Texas has set an execution date of December 3, 2014 for Scott Panetti, a death row inmate with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Panetti represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy outfit, and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ and the pope, among many others. Inmates who are ruled insane are ineligible for execution, but Texas officials argue Panetti can be put to death because he sees some connection between his crime and his execution. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Panetti's execution and determined that Texas had not considered Panetti's long history of mental illness in evaluating his competency, sending the case back for further review. The lower courts again found Panetti competent, and in October the Court denied a request for reconsideration of Panetti's case. Greg Wiercioch, one of Panetti’s attorneys, remarked, “Scott Panetti is not competent for execution and therefore his execution would serve no retributive purpose. It is unfortunate that an execution date has been set. His execution would be a miserable spectacle.” Prominent national mental health experts have called for a halt to the execution. Texas has recently been setting execution dates in 2015, but Panetti's date was pushed ahead of others.
Carl Dausch, a former death row inmate in Florida, has been added to DPIC's list of exonerations from death row, bringing the national total to 147 and Florida's total to 25, the most of any state in the country. On June 12, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court directed the acquittal of Dausch because there was insufficient evidence of his guilt. The Court stated, "We do not take lightly the result that will flow from our decision today. We have reviewed the entire record in this case with the utmost seriousness and care. Yet, our comprehensive review of this case leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that the evidence is simply insufficient to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Dausch was the person responsible for murdering Mobley. At best, the evidence presented by the State creates a suspicion of guilt." Dausch's is the fourth death penalty exoneration in 2014. Glenn Ford was exonerated in Louisiana in March, and Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated in North Carolina in September. All three men had been imprisoned for 30 years.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said executions in the state are unlikely to resume for at least another year because of the scarcity of lethal injection drugs. "Death row is sort of in limbo today," he said, adding that efforts to find alternative drugs have been diverted due to other state concerns. Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, by electrocution. The state's execution protocol calls for use of sodium thiopental, which is no longer being manufactured for the U.S. Earlier, the state had obtained sodium thiopental from a distributor in India, but the drug expired this year. The Department of Corrections would have to rewrite its protocol to allow for different drugs. State Sen. Ernie Chambers said he would work to prevent such changes: “I would fight tooth and nail... against what Bruning is talking about.” Bruning, who is leaving office in two months, said it will be up to the new governor and attorney general to decide “if and when” they want to address the state’s death penalty.
In a recent op-ed in the National Law Journal, historian John Bessler described the ambivalence among American founders toward the death penalty. He noted, "Although early U.S. laws authorized executions, the founders greatly admired a now little-known Italian writer, Cesare Beccaria, who fervently opposed capital punishment. They also were fascinated by the penitentiary system's potential to eliminate cruel punishments." Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Beccaria and other writers on crimes and punishments had satisfied the reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of crimes by death." James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was one of several founding fathers who sought to reduce the number of executions, saying, "I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it." Bessler concluded, "[T]he Founding Fathers were deeply ambivalent about capital punishment. Indeed, they embraced the principle of Montesquieu and Beccaria that any punishment that goes beyond what is 'absolutely necessary' is 'tyrannical.' In an era of maximum-security prisons and life-without-parole sentences, the death penalty can no longer be considered necessary."
A group of 15 former state and federal judges, including a former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in support of a stay of execution for Mark Christeson in Missouri. Christeson is scheduled to be executed on October 29, but the judges said he has not received "any meaningful federal review of his death sentence." In their brief, organized by the Constitution Project, the judges stated: "[O]ur system would be broken indeed if it did not even provide him with an opportunity, assisted by conflict-free counsel, to present his case to a federal court." The supportive appeal was signed by judges from across the country, including Nathaniel Jones, formerly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Karla Gray, former Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, Gerald Kogan, former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Marsha K. Ternus, former Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, and Michael A. Wolff, former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.
Pope Francis called for an end to capital punishment in an address on October 23 to the International Association on Penal Law. "It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples' lives from an unjust aggressor," the Catholic leader said. He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that the death penalty can be used only if it is the "only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," and that modern alternatives for protecting society mean that "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Pope Francis said, "All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty." In discussing a variety of criminal justice issues, he critiqued the tendency to focus solely on punishment, rather than addressing broader social issues.
In a Gallup poll released on October 23, support for the death penalty was 63%, remaining within the margin of error of a 40-year low of 60% last year. These results represent a dramatic shift in Americans' views on the death penalty since the 1990's, when support for the death penalty peaked at 80%. Opposition to the death penalty has grown significantly among Democrats, more than doubling over the last 20 years, from 22% in 1994 to 46% today. When offered the alternative punishment of life without parole, respondents are about evenly split, with 50% favoring the death penalty and 45% favoring life without parole. Gallup highlighted the dramatic drop in support since the 1990's, saying, "These trends toward diminished support seem to be reflected in state death penalty laws, as six U.S. states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, and no new states have adopted it." See below for a statement on the poll from DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter.
Two recent international gatherings emphasized concerns about the death penalty in the U.S. and around the world. On October 14, the Organization of American States hosted an address by the President of the International Institute of Human Rights, Jean-Paul Costa, focusing on the relatively few countries still practicing capital punishment in North and South America. On October 21, the Delegation of the European Union to the U.S. presented a panel discussion featuring DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter (r.), along with other national organizations. The event was cosponsored by the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Panel members described the sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. and future prospects for further change through legislation and court opinions. Among the issues discussed were the quality of representation in capital cases, changes in public opinion, and the effects of the EU's restrictions on drugs for lethal injections in the U.S.