Sunday, June 01, 2014

"Death penalty in Kansas: Will the state ever execute another prisoner?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy article in the Lawrence Journal World. And though focused on the modern story of capital administration in the Sunflower State, there are likely at least a dozen other states which still have the death penalty on the books and a number of prisoners on death row (ranging from California to Pennsylvania, from North Carolina to Washington) for which the same question could be reasonably asked given the lack of execution in these states for more than half a decade.  Here are excerpts abut the modern capital story in Kansas that is similar (though with distinct facets) to what happen in a number of states :  

Moments before he was hung to death, George York expressed contrition for his sins....

The state of Kansas had not forgiven York, convicting him of one of several murders he had confessed to as part of a cross-country killing spree with fellow Army deserter James Latham. So on June 22, 1965, York was led up the 13 steps of the gallows at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing. A prison chaplain read from the 23rd Psalm as the noose was placed around York's neck. At 12:53 a.m., the trap door dropped. The 22-year-old was pronounced dead 19 minutes later.

York was the last person executed by the state of Kansas. In recent years, several states have banned capital punishment. It is on hiatus in some states because of problems obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections, which has led to botched executions, mostly recently in Oklahoma.  But in Kansas, the death penalty is in a sort of legal limbo: still on the books, just not being carried out.

There have been no executions in the 20 years since the death penalty was reinstated in Kansas, due, observers say, to an exhaustive appeals process, a cautious state Supreme Court dealing with a fairly new and restrictive law, and the state's relatively low murder rate. Nine men are currently on death row in Kansas.

Only two other states besides Kansas — Nebraska and California — have a lethal injection chamber that has never been used. The only death penalty state that has gone longer without an execution is New Hampshire, which last killed a prisoner in 1939 and has only one person on death row. Kansas doesn't even have lethal injection drugs in stock because a possible execution is so far in the future....

Earlier this year, the Kansas legislature debated a bill that proponents said would speed up the appeals process in capital cases.  The legislation didn't pass. One of its supporters, state Sen. Greg Smith, R-Olathe, was asked why there have been no executions in Kansas in recent years. "Four words: the Kansas Supreme Court," he said.  "It's not that we don't use the death penalty in Kansas.  It's that the Kansas Supreme Court refuses to apply the law and allow a lawful sentence to be carried out."

Smith, whose daughter was murdered in Missouri in 2007, refuses to name death row inmates, instead invoking the names of victims when discussing cases.  "What we tend to forget is the people who do this had zero mercy for the people they killed," he said. "The people who are murdered go through hell.  After they're murdered, we forget about the victim. People say, let's not be inhumane, but what about the people they killed?" He said the drawn-out appeals process puts families of victims "right back into that emotional mess they were in when they loved ones were killed."

The state's top prosecutor, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also supported the changes, saying the Supreme Court should review only the sentencing rather than the whole case and that defendants' ability to file successive, unnecessary motions clogs up the appellate system. "Attorney General Schmidt has a long record of supporting Kansas’ narrowly tailored death penalty," said his spokesman, Clint Baes.  "In addition, our office this year supported a legislative proposal which would have held the courts accountable to their own procedural rules.  A lack of adherence to these rules by our appellate courts has led to the long delays in death penalty appeals."

The state Supreme Court not only declared Kansas' death penalty statute unconstitutional in 2004 (a decision later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court), it has overturned the death sentences in all five of the modern capital cases it has issued opinions on....

Some legal experts say the Supreme Court takes so much time reviewing death penalty cases because the law in its current form has only existed for 20 years....

Jeffrey Jackson, a Lawrence attorney and law professor at Washburn University, said he believes that the death penalty statute has a deterrent effect.  The state's murder rate has declined since capital punishment was reinstated, from 170 in 1994 to 84 in 2012, though that mirrors a similar drop in homicides across the country.

He also noted that as the state Supreme Court continues to work through the issues surrounding Kansas' death penalty statute, the appeals process will likely quicken.  "Unless the Legislature repeals the death penalty, I think there will eventually be an execution," he said. (A recent bill to abolish capital punishment in Kansas would not have applied to the nine men already on death row). "The more cases you have, the better the judges get at figuring out how to do these things.  They're still going to take a lot of time, but it's not going to increase. It's almost assured that we will have an execution as long as the statute is in place."

That execution, if it comes, probably won't be happening in the near future. Even if the Kansas' high court affirms a death sentence, it will then have make its way through the federal appeals system.  "The death penalty is by far the most complex set of laws there could be in criminal law," said Ron Wurtz, the former chief of the state's Death Penalty Defense Unit, who doesn't see a Kansas inmate being put to death anytime soon. "It's not even close right now. I'd say it's probably 10 more years out, at the very least."

June 1, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Looking at some killers benefiting from SCOTUS Eighth Amendment ruling in Hall

As I noted earlier this week when the Supreme Court's handed down its ruling in Hall v. Florida (opinion here, basics here), the Justices' Eighth Amendment decision will be a big deal for the administration of capital punishment in those states with lots of murderers on death row and/or for those states that have been applying Atkins in restrictive ways.  Following up these themes, today's New York Times has this lengthy front-page article looking at some of the death row defendants likely to be grateful for the decision.  The piece is headlined "On Death Row With Low I.Q., and New Hope for a Reprieve,"  and here are excerpts: 

For Ted Herring, who has spent 32 years on Florida’s death row for murdering a store clerk, signs of intellectual disability arose early and piled up quickly: He repeated first grade and got D’s and F’s through fourth grade. He read like a fourth grader at 14 and did not know that summer followed spring....

His intellectual disability was even obvious to a Florida judge, who found him “mentally retarded” and took him off death row 18 years after his original sentence. At 19, in 1981, Mr. Herring murdered a Daytona Beach 7-Eleven clerk, robbed the store and walked away with $23.84. But because Mr. Herring’s I.Q. scores were 72 and 74, just over the “bright line” cutoff of 70 used by Florida to determine intellectual aptitude, the Florida Supreme Court returned him to death row.

When the Supreme Court ruled this week that states can no longer rely on a fixed I.Q. score cutoff to decide intellectual competency, it increased the likelihood that Mr. Herring and other death row inmates like him will have a chance to avoid execution. Fewer defendants are also less likely to wind up on death row in the future because their claims of intellectual disabilities will be not be as readily discounted by the courts.

The ruling affects roughly 30 death row inmates. The number is low because the vast majority of states follow modern standards of determining intellectual disabilities, going beyond using a single number to be considered disabled. But in those states that will be affected, death row inmates with low, but not low enough, I.Q. scores that have been previously rejected or never put forward can now seek to have their sentences reconsidered....

In Florida, 15 to 20 inmates — perhaps the largest number in the country — will probably seek to overturn their death sentences because of the decision... “Florida has the third largest death row in the country and was the state that was the leader in doing this — the bright-line cutoff,” said William Henniss III, who said he had two clients who would most likely seek redress. “Expect there to be more cases like this.”

In Kentucky, five of 34 death row inmates are also likely to ask for new hearings based on the decision, said David Barron, an assistant public advocate who handles post-conviction cases.

Some of them, like Thomas Bowling, who was sentenced to death after killing a married couple in 1990, are likely to explore what the new I.Q. range will be in Kentucky, where 70 has been the cutoff. Mr. Bowling, who claimed on appeal that he was intellectually disabled, repeated the ninth grade several times before dropping out. But the appeals court rejected his claim because his most recent scores, the ones they viewed as most reliable, were in the 80s....

In Virginia, Alfredo R. Prieto is likely to seek a hearing based on is low I.Q. scores, which ranged between 70 and 75, said his lawyer, Cary B. Bowen. Those scores, Mr. Bowen said, “kind of fall in line” with the I.Q. range described in the Supreme Court decision as the kind that should not be rejected simply because they do not meet a cutoff. Mr. Prieto, who is from El Salvador and whose lawyers argued that he was scarred by the violence he saw there during the country’s civil war, is on Virginia’s death row for the 1988 murders of two people. He faces the death penalty for a murder in California, as well, and has been linked to others.

Recent posts on Hall:

May 31, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Photos from a Botched Lethal Injection"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable lengthy new piece by Ben Crair in The New Republic which carried the subheadline "An exclusive look at what happens when an execution goes badly." Here is how the piece starts, including its "preamble":

Warning: This article contains graphic images from the autopsy of an executed prisoner.

On December 13, 2006, the state of Florida botched the lethal injection of Angel Diaz. The execution team pushed IV catheters straight through the veins in both his arms and into the underlying tissue.  As a result, Diaz, who was convicted of murder in 1986, required two full doses of the lethal drugs, and an execution scheduled to take only ten to 15 minutes lasted 34.  It was one of the worst botches since states began using lethal injection in the 1980s, and Jeb Bush, then the governor of Florida, responded with a moratorium on executions.

Other states hardly heeded Diaz’s death at all. Since he died, states have continued to botch lethal injections: A recent study by Austin Sarat at Amherst College estimated that at least 7 percent of all lethal injections have been visibly botched. The most controversial was in Oklahoma this past April, when the state executed a convicted murderer and rapist named Clayton Lockett using a three-drug protocol, like most other death-penalty states. The execution team struggled for 51 minutes to find a vein for IV access, eventually aiming for the femoral vein deep in Lockett’s groin. Something went wrong: Oklahoma first said the vein had “blown,” then “exploded,” and eventually just “collapsed,” all of which would be unusual for the thick femoral vein if an IV had been inserted correctly. Whatever it was, the drugs saturated the surrounding tissue rather than flowing into his bloodstream. The director of corrections called off the execution, at which point the lethal injection became a life-saving operation.  But it was too late for Lockett.  Ten minutes later, and a full hour-and-forty-seven minutes after Lockett entered the death chamber, a doctor pronounced him dead.

Witnesses to the execution say Lockett writhed, clenched his teeth, and mumbled throughout the procedure.  We won’t better understand what happened until Oklahoma releases an autopsy report some time this summer.  But we do know what happened to Angel Diaz, who died under similar conditions.  While the details of his execution have been known since 2006, The New Republic is publishing for the first time photographs of the injuries Diaz sustained from the lethal injection.  I discovered the photographs in the case file of Ian Lightbourne, a Florida death-row inmate whose lawyers submitted them as evidence that lethal injection poses an unconstitutional risk of cruel and unusual punishment.

May 30, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Judge orders temporary moratorium on Ohio executions"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable capital news emerging in my local legal arena.  Here are the basics:

A federal judge has ordered a temporary moratorium on executions in Ohio while legal issues related to new lethal injection protocol are worked out. The order issued yesterday by U.S. District Judge Gregory L. Frost stops the scheduled July 2 execution of Ronald Phillips of Summit County and the Aug. 6 execution of William Montgomery of Lucas County. Two other executions scheduled later in the year are not affected for the time being, but Frost left his order open-ended.

Frost said an execution can be scheduled no earlier than Aug. 15. The delays are repercussions from the troubled execution of Dennis McGuire on Jan. 16. Witnesses observed that McGuire, 53, gasped, choked, clenched his fists and appeared to struggle against his restraints for 10 minutes after the administration of two drugs, midazolam and hydromorphone, before being pronounced dead at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville.

As a result, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced April 28 that it would use the same drugs, but in higher doses in future executions.... Frost ordered the attorneys representing condemned inmates and the state to “work together to coordinate efforts so that the court can set necessary deadlines following expiration of the stay.”

May 28, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number. See DSM–5, at 37."

The title of this post is the sentence and cite that perhaps best summarized the work of the majority of the Supreme Court this morning in Hall v. Florida (opinion here, basics here).  In Hall, the Court rejects as violative of the Eighth Amendment Florida's use of a bright-line IQ test cut-off set at 70 for defining who is eligible for execution (while dodging whether a cut off set at 75 would be okay) based principally on the medical community's consensus view that IQ tests are just one factor in assessing intellectual disability and are necessarily imprecise.  Here are just a few excerpts from the majority opinion in Hall that highlight these themes:

That this Court, state courts, and state legislatures consult and are informed by the work of medical experts in determining intellectual disability is unsurprising.  Those professionals use their learning and skills to study and consider the consequences of the classification schemes they devise in the diagnosis of persons with mental or psychiatric disorders or disabilities.  Society relies upon medical and professional expertise to define and explain how to diagnose the mental condition at issue....

Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways. It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence.  It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant’s abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise....

It is the Court’s duty to interpret the Constitution, but it need not do so in isolation. The legal determination of intellectual disability is distinct from a medical diagnosis, but it is informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.  Atkins itself points to the diagnostic criteria employed by psychiatric professionals. And the professional community’s teachings are of particular help in this case, where no alternative definition of intellectual disability is presented and where this Court and the States have placed substantial reliance on the expertise of the medical profession....

This Court agrees with the medical experts that when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowl­edged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disa­bility, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.

Not surprisingly, the dissent in Hall recognizes and criticizes the majority's heavy reliance on the medical community's approach to determining intellectual disability.  Here is a snippet of this criticism from the dissent:

Under our modern Eighth Amendment cases, what counts are our society’s standards — which is to say, the standards of the American people — not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite....

The Court’s reliance on the views of professional associ­ations will also lead to serious practical problems.

May 27, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Big criminal justice decision day for SCOTUS, including 8th Amendment reversal of Florida's Aktins approach

Clearly the Justices decided to celebrate the Memorial Day week by reminding everyone that the Bill of Rights has a lot of provisions concerning the administration of our criminal justice systems.  Returning from the long weekend, the Supreme Court handed down five opinions this morning (four in argued cases, one per curiam), and all but one of the rulings has a criminal justice element.  The big one for sentencing fans is the 5-4 Eighth Amendment ruling in Hall v. Florida, No. 12–10882 (S. Ct. May 27, 2014) (available here), which gets started this way: 

This Court has held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disability. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 321 (2002).  Florida law defines intellectual disability to require an IQ test score of 70 or less. If, from test scores, a prisoner is deemed to have an IQ above 70, all further exploration of intellectual disability is fore­ closed. This rigid rule, the Court now holds, creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.

The other criminal justice rulings in argued cases today concern police use of force and immunity, and the per curiam concerns when jeopardy attaches for the application of the Double Jeopardy clause. How Appealing has its always terrific review of all the essentials (with links) assembled here, and SCOTUSblog is sure to have a lot on all this action in coming posts.

Once I have a chance to read the Hall decision in full, I am sure I will have one or more substantive posts about the decision later today.

May 27, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Is nitrogen gas the best modern execution alternative to lethal injection?

Liquid-nitrogen-250x250-250x250The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Slate commentary by Tom McNichol headlined "Death by Nitrogen; If lethal injection falls out of favor, death penalty states could turn to a new method: nitrogen gas." Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Kentucky's three-drug protocol for carrying out lethal injections was constitutional, but there’s no question that the method looks grimly suspect in the wake of Clayton Lockett’s apparently painful, botched execution in Oklahoma last month. Not so long ago, though, this was the method that represented progress. Hanging. Firing squad. The guillotine. The electric chair. The gas chamber. Lethal injection. Every age seems to feature a new and improved method of capital punishment, billed as more efficient and humane. The spectacle of Lockett’s death, and the Supreme Court’s hesitation, shines a spotlight on the latest idea — death by nitrogen.

This new proposed method, known as nitrogen asphyxiation, seals the condemned in an airtight chamber pumped full of nitrogen gas, causing death by a lack of oxygen. Nitrogen gas has yet to be put to the test as a method of capital punishment — no country currently uses it for state-sanctioned executions. But people do die accidentally of nitrogen asphyxiation, and usually never know what hit them. (It’s even possible that death by nitrogen gas is mildly euphoric. Deep-sea divers exposed to an excess of nitrogen develop a narcosis, colorfully known as “raptures of the deep,” similar to drunkenness or nitrous oxide inhalation.)

In late April, Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc suggested to a state legislative committee that Louisiana should look into using nitrogen gas as a new method of execution, since lethal injection has become so contentious. “It’s become almost impossible to execute someone,” LeBlanc complained to the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee.

“Nitrogen is the big thing,” LeBlanc told the committee. “It’s a painless way to go. But more time needs to be spent [studying] that.” The committee instructed LeBlanc to do some research on the subject and report back. In the meantime, Louisiana has delayed a pending execution. “I’m not taking anything off the table,” says state Rep. Joseph P. Lopinto III, chairman of the state’s Administration of Criminal Justice Committee. “If someone says nitrogen gas is the way to go, then we can debate that and do it if need be.”

As long as 32 states have capital punishment on the books, there should be a less reliably cruel method of execution than lethal injection.  “If we’re going to take a life, then we should do it in the most humane, civilized manner as is possible,” says Lawrence Gist II, an attorney and professor of business and law at Mount St. Mary's College. “Right now, nitrogen is the best of the available options.”  Gist, a death penalty opponent, runs a website dedicated to promoting nitrogen asphyxiation for state-sanctioned executions....

Nitrogen gas, unlike the lethal drugs that states have relied on, is widely available.  The gas is used extensively in industrial settings, from aerospace to oil and gas production “Lethal injection is just fine if you can get the pentobarbital,” says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that favors capital punishment. “But if that’s not available, an alternative like nitrogen gas would work.”

In contrast to lethal injection, no medical expertise would be needed to introduce nitrogen gas into a sealed chamber.  The gas chamber itself is technology that has been around since the 1920s. In fact, three states — Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming — still authorize lethal gas as a method of execution (depending on the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence or the possibility that lethal injection is held unconstitutional).

The last gas chamber execution in the U.S. was in 1999 — the method fell out of favor because hydrogen cyanide is a poison causing suffering that lasts 10 minutes or longer. Lethal injection, of course, was supposed to be painless and better.  What if it’s not? That’s the question the Supreme Court now finally seems to be returning to.  The history of capital punishment suggests that as long as there’s a will to kill criminals, someone will come up with an improved way.  The new tool in the executioner’s bag may turn out to be nitrogen, a better way to carry out a gruesome task.

If nitrogen gas is really an easy, effective and painless means for killing a condemned inmate, I hope Louisiana and other states might move to this method of execution in the near future. In recent years, the only folks truly well served by lethal injection are those who enjoy last-minute appellate litigation and the prospect of a painful execution. Moreover, as I have often said before, if Congress would have the good sense to care about helping both the feds and states find a better way to carry forth capital justice, perhaps they could consider having a hearing to explore what reasonable modern alternatives to lethal injection might be worth seriously considering.

A few recent related and older posts:

May 24, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Friday, May 23, 2014

Tennessee adopts electric chair as back-up execution method

Tenn executionAs reported in this AP article, "Tennessee has decided to bring back the electric chair." Here are the details:

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday signed a bill into law allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state is unable to obtain drugs used for lethal injections.  Tennessee lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the electric chair legislation in April, with the Senate voting 23-3 and the House 68-13 in favor of the bill.

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Tennessee is the first state to enact a law to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners an option.  "There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution," he said. "No other state has gone so far."

Dieter said he expects legal challenges to arise if the state decides to go through with an electrocution, both in terms of whether the state could prove that lethal injection drugs were not obtainable and on the grounds of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment....

Republican state Sen. Ken Yager, a main sponsor of the electric chair measure, said in a recent interview that he introduced the bill because of "a real concern that we could find ourselves in a position that if the chemicals were unavailable to us that we would not be able to carry out the sentence."

A Vanderbilt University poll released this week found that 56 percent of registered voters in Tennessee support the use of the electric chair, while 37 percent are against it. Previous Tennessee law gave inmates who committed crimes before 1999 the choice of whether they wanted to die by electric chair or lethal injection.  The last inmate to be electrocuted was Daryl Holton, a Gulf War veteran who killed his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in Shelbyville garage in 1997.  He requested the electric chair in 2007.

A provision to apply the change to prisoners already sentenced to death has also raised a debate among legal experts.  Nashville criminal defense attorney David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee's death penalty law nearly 40 years ago, has said lawmakers may change the method of execution but they cannot make that change retroactive.  To do so would be unconstitutional, he said.

Supporters of the bill requested a legal opinion from state Attorney General Bob Cooper, who said the law would pass constitutional muster, but there was no guarantee it would not be challenged in court....  The Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual.  It upheld the firing squad in 1879, the electric chair in 1890 and lethal injection in 2008.

May 23, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Has the ugly execution in Oklahoma succeeded in slowing US machineries of death?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable new reality that, after Missouri's effort to carry out an execution on Wednesday was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court (CNN story here), it now appears that there will not be an execution in the United States during the month of May. In addition, as detailed in this listing from the Death Penalty Information Center, it appears that only a handful of serious execution dates are scheduled for the coming summer months.

Of course, a host of factors both legal and extra-legal explain why in recent years the US has averaged only three to four executions a month, whereas 15 years ago the US averaged more than twice as many executions. Notably, though, in 2014 the pace of executions throughout the United States had ticked up with 20 executions completed in five different states over the first four months of the year. But in the wake of Oklahoma making very messy the execution of Clayton Lockett, it now seems that a set of various factors and actors are gumming up the works of machineries of death throughout the United States.

I suspect Texas and perhaps a few other states without a history of problematic executions will be able to carry out death sentences in the months ahead. So I do not think it is right to suggest that the ugly Oklahoma execution created a de facto moratorium. Still, it seems more than a coincidence that the US in 2014 was on pace for 60 executions for the first time in a decade until Oklahoma messed up and now we are on track to go perhaps a few months with very few executions.

A few recent related posts:

May 22, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Eighth Circuit and SCOTUS staying (and then later unstaying?) Missouri's execution plans

As detailed in this AP story, now headlined "Missouri Inmate's Hopes Rest With Supreme Court," the federal judiciary has been getting in the way of Missouri's plans to execute a murderer today. Here are the details:

A Missouri inmate with a rare condition that affects the blood vessels was handed a reprieve less than two hours before his scheduled execution, but the state may end up killing him later Wednesday if the U.S. Supreme Court says it can.

Russell Bucklew was scheduled to be executed at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for the 1996 killing of a romantic rival. He would have been the first U.S. inmate put to death since last month's botched execution in Oklahoma, in which the prisoner's vein collapsed while the lethal drugs were being administered.

Bucklew, 46, has a condition that causes weakened and malformed veins, and his attorneys say this and the secrecy surrounding the state's lethal injection drug combine to make for an unacceptably high chance of something going wrong during his execution.

After an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel suspended the execution Tuesday, only to be overruled hours later by the full court, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito issued his own stay, setting the stage for the full high court to weigh the appeal. If the Supreme Court rejects the appeal, Missouri would have until midnight to carry out the execution.

Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Corrections, cautioned against reading too much into Alito's intervention. Alito handles emergency matters for states covered by the 8th Circuit, and two of the six inmates Missouri has executed since switching to a single-drug system in November had appeals that stretched well into the state's 24-hour execution window before the Supreme Court allowed the state to proceed. One of them was executed nearly 23 hours after he originally was scheduled to die....

Bucklew won't be getting help from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat and death-penalty proponent who rejected Bucklew's clemency request late Tuesday....

Missouri switched from a three-drug protocol to the single drug pentobarbital late last year. None of the six inmates executed since Missouri made the change has shown outward signs of pain or suffering.

May 21, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Georgia Supreme Court rejects attack on execution drug secrecy

As reported in this local article, yesterday the Georgia Supreme Court "upheld the constitutionality of a state law that keeps secret the identities of the makers and suppliers of Georgia’s lethal-injection drugs." Here is more about the ruling:

The court, in a 5-2 decision, rejected a challenge to the statute filed by lawyers for condemned killer Warren Hill. The ruling should clear the way for a number of executions, which have been on hold while the case was pending.

The reasons for offering privacy are “obvious,” Justice Harris Hines wrote for the majority. These include avoiding the risk of harassment or retaliation from persons related to the prisoners or from others who might disapprove of the execution “as well as simply offering those willing to participate whatever comfort or peace of mind that anonymity might offer,” Hines wrote.

In addition, “we believe that the same logic applies to the persons and entities involved in making the preparations for the actual execution, including those involved in procuring the execution drugs,” Hines wrote. “(W)ithout the confidentiality offered to execution participants by the statute … there is a significant risk that persons and entities necessary to the execution would become unwilling to participate.”

Benham, who authored the dissent, noted the recently botched execution in Oklahoma of inmate Clayton D. Lockett, who died of a heart attack after he writhed, gasped and struggled to lift his head after being declared unconscious on the lethal-injection gurney. “I write because I fear this state is on a path that, at the very least, denies Hill and other death row inmates their rights to due process and, at the very worst, leads to the macabre results that occurred in Oklahoma,” wrote Benham, who was joined by Justice Carol Hunstein. “There must be certainty in the administration of the death penalty.”...

In a statement, Hill’s attorneys said the ruling “effectively affords the state of Georgia to alter (its) lethal-injection protocol in any way it sees fit and to conceal from the public and even the courts the identity and provenance of the chemicals it intends to use to carry out executions.” Benham’s dissent, the statement said, “correctly found that this decision conflicts with basic requirements of due process.”

The full Georgia Supreme Court ruling in Owens v. Hill is available at this link.

May 20, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Detailing the death-penalty abolitionist's strategy and vision for the path to aboilition

This local article from Oregon, headlined "Death penalty opponent sees tough legal fight ahead," provides a helpful accounting of the current game-plan embraced by many hard-core death-penalty abolitionist.  Here are excerpts:

A professor at American University made no secret of what he hoped to accomplish on a four-city visit to Oregon this week. Richard Stack, author of two books critical of the death penalty, wants to move Oregonians closer to abolishing it. Though Oregon is among the 32 states with it, the number that have abolished it grew from 12 to 18 in the past six years.

“We have a strategy of picking off a state at a time,” he said in an interview prior to a talk at Portland State University. “As we add states to the repeal column, when we hit No. 26, we will have a majority that do not have it.”

Then, he said, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will go to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that the death penalty violates the federal constitutional guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishment” under the 8th Amendment. “It’s the only way that some states will fall into line” such as Texas, which has executed 515 people since 1982 when current death-penalty laws were in place. Texas leads the states in executions.

Stack, an associate professor of public communication at the university in Washington, D.C., has written “Dead Wrong” and in 2013, “Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Executions.” He also spoke at events in Monmouth, Eugene and Corvallis.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, who let two executions proceed in 1996 and 1997 during his first term, has vowed there will be no further executions while he is in office. His temporary reprieve in 2011 of Gary Haugen, an inmate who sought to waive his appeals and be executed, was upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court last year.

Kitzhaber’s current term ends Jan. 12, 2015. If he is re-elected Nov. 4, that term will end Jan. 14, 2019. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee took a similar stance on Feb. 11.

Among other potential states for repeal advocates are Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Montana and New Hampshire.

Oregon voters would have to repeal the death penalty, which since the state assumed responsibility for executions in 1903, voters have repealed twice and reinstated three times. The most recent vote was on a pair of ballot measures in 1984. They were necessitated when the Oregon Supreme Court overturned a 1978 ballot measure on grounds that juries, not trial judges, had to impose the penalty after determining guilt....

Lawmakers heard but failed to advance a proposed repeal measure in their 2013 session. Ron Steiner, who spoke for Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said repeal advocates seek to qualify an initiative measure for the 2016 general election ballot.

Three former Oregon chief justices dating back three decades – Edwin Peterson, Wallace Carson and Paul De Muniz – have announced their opposition to the death penalty, as has Frank Thompson, who as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary oversaw the 1996 and 1997 executions. Steiner acknowledges that Oregonians sampled in a straight up-or-down poll say they support the death penalty. But he also said that support softens when they are asked more specific questions about it – including the substitution of a true life-without-release option.

May 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, May 16, 2014

Lots of intriguing "show me" litigation as Missouri prepares for next execution

As reported in this Kansas City Star article, a number of news organizations, "including The Kansas City Star and The Associated Press, filed suit Thursday against the Missouri Department of Corrections over its refusal to reveal the source of drugs used to carry out executions." Here is more about the suit:

The suit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City, alleges that the Corrections Department is violating the Missouri Sunshine Law by denying repeated requests for information about the “composition, concentration, source and quality of drugs used to execute inmates in Missouri.” By withholding access to information that historically has been publicly available, the department also is violating the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, according to the suit....

Thursday’s suit [claims] that public disclosure of the information “reduces the risk that improper, ineffective or defectively prepared drugs are used.”

“The constitution thus compels access to historically available information about the type and source of drugs used in lethal injection executions because disclosure promotes the functioning of the process itself and is essential for democracy to function,” according to the suit.

Joining The AP and The Star in the suit are Guardian US, the New York-based digital news service of England’s The Guardian; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and the Springfield News-Leader.

Meanwhile, over in federal court has detailed in this new Reuters report, a "Missouri death row inmate is asking a federal court to allow videotaping his execution, scheduled for next week, to record any evidence of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution." Here is more on this other legal front:

A lawyer filed a motion on Friday in Kansas City on behalf of Russell Bucklew, 45, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on May 21 for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders in southeast Missouri. Last week, Bucklew filed a motion in the same court to halt his execution because of a rare health condition that his lawyer, Cheryl Pilate, said would cause him extreme pain and possible suffocation.

A videotape would preserve evidence if he survives and wants to oppose another execution or is injured and wants to file a claim, the motion states. It further states that if the inmate dies but suffers "prolonged and excruciating execution or chokes and suffocates to death," the video would be evidence for a claim by his estate. "If Missouri officials are confident enough to execute Russell Bucklew, they should be confident enough to videotape it," Pilate said in a news release. "It is time to raise the curtain on lethal injections."

May 16, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Poll after ugly execution highlights enduring death penalty support and openness to various execution methods

As highlighted by this NBC News article, headlined "Americans Back Death Penalty by Gas or Electrocution If No Needle: Poll," a new poll seems to confirm my suspicion in this recent post that the ugly execution in Oklahoma would not change many modern capital perspectives. Here are the results of this poll:

A badly botched lethal injection in Oklahoma has not chipped away at the American public's support of the death penalty, although two-thirds of voters would back alternatives to the needle, an exclusive NBC News poll shows.

One in three people say that if lethal injections are no longer viable — because of drug shortages or other problems — executions should be stopped altogether, according to the survey of 800 adults by Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies for NBC News. But many others are open to more primitive methods of putting prisoners to death: 20% for the gas chamber, 18% for the electric chair, 12% for firing squad and 8% for hanging....

The most recent example of what can go wrong [with lethal injection] is the April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett, who appeared to regain consciousness and writhe in pain midway through. The procedure was halted but Lockett, convicted of rape and murder, died anyway. The details of his death were condemned by the White House and provoked fresh debate over capital punishment and how it's carried out.

Most people polled said they knew about the uproar, but it did not appear to change minds about whether the government should kill murder convicts. A comfortable majority of those questioned — 59% — said they favor the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for murder, while 35% said they are opposed.

That split is in line with surveys done before Lockett's death in the last two years, and also reflects the erosion of support for capital punishment since the 1990s, when it was more than 70%. "I don’t think this fundamentally altered views about the death penalty," said Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

Republicans, whites, Protestants and older people were more likely to favor execution than Democrats, blacks and Latinos, Catholics and young people. More than a third of those in favor said the strongest argument for the death penalty is that it's an "appropriate consequence." A similar proportion of those against it said the risk of killing someone who had been wrongly convicted was the most powerful argument....

All 35 capital punishment states use lethal injection as their primary method, although eight of them would allow electrocution, gas, hanging or firing squad in some cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But lethal injections are becoming increasingly difficult to carry out because pharmaceutical companies don't want their products used, some compounding pharmacies are getting out of the execution business, and inmates are trying to force states to reveal their suppliers.

Some state lawmakers have introduced measures that would bring back the older methods, but some pro-execution advocates believe that would lower support from a public that has gotten used to "medicalized" deaths.

A few recent related posts:

May 15, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Fifth Circuit panel grants last-minute capital stay due to key IQ evidence hidden by Texas prosecutors

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Court halts execution over mental health claims," the Fifth Circuit "halted a convicted Texas killer's scheduled execution Tuesday so his attorneys can pursue appeals arguing he's mentally impaired." The reason this is coming up in this way now, as the Fifth Circuit explain in In re Campbell, No. 14-20293 (5th Cir. May 13, 2014) (available here) is because Texas prosecutors hid key IQ evidence from the defense for a decade. Here is how the Campbell opinion starts and a key paragraphs from its closing pages:

Robert James Campbell, a death-row prisoner whose execution is scheduled for Tuesday, May 13, 2014, contends that he is intellectually disabled (formerly called “mentally retarded”) and is, therefore, constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).  He has filed with this court a motion for authorization to file a successive federal habeas corpus petition asserting his Atkins claim and a motion for stay of execution pending the resolution of that claim. For the reasons that follow, we grant both motions....

The evidence presented by Campbell at this stage indicates that, in 2003, the District Attorney’s office had in its possession evidence reflecting Campbell’s IQ score of 68, yet the State opposed Campbell’s 2003 motion to authorize a successive habeas claim based on Atkins on the basis that the “sparse” school records failed to establish intellectual disability.  The State also asserted that there was no “credible evidence” of intellectual disability.  Also in 2003, Campbell sought funds for intellectual-function testing, which the State opposed even though the District Attorney had evidence of the IQ score of 68.

Moreover, according to Campbell, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice informed Campbell’s prior attorney that, during Campbell’s earlier robbery incarceration, he received an IQ test result of 84.  As Campbell now argues, that was not true and contrary to the actual evidence.  It is not facially unreasonable that Campbell’s prior attorney relied upon the department’s statement and was persuaded that it was fruitless to pursue this claim further.  Indeed, as Judge Alcala of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stated in her dissent, “it would be unjust to penalize an applicant for not uncovering such a falsehood previously when he had no basis to believe that a falsehood had been conveyed to him.”...

It is regrettable that we are now reviewing evidence of intellectual disability at the eleventh hour before Campbell’s scheduled execution.  However, from the record before us, it appears that we cannot fault Campbell or his attorneys, present or past, for the delay.  According to Campbell, in the period immediately after Atkins was decided, his attorney diligently searched for evidence of intellectual disability.  And, when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice failed to turn over the results of the intelligence test they had administered on Campbell upon the attorney’s request for “any and all intellectual functioning tests,” the State gave the attorney incorrect and incomplete information. Thus, although the delay is regrettable, we do not see it as militating against a stay of execution in this case

May 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, May 12, 2014

Despite execution problems elsewhere, Texas poised to carry out another death sentence on Tuesday

As highlighted by this new New York Times article, headlined "Facing Challenge to Execution, Texas Calls Its Process the Gold Standard," problems encountered by other states has not led official in Texas to question how it runs its machinery of death. Here are excerpts from the lengthy Times piece about modern Lone Star State capital punishment realities:

If Texas executes Robert James Campbell as planned on Tuesday, for raping and murdering a woman, it will be the nation’s first execution since Oklahoma’s bungled attempt at lethal injection two weeks ago left a convicted murderer writhing and moaning before he died.

Lawyers for Mr. Campbell are trying to use the Oklahoma debacle to stop the execution here.  But many in this state and in this East Texas town north of Houston, where hundreds have been executed in the nation’s busiest death chamber, like to say they do things right.

For two years now, Texas has used a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug regimen used in neighboring Oklahoma.  Prison administrators from other states often travel here to learn how Texas performs lethal injections and to observe executions.  Texas officials have provided guidance and, on at least a few occasions, carried out executions for other states.

Even the protesters and TV cameras that used to accompany executions here have largely dissipated.  “It’s kind of business as usual,” said Tommy Oates, 62, a longtime resident who was eating lunch at McKenzie’s Barbeque last week, about one mile from the prison known as the Walls Unit.  “That sounds cold, I know. But they’re not in prison for singing too loud at church.”

More than any other place in the United States, Huntsville is the capital of capital punishment.  All of the 515 men and women Texas has executed since 1982 by lethal injection and all of the 361 inmates it electrocuted from 1924 to 1964 were killed here in the same prison in the same town, at the redbrick Walls Unit.  Over all, Texas accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s executions....

Gov. Rick Perry is a staunch defender of the state’s record, saying that “in Texas for a substantially long period of time, our citizens have decided that if you kill our children, if you kill our police officers, for those very heinous crimes, that the appropriate punishment is the death penalty.”  On “Meet the Press” recently, he added, “I’m confident that the way that the executions are taken care of in the state of Texas are appropriate.”...

David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented more than 100 death row inmates during their appeals, explained the state’s record of seeming success simply.  “When you do something a lot, you get good at it,” he said, adding archly, “I think Texas probably does it as well as Iran.”...

Some of those who work in the system are proud of their expertise.  Jim Willett, who was the warden at the Walls prison from 1998 to 2001, oversaw 89 executions.  Staff members who prepare prisoners for execution are trained and skilled, he said. The “tie-down team” that straps the prisoners onto the table, “can take that man back there and put those straps on perfectly and easily in 30 seconds.  This may sound odd to an outsider, but they take pride in what they do.” He added, “They’ve done it so often that it’s almost second nature to them.”...

Since 1976, Texas has carried out more executions than six other states combined — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and Virginia — all of which have some of the busiest death chambers.

On Monday, an appeal by Mr. Campbell's lawyers to stop the execution reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The lawyers cited the execution in Oklahoma, where Clayton D. Lockett writhed and moaned on the table until prison officials halted the procedure.  Mr. Lockett died 43 minutes after the delivery of drugs into a vein in his groin began. Oklahoma has declared a six-month stay of the next execution.

The argument in the original complaint in the Campbell case, filed in federal court in Houston, tracks arguments in several current lawsuits challenging Texas’ execution process.  It focuses on efforts by Texas, Oklahoma and other states to restrict information about the source of the drugs.  Texas has declined to disclose such information as how its drug is tested for potency and purity, among other details of the process.  The lawyers for Mr. Campbell argue that “to permit this execution to proceed in light of the eye-opening events in Oklahoma should not be countenanced by a civilized society, nor tolerated by the constitutional principles that form the basis of our democracy.”

State officials say Texas is not like Oklahoma partly because it uses a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug series employed north of the Red River.  This approach, along with other protections for prisoners in the process, was favored by a new report on the death penalty from The Constitution Project, a group that includes supporters and opponents of capital punishment....

Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, has opposed the request to stop the execution, stating that “recent problems in another state following an entirely different execution procedure do nothing to change this fact.”  The state argued that pentobarbital has been used successfully in 33 executions in Texas, and that testing showed the batch of the drug to be used, which came from a compounding pharmacy, was potent and “free of contaminants.”...

Support for the death penalty in Texas runs higher than in the rest of the country; a May 2012 University of Texas-Texas Tribune online poll showed that 53 percent of Texas voters said they supported the death penalty for murder over life imprisonment without the chance for parole. A Quinnipiac University telephone poll conducted in May 2013 found that 48 percent of American voters favored the death penalty over a life term for people convicted of murder.

May 12, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"It's time to televise executions"

The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN opinion piece authored by trial consultant Richard Gabriel.  Here are excerpts:

In 1936, the last public execution in the United States was held in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was witnessed by more than 20,000 people, including hundreds of reporters.  From that point forward, states decided that executions needed to be private affairs, held in small rooms and witnessed only by agents of the state, lawyers, family members of the victim and a handful of journalists.

In the years since Owensboro, the states -- with the approval of the U.S. Supreme Court -- have refined their definition of humane executions by utilizing firing squads, electric chairs and gas chambers.  The states further sanitized the execution process by developing the lethal injection method, turning it into a medical procedure complete with operating table, intravenous injections and considerable ethical questions for doctors and pharmaceutical companies who have sworn to "do no harm."

None of these refinements in execution technology has anything to do with "humane" methods.  There is no real measurement for how painful a death prisoners suffer when they are being hanged, shot, gassed or electrocuted, no matter how quickly they die. Lethal injection simply gives us greater psychological distance from killing another human being, making it feel more like a doctor-prescribed procedure than an execution....

It is natural to be both horrified and angered at the senseless and brutal killings committed by a convicted murderer.  It is natural to want revenge -- to visit the pain we imagine the victim suffered onto his or her perpetrator.  But there is a difference between punishment and revenge, no matter how we dress it up with legislation and legal procedures.  We have built a system of laws to raise us above those we judge.

In this system we have built, we must be honest and ask ourselves, "Is vengeance justice?" If we want truly to codify revenge, let's not pretend. Let's admit that we are willing to live with the byproducts of our retribution. Let's admit that we are willing to kill a number of innocent people. Let's admit that it is fine to execute a disproportionate number of minorities. And let's admit that we want condemned murderers to suffer like they made their victims suffer. Let's not dress the execution up as a medical procedure.

And by all means, let's televise it. Let's watch them pump the drugs into a condemned man or woman, strapped to a gurney. Let's hear their last words.  Let's watch them writhe and twitch, or listen as they groan and their last breath quietly leaves their body.  Let's watch them die.  Let us see what we are really choosing when we vote to implement the death penalty in our state.

Many Americans support the death penalty in principle. But, as a juror in a capital case, it is different when you look across that courtroom and stare into the eyes of the accused. At that point it is real, and not just a principle. You will decide whether that person dies.

Let's make the death penalty real. Let's open the blinds and stare into the eyes of those we condemn to death.  Let's be honest about what the death penalty really is. And then we can choose what kind of society we really want to be. 

May 11, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 08, 2014

"In Defense of Capital Punishment: A 'botched' execution does not render the death penalty illegitimate"

The title of this post is the headline of this potent commentary by Jonah Goldberg at National Review. Here are excerpts:

Last week the state of Oklahoma “botched” an execution.  Botched is the accepted term in the media coverage, despite the fact that Clayton Lockett was executed.  He just died badly, suffering for 43 minutes until he eventually had a heart attack.

Oklahoma’s governor has called for an investigation.  President Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder (who is seeking the death penalty in the Boston Marathon bombing case) to review the death penalty. Obama’s position was a perfectly defensible straddle: “The individual . . . had committed heinous crimes, terrible crimes, and I’ve said in the past that there are certain circumstances where a crime is so terrible that the application of the death penalty may be appropriate.”

On the other hand, Obama added: “I’ve also said that in the application of the death penalty . . . we have seen significant problems, racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to be innocent.  I think we do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions.”

As a death-penalty supporter, I agree.  Although I’m not sure we’d agree on what those questions — and answers — should be.  As for Lockett, he was entitled to a relatively painless and humane execution under the law. As for what he deserved in the cosmic sense, I suspect he got off easy....

Capital-punishment opponents offer many arguments why people like Lockett shouldn’t be executed.  They point out that there are racial disparities in how the death penalty is administered, for example. This strikes me as an insufficient argument, much like the deterrence argument from death-penalty supporters.  Deterrence may have some validity, but it alone cannot justify the death penalty.  It is wrong to kill a man just to send a message to others.  Likewise, Lockett, who was black, wasn’t less deserving of punishment simply because some white rapist and murderer didn’t get his just punishment.

The most cynical argument against the death penalty is to point out how slow and expensive the process is.  But it is slow and expensive at least in part because its opponents have made it slow and expensive, so they can complain about how slow and expensive it is....

Some believe the best argument against the death penalty is the fear that an innocent person might be executed. It’s hotly debated whether that has ever happened, but it’s clear that innocent people have been sent to death row. Even one such circumstance is outrageous and unacceptable. But even that is not an argument against the death penalty per se.  The FDA, police officers, and other government entities with less constitutional legitimacy than the death penalty (see the Fifth and 14th amendments) have made errors that resulted in innocent deaths.  That doesn’t render these entities and their functions illegitimate.  It obligates government to do better.

Radley Balko, a death-penalty opponent, in a piece in the Washington Post, says that ultimately both sides of the death-penalty debate have irreconcilable moral convictions. I think he’s right. As far as I’m concerned, Lockett deserved to die for what he did. Everything else amounts to changing the subject, and it won’t convince me otherwise.

There are various parts of this commentary that I consider astute (e.g., I call Lockett's execution ugly, not botched, because he did end up dead), and others that seem to me quite peculiar (e.g., if deterrence cannot justify the death penalty, why can it be used to justify any state punishment?). But I find especially valuable this commentary's emphasis that "irreconcilable moral convictions" may be at the base of all modern heated death penalty debates.

Notable missing, though, is the parallel reality I see that irreconcilable political convictions seemingly influence both supporters and opponents of the death penalty.  Notably, in this commentary from last year, Jonah Goldberg effectively explains why the "only people in the world who don’t want the government to get much smarter are the ones working for it."  In light of that astute observation, how can  he have any confidence that, in response to the ugly Lockett execution, governments can or will fulfill their "obligat[ion] to do better"?

Of course, similarly telling and curious view about government powers and possibilities often seems to infest liberal critics of the death penalty.  As Goldberg highlights, a lot of claims about inevitable government dysfunction drives a lot of the modern abolitionist movement.  But the modern death penalty is arguable the most effectively and comprehensive regulated of all government activities, and in other settings folks on the left often respond to government and regulatory failings by calling for more government and regulation, not less.

I make these points not to chide either supporters or opponents of the death penalty, but rather to encourage folks to notice not only that irreconcilable moral convictions are often involved in death penalty debates, but also that these moral convictions often regularly eclipse typical political convictions in this setting.

May 8, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Boston Marathon bomber's defense team starts legal attack on federal death penalt

As reported in this Boston Globe article, "attorneys for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev today asked a federal judge to declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional for a number of reasons, including the fact that Massachusetts itself does not permit capital punishment." Here is more about the filing:

The attorneys also argued that the federal death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment" because there is the possibility that innocent people will be executed and there is a history of a “seemingly ineradicable pattern of racially disparate enforcement."

The attorneys, in a filing in US District Court in Boston, noted that the First US Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected similar arguments raised in the case of serial killer Gary Sampson in 2007. But the attorneys argued that new developments, including changes in the law and public revulsion over events such as the recent botched execution in Oklahoma, argued for US District Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. to take a new look.

“The vulnerability of this particular death penalty prosecution to Eighth Amendment challenge is all the greater in light of recent legal authority and scholarship that cast doubt on the power of the federal government to impose the death penalty in states, like Massachusetts, that have abolished it," the attorneys wrote. The attorneys argued that the Eighth Amendment was not just intended to secure individual rights but also to constrain the power of the federal government.

“When the Eighth Amendment is properly understood as part of an effort to limit the power of the federal government, it should prohibit the federal government from inflicting severe punishments that are not authorized by state law,” the attorneys said.

Tsarnaev, 20, is being held at the federal prison at Fort Devens in Ayer. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him if he is convicted of setting off the April 15, 2013, bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His older brother and alleged accomplice, Tamerlan, was killed in a confrontation with police in Watertown. The brothers also allegedly killed an MIT police officer; Tsarnaev faces state charges in that case....

In a separate motion, the lawyers also argued that if the grand jury that indicted Tsarnaev on 30 counts did not know he would face the possibility of the death penalty, then he should not be subject to it. The lawyers sought grand jury transcripts to find out what the grand jury knew about the possible consequences of its indictments.

May 7, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

The Constitution Project issues big new report calling for broad reform of capital punishment administration

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, a big new report by The Constitution Project recommends more than three dozen changes to the administration of the death penalty in the US.  Here are the basic details:

The death penalty should be overhauled "from the moment of arrest to the moment of death," and the lethal drug cocktail used in Oklahoma's botched execution last week should be abolished in favor of a single drug, according to a bipartisan panel of criminal justice experts.

The committee, which included death penalty supporters who have been responsible for carrying it out, recommended using a single anesthetic or barbiturate approved by the Food and Drug Administration to bring on death, as well as 38 other changes.

"Without substantial revisions — not only to lethal injection, but across the board — the administration of capital punishment in America is unjust, disproportionate and very likely unconstitutional," said committee member Mark Earley, who was a Republican attorney general of Virginia when the state carried out 36 executions.

The study by the panel at the Constitution Project, a Washington legal research group, is billed as one of the most comprehensive reviews of the ultimate punishment ever undertaken in the U.S....

Particularly timely is the report's recommendation that the most commonly used drug protocol for lethal injections — a barbiturate for anesthesia, followed by a muscle relaxant to stop breathing and an electrolyte to stop the heart — be replaced by large doses of a single anesthetic or barbiturate. The report said that difficulties in obtaining the proper drugs, complicated procedures for mixing them and the lack of trained medical staff willing to administer them have led to unnecessary suffering on the part of the condemned....

The committee that undertook the two-year study was led by Mark White, former governor of Texas; Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court; and attorney Beth Wilkinson, who helped prosecute the Oklahoma City bombing case. The panel included former FBI Director William S. Sessions and several prosecutors and judges, as well as death penalty opponents....

White said the report should be useful to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., whom President Obama asked to examine how the death penalty is carried out in light of what happened in Oklahoma.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-death-penalty group in Sacramento, disputed the Constitution Project's claim that its report was bipartisan. "The Constitution Project always takes the side of the defendants," Scheidegger said. "Their claim to be neutral is dishonest." But he said he agreed with the one-drug approach to capital punishment.

The report says state and federal courts too often refuse to hear claims of new evidence presented by prisoners on death row and use other procedural means to deny prisoners their rights. It calls on states to adopt new procedures to evaluate whether a defendant is intellectually disabled. It urges new federal standards for forensic labs and examiners, and says they should operate independently from law enforcement, which would be a major change.

The report also says states should no longer execute people for "felony murder," in which someone who participates in a crime resulting in death can be convicted of murder even if he or she did not do the killing.

The 200+ page report by The Constitution Project is titled "Irreversible Error: Recommended Reforms for Preventing and Correcting Errors in the Administration of Capital Punishment," and it can be accessed at this link.

May 7, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack