles' attorneys commended Gansler's move but said they believe he should be eligible for release at some point, not sentenced to life without parole. Miles has expressed "extreme remorse" for the killing, had a "devastating childhood history" and has been a model inmate while behind bars, the attorneys say. Gansler said life without parole is the appropriate sentence because the jury had a choice between that and the death penalty.
Sunday, November 02, 2014
Interesting review of the (too cautious?) work of California's Attorney General
The Los Angeles Times has this notable review of the tenure and work of Califronia's Attorney General. Here are excerpts:
Kamala D. Harris, California's top law enforcement officer, had little to say in July when an Orange County federal judge declared the state's death penalty system unconstitutional. Several weeks later, Harris announced that she would challenge the decision, but her reasoning was curious: The ruling, she said, "undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants."
That she delayed making her views known — and then used a liberal justification to explain a response sought by conservatives — has fueled a perception that Harris is reluctant to stake out positions on controversial issues....
On the conservative side, Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said Harris "hasn't done anything really bad but also hasn't been the vigorous leader California needs.… [Former Republican Atty. Gen.] Dan Lungren would have been out the next day denouncing the opinion and vowing to take it to the Supreme Court."
Harris, 49, bristles at the suggestion that she is afraid to take stands. "On the issue of same-sex marriage, my position was very clear," Harris said in a recent interview. She was referring to her refusal to defend Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure limiting matrimony to one man and woman, which was struck down in court....
During her time as attorney general, Harris has used the office to draw attention to transnational crime, recidivism and truancy. She also has created units to focus on cyber-crime and cyber-privacy. In deciding to appeal the ruling against the death penalty, which excoriated the system for decades-long delays, Harris said she was moved by concern that appeals might be streamlined "at the expense of due process" — meaning the protection of inmates' rights. In his decision, however, U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney had not suggested that defendants' protections should be curtailed. He pointed to a study that blamed logjams in the system on various factors.
Although Harris personally opposes the death penalty, her aides have emphasized that she would vigorously defend the law. If the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with Carney, Harris then would have to decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court. If she decided against an appeal, the death penalty in California would probably end. "We will have to see what the court rules," Harris said, without elaborating on her thinking.
She delighted death penalty supporters Wednesday by appointing Gerald Engler, a longtime assistant attorney general and former county prosecutor, to head the office's criminal division. Scheidegger, a strong proponent of executions, called the choice "an out-of-the park home run."
When she first ran for attorney general four years ago, Harris barely defeated former Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who had heavy backing from law enforcement. Today, police groups back Harris. "She has not let her personal views undermine the constitutional role of the office," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Assn., which has endorsed her. "She has been very accessible and she has a real problem-solving, analytical style."...
[Her Republican opponent Ron] Gold has blasted her for failing to take a stand on the legalization of marijuana. He favors legalization, while Harris has not made up her mind. "She does not take chances," Gold said. "AG for her doesn't mean 'attorney general.' It means 'almost governor.'"
Harris attributes her reticence to a desire for more information. She said she wants to review Washington's and Colorado's experiences with legalization before deciding whether it would be good for California. "It would be irresponsible for me as the chief law enforcement officer to take a position based on its popularity without thinking it would actually work," Harris said.
She backed the legalization of marijuana for medical needs, but has done little to clarify the law or push for regulation, activists complain. "She has been largely absent" from efforts in Sacramento to establish regulations, said Alex Kreit, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and author of a textbook on drug law. "It's less about trying to be middle of the road and more about not rocking the boat."
Thursday, October 30, 2014
"Physicians, Medical Ethics, and Execution by Lethal Injection"
The title of this post is the title of this new article by I. Glenn Cohen, Robert Truog, and Mark Rockoff available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In the wake of the recent botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma, a group of eminent legal professionals known as the Death Penalty Committee of The Constitution Project issued a set of recommendations for sweeping legal and administrative reforms of this method of capital punishment. This Article discusses the Committee’s recommendation that medical personnel perform the medically-related elements of lethal injection executions. Noting that such involvement is prohibited by the codes of medical ethics of professional societies in every medical profession, this Article argues that significant ethical concerns dictate that medical professionals should refuse to participate in lethal injection executions.
- The Constitution Project issues big new report calling for broad reform of capital punishment administration
Notable criticism of Pope's advocacy against LWOP and "nurturing mommy" approach to government
As noted in this post last week, Pope Francis spoke out last week against life imprisonment and harsh sentencing systems focused more on punishment than social justice. This intriguing new American Spectator commentary by Mark Tooley takes issue with this papal advocacy, and concludes with complaints about governments failing to balance a "nurturing mommy" role with a "stern father role." Here are excerpts from an interestinf read:
Opposing life imprisonment raises questions. Should mass murderers be freed during their active lifetime? And what if they show no sign of remorse or rehabilitation? (My questions come respectfully from a Protestant who appreciates Catholic teaching.)
The Pope’s remarks acknowledged that official Catholic teaching still accepts the state’s rightful power to execute, quoting the Catechism that “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” News reports say he quoted the Catechism that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” It is not clear but presumably he also included the Catechism phrase immediately before those words, which cites the “possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.”
What power does the state have for “rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm” except for the option of life imprisonment for recalcitrant murderers? It seems unlikely that many Americans, Catholic or otherwise, will advocate abolishing life imprisonment for heinous crimes. But recently Colorado’s pro-death penalty Republican gubernatorial candidate, a Catholic, recalled that Denver’s former bishop, Charles Chaput, had assured him that church doctrine is not against the death penalty....
The subtleties of Catholic teaching on capital punishment are difficult to translate into media sound bites or political explanations. Pope Francis’s comments against life imprisonment seem to go beyond the letter of the Catechism. Some activist American religionists, Catholic or otherwise, may latch on to them for a new campaign. But such an effort potentially would provoke a backlash and embolden defense of the death penalty.
Much of the American religious political witness today is totally uncomfortable with the state’s divine vocation for punitive action, much less lethal force. The New Testament offers little direct counsel on civil government’s responsibilities except, in St. Paul’s Romans 13, which warns that that “if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoers.” This language is pretty punitive.
But so much of modern American religious political witness prefers a highly non-punitive version of government. Their preferred vision likens the state to an indulgent, nurturing mommy, whose primary role is to feed, clothe, and ensure health care for all her children, while also welcoming all illegal immigrants, protecting the environment, lecturing against politically incorrect “hate speech,” and offering universal love, while simultaneously disarming in a way ironically that likely inhibits physical protection for her children.
Most of this mommy work the Scriptures and Christian tradition actually assign chiefly to the church, which is metaphorically a mother and the Bride of Christ. The Romans 13 focus for the state more resembles a stern father, who dispenses impartial but severe justice for the protection of his children. This sort of paternal state, unlike the sensitive mommy, reserves its interventions for dangerous misconduct. And it lets its charges pick themselves up from their stumbles, that they might grow strong, not remain immature through ceaseless coddling.
A true balance in society aligns nurturing mommy with stern father, both fulfilling their complementary roles in creation. The absence of one distorts human reality and creates corruption and tragedy. Pope Francis doubtless has earnest reasons for speaking against even life imprisonment. But his sentiments will likely only inspire the chronic mommy vision of the state already preferred by so many do-gooding religionists.
Religious leaders need to restore balance by citing Romans 13 and explaining the punitive, morally imperative stern father role of the state that is divinely ordained and essential for human justice.
Prior related post:
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Is the death penalty really dying a slow death . . . in Texas?!?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new piece from The Atlantic, headlined "In Texas, the Death Penalty is Slowly Dying Out: The Lone Star State carried out its fewest executions since 1996 this year." Here are excerpts:
On Tuesday night, the state of Texas executed Miguel Paredes by lethal injection for murdering a woman and her two children sixteen years ago. With no executions scheduled by the state department of criminal justice for November or December, Paredes' death marks the tenth and final execution for Texas this year — the fewest in almost two decades.
2014 wasn't anomalous either. Executions in Texas, the most prolific death-penalty state in the country, spiked after Congress restricted federal appeals in death-penalty cases with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996. Since then, however, the death penalty has been in overall decline both in Texas and nationwide. Thirty people have been executed so far this year in the entire United States, whereas Texas alone executed 40 people at its peak in 2000.
What's driving the decline? Since executions peaked nationally in the late 1990s, multiple Supreme Court rulings have limited the death penalty's scope and application. The justices barred executions of the mentally disabled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, for example, and eliminated the death penalty for individual crimes other than first-degree murder in their 2008 decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana....
But for Texas, the greatest shift came in 2005. First, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that executing defendants who were minors when they committed the crime violated the Eighth Amendment. Texas had led the nation in imposing the death penalty on under-18 defendants prior to Roper; 29 inmates had their sentences reduced accordingly after the ruling. More inmates left Texas' death row alive than dead that year for the first time since 1989. At the same time, legislators gave Texas juries the option to sentence murder defendants to life without parole, thereby lowering the number of new death-penalty convictions.
Other extrajudicial factors are also slowing down the death penalty in Texas and around the United States. Thanks to a European Union embargo that bars the sale of lethal-injection drugs to the U.S., executions nationwide have slowed precipitously as states scramble to find replacements and substitutes....
This doesn't mean executions will completely halt any time soon in Texas. State officials say they have a sufficient supply of pentobarbital for upcoming executions thanks to a secret supplier they refuse to name through 2015. Six in 10 Americans still support the death penalty according to a recent Gallup poll, and Greg Abbott, who will likely be elected governor of Texas next week, is also a staunch proponent. Reversing the overall downward trend, however, would require either a drastic shift in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence or a complete overhaul of Texas sentencing law. Neither are imminent.
I am glad this piece concludes by noting a number of reasons why the death penalty is very likely to persist in Texas for the years to come. Rather than talking about the death penalty potentially dying in Texas, I think the notable data on death sentences and executions in the state over recent years ought to be examined and analyzed as part of an effort to assess what might be deemed a "sound" or "stable" use of the death penalty within a state clearly committed to having the punishment be a significant aspect of its modern punishment system.
Monday, October 27, 2014
Two condemned New Mexico murderers left behind after death penalty repeal seek relief from NM Supreme Court
As reported in this local article, headlined "Convicted murderers ask to be taken off death row," in New Mexico the "last two inmates on death row are asking the state’s highest court to get them off the list." Here is more:
New Mexico’s only inmates facing possible execution want the state supreme court to declare their death sentences unconstitutional because capital punishment was abolished after their convictions.
Attorneys for the two convicted killers say their sentences are unconstitutional, while the state is still backing their death penalty. The hearing lasted around an hour and half Monday morning, but no official decision will be made for at least a few months.
Attorneys for Timothy Allen and Robert Fry argued this morning that carrying out their death sentence would be cruel and unusual punishment and would violate “equal protection” rights for the two as New Mexico residents.
New Mexico repelled the death penalty in 2009 and the two are arguing that because of that, their sentences should be changed, even though they were both convicted when the death penalty was still law. Allen killed 17-year old Sandra Phillips in 1994 after kidnapping her and trying to rape her. Robert Fry was convicted of killing a mother of five in 2000. He also murdered three other people in the ’90s.
Attorneys for the two men argued that the death penalty is cruel and unusual based on a report from the state’s Death Penalty Task Force which cited cost and liabilities with a death sentence. They also argued that it violates equal protection to effectively set a date when people can and can’t face the death penalty.
Meanwhile, the state argued that justices would be “overstepping” their reach if justices chose to allow Allen and Fry to live. The state says that would be like the justices re-interpreting what the legislature wished to do....
New Mexico has only executed one person in the last 54 years. It was Terry Clark who was a convicted child rapist and killer.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
Media coalition sues Arizona on First Amendment grounds seeking more info on executions
As detailed in this article from The Guardian, the "secrecy imposed by Arizona on the source and quality of the lethal injection drugs it uses to kill death row inmates has been challenged in a new lawsuit brought by the Guardian and other media organizations." Here is more about the lawsuit (including a link to the filing):
Friday, October 24, 2014
Unpacking the reasons given for public support and opposition to the death penalty
Gallup now has published this intriguing piece, headlined "Americans: 'Eye for an Eye' Top Reason for Death Penalty," which provides some interesting additional insights concerning Gallup's latest polling data on support for capital punishment (reported here). Here are some of the highlights:
Americans who favor the death penalty most often cite "an eye for an eye" as the reason they hold their position, with 35% mentioning it. "Save taxpayers money" and "they deserve it" tie as the second-most-popular reasons Americans volunteer in this open-ended measure, at 14% each....
This is the fourth time Gallup has probed Americans to state, in their own words, why they hold the position they do on the death penalty. Americans who say they support the death penalty have given a variety of responses over the years, but the biblical phrase "an eye for an eye," or retaliation, consistently has been named as the No. 1 reason why the death penalty should be applied. However, this reason's pre-eminence has waned since Gallup first asked this question in 1991, when half of Americans who favor the death penalty mentioned it....
While a majority of Americans tilt in favor of the death penalty, the one in three Americans who oppose it also have a diversity of views as to why the ultimate penalty should not be used. "Wrong to take a life" has been the top reason for opposing it since 1991, by comfortable margins.
In two of the three times Gallup has asked this question, "persons may be wrongly convicted" has been the No. 2 justification Americans give for opposing the death penalty, along with reasons grounded in religious beliefs, including that "punishment should be left to God." Yet "wrong to take a life" is still the most popular open-ended response by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has an extended discussion of what these results should help us understand about modern death penalty perspectives and arguments. Here is how that post finishes up:
Most folks make up their minds on justice and morality. These positions are largely undebatable. One who believes that executing Ted Bundy was fundamentally right and reducing Charles Manson's sentence to life was fundamentally wrong isn't going to change his mind, and the person who believes the opposite isn't going to change his either.
The utilitarians are a minority, but a substantial one. That is where the people who might change their minds based on data and arguments are, so that is where the arguments are directed.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Gallup polling shows "Americans' Support for Death Penalty Stable"
Gallup has this new report highlighting that "[s]ix in 10 Americans favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, generally consistent with attitudes since 2008." Here is more:
Americans' support for the death penalty has varied over time, but apart from a single reading in 1966, the public has consistently favored it. Support ebbed from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, when the application of the death penalty was questioned and ultimately led to the Supreme Court's invalidating state death penalty laws. Subsequent to that, newly written laws passed constitutional muster and states began to use the death penalty again in the late 1970s, with support among Americans increasing to 70% or more in the mid-1980s to the late 1990s.
The broader trend over the last two decades has been diminished support for the death penalty, including a 60% reading last year, the lowest since 1972.
Over the last two decades, Democrats' support for the death penalty has dropped significantly, from 75% to 49%. Now, Democrats are divided on whether it should be administered to convicted murderers. Republicans' and independents' support is also lower now -- down nine and 18 percentage points, respectively -- though both groups still solidly favor the death penalty.
Gallup's long-standing question asks about basic support for the death penalty, but does not explicitly mention an alternative punishment for murderers. Gallup separately asks Americans to choose between the death penalty and "life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole" as the better punishment for murder. Support for the death penalty has been significantly lower using this approach, but Americans still tilt in favor of it by 50% to 45%. These attitudes are similar to recent years, but show reduced support for the death penalty from the 1980s and 1990s.
Americans' support for the death penalty has stabilized at a lower level than was the case prior to 2008, and is well below the highs from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. And in recent years the public has shown only a slight preference for the death penalty over life imprisonment as the better penalty for murder. These trends toward diminished support seem to be reflected in state death penalty laws, as six U.S. states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, and no new states have adopted it.
Democrats are mostly responsible for this shift in attitudes, and thus it is not surprising that most of the states that have abolished the death penalty in recent years are Democratic leaning. The death penalty is another example of how Democrats' and Republicans' opinions on political matters have become increasingly divergent compared with recent decades, including their views of the job the president is doing and on issues such as global warming and labor unions.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
"The Death Penalty’s 'Finely Tuned Depravity Calibrators': Fairness Follies of Fairness Phonies Fixated on Criminals Instead of Crimes"
The title of this post is the title of this new article by Lester Jackson available via bepress SelectedWorks. Here is the abstract:
It has been loudly and repeatedly proclaimed by opponents that capital punishment is “unfair.” In their view, it is unfair because (1) only some murderers receive the ultimate sentence and (2) they are not the most deserving. Underlying this view is the remarkable assumption that fairness is subject to “fine tuning” and “moral accuracy.”
It is argued here that this assumption is indefensible both in theory and in practice. As a theoretical matter, it is insupportable to suggest that matters of conscience, right and wrong, are subject to calibration or “accuracy.” Right and wrong are not determined in the same manner as taking blood tests. Moreover, and this lies at the heart of the fallacy, there simply is no agreement upon what is fair punishment for unlawful intentional killing. Regarding the death penalty, the values chasm is unbridgeable.
In practice, this is clearly demonstrated by the considerations employed by those who allege unfairness. Using chicanery, outright falsehood and abuse of power, they have a laser focus on convicted criminals with no concern for past -- and future -- victims. It is easy to worry about criminals when the suffering of victims is left out of so-called fairness calibrations. When the assessment of fairness is confined to comparing the fate of one criminal against another, the reductio ad absurdum is that there should be no punishment for any violent crime.
This is the inevitable result of what is nowhere found in the actual written Constitution but, nevertheless, has been ordered by anti-capital punishment United States Supreme Court justices: “individualized sentencing.” That mandate, which places a heavy focus upon a criminal’s background and record, should be reconsidered.
Penal codes make certain conduct criminal. It is conduct that should be the prime (and perhaps exclusive) consideration. In determining punishments, the focus should be on crimes and not on the criminals who commit them. Based on such determinations, another view of fairness is presented.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Arizona prosecutors getting started at second (costly) run at death sentence for Jodi Arias
A high-profile (and high-cost) capital case starts its next big phase as reported in this new AP article headlined "Opening statements expected in Jodi Arias sentencing retrial." Here are the basics:
Jurors in Phoenix will once again be asked to decide whether Jodi Arias should be executed for the gruesome murder of her former boyfriend. Lawyers are expected to make opening statements Tuesday at the sentencing retrial, more than a year after a jury found her guilty of killing Travis Alexander in June 2008. The first jury deadlocked on whether to sentence her to life imprisonment or death.
A new jury that was picked over the past several weeks will be sworn in as the former waitress tries to make another case that her life should be spared. They won't consider whether or not she's guilty -- that's already been decided. The retrial is expected to last into December....
Arias stabbed and slashed Alexander nearly 30 times, slit his throat so deeply she nearly decapitated him and shot him in the forehead. She left his body in his shower where friends found him about five days later at his suburban Phoenix home. She acknowledged she killed Alexander, but claimed it was self-defense after he attacked her. Prosecutors said it was premeditated murder carried out in a jealous rage after the victim wanted to end their affair and planned a trip to Mexico with another woman.
Weeks after Arias was convicted, the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on her punishment. Her attorneys have since sought, unsuccessfully, to dismiss the death penalty as an option. If another deadlock occurs, the death penalty would automatically be removed as an option, leaving a judge to sentence Arias to one of two options: life in prison or life in prison with the possibility of release after 25 years.
The sentencing retrial will be a mini-trial of sorts to get a fresh jury up to speed on the case. Four hundred people were called as prospective jurors. Many of them were cut after they said they either made up their minds about the case or knew too much to be impartial. Some jurors cited their objection to the death penalty.
At her last trial, she testified for 18 days, describing for jurors an abusive childhood, cheating boyfriends, dead-end jobs, a shocking sexual relationship with Alexander, and her contention that he was physically abusive....
The costs of defending Arias have topped $2.5 million and will mount during a second penalty phase. Prosecutors have declined to provide their costs to try the case.
I am pleased this AP article ends with a discussion of the economic costs of this notable case. Because it is unlikely Arias will ever be executed even if she is sentenced to death, and because imposition of a death sentence will ensure years of state and federal appeals at taxpayer expense, I think prosecutors in this case are likely to do more harm to Arizona taxpayers than to Jodi Arias via this retrial.
Some prior posts on the Arias case:
- After high-profile state murder conviction, Jodi Arias claims she wants death penalty over LWOP
- Are there (and/or should there be) special death penalty rules for female murderers?
- Arizona jurors quickly make finding for Jodi Arias to be formally death eligible
- Jodi Arias now pleading for a life sentence before sentencing jury
- Arizona prosecutors say they are still planning to try again to get Jodi Arias sentenced to death
- Noting the high costs of seeking to give Jodi Arias death penalty fame rather than LWOP pain
- Arizona poised to take second (costly) run at death sentence for Jodi Arias
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Judicial misconduct complained against Fifth Circuit Judge Jones based on provocative death penalty speech dismissed
Thanks to recent posts at Hercules and the Umpire and at Crime & Consequences, I see that the judicial misconduct complaint filed against US Circuit Judge Edith Jones of the Fifth Circuit based on a provocative speech she gave concerning the death penalty at a law school. The lengthy dismissal order is available here, and this AP article reviews the basics:
A council of federal judges has dismissed a misconduct complaint against a conservative appellate judge who was alleged to have made racially discriminatory remarks at a lecture on the death penalty.
Judge Edith Jones ... allegedly said at a speech in February 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania law school that certain racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime, and are prone to commit acts of violence and to be involved in more violent and heinous crimes than people of other ethnicities.
Thirteen individuals and public interest groups filed a judicial misconduct complaint against Jones, and Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the case to the appeals court in Washington at the request of the chief appeals judge in New Orleans. The dismissal, which took place in August, was publicly disclosed Wednesday.
In a lengthy inquiry, a three-judge panel of the judicial council was unable to find any recording of Jones' remarks, forcing them to rely on varying recollections of audience members about precisely what Jones said. "It appears likely that Judge Jones did suggest that, statistically, African-Americans and/or Hispanics are `disproportionately' involved in certain crimes and `disproportionately' present in federal prisons," said the panel. "But we must consider Judge Jones' comments in the context of her express clarifications during the question-and-answer period that she did not mean that certain groups are `prone to commit' such crimes," the panel of judges said.
"In that context, whether or not her statistical statements are accurate, or accurate only with caveats, they do not by themselves indicate racial bias or an inability to be impartial," said the panel. "They resemble other albeit substantially more qualified, statements prominent in contemporary debate regarding the fairness of the justice system."
Attorney Maurie Levin, who represents the complainants, said the ruling "essentially credits Judge Jones' stale recollections over the testimony of a lawyer and five law students who set down their recollections not long after the lecture. There is simply no way to understand that as a fair weighing of the evidence." The complainants are appealing to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the judicial council.
I especially recommend Judge Richard Kopf's analysis and reactions in his post at Hercules and the Umpire, and I found noteworthy and important these particular reactive insights from Judge Kopf:
The work of the Special Committee and Professor Jeffrey Bellin makes me proud to be a federal judge. The clarity, tone, thoroughness and objectivity which is evident in the Report of the Special Committee is remarkable....
In my opinion, the essential allegations of the complaint lack a credible factual basis. With the aid of Professor Bellin’s searching investigation, the Report of the Special Committee, in restrained terms, explains why that is so.
I fear that complaints like this one will chill, and may even be intended to chill, judicial speech concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, particularly when the judge does not share the jurisprudential or ideological views of the listeners, and despite the fact that federal judges are expressly encouraged under the Code to speak about the law and how to improve it.
As distinguished from my fears expressed in the preceding paragraph, the Report of the Special Committee does a skillful job of explaining why controversial speech by a federal judge in the context of a talk on the law does not violate the Code.
Prior related posts:
- Complaint filed against notable (notorious?) Fifth Circuit judge based on comments about death penalty
- "A Tale of Sound & Fury (But No Transcript): In Defense of Judge Edith Jones"
UPDATE: Judge Kopf now has this additional interesting post on this matter titled "On being 'uncomfortable' and 'offended' — the ethics complaint against Judge Jones and the student affiants."
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
"Could firing squad make a comeback in Utah, elsewhere?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new article discussing, yet again, possible alternatives to lethal injection as a means to carry out death sentences. Though covering some familiar ground, this article provides a useful reminder that it has been only a few years since the last firing squad execution in the United States and highlights reasons why states seriously committed to carrying out executions ought to be seriously considering this "classic" execution method again. Here are excerpts:
When Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010 at the Utah State Prison in Draper, more than 59 journalists from news outlets from around the globe descended upon Utah to cover the event. Reporters from Japan and Great Britain called it “a Wild West way of dispatching people” and referenced John Wayne movies.
But as anti-death penalty pharmaceutical companies in Europe refuse to sell the drugs necessary for lethal injections to prisons in the United States and in the wake of botched lethal injection executions in recent months, the firing squad could be making its return to Utah and other places. “I’ve had several states actually call (to ask about the firing squad),” Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said. “They asked me not to name them because they don’t want the media circus on it. But they’re in the same boat we are — they can’t get the drugs, either.”
Botched executions involving lethal injections in Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio earlier this year have led Ray to believe that the method could face constitutional challenges as well. For that reason, he is proposing legislation that would bring back the firing squad as the secondary execution method in Utah, should the primary method, lethal injection, be found unconstitutional or unavailable. “It really won’t do anything,” Ray said. “It’s just the plan B if we need it.”
A law passed in 2004 eliminated death by firing squad in Utah, but those on death row who requested such a death prior to the new law still have the option. Ray said the legislation he is proposing would restore the firing squad as a possible execution method, but eliminate the inmate choice. “It will be lethal injection, and then, if the drugs are not there, or it is unconstitutional, then it will be firing squad,” Ray explained. “There is no option for the inmates.”
Utah's firing squad comprises five riflemen, all certified law enforcement officers, using 30-30 rifles. Four of the guns are loaded with live ammunition and one is loaded with a blank before the officers shoot in unison.
Ray acknowledged that part of the reason the method was eliminated was due to the extra attention that surrounded it. But he said there is always going to be interest around executions, especially among international media. The firing squad may heighten that interest, but Ray doesn't balk at it as an execution method.
“It is actually the most humane,” he said. “The individual is usually dead before they can even hear the gunshot. It’s four bullets to the heart, so it’s not ‘How long did it take for him to die? Could he breathe? Did he feel it?’”
Wyoming Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, decided to propose the firing squad as Wyoming’s secondary execution method, because he said it is what he would choose if forced to select to among the alternatives to lethal injection. “It became a matter of personal prejudice and if I was the one that was being executed,” Burns said.
Wyoming’s current backup if lethal injection is unavailable is the gas chamber, which Burns felt was impractical for a number of reasons. For one, the state doesn’t have a gas chamber, and building one — and the possible litigation prompted by a decision to build one — would be expensive. “It would cost millions of dollars to build one,” Burns said. “And sometimes you have to put your own experience into it and I think the gas chamber would be a horrible way to kill somebody.”... “I do like the way Utah did it,” Burns said. “Utah has a very good protocol. If we pass this, I would hope the Wyoming Department of Corrections would look to the protocol that Utah uses.”...
Even before the botched executions, Burns noticed the difficulty getting lethal injection drugs from companies in the European Union. He proposed a bill to implement the firing squad in Wyoming’s legislative session this past January. It didn’t pass, but officials from the Wyoming Department of Corrections came forward and spoke about the difficulties states around the nation are facing when it comes to obtaining drugs for lethal injections, and the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee decided to look at the issue. Lawmakers have since decided to sponsor the firing squad bill in the upcoming legislative session in January....
Burns said the the Wyoming Legislature’s Judiciary Committee recently had an extended debate about the death penalty and whether to eliminate it altogether. A proposed bill was even drafted. “It went down and not by a whole lot,” Burns said, before adding that he likes where Wyoming stands now with just one man on death row. “We have 22 people in prison for life without parole, and any one of those 22 could have been a capital case. We haven’t executed anyone since 1992, so we use it infrequently.”
Still, he believes the death penalty is an important tool in the criminal justice system to be used as needed. “I’m not a fan of using it more, but I would like to have it there in reserve for those crimes that are so horrible and so heinous that the person doesn’t even deserve life without parole,” Burns said.
A few recent related and older posts:
- Is nitrogen gas the best modern execution alternative to lethal injection?
- Serious talk about a serious alternative (nitrogen) to lethal injection in Oklahoma
- A worldly perspective on different execution methods
- Shouldn't Congress be holding hearings to explore federal and state execution methods?
- Poll after ugly execution highlights enduring death penalty support and openness to various execution methods
- Should problems with lethal injection prompt return of other execution methods?
Monday, October 13, 2014
Oklahoma AG requests additional delay before state gets back to executions
As reported in this Reuters article, "Oklahoma's attorney general has filed a request to delay three upcoming executions in Oklahoma due to a lack of drugs and to provide more time to implement new lethal injection protocols, according to court documents obtained on Monday." Here is more:
Attorney General Scott Pruitt has asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to delay two executions set for November and one set for December because the state does not have the necessary drugs or the medical personnel to carry out the executions, a filing from last week showed. The drugs used during executions in the United States are under scrutiny after inmates in troubled executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona took longer than is typical to die and showed signs of distress.
Pruitt requested a Jan. 15 execution date for Charles Warner, convicted of raping and murdering 11-month old Adrianna Walker. Pruitt was scheduled to be executed Nov. 13. His original execution date was April 29, the same night of the botched execution of condemned murderer Clayton Lockett. Lockett's execution prompted the state to delay all executions pending a review and investigation into why it took Lockett over 40 minutes to die....
Richard Eugene Glossip and John Marion Grant were also scheduled for execution in 2014, but Pruitt asked that their executions be set for Jan. 29 and Feb. 19, respectively. Robert Patton, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, issued a statement on Monday supporting the 60-day delay.
Dale Baich, attorney for Warner, issued a statement applauding Pruitt's request, saying more time is needed for the federal courts to review a lawsuit filed by 26 inmates, including Warner, Glossip and Grant. The lawsuit argues that the state is experimenting on death row inmates with untested lethal injection drugs, violating the law’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Noting how politicians can be pro-life and pro-death (penalty) in Texas
This local story on modern Texas politics, headlined "Being pro-life in gov's race doesn't extend to death row," highlights what concerns about the sanctity of life real mean in the Lone Star State. Here are excerpts:
When Attorney General Greg Abbott talks about his opposition to abortion, he often mentions his Catholic faith. Not so when he talks about his support for the death penalty, whose abolition is advocated by Pope Francis.
“Catholic doctrine is not against the death penalty, and so there is no conflict there,” Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, said when asked about that point in a meeting with the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board. The Catholic catechism doesn't exclude the death penalty as an option if that's the only way to defend human lives from an offender, but it says that given current options, such cases “are very rare, if practically non-existent.”
Pope Francis, in reaffirming the church's call to abolish the death penalty last year, asked that such sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment allowing for the offender's reform, the National Catholic Register reported. “The difference, of course, is one between innocent life and those who have taken innocent lives,” Abbott said of his position on abortion versus the death penalty.
A different view on capital punishment would itself be seen as tantamount to a political death sentence in Texas. Abbott's Democratic opponent, Sen. Wendy Davis, also backs the death penalty — even though as a Fort Worth City Council member in 2000 she voted to impose a moratorium on it, and even though the Texas Democratic Party platform calls for substituting life in prison for capital punishment, saying the death penalty is applied disproportionately to the poor and persons of color.
The moratorium didn't pass, and Davis said that the questions prompting her to support it then have largely been answered through such means as advancement in the use of DNA evidence. “Obviously, before we mete out the most serious of punishments, we need to know we've done everything to assure that the person on the receiving end of that punishment is guilty,” Davis told the Express-News Editorial Board in a separate appearance Friday. “We have made some advances in that regard. ... Is there still work to do? Absolutely.”
Both candidates credited work by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on the issue. Abbott cited his efforts with Ellis on legislation to expand DNA testing in death penalty cases. “I know that the only way the death penalty will work is to ensure its absolute accuracy — that everyone who is given the death penalty is guilty of the crime for which they were accused and convicted of committing,” Abbott said.
Being sure can be difficult. In 2010, Anthony Graves became the 12th death-row inmate to be exonerated in Texas, absolved of the 1992 Burleson County murder for which he was convicted. Michael Morton, who served 25 years in his wife's Williamson County murder before being exonerated, told CNN, “I thank God this wasn't a capital case.”...
Abbott and Davis both said if elected, they'll also take care in presiding over executions. “I will ensure that before I ever allow an execution to occur, I will be 100 percent convinced that the person who is being sentenced to the death penalty is guilty of that crime,” Abbott said. Davis said, “As governor, I'll take that very seriously and make sure that before that punishment is meted out that we have done everything we can to answer the questions that need to be answered.”
Wednesday, October 08, 2014
Criticizing the tenure of AG Eric Holder based on the death penalty as a human rights issue
This extended New Republic commentary authored by Mugambi Jouet, somewhat inaccurately titled "What Eric Holder — and Most Americans — Don't Understand About the Death Penalty," takes shots at Holder's specific record on the death penalty:
Attorney General Eric Holder's recent resignation announcement prompted a flurry of assessments on his six years of service under President Obama. He let Wall Street off too easy. He was a hero to the poor. He compromised civil liberties in the name of national security—and defended civil rights better than any attorney general before him. But the debate over Holder’s record has overlooked one of the most important aspects of his legacy. Holder has been profoundly at odds with the rest of the Western world on one of the most significant human rights issues of our time: the death penalty.
All Western democracies except America have abolished capital punishment and consider it an inherent human rights violation. America further stands out as one of the countries that execute the most people. Thirty-nine prisoners were executed by the United States in 2013. While that figure marked a continuing decline in the annual number of U.S. executions, it still placed America fifth worldwide, right behind several authoritarian regimes: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
No federal prisoner has been executed since 2003, yet Holder’s decisions could ultimately lead this de facto moratorium to end, as he authorized federal prosecutors to pursue capital punishment in several dozen cases. "Even though I am personally opposed to the death penalty, as Attorney General I have to enforce federal law," Holder has argued. Prosecutors actually have the discretion not to pursue the death penalty at all — at the risk of losing popularity — since enforcing the law does not require pursuing capital punishment as opposed to incarceration....
Holder notably approved the decision to seek the death penalty in the federal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 — and whom a majority of Americans want to be executed. Nevertheless, the state of Massachusetts has abolished the death penalty and only 33 percent of Boston residents support executing Tsarnaev as opposed to sentencing him to life in prison without parole. However, Holder’s decisions supporting capital punishment have hardly been limited to terrorism cases. For example, he authorized the recent decision to seek the death penalty for Jessie Con-Ui, a Pennsylvania prisoner accused of murdering a federal correctional officer....
The death penalty is rarely framed as a human rights issue in America, unlike in other Western democracies. That's partly because the principle of human rights plays a very limited role overall in the legal and political debate in the U.S., where "human rights" commonly evoke foreign problems like abuses in Third World dictatorships — not problems at home.
The situation is different on the other side of the Atlantic, where the European Court of Human Rights tackles a broad range of problems facing European states, from freedom of speech to labor rights, discrimination, and criminal justice reform. National human rights commissions also exist in multiple countries, including Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, and New Zealand. These bodies focus mostly or exclusively on monitoring domestic compliance with human rights standards. On the other hand, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, an arm of the U.S. Congress, focuses on the human rights records of foreign countries.
The relative absence of human rights as a principle in modern America is remarkable given how U.S. leaders actively promoted the concept in its infancy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked “human rights” in his “Four Freedoms Speech” of 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. As the human rights movement progressed in later decades, Martin Luther King said in 1968 that “we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”
Even though Holder regards King as one of his models — and despite his proposals to make the U.S. penal system less punitive and discriminatory — the nation’s first black attorney general hardly put human rights at the center of his agenda.
The death penalty is far from the only human right issue where America stands apart from other Western democracies. America effectively has the world’s top incarceration rate, with 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. America is likewise virtually alone worldwide in authorizing life imprisonment for juveniles. Its reliance on extremely lengthy periods of solitary confinement has been denounced by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. The extreme punishments regularly meted to U.S. prisoners are generally considered flagrant human rights violations in other Western countries. Nevertheless, Holder argued that America has “the greatest justice system the world has ever known.”
By the same token, no other modern Western democracy has gone as far as America in disregarding international human rights standards as part of anti-terrorism measures. This trend has been epitomized by indefinite detention at Guantanamo and the torture of alleged terrorists under the Bush administration. These practices have sharply divided U.S. public opinion but only a segment of Americans have depicted them as “human rights” abuses....
[T]he limited weight of human rights in the U.S. legal and political debate is not without consequences. Human rights are a far stronger basis to oppose practices like the death penalty or torture than the administrative arguments frequently invoked in America. The human rights argument against such practices is largely based on the premise that they violate human dignity....
Holder's narrow focus on problems with the administration of capital punishment suggests that he is among the many U.S. public officials and reformers who believe they have no duty to assess the “moral” issues regarding the death penalty. Whether this stance is justified or not, it seems quite exceptionally American in the modern Western world. Most contemporary European, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander jurists probably would disagree with the notion that it is not their duty to assess whether executions violate human dignity.
Martin Luther King, who considered the death penalty an affront to human dignity, argued that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Perhaps Eric Holder — and his boss, Barack Obama — would have been willing to argue that the death penalty is dehumanizing if they did not fear losing popularity.