Thursday, March 23, 2023

Arizona Supreme Court refuses to order its Gov to proceed with an execution ... for now

As detailed in some recent prior posts (linked below), a local prosecutor and crime victims had sued the new Gov of Arizona after her pledge not to move forward with a scheduled execution.   Late yesterday, the Arizona Supreme Court, for the time being, refused to order the execution to move forward.  This local article, which includes a link to last night's order from the Arizona court, provides this review:

Gov. Katie Hobbs is not compelled to carry out an execution warrant for death row prisoner Aaron Gunches, according to an order from the Arizona Supreme Court.  The court, in a ruling issued Wednesday, says its role is to “issue a warrant of execution that authorizes the director of the state department of corrections to carry out the execution.”

But the law does not mandate the governor act on the warrant, the court said.... The court acknowledged that the Arizona Constitution provides that the governor “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed," and that the governor is obligated to protect victims' rights to justice and due process, but it said those were "mixed questions of law and fact that are not properly before us."

The court denied the petition, made by Karen Price, sister of the victim, to force the governor to enforce the warrant.  Price, however, could advocate for execution on other grounds....

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office responded to the decision with a statement.  "With this ruling, the court recognizes that the Governor’s actions have constitutional implications, and the Governor has a duty to follow the law. We are assessing next steps to ensure the law is upheld and victims receive justice," the statement said.

Prior recent related posts:

March 23, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

"After McCleskey"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Robert Tsai recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In the 1987 decision, McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court rejected a black death row inmate’s argument that significant racial disparities in the administration of Georgia’s capital punishment laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  In brushing aside the most sophisticated empirical study of a state’s capital practices to date, that ruling seemingly slammed the door on structural inequality claims against the criminal justice system.  Most accounts of the case end after noting the ruling’s incompatibility with more robust theories of equality and meditating on the deep sense of demoralization felt by social justice advocates.  One might be forgiven for assuming that defense lawyers abandoned structural inequality claims and the use of quantitative evidence in capital cases altogether.

But that would be wrong and incomplete.  For the first time, this Article recounts an unusual chapter of the fallout from the McCleskey litigation, focusing on the litigation and social activism in the wake of that decision.  It draws on interviews with anti-death penalty lawyers working for or allied with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia, including Stephen Bright, Ruth Friedman, Bryan Stevenson, and Clive Stafford Smith.  It is also based on archival research into their case files.  Drawing from these resources, this Article shows how a subset of cause lawyers in the late 1980’s and early 90’s had a remarkable reaction to that demoralizing ruling: they engaged in a distinctive form of “rebellious localism.”  Instead of forsaking structural equality claims, they doubled down on them.  Rather than make peace with what they believed to be an unjust ruling, they sought to subvert it.  They also scrambled to formulate reliable quantitative evidence of intentional discrimination.  Instead of accepting existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, they went after prosecutors and state court judges to expose how racial minorities and poor people wound up on death row more often than their white, wealthier counterparts.

Understanding this untold episode of legal history teaches us about the limits of judicial control over constitutional lawmaking, the unanticipated consequences of trying to insulate the legal order from accountability, and the possibilities for keeping clients alive and earning pro-equality victories when political conditions are inhospitable.  For those who pay attention, there are lessons that might humble the most ideologically committed judges and inspire reformers who confront challenging legal circumstances.

March 21, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, March 20, 2023

Idaho about to become latest state to authorize execution by firing squad

As reported in this AP piece, "Idaho is poised to allow firing squads to execute condemned inmates when the state can't get lethal-injection drugs, under a bill the Legislature passed Monday with a veto-proof majority."  Here is more:

Firing squads will be used only if the state cannot obtain the drugs needed for lethal injections — and one death row inmate has already had his scheduled execution postponed multiple times because of drug scarcity.

The move by Idaho lawmakers is in line with those by other states that in recent years have scrambled to revive older methods of execution because of difficulties obtaining drugs required for longstanding lethal injection programs. Pharmaceutical companies increasingly have barred executioners from using their drugs, saying they were meant to save lives, not take them.  Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little has voiced his support for the death penalty but generally does not comment on legislation before he signs or vetoes it.

Only Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina currently have laws allowing firing squads if other execution methods are unavailable, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  South Carolina’s law is on hold pending the outcome of a legal challenge.

Some states began refurbishing electric chairs as standbys for when lethal drugs are unavailable. Others have considered — and at times, used — largely untested execution methods.  In 2018, Nevada executed Carey Dean Moore with a never-before-tried drug combination that included the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. Alabama has built a system for executing people using nitrogen gas to induce hypoxia, but it has not yet been used.

During a historic round of 13 executions in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the federal government opted for the sedative pentobarbital as a replacement for lethal drugs used in the 2000s. It issued a protocol allowing firing squads for federal executions if necessary, but that method was not used.  Some lawyers for federal inmates who were eventually put to death argued in court that firing squads actually would be quicker and cause less pain than pentobarbital, which they said causes a sensation akin to drowning.

However, in a 2019 filing, U.S. lawyers cited an expert as saying someone shot by firing squad can remain conscious for 10 seconds and that it would be “severely painful, especially related to shattering of bone and damage to the spinal cord.”...

Idaho Sen. Doug Ricks, a Republican who co-sponsored that state's firing squad bill, told his fellow senators Monday that the state's difficulty in finding lethal injection drugs could continue “indefinitely” and that he believes death by firing squad is “humane.”...

But Sen. Dan Foreman, also a Republican, said firing-squad executions would traumatize the people who who carry them out, the people who witness them and the people who clean up afterward. “I've seen the aftermath of shootings, and it's psychologically damaging to anybody who witnesses it,” Foreman said.  “The use of the firing squad is, in my opinion, beneath the dignity of the state of Idaho.”

The bill originated with Republican Rep. Bruce Skaug, prompted in part by the state's inability to execute Gerald Pizzuto Jr. late last year.  Pizzuto, who now has terminal cancer and other debilitating illnesses, has spent more than three decades on death row for his role in the 1985 slayings of two gold prospectors.

The Idaho Department of Correction estimates it will cost around $750,000 to build or retrofit a death chamber for firing squad executions.  Agency Director Jeff Tewalt last year told lawmakers there would likely be as many legal challenges to planned firing squad executions as there are to lethal injections.  At the time, he said he would be reluctant to ask his staffers to participate in a firing squad.

March 20, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The 'Cruel and Unusual' Legacy of the Star Chamber"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Donald Dripps and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Supreme Court justices have read the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause as prohibiting torturous methods of punishment, prohibiting grossly disproportionate punishments, and/or prohibiting arbitrary discretion over the infliction of the death penalty.

All three accounts face familiar and formidable historical challenges.  There is general agreement that the founders took the clause from Article 10 of the English Bill of Rights, and that Article 10 repudiated the horrific sentence passed on Titus Oates by the infamous Judge Jeffreys in 1685.  Each of the major interpretations fails to account for important pieces of the Oates puzzle.

The methods of punishment inflicted on Oates were two days of horrific flogging, recurring stands in the pillory, and life imprisonment.  These methods were not capital, were not unusual in 1685, and were all included in the Crimes Act passed by the First Congress.  Oates’s sentence was not, by contemporary standards, disproportionate. His perjuries caused the executions of numerous innocents, quite possibly by torture.  By the standards of the times, he deserved hanging.

The Eighth Amendment, however, responded to anti-federalist fears that Congress might adopt torturous methods of capital punishment.  Prevailing theories fail to account for the disconnect between what the English provision did and what the American provision meant to do.

This Article argues that prevailing accounts are breathtakingly incomplete.  The full story begins not with the flogging of Titus Oates in 1685, but with the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641.  Sentencing Oates, Jeffreys claimed for King's Bench all the Star Chamber's lawless power to determine punishments less than capital.  The English Article 10 repudiated this attempt to resurrect the Star Chamber.  Then Congress, responding to anti-federalist fears about Congress adopting European-style executions by torture, freighted the "cruel and unusual" language with two additional meanings.  The clause now applied to capital, as well as noncapital, penalties.  It now also restricted legislative as well as judicial discretion.  Synthesizing the English original and the later concerns of the American founders, the Eighth Amendment forbids lawless discretion in both capital and noncapital cases, and torturous methods of punishment.  Proportionality was left to the legislature, subject to the powerful check provided by a constitutional requirement of even-handed enforcement.

At a time when the Court is reconsidering longstanding precedents from originalist premises, this account is not only a major advance in the academic literature.  It may also be, practically speaking, a matter of life and death.

March 20, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Maricopa County prosecutor joins victims' group in challenging new Arizona Gov's pledge not to go forward with scheduled execution

As reported in this local article, headlined "'No law allows it': Maricopa County prosecutor challenges Gov. Hobbs' refusal to proceed with execution," notable litigation is afoot over execute powers and execution plans in the Grand Canyon State.  Here are the interesting details (with links from the originals):

Gov. Katie Hobbs faces a court fight over whether she can block a scheduled execution

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell joined a crime victims' rights group Monday in asking the Arizona Supreme Court to order Hobbs to carry out the execution of convicted murderer Aaron Gunches.  "No law allows the governor to unilaterally suspend executions," Mitchell's court brief said....

The amicus brief supports the Arizona Voice for Crime Victims' petition for special action by the high court, filed on behalf of Karen Price, sister of Gunches' murder victim, Ted Price. 

Two weeks ago, Hobbs said the state wouldn't proceed with executions until her office's review of death-penalty procedures was complete.  The day before, the state Supreme Court had granted an execution warrant for Gunches with a date of April 6.

The first-term Democratic governor issued an executive order in January establishing a death penalty review commission. She cited questions about the Department of Corrections execution protocols and lack of transparency.  Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes immediately paused executions. 

In her brief, Mitchell noted the "current execution protocol is the product of extensive litigation and multiple settlements with death row inmates."

Prior recent related posts:

March 14, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, March 13, 2023

LWOP for NYC terrorist Sayfullo Saipov as jury unable to return unanimous death sentence verdict for his mass murder

As reported in this new New York Post piece, "West Side Highway terrorist Sayfullo Saipov will serve life in prison after a Manhattan federal court jury could not unanimously agree to sentence him to death for killing eight people and wounding several others in an ISIS-inspired rampage."  Here are more of the particulars of another high-profile case in which a jury did not all vote for a death sentence:

The jury’s failure to reach a unanimous verdict — necessary to impose the death penalty — on Monday ended a dramatic, months-long trial that saw surviving victims tearfully testify about the horror of his attack and the killer’s family members urge jurors to spare his life.

Saipov was convicted in January of fatally mowing down eight people along a West Side Highway bike path on Halloween 2017 in a rented Home Depot truck. During the penalty phase of the trial, prosecutors questioned a host of witnesses – including surviving victims and family members of those slain – to show jurors the horrific violence carried out by Saipov.

Assistant US Attorney Alexander Li told jurors during the guilt phase of the trial that Saipov smiled, gave a “proud confession” and requested an ISIS flag to hang in a hospital room where he was being treated after the attack....

The jury convicted Saipov on 28 counts — nine of which carried the possibility of the death penalty — hours after they began deliberations on Jan. 26.  The conviction triggered the penalty phase of the case — which functioned like another full trial, where prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned witnesses, presented evidence and delivered opening and closing arguments.

During the penalty phase, family members of those killed described in painstaking detail how they’ve been devastated by the loss of their loved ones. The emotional testimony was referenced in prosecutors’ dramatic closing argument on March 7 as they urged jurors to condemn Saipov.   “The defendant caused unbearable pain to these families. They are still suffering,” Assistant US Attorney Amanda Houle told jurors in her closing. 

“Has the government proven aggravating factors that show that the way that this defendant chose to commit murder, by terrorist attack and the unremorseful slaughter of innocent civilians. Does that make his crime worthy of a harsher penalty?” Houle asked jurors.   “The evidence shows overwhelmingly that it does,” she said.  Houle then described the testimony jurors had heard about how families of the slain victims had been upended by the terrorist attack....

Saipov’s defense attorneys had sought to humanize him by questioning his family members on the stand, most all of whom broke down in tears when they told the jury they still loved him — despite what he had done. The defense’s penatly-phase case reached a dramatic peak when his father, sobbing uncontrollably, told jurors he still loved his son “with all my heart” from the witness stand.

The testimony prompted Saipov’s uncle, who was seated in the gallery of the courtroom, to stand up and begin shouting in Uzbek. “Dirty ISIS bastards!” the man yelled in Uzbek before slamming his fist on a courtroom door and walking out of the room.

In an impassioned closing argument, Saipov attorney David Patton repeatedly told jurors they face a “unique, individualized, moral decision” in whether or not to sentence the terrorist to death. “That is an awesome responsibility and power, and we are asking you to decide for life, to decide that the appropriate moral decision here is life,” Patton said. “It is not necessary to kill Sayfullo Saipov, not for our safety or anyone else’s and not to do justice,” Patton said.

Prior related posts:

March 13, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Texas completes its second execution of the week

As reported in this AP article, "Texas has executed an inmate convicted of the drug-related killings of four people more than 30 years ago, including a woman who was 9-months pregnant."  Here is more:

Arthur Brown Jr., 52, received a lethal injection Thursday evening at the state penitentiary in Huntsville.  He was condemned for the June 1992 slayings, which took place in a Houston home during a drug robbery.  Authorities said Brown was part of a ring that shuttled drugs from Texas to Alabama and had bought drugs from Jose Tovar and his wife Rachel Tovar.

Killed during the drug robbery were 32-year-old Jose Tovar; his wife’s 17-year-old son, Frank Farias; 19-year-old Jessica Quiñones, the pregnant girlfriend of another son of Rachel Tovar; and 21-year-old neighbor Audrey Brown.  All four had been tied up and shot in the head. Rachel Tovar and another person were also shot but survived.

“I don’t see how anybody could have just killed a pregnant woman and then made her suffer so much.  It’s just beyond words,” Quiñones’ older sister, Maricella Quiñones, said before the execution.

Brown was the fifth inmate put to death in Texas this year and the ninth in the U.S.  His execution was the second of two in Texas this week.  Another inmate, Gary Green, was executed Tuesday for killing his estranged wife and her young daughter.  Brown was defiant in his final statement before the lethal injection was administered. “What is happening here tonight isn’t justice," he said. "It’s the murder of another innocent man.”

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier Thursday declined an appeal from Brown’s attorneys to halt the execution.  They had argued that Brown was exempt from execution because he was intellectually disabled, a claim disputed by prosecutors.  The high court has prohibited the death penalty for the intellectually disabled....

One of Brown’s accomplices in the shootings, Marion Dudley, was executed in 2006.  A third partner was sentenced to life in prison. Brown, who was from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, had long maintained another person committed the killings.

Brown’s attorneys had previously filed other appeals that had been rejected by lower courts.  They argued he was innocent and that a witness actually implicated another suspect.  They also claimed Brown’s conviction was tainted by racial bias, alleging one of the jurors decided he was guilty because he was Black.

A judge in Houston on Tuesday denied a request by Brown’s attorneys for DNA testing of evidence that they said could have exonerated their client.  Josh Reiss, chief of the Post-Conviction Writs Division with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston, called Brown’s last-minute appeals a delay tactic....

Brown was one of six Texas death row inmates participating in a lawsuit seeking to stop the state’s prison system from using what they allege are expired and unsafe execution drugs.  Despite a civil court judge in Austin preliminarily agreeing with the claims, five of the inmates have been executed this year.

March 9, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Texas completes its fourth execution of 2023

As reported in this AP article, a "Texas inmate convicted of fatally stabbing his estranged wife and drowning her 6-year-old daughter in a bathtub nearly 14 years ago was executed on Tuesday."  Here are more details:

Gary Green, 51, received a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville.  He was condemned for the September 2009 deaths of Lovetta Armstead, 32, and her daughter, Jazzmen Montgomery, at their Dallas home. Green’s attorneys did not file any appeals seeking to stop the execution.

A Buddhist spiritual adviser chosen by Green stood beside the death chamber gurney at the inmate’s feet and said a brief prayer. Green then apologized profusely when asked by the warden if he had a final statement.... 

Instead of inserting the IV needles in each arm, prison technicians had to use a vein in Green’s right arm and a vein on the top of his left hand, delaying the injection briefly for Green, who was listed on prison records as weighing 365 pounds (165 kilograms)....  He was pronounced dead 33 minutes later, at 7:07 p.m.

Ray Montgomery, Jazzmen’s father and one of the witnesses, said recently that he wasn’t cheering for Green’s execution but saw it as the justice system at work. “It’s justice for the way my daughter was tortured.  It’s justice for the way that Lovetta was murdered,” said Montgomery, 43.  He and other witnesses did not speak with reporters afterward....

In prior appeals, Green’s attorneys had claimed he was intellectually disabled and had a lifelong history of psychiatric disorders.  Those appeals were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court and lower appeals courts.  The high court has prohibited the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, but not for people with serious mental illness.

Authorities said Green committed the killings after Armstead sought to annul their marriage....  Armstead was stabbed more than two dozen times, and Green drowned Jazzmen in the home’s bathtub.  Authorities said Green also intended to kill Armstead’s two other children, then 9-year-old Jerrett and 12-year-old Jerome.  Green stabbed Jerrett but both boys survived....

Josh Healy, one of the prosecutors with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office that convicted Green, said the boys were incredibly brave. Green “was an evil guy. It was one of the worst cases I’ve ever been a part of,” said Healy, now a defense attorney in Dallas....

Green’s execution was the first of two scheduled in Texas this week. Inmate Arthur Brown Jr. is set to be executed Thursday. Green was the eighth inmate in the U.S. put to death this year.

He was one of six Texas death row inmates participating in a lawsuit seeking to stop the state’s prison system from using what they allege are expired and unsafe execution drugs. Despite a civil court judge in Austin preliminarily agreeing with the claims, four of the Texas inmates including Green have been executed this year.

March 7, 2023 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (10)

Saturday, March 04, 2023

New Arizona Gov pledging not to allow new scheduled execution to go forward

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs refuses to proceed with execution set by court," the new Arizona Governor is continuing to promise to block executions in her state pending a review of state execution protocols. Here are the basics:

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs vowed Friday that her administration won’t carry out an execution even though the state Supreme Court scheduled it over the objections of the state’s new attorney general.  The Democratic governor’s promise not to execute Aaron Gunches on April 6 for his murder conviction in a 2002 killing came a day after the state Supreme Court said it must grant an execution warrant if certain appellate proceedings have concluded — and that those requirements were met in Gunches’ case.

Last week, Hobbs appointed retired U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan to examine the state’s procurement of lethal injection drugs and other death penalty protocols due to the state’s history of mismanaging executions.  “Under my administration, an execution will not occur until the people of Arizona can have confidence that the state is not violating the law in carrying out the gravest of penalties,” Hobbs said in a statement Friday.

Attorney General Kris Mayes’ office has said it won’t seek court orders to carry out executions while Hobbs’ review is underway.  Mayes, a Democrat who took office in January, tried to withdraw a request by her Republican predecessor, Mark Brnovich, for a warrant to Gunches.  The court declined to withdraw the request on Thursday.

The court said Hobbs’ review “does not constitute good cause for refraining from issuing the warrant.”  Mayes’ office declined to comment on Hobbs’ promise not to carry out the execution next month. Hobbs maintains that while the court authorized Gunches’ execution, its order doesn’t require the state to carry it out.

Dale Baich, a former federal public defender who teaches death penalty law at Arizona State University, said Hobbs can use her authority as the state’s chief executive when the state believes it cannot carry out an execution in a constitutionally acceptable manner.  “What the governor did is not unique,” said Baich, who applauded Hobbs’ move. “Governors in Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee recently used their authority to pause executions because they had serious questions about the protocols in their states.”...

Arizona, which has 110 prisoners on death row, carried out three executions last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus following criticism that a 2014 execution was botched and because of difficulties obtaining execution drugs.  Since resuming executions, the state has been criticized for taking too long to insert an IV for lethal injection into a prisoner’s body in early May and for denying the Arizona Republic newspaper’s request to witness the last three executions.

Gunches is scheduled to be executed on April 6 for the 2002 killing of Ted Price, his girlfriend’s ex-husband, in Maricopa County. Gunches, who isn’t a lawyer, represented himself in November when he asked the Supreme Court to issue his execution warrant so justice could be served and the victims could get closure.  In Brnovich’s last month in office, his office asked the court for a warrant to execute Gunches.  But Gunches withdrew his request in early January, and Mayes asked for the execution warrant submitted during Brnovich’s tenure to be withdrawn.

March 4, 2023 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 27, 2023

Alabama officials ready to resume carrying out death sentences

Alabama had two botched lethal injection executions back in Fall 2022, which prompted its Governor to order a review of execution protocols and operation.  As detailed in this local article, headlined "Executions back on in Alabama after brief moratorium," Alabama has completed that review and will now try to get back to conducting executions:

Executions are back on in Alabama. According to an email from Gov. Kay Ivey’s communications director, Ivey received a letter Friday from Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm.  Hamm told the governor that the “top-to-bottom” review of the state’s execution process is complete.

“Upon receiving word from Commissioner Hamm, Governor Kay Ivey asked Attorney General Steve Marshall to ask the Supreme Court to issue an execution warrant for an eligible death row inmate whenever he deems appropriate,” said Ivey’s Communications Director Gina Maiola.  In a letter to Marshall, Ivey said, “it is time to resume our duty of carrying out lawful death sentences.”

On Friday afternoon, Marshall announced on social media that he filed a motion seeking the Alabama Supreme Court to set an execution date for James Barber.  Barber has been on death row since 2004 for the fatal beating of 75-year-old Dorothy Epps. Marshall added that his office “will be seeking death warrants for other murderers in short order.”

No details were provided as to what was learned during the internal review of the execution process, but Hamm wrote that the ADOC has “ordered and obtained new equipment” for future executions....

On Nov. 21, following two failed execution attempts, Ivey ordered a halt to all executions in Alabama.  “Working in conjunction with Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm, Governor Ivey is asking that the Department of Corrections undertake a top-to-bottom review of the state’s execution process, and how to ensure the state can successfully deliver justice going forward,” a press release from that day stated. Ivey also asked the Alabama AG’s office to not seek additional execution dates for any other Alabama Death Row inmates until the review is complete.

The announcement of a halt to executions came just days after Kenneth Smith’s execution was called off just before midnight on Nov. 17.  The state called off the lethal injection after not being able to find veins to start the intravenous lines needed for the three-drug cocktail, which had to be done before midnight when the execution warrant expired. Another execution -- that of Alan Miller -- was called off in September for similar reasons.

The only change publicly known to Alabama’s execution protocol that was made during the three-month moratorium was a change made by the Alabama Supreme Court, ending the midnight deadline.  The state’s highest court authorized a rule change allowing for an execution warrant to be issued for a time frame rather than a single day.  The rule means the governor can choose the timing of an execution, according to the court’s order....

There are currently 166 inmates sitting on Alabama Death Row.

In his letter to Ivey announcing the end of the internal review, Hamm said, “After discussing the matter with my staff, I am confident that the Department is as prepared as possible to resume carrying out executions consistent with the mandates of the Constitution.  This is true in spite of the fact that death row inmates will continue seeking to evade their lawfully imposed death sentences.”

Some prior related posts:

February 27, 2023 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Cruising around some early commentary on Cruz v. Arizona

Perhaps in part because the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet issued that many notable opinions, and perhaps in part because every capital case that leads to an interesting 5-4 split ruling garners attention, there has been a good bit of early commentary regarding this past week's decision in Cruz v. Arizona, No. 21–846 (S. Ct. Feb 22, 2023) (available here), on behalf of a death row defendant. Here is a sampling:

At Crime & Consequences from Kent Scheidegger, "Supreme Court Reinstates Review of Arizona Murderer’s Case"

At Esquire from Charles P. Pierce, "Terrible Ideas Keep Inching Closer to Reality, Thanks to Supreme Court Conservatives"

At The Hill from Austin Sarat, "Supreme Court delivers rare victory for death row inmate: the chance to spend rest of his life behind bars"

At SCOTUSblog from Alexis Hoag-Fordjour, "In rare win for people on death row, justices chide Arizona for ignoring Supreme Court precedent"

At Slate from Leah Litman, "The Supreme Court Did Something Rare: Enforced a Precedent Conservatives Hate"

At the Washington Post from Ruth Markus, "The justices halt an execution — and reveal themselves in the process"

February 25, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Florida completes its first execution since 2019

Florida has a large death row with more than 300 murderers awaiting execution, but the state has not executed anyone in the last few years.  But today the Sunshine State got its machinery of death up and running again as detailed in this AP article:

Florida executed a man on Thursday for murdering a woman in 1990 after he escaped from prison, stabbing her to death in a shopping mall parking lot in an attempted carjacking.

Donald Dillbeck, 59, was pronounced dead at 6:13 p.m. after receiving a lethal injection at Florida State Prison, the governor’s office said. He had been convicted in the murder of Faye Vann, 44, in Tallahassee near the state Capitol.

The execution was Florida’s first in nearly four years and the third under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.  By comparison, his immediate predecessor, current U.S. Republican Sen. Rick Scott, oversaw 28 executions.

Vann’s children, Tony and Laura, released a statement after the execution: “11,932 days ago, Donald Dillbeck brutally killed our Mother. We were robbed of years of memories with her, and it has been very painful ever since.”  They thanked DeSantis for carrying out the execution, saying it “has given us some closure.”...

Dillbeck was 15 when he stabbed a man in Indiana while trying to steal a CB radio, court records show.  He fled to Florida, where Lee County Deputy Dwight Lynn Hall found him in a Fort Myers Beach parking lot.  While Hall was searching him, Dillbeck hit the deputy in the groin and ran. Hall tackled him and, as the two wrestled, Dillbeck took Hall’s gun and shot him twice.

Dillbeck was 11 years into a life sentence for killing the deputy when he walked away from a work release assignment catering a meal for a seniors event, according to court records.  He then bought a paring knife and walked to Tallahassee.  Vann was waiting for her family when Dillbeck approached her car with the knife and demanded a ride, saying he’d forgotten how to drive, court records show.  Vann honked the horn, tried to drive off and fought back that Sunday afternoon, but Dillbeck stabbed her more than 20 times and slit her throat, court records show. He crashed the car a short time later and was captured after running from the scene.

Despite a prior escape attempt and an assault on another prisoner, Dillbeck had been placed in a minimum security facility.  A furious Republican Gov. Bob Martinez fired three corrections officials and sought to implement rules to ensure prisoners with life sentences would be held in more secure settings.

Florida’s Supreme Court earlier this month denied appeals claiming he shouldn’t be put to death because he suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and it was cruel and unusual to keep him on death row for more than 30 years before his death warrant was signed.  The U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeals Wednesday.

February 23, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (17)

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

US Supreme Court, in 5-4 ruling, rejects Arizona's claim of proper state-ground basis to uphold death sentence

In an interesting little ruling in a state capital case, the US Supreme Court this morning in Cruz v. Arizona, No. 21–846 (S. Ct. Feb 22, 2023) (available here), rejected an effort by Arizona to preserve a state death sentence on procedural grounds.  The Court's opinion was authored by Justice Sotomayor and joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kagan, Kavanaugh and Jackson. Here is how the Court's opinion starts and ends:

Petitioner John Montenegro Cruz, a defendant sentenced to death, argued at trial and on direct appeal that his due process rights had been violated by the trial court’s failure to permit him to inform the jury that a life sentence in Arizona would be without parole. See Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154, 161–162 (1994) (plurality opinion); id., at 178 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment). Those courts rejected Cruz’s Simmons argument, believing, incorrectly, that Arizona’s sentencing and parole scheme did not trigger application of Simmons. See State v. Cruz, 218 Ariz. 149, 160, 181 P.3d 196, 207 (2008).

After the Arizona Supreme Court repeated that mistake in a series of cases, this Court summarily reversed the Arizona Supreme Court in Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U.S. 613 (2016) (per curiam), and held that it was fundamental error to conclude that Simmons “did not apply” in Arizona. 578 U.S., at 615.

Relying on Lynch, Cruz filed a motion for state postconviction relief under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g). That Rule permits a defendant to bring a successive petition if “there has been a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant’s case, would probably overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence.” Ariz. Rule Crim. Proc. 32.1(g) (Cum. Supp. 2022); see also ibid. (Cum. Supp. 2017).

The Arizona Supreme Court denied relief after concluding that Lynch was not a “significant change in the law.” 251 Ariz. 203, 207, 487 P. 3d 991, 995 (2021). The Arizona Supreme Court reached this conclusion despite having repeatedly held that an overruling of precedent is a significant change in the law.  See id., at 206, 487 P. 3d, at 994 (The “‘archetype of such a change occurs when an appellate court overrules previously binding case law’”).

The Court granted certiorari to address whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Lynch was not a significant change in the law for purposes of Rule 32.1(g) is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment.  It is not....

In exceptional cases where a state-court judgment rests on a novel and unforeseeable state-court procedural decision lacking fair or substantial support in prior state law, that decision is not adequate to preclude review of a federal question.  The Arizona Supreme Court applied Rule 32.1(g) in a manner that abruptly departed from and directly conflicted with its prior interpretations of that Rule.  Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Arizona is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

The  dissent was authored by Justice Barrett and joined by Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch.  It ends this way:

The Court makes a case for why the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of its own precedent is wrong.  If I were on the Arizona Supreme Court, I might agree.  But that call is not within our bailiwick.  Our job is to determine whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision is defensible, and we owe the utmost deference to the state court in making that judgment.  Cases of inadequacy are extremely rare, and this is not one.  I respectfully dissent.

February 22, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (56)

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

"Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty: A Menu of Legislative Options"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Richard J. Bonnie and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

In 2003, the American Bar Association established a Task Force on Mental Disability and the Death Penalty to further specify and implement the Supreme Court’s ruling banning execution of persons with intellectual disability and to consider an analogous ban against imposing the death penalty on defendants with severe mental disorders.  The Task Force established formal links with the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the final report was approved by the ABA and the participating organizations in 2005 and 2006.  This brief article focuses primarily on diminished responsibility at the time of the offense, summarizing the reasons why an exclusion for severe mental illness is needed and reviewing the key drafting issues that can be expected to arise in defining the clinical criteria for exclusion.  A key question is whether state trial judges and judges appointed to state appellate courts embrace their constitutionally grounded duties to assure sparing and humane administration of the death penalty.  Assiduous efforts to prevent execution of prisoners with severe mental illness is a necessary element of that judicial assignment.

February 21, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, February 17, 2023

Could Alabama have an execution using nitrogen gas in 2023?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP piece headlined "Alabama 'close' to finishing nitrogen execution protocol."  Here are the basics:

The head of Alabama's prison system said Wednesday that a protocol for using nitrogen gas to carry out executions should be finished this year. "We're close. We're close," Alabama Commissioner John Hamm said of the new execution method that the state has been working to develop for several years.

He said the protocol "should be" finished by the end of the year. Hamm made the comment in response to a question from The Associated Press about the status of the new execution method. Once the protocol is finished, there would be litigation over the untested execution method before the state attempts to use it.

Nitrogen hypoxia is a proposed execution method in which death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thereby depriving them of the oxygen needed to maintain bodily functions. Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi have authorized the use of nitrogen hypoxia, but it has never been used to carry out a death sentence.

Alabama lawmakers in 2018 approved legislation that authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an alternate execution method. Supporters said the state needed a new method as lethal injection drugs became difficult to obtain. Lawmakers theorized that death by nitrogen hypoxia could be a simpler and more humane execution method. But critics have likened the untested method to human experimentation.

The state has disclosed little information about the new execution method. The Alabama Department of Corrections told a federal judge in 2021 that it had completed a "system" to use nitrogen gas but did not describe it.

Although lethal injection remains the primary method for carrying out death sentences, the legislation gave inmates a brief window to select nitrogen as their execution method. A number of inmates selected nitrogen. Hamm also said a review of the state's execution procedures should be completed, "probably within the next month."

As the article highlights, inevitable litigation over a novel execution method likely means the sensible answer to the question in the title of this post is "Quite probably no." But, given the long-standing debates over execution methods, it is still interesting to see Alabama claim it is getting closer to pioneering a new method.

February 17, 2023 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, February 16, 2023

New Pennsylvania Gov announces his capital punishment abolitionist plans

Pennsylvania has over 100 condemned murderers on its death row, though it has not completed an execution in nearly a quarter century.  And, as reported in this AP piece, the new Governor of the Keystone State is committed to keep the state execution-free.  Here are the details:

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said Thursday he will not allow Pennsylvania to execute any inmates while he is in office and called for the state’s lawmakers to repeal the death penalty.

Shapiro, inaugurated last month, said he will refuse to sign execution warrants and will use his power as governor to grant reprieves to any inmate whose execution is scheduled.  In doing so, he is exercising an authority used for eight years by his predecessor, Gov. Tom Wolf, to effectively impose a moratorium on the death penalty in a state where it has been sparsely used.

Shapiro went further, asking lawmakers to repeal the death penalty and calling it fallible and irreversible.  “Today, I am respectfully calling on the General Assembly to work with me to abolish the death penalty once and for all here in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said in a news conference at Mosaic Community Church in Philadelphia.  The state, he said, “should not be in the business of putting people to death.”...

On the campaign trail last year for governor, Shapiro had said he was morally opposed to the death penalty, even though he had run for attorney general in 2016 as a supporter of the death penalty for the most heinous cases.

While Wolf was governor from 2015 until last month, judges delivered eight more death sentences.  In the meantime, Wolf issued eight reprieves to inmates who had been scheduled to be put to death.  Wolf had said he would continue the reprieves until lawmakers addressed inequities in the use of the death penalty, but lawmakers never did and Wolf’s reprieves remain in effect.

Wolf’s use of reprieves was upheld by the state Supreme Court in a legal challenge brought by county prosecutors, who argued that Wolf was unconstitutionally turning what had been intended to be a temporary tool into a permanent one.

Pennsylvania has 101 men and women on its shrinking death row, according to statistics from the Department of Corrections.  The state has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, as courts and now governors have blocked every other death sentence thus far. All three men who were executed gave up on their appeals voluntarily.  The state’s most recent execution took place in 1999.

February 16, 2023 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Buffalo mass shooter formally sentenced to LWOP in New York state court

Though New York in 1995 brought back the state's death penalty legislatively,  New York's highest court in June 2004 decided that the state's death penalty statute violated the New York Constitution.  Consequently, the harshest sentence that a mass killer in New York can get under state law is life without parole, and this New York Times piece reports on just such a high-profile sentencing today in Buffalo. Here are some details:

The gunman in a racist massacre at a Buffalo supermarket last year was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole on Wednesday, after apologizing for his attack amid a torrent of raw emotions from the victims’ families, including one man who lunged at him in court.

“You will never see the light of day as a free man again,” the judge, Susan Eagan, said after reading a statement about the harmful effects of institutional racism and white supremacy, calling it an “insidious cancer on our society and nation.”

The sentence reflected the outcome of a guilty plea to 10 counts of first-degree murder and a single count of domestic terrorism motivated by hate, which carries a penalty of life imprisonment without parole.  Judge Eagan’s sentence came after a brief apology by the gunman, Payton Gendron, who said he was “very sorry” for the attack and blamed online content for the shooting rampage on May 14, in which 10 people were killed, all of them Black, and three people injured. He said he didn’t want to inspire other racist killings....

As Mr. Gendron spoke, a member of the audience began screaming and cursing at him, the second such interruption in an emotionally raw hearing. Earlier, the sentencing was dramatically interrupted and the courtroom cleared after a man lunged at the defendant.  Judge Eagan emptied the courtroom and reconvened the hearing a short time later, pleading for decorum while saying she understood the anger toward the gunman. “We are all better than that,” she said. Before Mr. Gendron heard his sentence, families of the victims testified as to the insurmountable damage done by the attack.

“You are a cowardly racist,” said Simone Crawley, whose grandmother Ruth Whitfield, 86, was killed in the shooting. She asked for accountability for others who aided or turned a blind eye to Mr. Gendron’s growing radicalization....

Zeneta Everhart, whose son Zaire was injured, but survived, said: “The world says you have to forgive in order to move on.  But I stand before you today to say that will never happen.”

Kimberly Salter’s husband, Aaron Salter, a retired Buffalo police officer, did not survive: He was shot and killed in the attack.  Ms. Salter quoted the Bible as she stood just feet from Mr. Gendron, who wore an orange jumpsuit and spectacles. “You will reap,” she said, “what you sow.”...

Mr. Gendron, 19, pleaded guilty in November to the state charges.  He is also charged with federal hate crimes and weapons violations, some of which could carry the death penalty if the Justice Department decided to seek it.  Those charges are still pending....

His video feed of the attack was briefly online, before being shut down by social media companies.  Still, the Buffalo attack remains one of the nation’s deadliest racist shootings, joining a list that includes the killing of nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015; an antisemitic rampage in Pittsburgh, at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 where 11 people were killed; and an attack at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019 in which more than 20 people were killed by a man who had expressed hatred of Latinos.

February 15, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Is it really so hard to make sense of AG Garland's federal capital punishment administration?

The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this lengthy new Washington Post article headlined "Justice Department standards on federal death penalty called confusing."  Here are excerpts (with a few points highlighted for commentary to follow):

The Justice Department’s disparate approaches in a pair of mass-killing cases is generating accusations that the Biden administration has failed to press for the elimination of capital punishment and is not applying clear standards in judging who, if anyone, should face the death penalty.

On Monday, federal prosecutors will begin the death penalty phase in the trial of Sayfullo Saipov, who was convicted last month on murder and terrorism charges for fatally hitting eight pedestrians with a truck on a New York City bike path in 2017.  That comes days after the Justice Department announced an agreement allowing Patrick Crusius, who pleaded guilty to killing 23 people and injuring 22 while targeting Mexicans during a mass shooting rampage at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, to avoid the death penalty.  He faces life in prison....

Analysts said the Justice Department’s decisions in those cases and several others make it difficult to detect a consistent policy more than two years into the Biden presidency.  As a candidate, Biden made promises to push for legislation banning capital punishment over concerns about how federal executions are carried out and how prosecutors have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and the poor.

Biden has said little about the issue since taking office. Attorney General Merrick Garland has deauthorized 25 death penalty cases that were started under previous administrations, and the Justice Department has not authorized any new capital cases since he took over in 2021.

The Justice Department in 2021 and 2022 continued to back capital convictions in the face of appeals from Dylann Roof, a White man who fatally shot nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who orchestrated, along with his older brother, a bombing that killed three at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Federal courts upheld both of their death penalty sentences.

Meantime, seven federal capital cases, including Saipov’s, remain active, Justice officials said.  Among them is the government’s prosecution of Robert Bowers, who is set to stand trial in April on charges related to the mass shooting that slaughtered 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.

“It’s really hard to say what’s going on,” said Monica Foster, a federal public defender representing Jairo Saenz, an MS-13 gang member who, along with his brother Alexi, are facing capital charges in connection with seven killings in Long Island in 2016.  Federal prosecutors announced in 2020 that they would seek the death penalty for both men; Foster, who recently took over Jairo Saenz’s defense, said she intends in March to ask Garland to withdraw the death penalty — a formal Justice Department process known as a deauthorization request.  Lawyers for Alexi Saenz said they, too, will seek deauthorization....

“They clearly are willing to walk back prior authorizations, so then it’s just a question of when?” said Nathan Williams, a former federal prosecutor who helped oversee Roof’s conviction in 2015.  “What’s distinguishing those cases, the ones they dismissed the notice on, from the cases of Bowers or Roof or Tsarnaev?  My guess is that they are less egregious cases. But then on the more egregious ones, are we seeing a general policy or a reflection of individual decisions on cases?

The answer could have a direct bearing on another high-profile case, as the Justice Department is still deliberating over whether to pursue a capital case against Payton Gendron, a White man who faces 27 hate-crime and gun-related offenses in the fatal shooting of 10 Black people in a Buffalo grocery store last year.  Gendron live-streamed his attack and is alleged to have written a 180-page manifesto spouting white supremacist conspiracy theories and anti-Black and anti-Jewish rhetoric, while laying out plans for the assault.

“I was more than a little surprised when I saw what happened” in the Saipov bike path case, said Terrence Conners, a lawyer who represents victims’ families in the Gendron case.  The families have expressed split opinions over whether Gendron should face capital punishment. “The expressed policy of the Biden administration and the policy of Merrick Garland has been anti-death penalty,” Connors said. “With the horrible events in Buffalo and the racial animus and the predetermination [from Gendron], it may be a case that changes their minds.”

The Justice Department has long-standing policies governing how decisions on capital cases are made. The process, which typically takes more than a year, includes recommendations from a capital case committee in Washington, U.S. attorneys and the department’s Civil Rights Division, along with input from victims’ families, defense attorneys and community leaders.... Administration officials cautioned that because Garland has not authorized any new death penalty cases, it does not mean he is firmly opposed to doing so.  The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing active legal cases....

Cassie Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, suggested Garland might be distinguishing between honoring decisions in capital cases made by prior administrations, while staking out his own legacy in not approving any new cases under his watch....

In announcing Crusius’s plea deal in El Paso, under which he faces 90 consecutive life sentences, assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Hanna acknowledged that the defendant has schizoaffective disorder, a signal that the government viewed the disability as a mitigating factor against capital punishment.

Crusius’s legal team had hired an outside expert, who made the diagnosis, and the Justice Department agreed with the findings, in part because the expert was someone that federal authorities also have consulted on cases and trusted, according to a federal government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. The Justice Department’s position in the Crusius case stands in contrast to the decision made by El Paso’s district attorney’s office, which is seeking the death penalty in the state’s murder case against Crusius, of Allen, Tex.

Twenty-three states have abolished the death penalty, while three — Oregon, Pennsylvania and California — have a moratorium against it. The number of state executions has fallen from 60 in 2005 to 18 in 2022, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas has executed 581 people since 1977, nearly five times more than Oklahoma, the state with the second-most executions.

The lines I have emphasized from these excerpts make it not "confusing" for me to make sense of the current administration's approach to capital punishment.  For starters, two years in, AG Garland has not authorized any new federal capital cases. But, showing respect for the fact that Congress has not repealed the death penalty, he also has not announced that he would never seek a federal capital charge.  So why not seek capital punishment for Patrick Crusius?  In addition to the fact the mental health issues, the feds could be confident that a capital prosecution could be pursued, perhaps a lot more efficiently, by state prosecutors in Texas, a state with a considerable capital track record. (The Buffalo mass shooting, in a state without the death penalty, presents a harder question and it will be interesting to see AG Garland's capital decision there.)

Next, for ongoing cases, it makes perfect sense that AG Garland, exercising his prosecutorial discretion, would "deauthorize" capital prosecution in the "less egregious" cases but not in the "more egregious" cases.  I am not familiar with all the facts in all recent federal capital cases, but the idea that federal capital cases would keep moving forward in the most horrific mass killings and would not in less extreme cases seems entirely in keeping with a view of the death penalty being reserved for "the very worst of the worst."  Moreover, in mass killing cases, there are likely a greater number of victims and victims' family members who may express a strong interest in having the federal capital cases continued.

Of course, capital punishment abolitionists are always going to be grumpy when any capital case continues and capital punishment advocates are often going to be troubled when certain capital cases are not aggressively pursued.  But, the fact that AG Garland is taking a cautious case-by-case approach to capital cases does not make his standards inherently confusing or unprincipled.  Indeed, considering each case carefully on its own merits seems absolutely essential to the effective administration of justice in capital and non-capital cases.

February 12, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Texas completes its third execution of 2023

As detailed in this AP article, an "inmate convicted of killing three teenagers while they slept in a Texas Panhandle home more than 25 years ago was executed on Wednesday, the sixth inmate to be put to death in the U.S. this year and the second in as many days." Here is more:

John Balentine, 54, who had argued that his trial was marred by racial bias, received a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, for the January 1998 shooting deaths of Edward Mark Caylor, 17, Kai Brooke Geyer, 15, and Steven Watson, 15, at a home in Amarillo.  Prosecutors said all three were shot once in the head as they slept.

Caylor’s sister was Balentine’s former girlfriend, and prosecutors said the shootings stemmed from a feud between Caylor and Balentine.  Ballentine, however, argued that Caylor and others had threatened his life over his interracial relationship. Balentine is Black.  The three victims were white.

Balentine confessed to the murders.  One of his trial attorneys said Balentine turned down a plea agreement that would have sentenced him to life in prison because the racists threats he received made him afraid of being attacked or killed while incarcerated.

Lawyers were pursuing two legal strategies to save their client before he was executed.  The first was to argue that his trial and sentencing were tainted by racism.  But Balentine was also among five Texas death row inmates who sued to stop the state’s prison system from using what they allege are expired and unsafe execution drugs....

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday declined an appeal from Balentine’s attorneys to halt the execution so that his claims of racial bias could be properly reviewed.

A defense request for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to temporarily stay the execution also failed and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a request to stay Ballentine’s execution over allegations that “racism and racial issues pervaded” his trial.  The appeals court denied the stay on procedural grounds without reviewing the merits.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously declined to commute Balentine’s death sentence to a lesser punishment or to grant a 30-day reprieve....

Koda Shadix, the younger brother of Geyer, one of the victims, said in a video posted online last week that he was upset by efforts to delay justice.  Balentine has “shown no remorse and absolutely does not care what he did.  All he cares about is his life,” Shadix said.

February 8, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Missouri completes its second execution of 2023

As reported in this local article, "Missouri on Tuesday executed 58-year-old Leonard Taylor, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend and her three children at their home in Jennings nearly two decades ago."  Here are more: 

A state executioner delivered a fatal dose of pentobarbital at 6:07 p.m., and Taylor was pronounced dead a short time later, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections....

Taylor was the third person to be executed in Missouri in three months. His death marked only the second time since 2015 that more than one person was executed in a calendar year.

He was convicted in 2008 of killing 28-year-old Angela Rowe and her three children, Alexus Conley, 10, AcQreya Conley, 6, and Tyrese Conley, 5, at their home on Park Lane in Jennings. He has insisted he is innocent of the killings.

Rowe's older sister, Gerjuan Rowe, attended Tuesday's execution along with eight other loved ones. "Justice was served," Rowe said. "Now, I get a little peace."

Rowe and her children were found Dec. 3, 2004. Rowe was covered by blankets and shot four times, once fatally in the head. The children were also shot and lined up on a bed. Prosecutors said they believed the family was shot on the night of Nov. 23 or early morning of Nov. 24, 2004.

Taylor had called his brother just before midnight, then again at 12:05 a.m. Nov. 24, and admitted to the killings. The brother told police Taylor stayed in the house with the bodies because he was waiting for a letter from his wife in California....

A jury sentenced Taylor to death on Feb. 29, 2008, for the four murders.

Taylor had since filed several appeals, including a request last month asking St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell to hold a hearing to review discrepancies in the state's evidence and consider new declarations from Taylor's daughter and her mother saying Taylor was actually in Los Angeles at the time of the killings. Bell denied that request last week, finding "the facts are not there to support a credible case of innocence."

On Monday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson denied Taylor's petition for clemency. "Leonard Taylor brutally murdered a mother and her three children. The evidence shows Taylor committed these atrocities and a jury found him guilty," Parson said in a statement. "Despite his self-serving claim of innocence, the facts of his guilt in this gruesome quadruple homicide remain."

February 7, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, February 06, 2023

A number of notable capital punishment stories to start the week

I have seen so many notable new press stories about capital punishment issues, I concluded this round-up of headlines and links would be the only way to keep up:

From the AP, "Spiritual advisers offering final comfort in execution rooms"

From the AP, "Florida could end unanimous jury requirement for executions"

From the Kansas City Star, "‘Intolerable injustice’: Innocence Project calls for halt to Missouri man’s execution"

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Shapiro must decide whether and how to keep Wolf's death penalty moratorium in place"

From the UPI, "Death row inmate's attorneys called sentence 'justifiable lynching' in 1999 hearing"

From WFLA, "Steven Lorenzo requests death penalty in double murder case"

From WIBW, "ACLU to try Kansas death penalty in multi-day Wichita hearing"

February 6, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Notable trifurcation ruling in federal capital case against Tree of Life mass murderer

The criminal law professor listserve brought to my attention the interesting capital criminal procedure story coming this week from federal court in Pittsburgh.  This local article, headlined "Judge rules Tree of Life death penalty sentencing would occur in 2 phases," provides the basics:

If Robert Bowers is found guilty later this year of killing 11 worshippers inside a Squirrel Hill synagogue in 2018, his sentencing will be broken into two separate phases, a judge ruled this week.  The trial for Mr. Bowers, accused in the Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting at the synagogue where three congregations — Tree of Life or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light — were holding Shabbat services, is set to begin in April.

Eleven were killed in the shooting: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, David and Cecil Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. Two other worshippers and several police officers were injured.

Mr. Bowers’ defense team had sought to split the sentencing phase of the trial — if there is a sentencing phase — into two distinct segments, which would ultimately make the federal case against Mr. Bowers a three-part trial. The trial itself will take place, after which a jury will decide upon Mr. Bowers’ guilt. If he is found guilty, there will be two parts to the sentencing phase.  In the first, jurors will consider whether federal prosecutors have proved that Mr. Bowers is eligible for the death penalty, which the government is seeking. In the second, jurors will decide upon a sentence for Mr. Bowers.

Most notably, the decision by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville means that, if there is a sentencing phase, jurors won’t hear victim-impact statements until after they’ve decided if Mr. Bowers is eligible for the death penalty. Defense attorneys had sought this split sentencing, noting that otherwise “the jury will hear the highly emotional and prejudicial victim impact evidence in the same proceeding in which they consider whether the elements of a federal capital crime have been proven.”

In short, defense counsel feared jurors would be unduly swayed to decide Mr. Bowers was eligible for the death penalty if they heard the victim impact statements before making that decision. Federal prosecutors, in expressing opposition to splitting the sentencing phase, noted that the law does not require such a distinction. Plus, they noted, separating the sentencing phases “would unduly complicate the penalty phase, introduce significant risk of jury confusion and run counter to the court’s interest in judicial economy.”

Judge Colville ultimately agreed with the defense, ruling sentencing will be broken into two parts “in an abundance of caution.” He noted that while the court is not required to split the sentencing phase, it has the discretion to do so. 

US District Judge Colville's 14-page opinion granting the defendant’s "Motion to Trifurcate" is available here:

Download USA_v._BOWERS__Docket_No._2_18

February 2, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Texas completes in second execution of 2023

As reported in this AP article, "Texas on Wednesday executed an inmate convicted of fatally shooting a Dallas police officer nearly 16 years ago after a high-speed chase." Here is more:

Wesley Ruiz, 43, received a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, for the March 2007 killing of Dallas Police Senior Corporal Mark Nix....  Nix, 33, a U.S. Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm, had been on the Dallas force for nearly seven years and was engaged to be married when he was killed....

Ruiz was the second inmate put to death this year in Texas and the fourth in the U.S.  Seven other executions are scheduled in Texas for later this year, including one next week....

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier Wednesday declined an appeal from Ruiz’s attorneys to halt the execution.  The defense had argued that jurors relied on “overtly racist” and “blatant anti-Hispanic stereotypes” in appraising whether Ruiz posed a future danger, an element needed to secure a death sentence in Texas. Ruiz was Hispanic....

Ruiz was one of five Texas death row inmates who sued to stop the state’s prison system from using what they allege are expired and unsafe execution drugs.  Despite a civil court judge in Austin preliminarily agreeing with the claims, the state’s top two courts allowed one of the inmates who had been part of the litigation to be executed on Jan. 10....

Gabriel Luchiano, who knew Nix when he worked as a security guard, said the officer always responded quickly when people needed help at the convenience store in northwest Dallas where Luchiano worked.  He was a “guardian angel,” said Luchiano. “It’s still painful no matter what. Nothing is going to close it.”

February 1, 2023 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (38)

Monday, January 30, 2023

"Suffering Before Execution"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Lee Kovarsky now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

When condemned people suffer before their executions, does that suffering represent punishment?  I argue that it does not — at least not the suffering on American-style death rows.  American institutions instead administer pre-execution confinement as something closer to non-punitive detention, and I make several normative claims about what should follow from that status.  Among other things, a non-punitive paradigm entails thicker constitutional constraints on solitary confinement and unsafe living conditions.  It also represents a novel solution to a challenging doctrinal puzzle involving confinement, execution, and the Eighth Amendment.

To understand why pre-execution confinement is nonpunitive, readers need a basic understanding of the experience itself.  Most death-sentenced people will lead lives marked by some substantial combination of inadequate nutrition, deficient health care, substandard sanitation and ventilation, restricted movement, and excessive isolation.  On average, those whom the state kills will have spent about twenty years in such conditions — up from two years in 1960.  The distribution of this suffering across the death-sentenced prisoner cohort bears little relationship to criminal blameworthiness.  Almost without exception, however, scholarship and decisional law continue to treat confinement before execution as punishment.

That assumption is unjustified as a matter of penal theory, for two reasons.  First, confinement before execution does not meet consensus criteria for punishment.  It is instead suffering that is collateral to an incapacitation interest. Second, if pre-execution confinement were to be taken seriously as a punitive practice, then it would be normatively unjustified.  More specifically, punitive confinement would represent punishment beyond the legally specified maximum (an execution), and it would distribute that punishment across the death-sentenced prisoner cohort arbitrarily.

There is a reasonably well-developed body of constitutional law capable of absorbing a shift in the status of pre-execution confinement.  On that constitutional law, when the state detains people primarily to incapacitate them, that detention is preventative, not punitive.  Due process, rather than the Eighth Amendment, constrains such preventative detention. A nonpunitive approach would reduce suffering because the constitutional rules contain different, more stringent constraints on pre-execution confinement.  Such an approach would also give the Supreme Court satisfactory answers to difficult Eighth Amendment questions that have eluded it for quite some time.

January 30, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Different approaches to death penalty administration from different governors

When it comes to the administration of the death penalty, governors tend to have a huge (and outsized?) role at the state level.  Historically, that role has been exercised through grants of executive clemency, though it can also shape in various ways how death sentencing operates or how executions are conducted.  With the start of a new year, I have seen a number of notable new stories about a number of governors seeking to impact how their states approach capital punishment.

From the AP, "Arizona executions on hold amid review ordered by governor":

Arizona’s attorney general has put a hold on executions in the state until the completion of a review of death penalty protocols ordered by the new governor due to the state’s history of mismanaging executions.

The review ordered Friday by Gov. Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s first Democratic governor since 2009, came as the state’s new Democratic attorney general, Kris Mayes, withdrew her Republican predecessor’s request for a warrant to execute a convicted killer who initially asked to be executed but later backed out of that request.  While Hobbs’ order didn’t declare a moratorium on the death penalty, Mayes will not seek court orders to execute prisoners while the review is underway, said Mayes spokesperson Richie Taylor.

From the Nashville Scene, "Bill Lee Tries to Keep Lethal Injection Alive: Rather than reconsidering capital punishment, the governor will make leadership changes after a damning investigation into Tennessee executions":

In April of last year, the governor — then the media, then the public — learned that the state had bungled drug testing in the hours leading up to the planned execution of 72-year-old Oscar Franklin Smith. Lee issued a last-minute reprieve for Smith and, days later, suspended executions through 2022, citing “technical issues” with the state’s lethal injection process....

On Jan. 9, Frank Strada — previously the deputy director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections — assumed the role of commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Correction with an explicit mandate to bring back Tennessee executions.

From Florida Politics, "Gov. DeSantis calls for juror ‘supermajority’ to suffice in death penalty cases":

Gov. Ron DeSantis started out his week with the Florida Sheriff’s Association (FSA), where he discussed his desire to allow juries to administer the death penalty via a supermajority vote, rather than requiring unanimity.  “Fine, have a supermajority. But you can’t just say one person (can decide against the death penalty). So maybe eight out of 12 have to agree? Or something. But we can’t be in a situation where one person can just derail this,” DeSantis said at the group’s winter conference in St. Johns County, discussing death penalty verdicts left unachieved because of a rogue juror.

DeSantis told the FSA Monday that he wants a “supermajority” to constitute a sufficient vote count for execution. The pitch comes in the wake of the Parkland killer not getting the death penalty because of what DeSantis called one person’s “idiosyncratic” approach to the proceedings, though there ultimately were three votes not to execute the murderer.

January 24, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, January 19, 2023

"The Problem with Capital Pleas"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by William W. Berry III available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In United States v. Jackson, the Supreme Court recognized the importance of protecting an individual's jury trial rights in capital plea bargaining.  With the subsequent Brady trilogy, however, the Court’s plea bargaining doctrine migrated away from Jackson and accepted pleas in capital cases as long as the defendant had counsel.

Over the past twenty years, the capital punishment landscape has significantly narrowed, with only twenty new death sentences a year, most coming from the few counties that have the economic resources to pursue the death penalty. The decreased likelihood of receiving a death sentence could, in theory, convince more capital defendants to go to trial as opposed to entering plea deals, especially as juries, even in Texas, are increasingly disinclined to impose death sentences.  But the risk of execution remains too heavy a thumb on the scale.  The effect of this dynamic is that prosecutors essentially have the power to impose mandatory LWOP sentences in homicide cases, simply by threatening to pursue the death penalty.

As such, this essay makes the case that, taken together, the values of the Fifth (right not to plead guilty), Sixth (trial by jury, right of confrontation, right to present witnesses), and Eighth Amendments (right to heightened scrutiny in capital cases) should lead the Court, legislatures, or prosecutors themselves to eliminate plea agreements in capital cases, particularly those that result in LWOP sentences.  Such bargained sentences almost certainly reflect the coercion of the prosecutor in an unequal bargaining dynamic rather than a voluntary acceptance of a proportional punishment for one’s crime.

January 19, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The look of a federal capital moratorium(?): prosecutors not seeking death penalty for El Paso Walmart shooter

As detailed in this Wall Street Journal piece, the "Justice Department won’t seek the death penalty for the man accused of killing 23 people in 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, federal prosecutors said in a Tuesday court filing."  Here is more:

Patrick Crusius faces 90 federal charges for his alleged role in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.  Of those charges, 45 have been deemed hate crimes, or crimes motivated by racial, religious, national-origin, sexual, gender or disability bias. Mr. Crusius, 21 years old at the time, is accused of traveling to the Texas border city to target Latinos in the attack. Nearly two dozen people were injured in the shooting.

Jury selection is expected to begin in his federal case in January 2024.  Mr. Crusius, now 24, was also indicted on state charges of capital murder and could face the death penalty if convicted. The state case would proceed after the federal case is done....

Months after taking office in 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a nationwide halt to federal executions while he reviewed policies and protocols put in place by the Trump administration that led to the highest rate of federal executions in more than a century.  President Biden has said he would work to end federal executions.

The Justice Department last year chose to continue the pursuit of the death penalty against an alleged terrorist charged with killing eight people in New York City in 2017.  The Trump administration initially sought the death penalty against Sayfullo Saipov, who prosecutors said was inspired by Islamic State to carry out the Manhattan attack. Mr. Saipov’s attorneys asked Mr. Garland to withdraw the death penalty from the case but were turned down.

Justin Underwood, an attorney representing the family of Walmart shooting victim Alexander Hoffman, said they were disappointed by the Justice Department’s decision. “They’re disappointed the U.S. government won’t seek the death penalty on a mass murderer who drove 10 hours to seek out and kill Hispanic and Mexican people,” Mr. Underwood said. “If this guy doesn’t qualify for the death penalty, why on earth do we even have a federal death penalty statute?”

Mr. Underwood questioned why the federal government continued to pursue the death penalty in Mr. Saipov’s case in New York, but not in the Walmart shooting.  Mr. Hoffman’s widow and his two sons are now looking to the state’s case for justice, Mr. Underwood said.  “This might not be the Christian thing for me to say, but some people need to be killed and he certainly qualifies,” Mr. Underwood said. “I just put my faith in the state of Texas to seek justice in this case.”

Intriguingly, this Reuters article about this prosecutorial charging decision makes mention of a fact not noted by the WSJ that might be part of the story: "When he was taken into police custody minutes after the shooting, Crusius was in a psychotic state and treated with anti-psychotic medication, according to mental health professionals employed by the jail, a court filing said."  Mental health issues might well have influenced federal prosecutors here; Crusius's defense attorneys hoped it would accourding to this 2020 AP piece:

Lawyers for a man charged with shooting scores of people in a racist attack at a Texas Walmart say their client has diagnosed mental disabilities that should be a “red flag” for federal prosecutors considering whether to seek the death penalty.

Patrick Crusius “has been diagnosed with severe, lifelong neurological and mental disabilities” and was treated with antipsychotic medication following his arrest moments after the massacre in El Paso, his attorneys wrote in a court filing.

January 18, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (34)

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

California working to clear condemned inmates from death row

This recent NPR piece, headlined "California says it will dismantle death row. The move brings cheers and anger," provides an interesting overview of the state of California's death penalty as it seeks  to clear the nation's largest (and largely dormant) death row.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

California this week pushed ahead with controversial efforts to dismantle the largest death row system in America.

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state is moving to make the transfer of condemned inmates permanent and mandatory after what the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) calls a successful pilot program that voluntarily moved 101 inmates off death row into general population prisons across the state....

After a 45-day public comment period and a public hearing in March, the state hopes to start moving all 671 death row inmates – 650 men and 21 women — into several other prisons across the state with high-security units. Some prisoners will be able to get jobs or cellmates if they are mainstreamed into the general prison population.

The CDCR says the move allows the state "to phase out the practice of segregating people on death row based solely on their sentence." No inmates will be re-sentenced and no death row commutations offered, officials say.

Technically, the death penalty still exists in California. Prosecutors can still seek it. But no one has been put to death in the state in 17 years. And in 2019, Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and he closed the death chamber at San Quentin, the decrepit and still heavily used 19th century prison overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Those who get prison jobs — as clerks, laundry or kitchen helpers – will see 70 percent of their pay go to victims' families, as required under Proposition 66. That 2016 voter-passed initiative amended California's Penal Code to require death-sentenced inmates to work and pay restitution....

But death penalty proponents and victims' rights advocates are frustrated and angry. "To hear this news is devastating," says Sandra Friend. She described feeling victimized all over again. Her 8-year-old son Michael Lyons was making his way home from school in Yuba City, Calif., in 1996 when he was abducted and sodomized by serial killer Robert Boyd Rhoades, who dumped the child's body in a riverbed....

In part, California's death penalty reforms grew out of 2016's Prop. 66, which promised to speed up the time between a death sentence and an execution. The successful ballot measure also required condemned prisoners to work and pay restitution. Now death penalty proponents accuse Newsom of exploiting a lesser-known section of Prop. 66 for his own ideological and political purposes.

"The governor has taken loopholes and nuances in the law and used them to give criminals — the worst criminals — a break," says Michael Rushford, president of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "To start mainstreaming people like Tiequon Cox, who killed an entire family in Los Angeles after going to the wrong address to do a gang hit, is an abandonment of justice. Injecting politics into criminal justice and public safety is insane. It's unjust, unfair and it's stupid."...

In California, Sandra Friend says it's outrageous that killers like Rhoades may "get rewarded," as she puts it, with expanded work options, even a cellmate. "For him to be able to leave death row and go into a cushier prison, having maybe possibly a cellie, having a job, is terrifying because he is the worst of the worst. He is a monster," she says.

State officials underscore that inmate transfers and their housing will depend on the specific facts of each inmate. "Their housing would depend on their individual case factors, and it's what the multidisciplinary teams will be evaluating," says CDCR spokeswoman Vicky Waters.... The state hopes to permanently empty California's death row by this fall, a CDCR official says.

Friend vows to fight the effort. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled in Sacramento for March 8. "I'm definitely going to make Michael's voice heard," she says, "because he's the one that is getting lost in all of this."

January 17, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Oklahoma become third state to complete an execution at the start of 2023

As detailed in this press report, "Oklahoma executed a man Thursday who was convicted of killing an elderly couple and committing other crimes 20 years ago before authorities caught up to him in Texas after a manhunt."  Here is more:

Scott James Eizember, 62, received a lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and was pronounced dead at 10:15 a.m. local time....

Eizember's attorneys did not deny he killed A.J. Cantrell, 76, and his wife, Patsy Cantrell, 70, on Oct. 18, 2003. But they told the state's Pardon and Parole Board last month that the killings were unplanned and spontaneous and his life still had value. The board voted 3-2 to reject a clemency recommendation.

"He has felt remorse every day of his imprisonment.  There is no reason to kill him next month other than revenge," attorney Mark Henricksen told the board.

After the execution, several members of the Cantrell spoke of the pain the family has endured and voiced concern at the length of time it took for Eizember to be executed.  "After living this nightmare, I must say that 20 years is too long for justice to be served," Johnny Melton, the slain couple's nephew, said in a statement read on behalf of the family.  "We want to get it right and we absolutely want to ensure that everyone's rights are protected, but the process is much too slow."

Melton also stressed the importance of addressing domestic violence and improving mental health treatment, in the state of Oklahoma and across the nation.  "I know this is going to be a controversial statement, but I believe it to be a fact. It is the abuser who needs help. They need it when they are young," Melton said. "By the time the victim needs help, it's too late."...

Eizember filed a last-minute lawsuit seeking to have his spiritual adviser with him inside the death chamber during his execution after the Department of Corrections rejected the minister because of [Rev. Jeffrey] Hood's history of anti-death penalty activism, including arrests.  The DOC reversed course on that decision Wednesday, citing concerns from the Cantrell family that the decision could lead to Thursday's execution being called off.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that states must accommodate the wishes of death row inmates who want to have their pastors pray aloud and even touch them during their executions.

Oklahoma uses a three-drug lethal injection method starting with the sedative midazolam, rendering the person unconscious, followed by a paralytic vecuronium bromide and finally potassium chloride, which stops the heart.  Eizember's execution was the eighth in Oklahoma since the state resumed executions in 2021.

January 12, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Texas completes its first executon of 2023

Texas completed only five executions in 2022 (and only three in 2021 and 2020), but the state already has six executions planned for the first few months of 2023. And, as detailed in this AP article, the first of those scheduled execution was carried out yesterday. Here are the basics:

A former suburban Houston police officer was executed Tuesday for hiring two people to kill his estranged wife nearly 30 years ago amid a contentious divorce and custody battle.

Robert Fratta, 65, received a lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville for the November 1994 fatal shooting of his wife, Farah. He was pronounced dead at 7:49 p.m., 24 minutes after the lethal dose of the powerful sedative pentobarbital began flowing into his arms.

For about three minutes before the execution began, Fratta’s spiritual adviser, Barry Brown, prayed over Fratta, who was strapped to the death chamber gurney with intravenous needles in each arm.... Asked by the warden if he had a final statement, Fratta replied: “No.”...

Prosecutors say Fratta organized the murder-for-hire plot in which a middleman, Joseph Prystash, hired the shooter, Howard Guidry. Farah Fratta, 33, was shot twice in the head in her home’s garage in the Houston suburb of Atascocita. Robert Fratta, who was a public safety officer for Missouri City, had long claimed he was innocent.

The punishment was delayed for little more than an hour until the last of a flurry of final-day appeals cleared the U.S. Supreme Court and Texas’ highest courts, the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Fratta’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully that prosecutors withheld evidence that a trial witness had been hypnotized by investigators, leading her to change her initial recollection that she saw two men at the murder scene as well as a getaway driver....

Fratta was also one of four Texas death row inmates who sued to stop the state’s prison system from using what they allege are expired and unsafe execution drugs. That lawsuit also failed late Tuesday,

The Supreme Court and lower courts previously rejected appeals from Fratta’s lawyers that sought to review claims arguing insufficient evidence and faulty jury instructions were used to convict him. His attorneys also unsuccessfully argued that a juror in his case was not impartial and that ballistics evidence didn’t tie him to the murder weapon....

Fratta was first sentenced to death in 1996, but his conviction was overturned by a federal judge who ruled that confessions from his co-conspirators shouldn’t have been admitted into evidence. In the same ruling, the judge wrote that “trial evidence showed Fratta to be egotistical, misogynistic, and vile, with a callous desire to kill his wife.” He was retried and resentenced to death in 2009....

Fratta was the first inmate put to death this year in Texas and the second in the U.S. Eight other executions are scheduled in Texas for later this year.

January 11, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, January 07, 2023

Noticing the shape of the federal death penalty circa 2023

Just under 20 years ago, in the inaugural issue of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker authored this fascinating little article imagining the death pemalty circa 2022.  The article's title, "Abolition in Our Time," reveals that the piece did not perfectly predict the future.  But the piece did have this somewhat prescient take on how "the politics of the death penalty have shifted":

Prominent politicians in both parties are willing to oppose the death penalty publicly, though very few make it a political priority. Many such leaders also distinguish between the importance of retaining the death penalty for cases in which "vital national interests" are at stake — the war on terrorism — and cases involving ordinary state law enforcement.

The Steikers' article came to mind for me today as I read this new New York Times piece discussing the current state of the federal death penalty. The piece is headlined "Suspect in Bike Path Killing Faces First Death Penalty Trial Under Biden," and here are excerpts:

On Halloween 2017, Sayfullo Saipov plowed a rented pickup truck down Manhattan’s crowded West Side bicycle path, smashing into pedestrians and cyclists, killing eight people and injuring more than a dozen, the authorities said.

Soon after Mr. Saipov was charged, President Donald J. Trump tweeted, “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” And his attorney general later directed prosecutors to seek execution if Mr. Saipov was convicted.

Last year, Mr. Saipov’s lawyers asked President Biden’s Justice Department to withdraw that order. Mr. Biden, after all, had campaigned against capital punishment. But his attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, denied the request, and on Monday, Mr. Saipov’s trial is scheduled to begin in Federal District Court in Manhattan — the first federal death penalty trial under the Biden administration.

Mr. Garland’s decision to continue pursuing the death penalty for Mr. Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, suggests a nuanced approach, one in which he has been reluctant to withdraw the threat of capital punishment in one type of case in particular: terrorism-related offenses....

Since taking office nearly two years ago, Mr. Garland has not sought capital punishment in any new case and indeed has declared a nationwide moratorium on federal executions. The Justice Department has also withdrawn directives issued by previous administrations seeking the death penalty against 25 federal defendants, according to court records and the department’s data.

At the same time, the department has defended appeals of the death sentences imposed during President Barack Obama’s administration on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, and Dylann S. Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine members of a Black church in South Carolina....

A spokesman for the Justice Department said that as a matter of policy it does not offer public reasons for decisions to withdraw death penalty directives. Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, and David E. Patton, a lawyer for Mr. Saipov, declined to comment on the case.

But some lawyers said a pattern had emerged: None of the 25 defendants for whom the Justice Department has withdrawn death penalty requests were charged in a terrorism-related offense.  “Early on, it became clear that notwithstanding the statements made by both the president and the attorney general, that there was going to be this sort of carve-out around terrorism,” said Anthony L. Ricco, a veteran death penalty defense lawyer in New York.

January 7, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

"Death Penalty Abolition, the Right to Life, and Necessity"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Ben Jones. Here is its abstract:

One prominent argument in international law and religious thought for abolishing capital punishment is that it violates individuals’ right to life.  Notably, this right-to-life argument emerged from normative and legal frameworks that recognize deadly force against aggressors as justified when necessary to stop their unjust threat of grave harm.  Can capital punishment be necessary in this sense — and thus justified defensive killing?  If so, the right-to-life argument would have to admit certain exceptions where executions are justified.  Drawing on work by Hugo Bedau, I identify a thought experiment where executions are justified defensive killing but explain why they cannot be in our world.  A state’s obligations to its prisoners include the obligation to use nonlethal incapacitation (ONI), which applies as long as prisoners pose no imminent threat.  ONI precludes executions for reasons of future dangerousness.  By subjecting the right-to-life argument to closer scrutiny, this article ultimately places it on firmer ground.

January 4, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, January 02, 2023

Missouri scheduled to execute transgender woman

The first US execution in a new year is always notable, but the execution that Missouri has scheduled for Tuesday, January 3 is noteworthy for a variety of reasons.  The headline of this AP piece provides the basics: "Transgender woman’s scheduled execution would be US first."  Here are more of the details:

Unless Missouri Gov. Mike Parson grants clemency, Amber McLaughlin, 49, will become the first transgender woman executed in the U.S.  She is scheduled to die by injection Tuesday for killing a former girlfriend in 2003.  McLaughlin’s attorney, Larry Komp, said there are no court appeals pending.

The clemency request focuses on several issues, including McLaughlin’s traumatic childhood and mental health issues, which the jury never heard in her trial.  A foster parent rubbed feces in her face when she was a toddler and her adoptive father used a stun gun on her, according to the clemency petition.  It says she suffers from depression and attempted suicide multiple times.

The petition also includes reports citing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a condition that causes anguish and other symptoms as a result of a disparity between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex at birth.  “We think Amber has demonstrated incredible courage because I can tell you there’s a lot of hate when it comes to that issue,” her attorney, Larry Komp, said Monday.  But, he said, McLaughlin’s sexual identity is “not the main focus” of the clemency request.

Parson’s spokesperson, Kelli Jones, said the review process for the clemency request is still underway.

There is no known case of a transgender inmate being executed in the U.S. before, according to the anti-execution Death Penalty Information Center.  A friend in prison says she saw McLaughlin’s personality blossom during her gender transition.

Before transitioning, McLaughlin was in a relationship with girlfriend Beverly Guenther.  McLaughlin would show up at the suburban St. Louis office where the 45-year-old Guenther worked, sometimes hiding inside the building, according to court records.  Guenther obtained a restraining order, and police officers occasionally escorted her to her car after work.

Guenther’s neighbors called police the night of Nov. 20, 2003, when she failed to return home. Officers went to the office building, where they found a broken knife handle near her car and a trail of blood.  A day later, McLaughlin led police to a location near the Mississippi River in St. Louis, where the body had been dumped.

McLaughlin was convicted of first-degree murder in 2006.  A judge sentenced McLaughlin to death after a jury deadlocked on the sentence.  A court in 2016 ordered a new sentencing hearing, but a federal appeals court panel reinstated the death penalty in 2021....

The only woman ever executed in Missouri was Bonnie B. Heady, put to death on Dec. 18, 1953, for kidnapping and killing a 6-year-old boy.  Heady was executed in the gas chamber, side by side with the other kidnapper and killer, Carl Austin Hall.

Nationally, 18 people were executed in 2022, including two in Missouri.

Though McLaughlin status as potentially the first transgender woman to be executed is what is making headlines, the fact she was sentenced to death by a judge rather than a jury is also noteworthy.

UPDATE: As detailed in this CNN piece, Missouri's Governor denied McLaughlin's clemency request and the first execution in the US in 2023 was completed in the early evening of January 3:

McLaughlin, 49, and her attorneys had petitioned Republican Gov. Mike Parson for clemency, asking him to commute her death sentence. Aside from the fact a jury could not agree on the death penalty, they say, McLaughlin has shown genuine remorse and has struggled with an intellectual disability, mental health issues and a history of childhood trauma.

But in a statement Tuesday, Parson’s office announced the execution would move forward as planned. The family and loved ones of her victim, Beverly Guenther, “deserve peace,” the statement said. “The State of Missouri will carry out McLaughlin’s sentence according to the Court’s order,” Parson said, “and deliver justice.”...

“McLaughlin was pronounced dead at 6:51 p.m.,” the Missouri Department of Corrections said in a written statement. A spokesperson did not say if McLaughlin had a final statement.

January 2, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

State judge blocks plans of Nevada Pardon Board to discuss possible commutation of all state death sentences

As reported in this local article, a "Carson City District Court judge Monday ruled the state Board of Parsons may not consider commuting every death sentence in Nevada at its Tuesday meeting." The six page ruling is available at this link, and the first sentence of the last paragraph of the opinion states: "The Board's planned action, should it be permitted to occur, will violate the Nevada Revised Statutes, the Nevada Administrative Code, and the Nevada Constituion." Here is more about the ruling and the context from the press report:

Judge James Wilson issued a writ of prohibition against the board and Gov. Steve Sisolak — who asked the board to consider the commutations — after the Washoe County district attorney’s office filed an emergency petition on Friday seeking to block the move.

Wilson ruled that the board had not properly notify the families of murder victims of its intent to commute the death sentences of the 57 people currently on death row, that those inmates had not exhausted all of their appeals and that they had not applied to the board to lessen their sentences. In addition, the board is required to consider each case individually, and cannot grant “categorical” clemencies, Wilson ruled.

“The Board’s proposed action would violate the Nevada Constitution by failing to provide (victim’s families) with reasonable notice of these public proceedings, so that they may exercise their constitutional right to be reasonably heard regarding the proposed commutation of 57 death sentences,” Wilson wrote. “Each victim is entitled to be treated with fairness, respect, dignity and the right to be reasonably heard at any hearings involving the commutation of sentence.”

In addition, the law requires a consideration of each individual case on its merits, which would be impossible at Tuesday’s meeting, Wilson wrote. “Equally evident in the plain meaning of the statutory and administrative code is the Board’s obligation to make an individualized determination in each clemency matter,” Wilson wrote. “Even if individual applications had been submitted for each of the 57 persons on death row, the type of individualized determination that is mandated by (state law) and (administrative regulations) cannot be reasonably accomplished at a single meeting of the Board.”

Finally, Wilson wrote, the board can’t do a mass commutation. State law “does not permit the Board to grant ‘categorial’ exemptions, as this would amount to the Board creating statutory exceptions to a form of punishment specifically provided for by the legislature. It is not the Board’s prerogative to amend statutes.”...

The controversy began last week, when Sisolak urged the board to consider commuting every death sentence in the state. The board, which decides clemency cases in Nevada, is made up of the governor, the attorney general and all seven members of the Nevada Supreme Court. That prompted the Washoe County district attorney’s office to file a motion to block the move on Friday....

Meanwhile, Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo, a career police officer who currently serves as the sheriff of Clark County, hailed the ruling: “I’m thankful to Judge James Wilson for upholding the law, and I’m grateful that he protected the voter-approved constitutional rights of crime victims and their families.  I’m relieved that justice has prevailed through Marsy’s Law,” Lombardo said in a statement.  Marsy’s Law was a 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment that provided rights to crime victims, including to have a notice of all hearings, to attend those hearings and to speak about the proceedings.

In addition to Washoe County, the Clark County district attorney’s office asked the Nevada Supreme Court to block Tuesday’s hearings, making similar arguments to its counterpart in Washoe County. Not only that, but Jennifer Otremba, the mother of 15-year-old murder victim Alyssa Otremba, filed a similar petition with the Supreme Court on Monday, arguing that changing the board’s agenda without giving notice to victims’ families violated Marsy’s Law.  “The Pardons Board’s rushed effort to commute all capital sentences without the mandated notice and application has not only robbed Jennifer of her right to participate, it has also deprived the Pardons Board of jurisdiction to proceed,” Otremba’s petition said.

Otremba has addressed the Legislature multiple times in recent years as an opponent of abolishing the death penalty.  Her daughter’s killer, Javier Righetti, was sentenced to die for raping and stabbing the teenager more than 80 times in 2011, during the girl’s first week at Arbor View High School.

Bills to repeal the death penalty have been repeatedly introduced in the Legislature, but none have ever passed.  In 2021, a repeal bill passed the Assembly but died in the state Senate. Sisolak at the time said he was generally opposed to capital punishment, but wanted exceptions for especially heinous crimes such as the mass shooting that took place on 1 October in Las Vegas.

December 20, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 16, 2022

DPIC releases year-end report emphasizing botched executions and no 2022 increases in death penalty support

The Death Penalty Information Center this morning released this annual report under the heading "The Death Penalty in 2022: Year End Report; Public Support for Death Penalty at Near-Record Low Despite Perception that Violent Crime is Up."  Here is the start of the report's introduction, with lots and lots of interesting capital punishment data and discussion thereafter:

In a year awash with incendiary political advertising that drove the public’s perception of rising crime to record highs, public support for capital punishment and jury verdicts for death remained near fifty-year lows.  Defying conventional political wisdom, nearly every measure of change — from new death sentences imposed and executions conducted to public opinion polls and election results — pointed to the continuing durability of the more than 20-year sustained decline of the death penalty in the United States.

The Gallup crime survey, administered in the midst of the midterm elections while the capital trial for the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida was underway, found that support for capital punishment remained within one percentage point of the half-century lows recorded in 2020 and 2021.  The 22 new death sentences imposed in 2022 are fewer than in any year before the pandemic, and just 4 higher than the record lows of the prior two years.  With the exception of the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the 18 executions in 2022 are the fewest since 1991.

One by one, states continued their movement away from the death penalty.  On December 13, 2022, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced the commutation of the capital sentences of all 17 death-row prisoners and instructed corrections officials to begin dismantling the state’s execution chamber.  The commutations completed what she called the “near abolition” of the death penalty by the state legislature in 2019.  Thirty-seven states — nearly three-quarters of the country — have now abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than a decade.

For the eighth consecutive year, fewer than 30 people were executed and fewer than 50 people were sentenced to death.  The five-year average of new death sentences, 27* per year, is the lowest in 50 years.  The five-year average of executions, 18.6 per year, is the lowest in more than 30 years, a 74% decline over the course of one decade.  Death row declined in size for the 21st consecutive year, even before Governor Brown commuted the sentences of the 17 prisoners on Oregon’s death row.

2022 could be called “the year of the botched execution” because of the high number of states with failed or bungled executions. Seven of the 20 execution attempts were visibly problematic — an astonishing 35% — as a result of executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols, or defects in the protocols themselves.  On July 28, 2022, executioners in Alabama took three hours to set an IV line before putting Joe James Jr. to death, the longest botched lethal injection execution in U.S. history.  Executions were put on hold in Alabama, Tennessee, Idaho, and South Carolina when the states were unable to follow execution protocols.  Idaho scheduled an execution without the drugs to carry it out.  One execution did not occur in Oklahoma because the state did not have custody of the prisoner and had not made arrangements for his transfer before scheduling him to be put to death.

December 16, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Mississippi completes likely last execution in United States for 2022

As reported in this AP article, a "man who raped and killed a 16-year-old girl in Mississippi was put to death by lethal injection on Wednesday, becoming the second inmate executed in the state in 10 years." Here is more:

Thomas Edwin Loden Jr., 58, was pronounced dead at 6:12 p.m. by Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton. He’d been on death row since 2001, when he pleaded guilty to capital murder, rape and four counts of sexual battery against Leesa Marie Gray. She was stranded with a flat tire in June 2000 when Loden forced her into his van....

Earlier this month, a federal judge declined to block Loden’s execution amid a pending lawsuit by him and four other Mississippi death row inmates over the state’s use of three drugs for lethal injections, a protocol they allege is inhumane....

In November, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey sought a pause in executions and ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of the state’s capital punishment system after a series of failed lethal injections. Mississippi has done “mock executions and drills” on a monthly basis to avoid a botched execution, Jeworski Mallett, deputy commissioner of institutions for the Department of Corrections, told reporters.

The Department of Corrections revealed in court papers in July 2021 that it had acquired three drugs for its lethal injection protocol: midazolam, which is a sedative; vecuronium bromide, which paralyzes the muscles; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Since 2019, only Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Tennessee have used a three-drug protocol, said Jim Craig, a MacArthur Center attorney, speaking at a November court hearing.

This page at the Death Penalty Information Center reports that there are execution dates scheduled in two states tomorrow, but also that those execution are not likely to move forward. Therefore it appears that this Mississippi execution will be the last in the US this year, which means that there were a total of 18 execution in this us in 2022. That marks more executions in the US than in 2021 (11) and 2020 (17), but fewer than in every other year going back until 1991 (14).

December 14, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Outgoing Oregon Gov commutes all 17 of state's remaining death sentences to LWOP

As detailed in this local article, "Gov. Kate Brown announced on Tuesday afternoon that she would commute the sentences of all 17 individuals on Oregon’s death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the latest in her end-of-term string of clemency decisions."  Here is more:

“I have long believed that justice is not advanced by taking a life, and the state should not be in the business of executing people — even if a terrible crime placed them in prison,” Brown said in a statement sent out in a press release.  “This is a value that many Oregonians share,” Brown said.  The governor also directed the Department of Corrections to dismantle the state’s death chamber.

Oregon has not executed anyone on death row for a quarter century and Brown continued the moratorium that former Gov. John Kitzhaber put in place in 2011.  Governor-elect Tina Kotek, who like Brown and Kitzhaber is a Democrat, is personally opposed to the death penalty based on her religious beliefs and said during the campaign that she would continue the moratorium.

Voters have gone back and forth on the death penalty over the years, abolishing and reinstating it repeatedly.  Voters’ most recent decision on the death penalty was in 1984, when they inserted it into the state Constitution....

In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill that limited the crimes that qualified for the death penalty by narrowing the definition of aggravated murder to killing two or more people as an act of organized terrorism; intentionally and with premeditation kilIing a child younger than 14; killing another person while locked up in jail or prison for a previous murder; or killing a police, correctional or probation officer....

Brown said in her statement Tuesday that commuting the sentences of people currently serving on Oregon’s death row was consistent with what she described as lawmakers’ “near abolition” of capital punishment.  “Unlike previous commutations I’ve granted to individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary growth and rehabilitation, this commutation is not based on any rehabilitative efforts by the individuals on death row,” Brown said.  “Instead, it reflects the recognition that the death penalty is immoral. It is an irreversible punishment that does not allow for correction; is wasteful of taxpayer dollars; does not make communities safer; and cannot be and never has been administered fairly and equitably.”

Twelve of the seventeen people on death row are white, three are Latino, one is American Indian or Alaska Native and one is Black, according to the governor’s office....

Rosemary Brewer, executive director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center, said it was her understanding that staff at the Oregon Department of Justice Crime Victim and Survivor Services Division had been working all day Tuesday to notify family members and had reached all of the families impacted by the death row commutations.  A spokesperson for the governor confirmed that the DOJ division handled notification. However, Brewer said the governor should have given families more advance notice of her decision.

“I think the victims should have been told about this so they had some time to prepare for it,” Brewer said.  “These are horrific cases that left completely devastated families.  They’re preparing for the holidays and all of a sudden, they see in the (newspaper) that the person who traumatized — devastated — their families had their death sentence commuted.”...

Advocates including the Oregon Justice Resource Center pushed for the governor to commute all death row sentences for years.  On Tuesday, the center’s executive director Bobbin Singh said in a statement that Brown “has made the right choice for Oregon in commuting these death sentences and dismantling the death chamber.”...

Brown’s clemency actions, which included early release for people deemed at risk of serious health impacts from COVID-19 and inmates who helped fight Oregon’s catastrophic 2020 wildfires, have freed roughly 1,000 people from state prisons.  The Oregonian/OregonLive asked Brown’s spokespeople on Friday for the total number of people for whom the governor had issued pardons and commuted sentences.  On Tuesday, press secretary Liz Merah responded that the governor has commuted the sentences of a total of 1,189 incarcerated people.

The governor also pardoned approximately 45,000 people this year for their marijuana possession convictions, although that did not result in anyone being freed from prison because no one in Oregon was incarcerated for simple possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. And she issued 77 other pardons for crimes that the governor’s office did not identify.

Oregon Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, released a statement late Tuesday asking whether the people of Oregon had voted to end the death penalty.  “I don’t recall that happening,” he said.  “This is another example of the Governor and the Democrats not abiding by the wishes of Oregonians.  Even in the final days of her term, Brown continues to disrespect victims of the most violent crimes.”

The official press release from Gov. Brown's office, titled "Governor Kate Brown Commutes Oregon's Death Row," is available at this link.

December 13, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 09, 2022

Notable review of (increasing?) number of botched lethal injection executions

The Death Penalty Information Center has this notable new posting to mark a notable anniversary under this heading: "As Lethal Injection Turns Forty, States Botch a Record Number of Executions."  Here is how the lengthy posting gets started (with links from the original):

On December 7, 1982, Texas strapped Charles Brooks to a gurney, inserted an intravenous line into his arm, and injected a lethal dose of sodium thiopental into his veins, launching the lethal-injection era of American executions.  In the precisely forty years since, U.S. states and the federal government have put 1377 prisoners to death by some version of the method.  Touted as swift and painless and a more humane way to die — just as execution proponents had said nearly a century before about the electric chair — the method has proven to be anything but.

Experts say lethal injection is the most botched of the execution methods, estimated to go wrong more frequently than any other method.  And autopsies of more than 200 prisoners put to death by lethal injection found that, regardless of the outward appearance of a tranquil death, 84% of those executed showed evidence of pulmonary edema — a fluid build-up in the lungs that creates a feeling of suffocation or drowning that experts have likened to waterboarding.

Moreover, American pharmaceutical companies universally oppose what they consider the misuse of their medicines to take the lives of prisoners, and the medical community universally deems it unethical for medical personnel to participate in executions.  That means states are relying on what drugs they can lay their hands on — increasingly obtained illegally or by subturfege — from often unreliable sources and administered by inadequately trained prison personnel ill equipped to handle the job and performing it behind an expanding veil of secrecy provisions.

As lethal injection turns forty, states are botching executions in record numbers — seven alone in 2022 in 19 execution attempts, an astonishing 37%.  In articles in Slate and The Conversation on November 21 and November 29, 2022, Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College and author the 2014 book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, says that from Brooks’ execution through 2009, “more than 7 percent of all lethal injections were botched … [and] things have only gotten worse.”

The parenthetical in the title of this post is prompted by the fact that I do not think our society was scrutinizing lethal injections executions nearly as much in the 1980s and 1990s as we have in more recent decades. Though it is quite possible that more executions are being "botched" in recent years, I think it is also quite possible that we are now just much more likely to take notice of lethal injection execution difficulties.

December 9, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, December 05, 2022

Alabama Attorney General says "there is no moratorium" on executions in the state ... while executions are suspended

Dictionary.com defines a moratorium as "a suspension of activity," and two weeks ago the Governor of Alabama, as noted here, seemed to call for a suspension of executions after the state exeperienced two botched execution efforts.  But, as reported in this new local article, the Attorney General of Alabama is eager to make the case that the suspension of executions in the state is not a moratorium:

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said Monday afternoon that “there is no moratorium” on executions in Alabama, but he will still allow for an efficient review of the state’s execution process. “I stand before you today to be very clear: Insofar as I and my office are concerned, there is no moratorium, nor will there be, on capital punishment in Alabama,” Marshall said.

Gov. Kay Ivey in late November called for the suspension of executions in Alabama for a “top-to-bottom review” after prison staff failed to complete a second straight execution. Marshall indicated that he won’t request any new execution dates before Ivey’s office carries out its review, so long as it doesn’t cause an “unreasonable” delay.

“What I want to make sure is … that we’ve given [Ivey] an opportunity to do this review, … to make sure that I hear from her that there is confidence that we have the ability to execute,” Marshall said. “…I’m also sitting here telling you that we’re not going to stand very long in a delay.” Ivey's spokesperson, Gina Maiola, said “discussions have already begun” regarding the review of the Alabama Department of Corrections' execution process. Marshall added that he has not spoken with Ivey directly, but that he is “looking forward to [their] conversation.”

There are no pending execution dates before the Alabama Supreme Court and no scheduled executions in Alabama, Marshall said. Marshall’s office solely has power to request an execution date from the Alabama Supreme Court.

On Nov. 17, officials called off the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith as staff was unable to set the necessary IV lines for the lethal injection. Alan Miller’s execution was similarly called off just two months before because of issues finding a vein. Marshall blamed the failure to carry out the executions on Smith and Miller for filing federal court challenges to their death sentences that were not resolved until as late as 10 p.m. of the day of their scheduled executions....

Alabama has since reached an agreement to not attempt a second lethal injection on Miller, but it may use nitrogen gas to execute him in the future. The state still does not have a protocol in place for the untried method that was approved in 2018, but Marshall said the state is in the “final stages” of developing it.

A few prior related posts:

December 5, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Elaboration of dissent from SCOTUS denial of stay before Missouri execution

I flagged in this post the notable pre-execution litigation in Missouri before the execution of Kevin Johnson on Tuesday evening.  A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss this four-page opinion, released yesterday and authored by Justic Jackson and joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissenting from the Supreme Court's denial of the application for a stay.  Here is how it begins and a key paragraph within:

We denied Kevin Johnson’s application for an emergency stay of his execution on November 29, 2022, and the State of Missouri has carried out that penalty.  Now, one day later, I write to explain my vote to grant his stay request.  For the reasons that follow, in my view, there was a likelihood that Johnson would have succeeded on the merits of his federal due process claim, and it was clear that he would (and obviously did) suffer irreparable harm absent a stay.  I also believe that the equities weighed in Johnson’s favor....

In short, a State cannot provide a process for postconviction review (like that outlined in §547.031) and then arbitrarily refuse to follow the prescribed procedures.  But that appears to be what happened in this case, insofar as §547.031 was properly invoked through the filing of a motion to vacate but the Missouri Supreme Court determined that the reviewing court did not need to hold the mandatory hearing that allows for the presentation of evidence related to that motion, because, regardless, there was insufficient evidence to sustain the motion.  In my view, this reading of §547.031 was so fundamentally flawed, and so at odds with basic due process principles, that Johnson was likely to succeed in establishing that the procedures afforded in connection with the §547.03 motion amounted to a Fourteenth Amendment violation.

Prior related posts:

December 1, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Missouri completes execution after SCOTUS rejects final stay appeal

As reported in this NBC News piece, a "Missouri inmate convicted of ambushing and killing a St. Louis-area police officer he blamed for the death of his younger brother was executed Tuesday, officials said." Here is more:

Kevin Johnson, 37, was put to death by lethal injection at the state prison in Bonne Terre. The execution began at 7:29 p.m., and Johnson was pronounced dead at 7:40 p.m., said Karen Pojmann, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections....

Johnson had admitted to shooting and killing Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McEntee in 2005. Johnson was 19 at the time.

Edward Keenan, a court-appointed special prosecutor, had sought to vacate his death sentence. Keenan argued in an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court that Johnson's trial was "infected" with racist prosecution techniques and that racial discrimination played a part in his receiving the death penalty. One of Johnson’s attorneys, Shawn Nolan, said, “Make no mistake about it, Missouri capitally prosecuted, sentenced to death, and killed Kevin because he is Black.”

Johnson was executed after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a stay Tuesday evening. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson would have granted it, court records show....

Mary McEntee, the slain officer’s widow, said Tuesday that her husband was executed on July 5, 2005, when he was “ambushed and shot five times in his police car.” He was then shot twice more, she said. “During this process, many have forgot Bill was the victim,” Mary McEntee said Tuesday night. “We miss Bill every day of our lives.”...

On July 5, 2005, police were searching for Johnson, who was on probation for assaulting his girlfriend. Police believed he had violated probation. McEntee was among the officers sent to Johnson's home. Johnson's 12-year-old brother, who had a congenital heart defect, ran next door to his grandmother's house, where he suffered a seizure. He died at the hospital. Johnson testified at trial that McEntee kept his mother from entering the house to aid his brother. According to Johnson, that same evening he encountered McEntee when he returned to his neighborhood for an unrelated call about a fireworks disturbance. Johnson shot McEntee several times and fled, according to prosecutors. He turned himself in three days later....

Johnson's daughter, Khorry Ramey, 19, had sought to witness the execution, but a state law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from observing the process. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last week asking a federal court to allow her to attend her father's execution, but a judge ruled Friday that a state law barring her from being present because of her age was constitutional....

McEntee had three children, ages 7, 10 and 13, when he was killed, his widow said Tuesday night after the execution. “They didn’t have a chance to say goodbye,” Mary McEntee said. “It took 17 years of grieving and pushing forward to get to this point today. This is something I hope no other family has to go through.”

This SCOTUSblog post,  titled "Court green-lights execution of Missouri man who presented evidence of racist prosecutor," discusses a bit more fully the issues that were brought to and rejected by SCOTUS prior to the execution.  And this execution marked the fifth execution carried out by state officials in the United States in November.  According to Death Penalty Information Center data, this is the most executions carried out by state official in one month in the US since January 2015.

November 30, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 28, 2022

Missouri Supreme Court considering [UPDATE: rejects] special prosecutor's motion to vacate death sentence due to "racist prosecution techniques"

As detailed in this local article, the Missouri Supreme Court "held an expedited hearing Monday to hear oral arguments for two motions to stay [Kevin] Johnson’s execution, in order to hold a hearing on alleged constitutional violations in his original trial." This last minute litigation, before an execution scheudled for Tuesday afternoon, is especially interesting because of who is seeking a stay and on what grounds:

One of the motions came from Edward Keenan, who is the special prosecutor the St. Louis County Circuit Court appointed in October to review Johnson’s conviction. “All parties can agree that the timing here is less than ideal, but we’re at where we’re at,” Keenan told the Supreme Court judges Monday....

During the hearing, Keenan said he found evidence of unconstitutional racial discrimination behind then-St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s prosecution in Johnson’s 2007 trial, after reviewing more than 30,000 pages and contacting witnesses.

State law is “crystal clear,” Keenan argued, that he must be allowed to present this evidence before a judge at a hearing.  A state law enacted last year gave prosecutors the authority to file motions to set aside convictions in cases where a person may be innocent or may have been erroneously convicted.  Once the motions are filed, judges are required by law to hold hearings to review the evidence. 

On Nov. 15, Keenan filed a motion to set aside Johnson’s judgment and hold a new trial.  Within 12 hours, St. Louis County Presiding Judge Mary Elizabeth Ott, who had appointed Keenan to review the case, denied the motion without holding a hearing. With only six working days before Johnson’s execution, Ott said the motion put the court in “untenable position.”  State law requires a hearing, Ott wrote in a Nov. 19 order, but the court “is also aware of the requirement that sufficient time for all parties to prepare and present evidence at such hearing is essential to its proper function.”

Both Keenan and Johnson’s attorneys then filed motions to stay the execution, in order to allow the St. Louis County Court time to hold an evidentiary hearing.  “The special prosecutor represents the state,” said Joseph Luby, Johnson’s attorney, at the Monday hearing.  “And at the very least, the special prosecutor’s acknowledgement of racial bias needs to be fully aired at an evidentiary hearing, and that cannot happen if the state is allowed to kill Mr. Johnson tomorrow.”  A hearing will also allow Keenan to depose McCulloch, who has not cooperated with Keenan’s investigation, Luby said.

The attorney general’s office argued Monday the Missouri Supreme Court should continue with Johnson’s scheduled execution.  “It’s a matter of undisputed fact that Kevin Johnson is guilty of first-degree murder and a fair jury determined he deserved death penalty,” said Andrew Crane, who represented the attorney general’s office.  “And the rest of what we’re talking about is just the special prosecutor’s complaints about the way Bob McCulloch charged cases.”

When Johnson was 19, he was charged with first degree murder for the killing of Sgt. William McEntee of the Kirkwood Police Department on July 5, 2005.  The first trial ended when the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of a conviction on the lesser offense of second degree murder.  However, a second jury convicted Johnson of first degree murder and sentenced him to death in 2007.  Johnson admitted to killing McEntee, who Johnson believed had been involved in the death of his then 12-year-old brother.

Johnson has been denied relief at every available avenue, including previous proceedings before the Missouri Supreme Court.  Crane argued the new state law was not intended to allow a circuit court judge to overturn claims of racial bias that the state’s highest court had already ruled on.  However, Keenan said there have been U.S. Supreme Court rulings since the state court reviewed Johnson’s claims that may change the outcome – including a 2019 ruling that a prosecutor’s behavior in other cases “both may and must be considered.”

On Dec. 1, 2021, Johnson asked St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s Conviction and Incident Review Unit, which reviews potential wrongful convictions cases, to look into possible discrimination in his case.  Johnson’s former defender is now part of Bell’s conviction review unit, creating a conflict of interest, so they asked the court to appoint a special prosecutor.

Of the five police-officer killings McCulloch prosecuted during his tenure, Kennan found that McCulloch pursued the death penalty against four Black defendants but not against the one white defendant, Trenton Forster.  Keenan also discovered an “incriminating memorandum” from the trial team’s materials, showing the prosecutors strategized in advance of the trial on ways to get Black jurors stricken by the trial judge.

Crane said Monday that the memo “tells us nothing” about what was going on in McCulloch’s mind and doesn’t change anything about Johnson’s previous appellate claims.  Crane also argued the state law doesn’t require Johnson to get a hearing before he dies.

Chris Geidner at Law Dork has effective coverage of this notable case under the headline "Missouri wants to kill Kevin Johnson regardless of pending claims that racism underlies his death sentence." Here is how this piece gets started:

Missouri wants to kill Kevin Johnson on Tuesday.

Under a state law that went into effect last year aimed at providing a means to address past flawed prosecutions and convictions, however, a special prosecutor has found “that racist prosecution techniques infected Mr. Johnson’s conviction and death sentence.” Among other concerns, the special prosecutor found that race motivated the original prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in Johnson’s case.

Nonetheless, Missouri Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane, representing the state AG’s Office at the Missouri Supreme Court on Monday, argued that the special prosecutor’s claims couldn’t succeed under state and federal precedent and/or were irrelevant. Regardless, Crane said, the state shouldn’t have to wait on those claims to be resolved before they kill Johnson.

“The fact of the matter is that cases can be pending while an execution proceeds,” Crane told the court on Monday.

UPDATE: Late Monday night, the Missouri Supreme Court issued this per curiam opinion that begins this way:

Kevin Johnson was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His execution is scheduled for November 29, 2022.  This matter comes before the Court on two motions – one by Johnson and one by the Special Prosecutor – to stay Johnson’s execution.  Neither Johnson nor the Special Prosecutor claims Johnson is actually innocent. Instead, Johnson relies on the claims of “constitutional error” asserted by the Special Prosecutor in his motion to vacate Johnson’s conviction under section 547.031.  This Court has heard and rejected those claims before, however, and nothing asserted by the Special Prosecutor materially alters those claims or establishes any likelihood he would succeed on them if that case were to be remanded for a hearing as he claims it should be.  Accordingly, both motions to stay Johnson’s execution are overruled.

Two of the seven Justices on the Missouri Supreme Court dissented, via a lengthy opinion authored by Justice Breckenridge that started this way:

I respectfully dissent from the principal opinion that declines to exercise the Court’s equitable power to stay Kevin Johnson’s execution to allow, as provided for in section 547.031,1 adjudication of the motion filed by the special prosecutor of St. Louis County seeking to vacate Mr. Johnson’s conviction for the racially biased decision-making of the trial prosecuting attorney.  A stay is warranted under the standard the United States Supreme Court employs, and granting a stay of execution is the only way to afford to the special prosecutor and Mr. Johnson the mandatory process section 547.031 requires in these circumstances.  The proper application of legal principles to the circumstances presented by the special prosecutor’s motion to stay Mr. Johnson’s execution should lead to the issuance of a stay of execution.

November 28, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

After another botched lethal injection effort, Alabama Gov orders moratorium on executions in state

As reported in this local article, "Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has ordered a halt to executions in the state after two failed attempts at lethal injections, calling for a 'top-to-bottom' review of the process."  Here is more:

The announcement came in the form of a press release sent Monday morning. According to the press release, the governor asked Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to withdraw the state’s two pending motions in the Alabama Supreme Court to set executions for Alan Eugene Miller and James Edward Barber.

“Working in conjunction with Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm, Governor Ivey is asking that the Department of Corrections undertake a top-to-bottom review of the state’s execution process, and how to ensure the state can successfully deliver justice going forward,” the press release stated.

Ivey also asked the Alabama AG’s office to not seek additional execution dates for any other Alabama Death Row inmates until the review is complete. No timeline was provided. A spokesperson for the Alabama AG’s office said Marshall will ”have more to say on this at a later date.”

Miller was set to be executed on Sept. 22, but survived after prison workers couldn’t find a vein to start the intravenous line needed for the three-drug lethal injection cocktail before the death warrant expired at midnight. Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was set to die Nov. 17, experienced a similar situation and also survived after officials couldn’t start an IV.

A federal judge has ordered the ADOC must preserve evidence from both failed execution attempts.

“For the sake of the victims and their families, we’ve got to get this right. I don’t buy for a second the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at Corrections or anyone in law enforcement, for that matter. I believe that legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here,” Ivey said in the statement. “I will commit all necessary support and resources to the Department to ensure those guilty of perpetrating the most heinous crimes in our society receive their just punishment. I simply cannot, in good conscience, bring another victim’s family to Holman looking for justice and closure, until I am confident that we can carry out the legal sentence.”

Hamm also made a statement, which was sent alongside the governor’s. “I agree with Governor Ivey that we have to get this right for the victims’ sake. Everything is on the table – from our legal strategy in dealing with last minute appeals, to how we train and prepare, to the order and timing of events on execution day, to the personnel and equipment involved. The Alabama Department of Corrections is fully committed to this effort and confident that we can get this done right.”...

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Arise, and Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty sent a joint statement applauding the decision. After the July execution of Joe Nathan James Jr., the groups launched a campaign called “Pull Back the Curtains” to call for transparency in the execution process.

“The ‘Pull Back The Curtains’ campaign references the fact that corrections workers are starting the execution process without public scrutiny. Every government program, especially executions, should be transparent from the start,” the groups said in a statement. “We are relieved that there will be a review, and dismayed that our state won’t simply throw out this archaic and unnecessary punishment. Among other things, at a minimum this review should assess the toll taken on corrections workers & establish PTSD support for tortured prisoners and corrections officers alike.”

November 22, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Nebraska Supreme Court upholds constitutionality of judges imposing death sentences after jury fact-finding

I just recently saw an interesting and lengthy new ruling from the Nebraska Supreme Court rejecting an array of procedural challenges to the state's capital sentencing scheme. Here is how the unanimous 60+ page opinon in State v. Trail, 312 Neb. 843 (Neb. Nov. 10, 2022) (available here), gets started:

The defendant was convicted by a jury of murder in the first degree and criminal conspiracy to commit first degree murder.  He was also convicted, pursuant to a plea, of improper disposal of human skeletal remains.  A three-judge panel sentenced the defendant to death.  The defendant asserts on appeal that the three-judge panel erred in determining the sentence of death was not excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases. Alternatively, he argues Nebraska’s death penalty scheme is unconstitutional because it allows a panel of judges rather than a jury to make findings of whether the aggravating circumstances justify the death penalty and whether sufficient mitigating circumstances exist which approach or exceed the weight given to the aggravating circumstances. The defendant also challenges the constitutionality of death qualifying the potential jurors, arguing that it creates a conviction-prone jury.  Finally, the defendant challenges the denial of his pretrial motion to sever the conspiracy and murder charges, the court’s release of the victim’s mother from sequestration after she testified, the denial of his motion for a mistrial after a verbal outburst and act of self-harm in front of the jury, and the denial of a motion for a new trial after evidence was submitted allegedly demonstrating the selfharm would not have occurred but for the alleged misconduct of jail staff.  We affirm.

Here are a few passages from near the end of this Trail opinion summarizing its constitutional conclusions:

In several cases, we have rejected the argument that because the right to a jury determination is limited to guilt or innocence of the crimes charged and the determination of the aggravating circumstances, Nebraska’s sentencing scheme is unconstitutional under the 6th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and article I, §§ 3 and 6, of the Nebraska Constitution.  In State v. Gales, we explained that Apprendi and Ring do not stand for the proposition that a jury, rather than a judge or judges, must make the sentencing determinations listed under § 29-2522.  Rather, Apprendi and Ring affected only the narrow issue of whether there is a Sixth Amendment right to have a jury determine the existence of any aggravating circumstance upon which a capital sentence is based....  By leaving to the three-judge panel the ultimate lifeor-death decision upon making the selection decisions of whether the aggravating circumstances justify the death penalty and whether sufficient mitigating circumstances exist that approach or exceed the weight given to the aggravating circumstances, Nebraska’s sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial or article I, § 6, of the Nebraska Constitution.....

In State v. Mata, we rejected the defendant’s argument that a system wherein a three-judge panel weighs the aggravating and mitigating circumstances without guidance from the jury is arbitrary and capricious under the 8th and 14th Amendments.  In State v. Hessler,  we rejected the defendant’s argument under the Eighth Amendment that a sentencing panel is not in as good of a position as the jury to assign a weight to the aggravating circumstances, to weigh aggravating circumstances against mitigating circumstances, or to determine the sentence. While Trail’s 8th Amendment arguments are somewhat different from those addressed in Mata and Hessler, he presents no reason to depart from our holdings in those cases that Nebraska’s statutory scheme, delegating to the three-judge panel determinations of whether the aggravating circumstances justify the death penalty and whether sufficient mitigating circumstances exist that approach or exceed the weight given to the aggravating circumstances, does not violate the 8th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution or article I, § 9, of the Nebraska Constitution.

November 19, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 18, 2022

Alabama unable to complete execution becuase of lethal injection difficulties

As reported in this AP piece, "Alabama’s execution of a man convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher’s wife was called off Thursday just before the midnight deadline because state officials couldn’t find a suitable vein to inject the lethal drugs."  Here is more:

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said prison staff tried for about an hour to get the two required intravenous lines connected to Kenneth Eugene Smith, 57. Hamm said they established one line but were unsuccessful with a second line after trying several locations on Smith’s body. Officials then tried a central line, which involves a catheter placed into a large vein.

“We were not able to have time to complete that, so we called off the execution,” Hamm said.

It is the second execution since September the state has canceled because of difficulties with establishing an IV line with a deadline looming.

The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Smith’s execution when at about 10:20 p.m. it lifted a stay issued earlier in the evening by the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals. But the state decided about an hour later that the lethal injection would not happen that evening.

The postponement came after Smith’s final appeals focused on problems with intravenous lines at Alabama’s last two scheduled lethal injections. Because the death warrant expired at midnight, the state must go back to court to seek a new execution date. Smith was returned to his regular cell on death row, a prison spokesperson said.

November 18, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Oklahoma completes execution for man who killed three-year-old child nearly 30 years ago

As reported in this AP article, "Oklahoma executed a man Thursday for the torture slaying of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son in 1993."  Here is more:

Richard Stephen Fairchild, who turned 63 on Thursday, began receiving the first of a lethal three-drug combination at 10:10 a.m. at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He was declared dead at 10:24 a.m.

Fairchild, an ex-Marine, was convicted of killing Adam Broomhall after the child wet the bed. Prosecutors say Fairchild held both sides of Adam’s body against a scorching furnace, then threw him into a table. The child never regained consciousness and died later that day.

Strapped to a gurney inside the death chamber, Fairchild thanked his attorneys and prison staff and apologized to Broomhall's family. “Today's a day for Adam, justice for Adam," Fairchild said....

Michael Hurst, the slain child's uncle, said the boy would have been 34. “Our long journey for justice has finally arrived," Hurst said, adding that he was surprised to hear Fairchild express remorse for killing his nephew. “He hadn't said that in 30 years.”

Prosecutors from the Oklahoma attorney general's office had described the boy's killing as torture when they wrote to the state's Pardon and Parole Board, which voted 4-1 last month against recommending clemency for Fairchild.

Fairchild's execution was the seventh since Oklahoma resumed carrying out the death penalty in October 2021 and one of four scheduled nationwide over a two-day stretch. It was the 16th execution in the U.S. this year, including one in Texas and one in Arizona on Wednesday, up from last year’s three-decade low of 11. An execution was also scheduled for later Thursday in Alabama. Oklahoma's attorney general this summer asked the state's top criminal appeals court to set more than two dozen execution dates.

November 17, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Texas stuggles a bit as it completes its fifth and final execution in 2022

As reported in this local article, headlined "Texas’ execution of Stephen Barbee was prolonged while officials searched for a vein," an execution in Texas tonight was a bit more of a struggle than usual. Here are the details:

Texas’ execution of Stephen Barbee Wednesday evening was prolonged while prison officials searched for a vein in the disabled man’s body, according to a prison spokesperson.

Barbee, convicted in the 2005 murders of his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her child, had severe joint deterioration which prohibited him from straightening his arms or laying them flat, according to court records. His attorney had recently tried to halt his execution because he feared the process with Barbee’s disability would result in “torture.”

But courts rejected the appeals, noting that prison officials had vowed to make special adjustments to the death chamber’s gurney to accommodate Barbee. Still, it took much more time to carry out the execution than is typical in Texas. Reporters walked into the prison around 6 p.m., signaling the execution was about to begin. But for an hour and 40 minutes, no one came back out, causing anti-death-penalty protesters outside to grow worried that something had gone wrong. It is uncommon for executions to last more than an hour. “Due to his inability to extend his arms, it took longer to ensure he had functional IV lines,” prison spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said in an email Wednesday night.

Barbee was pronounced dead at 7:35 p.m., nearly an hour and a half after he was strapped into the death chamber’s gurney, according to the prison’s execution record. Within minutes of being strapped on the gurney, an IV was inserted into his right hand, at 6:14 p.m., but it took another 35 minutes for an additional line to begin flowing in the left side of his neck. All the while, his friends watched through a glass pane adjacent to the chamber, according to a prison witness list. So did the friends of the murder victims — Lisa Underwood and her 7-year-old son Jayden — as well as Underwood’s mother....

Hours before the prisoner’s scheduled death, Barbee’s execution was paused as courts battled once again over the state’s handling of the prisoner’s religious rights in the death chamber. Federal courts this month went back and forth over Texas’ execution policy and the findings of multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings largely requiring the state to allow prisoners’ religious advisers to audibly pray and touch them in their final moments. On Tuesday, a district judge essentially halted Barbee’s pending execution, stating Texas’ prison system can only kill the death row prisoner after creating and adopting a new execution policy that clearly lays out his final religious rights. But after the federal appellate court and the U.S. Supreme Court both ruled in favor of the state early Wednesday afternoon, Barbee’s execution was put back on track.

November 16, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4)

Arizona completes execution of man convited of committing a double murder 42 years ago

As report in this AP piece, an "Arizona man convicted of murdering two people in 1980 was put to death Wednesday in the state's third execution since officials started carrying out the death penalty in May after a nearly eight-year hiatus." Here is more:

Murray Hooper, 76, died by lethal injection at the state prison in Florence for his murder convictions in the killings of William "Pat" Redmond and his mother-in-law, Helen Phelps, at Redmond's home in Phoenix.  Redmond's wife, Marilyn, also was shot in the head during the attack but survived and testified against Hooper at his trial....

Hooper was executed within a couple hours of the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting his last-minute appeal.  Hooper's lawyers had asked the Supreme Court to review his claim that that authorities had until recently withheld that Marilyn Redmond had failed to identify him in a photo lineup.  The high court made no comment in the rejection. His appeal was brought to the high court after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled to allow Hooper's execution to proceed in October.

Authorities say the killings were carried out at the behest of a man who wanted to take over Redmond's printing business. Hooper has maintained that he is innocent for four decades and suggested he was framed for the crimes.  Kelly Culshaw, an assistant federal public defender representing Hooper, said in a statement last month that he was sentenced and convicted "based on corrupt police practices and unreliable witness testimony."...

The courts rebuffed attempts by Hooper's lawyers to postpone the execution and order fingerprint and DNA testing on evidence from the killings. But his lawyers said Hooper is innocent, that no physical evidence ties him to the killings and that testing could lead to identifying those responsible.  They say Hooper was convicted before computerized fingerprint systems and DNA testing were available in criminal cases....

Authorities say Hooper and two other men forced their way into the Redmond home on Dec. 31, 1980.  The three victims were bound, gagged, robbed and shot in the head.  Two other men, William Bracy and Edward McCall, were convicted in the killings but died before their death sentences could be carried out....

Arizona did not carry out the death penalty for nearly eight years after criticism that a 2014 execution was botched and because it encountered difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs.  No other executions are currently scheduled in the state.  Arizona now has 110 people on death row, 22 of whom have exhausted their appeals, according to the state attorney general's office.

November 16, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Latest Gallup polling highlights "Steady 55% of Americans Support Death Penalty for Murderers"

Republicans-remain-most-supportive-of-death-penaltyThe quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this recent Gallup report on its latest polling on opinions regarding the death penalty.  Here are excerpts:

The majority of Americans, 55%, are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers in the U.S. While this marks the sixth consecutive year that support for capital punishment is between 54% and 56%, it is below the 60% to 80% readings recorded in the four prior decades between 1976 and 2016.

When Gallup initiated this measure in 1936, 59% of U.S. adults favored the death penalty for convicted murderers -- and majorities have supported it since then, with the exception of several readings taken between 1957 and March 1972, including the record-low 42% in 1966.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in June 1972, majorities continued to back it. When it was reinstated in 1976, public support for it grew until it peaked at 80% in 1994. At least 60% of U.S. adults favored capital punishment until 2017, when support dipped to the lowest point since 1972, and today it remains at that level.

The latest findings are from an Oct. 3-20 Gallup poll that was conducted during the trial of the gunman who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.  On Oct. 13, the jury in the highly publicized trial spared him the death penalty and instead sentenced him to prison for the rest of his life. The decision was met with disappointment from many of the victims' families, who thought the gunman should be put to death.

Partisans' views of the death penalty differ sharply, with majorities of Republicans (77%) and independents (54%) favoring it but a majority of Democrats opposed (63%) and 35% in favor.

Since 2000, when Gallup began tracking the measure annually in its Crime survey, Republicans' support has been the most consistent. No less than 72% of Republicans have been in favor of the death penalty, and the latest reading is not statistically different from the 2000 reading of 80%.

Over the same period, independents' support has been as high as 68% and has only once fallen below the majority level (to 49% in 2020). The current reading is down 14 percentage points compared with 2000.

Democrats' support for capital punishment has not been at the majority level since 2012 and has varied the most of the three party groups, ranging from 34% to 65% since 2000. Democrats' latest reading is essentially unchanged from last year's record low for them and is 21 points lower than the 2000 reading.

November 16, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 14, 2022

Three Justices dissent from the denial of cert in Ohio capital case reversed by Sixth Circuit

This morning's Supreme Court order list is most notable for a 14-page dissent from the denial of cert in a capital case from Ohio, Shoop v. Cunningham.  The dissent was authored by Justice Thomas and joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch.  Here is how it gets started:

In 2002, respondent Jeronique Cunningham concluded an armed robbery of his drug dealer with a spray of bullets that killed a teenager and a toddler.  An Ohio jury convicted him of capital murder, and the trial court sentenced him to death.  Twenty years later, the Sixth Circuit ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the foreperson’s presence on the jury deprived Cunningham of due process — either because the foreperson received prejudicial outside information about Cunningham or because she was biased by an undisclosed relationship with the victims’ families.  In analyzing the first claim, the Sixth Circuit once again flouted the deferential standard of review demanded by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).  In analyzing the second claim, the Sixth Circuit applied an incorrect framework to justify a fishing expedition based on allegations with no admissible factual foundation.

To correct these manifest abuses of the Sixth Circuit’s habeas jurisdiction, I would grant Ohio’s petition and summarily reverse the judgment below.  Therefore, I respectfully dissent from denial of certiorari.

November 14, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)