Recent Legislative Activity

NEW VOICES: Execution Secrecy "Has No Place in a Democracy"

A recent op-ed by former Texas Governor Mark White (pictured) and former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan criticized a recently passed North Carolina law that imposes secrecy on the source of lethal injection drugs and removes execution procedures from public review and comment. The authors said the new law will only prolong litigation, rather than ending North Carolina's hold on executions, as intended. The op-ed also maintained that the new policy violates democratic principles: "The foundation of our constitutional republic lies in accountability and transparency, enabling American citizens to learn and debate about policy. Yet citizens cannot engage in robust conversations when basic information is hidden." Arguing that both supporters and opponents of the death penalty should oppose secrecy, they said, "Regardless of our views on the death penalty, Americans must maintain a principled approach to its implementation. The standard ought to be the U.S. Constitution, which mandates the government impose no cruel and unusual punishments. As long as states implement the death penalty, we must ensure they follow this constitutional standard."

Connecticut Supreme Court Finds Death Penalty Violates State Constitution

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled on August 13 that the death penalty violates the state constitution. In the 4-3 decision, the Court said that, because of the prospective repeal of the death penalty in 2012 and "the state’s near total moratorium on carrying out executions over the past fifty-five years, capital punishment has become incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut." As a result, the Court said, it "now violates the state constitutional prohibition against excessive and disproportionate punishments." The Court also stated that "the death penalty now fails to satisfy any legitimate penological purpose and is unconstitutionally excessive on that basis as well." The state's prospective repeal had left 11 men on death row, but the ruling replaces their sentences with life without parole. The Court concluded, "In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme in which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment. Public Act 12-5 also held a mirror up to Connecticut’s long, troubled history with capital punishment: the steady replacement by more progressive forms of punishment; the increasing inability to achieve legitimate penological purposes; the freakishness with which the sentence of death is imposed; the rarity with which it is carried out; and the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic biases that likely are inherent in any discretionary death penalty system. Because such a system fails to comport with our abiding freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, we hold that capital punishment, as currently applied, violates the constitution of Connecticut."

Nebraska Repeals Death Penalty

The Nebraska legislature voted 30-19 to override the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts and abolish the death penalty. Nebraska becomes the 19th state to repeal the death penalty, and the 7th state to do so since 2007. It is the first predominantly Republican state to abolish the death penalty in over 40 years, and state legislators said Republican support was critical to the bipartisan repeal effort. Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said, "This wouldn't have happened without the fiscally responsible Republicans who aren't just beholden to conservative talking points, but are thoughtful about policy." Sen. Colby Coash cited fiscal concerns among his reasons for supporting repeal: "The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years. This program is broken."  The sponsor of the repeal bill, Independent Senator Ernie Chambers, opened the repeal debate with a reference to the historic nature of the pending vote. “This will be the shining moment of the Nebraska Legislature,” he said. “The world, by anybody’s reckoning, is a place filled with darkness, contention, violence. We today can move to lift part of that cloud of darkness that has been hovering over this state for all these years.”

EDITORIALS: Restarting North Carolina Executions Would Be "Unjust"

A recent editorial in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) has criticized legislative efforts to restart North Carolina's death penalty as "retrogressive" and "macabre."  The editorial opposes a bill that would allow executions to resume in North Carolina by "expanding the list of medical personnel who can monitor executions." In 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board said that doctor participation in executions violates professional ethics, effectively blocking any doctors from participating in executions. The new law would allow physician assistants, nurses, and emergency medical technicians to oversee executions in place of a doctor. The editorial said, "The death penalty is unnecessary, unjust and irreversible. Its use now is only an act of vengeance against a few prisoners who happened to be convicted in death penalty states and whose lawyers failed to negotiate the many legal options that could have spared them." It goes on to criticize the arbitrariness of the death penalty: "The erratic application of the death penalty makes it unfair and its unfairness is dangerously compounded by its finality. Wrongly convicted people could be executed and likely have been." It concludes, "The state Senate should reject this bill and, if necessary, Gov. Pat McCrory should veto it. Lives, perhaps even innocent lives, will depend on it."

Delaware Governor Announces Support for Death Penalty Repeal

Calling the death penalty "an instrument of imperfect justice," Governor Jack Markell (pictured) of Delaware announced on May 7 that he will sign the death penalty repeal bill under consideration in the state legislature if the bill reaches his desk.  The Delaware Senate passed repeal in April by a vote of 11-9. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a hearing soon. Markell had not previously taken a stance on abolishing the death penalty. Upon announcing his decision, he said, "This is not an easy issue. My thinking has changed and I just wanted to give it very careful consideration." The Governor cited recent exonerations and flawed testimony in capital cases as reasons why he believes repeal should pass. "I know this is a really difficult issue for members of the General Assembly," the governor said. "I hope that after considering the arguments as I have, they will reach the same conclusion that I have."  Recent studies of Delaware's death penalty have revealed significant racial disparities in capital sentencing in the state.  More than three-quarters of Delaware's death-row inmates are black or Latino.  No state with more than one death-sentenced defendant has a higher percentage of racial minorities on its death row.

Nebraska Repeal Vote Reflects Growing Republican Opposition to Death Penalty

Nebraska's unicameral legislature recently voted 30-13 in favor of repealing the State's death penalty, advancing the bill to a second round of legislative review. (In Nebraska, a bill must pass three times before it is sent to the Governor.)  A majority (17 out of 30) of Republican legislators voted in favor of the bill, which was also supported by 12 Democrats and one Independent legislator. Sen. Colby Coash (R-Lincoln), said, "If any other system in our government was as ineffective and inefficient as is our death penalty, we conservatives would have gotten rid of it a long, long time ago." Sen. Tommy Garrett (R-Papillion) said he was once a "staunch proponent" of capital punishment, but, "I’ve come to believe that the death penalty is simply not good government.” A Washington Times op-ed by conservative commentator Drew Johnson noted that Nebraska's repeal bill has support from victims' families, the Catholic Bishops of Nebraska, and Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Johnson also pointed to the DNA exonerations of the "Beatrice Six," who gave coerced confessions and pleas after being threatened with the death penalty, as evidence that "government has no business exercising the power to kill its residents, whether in Nebraska or elsewhere." A recent Pew poll showed that support for the death penalty among conservative Republicans had dropped by 7 percentage points since 2011.

Tennessee Supreme Court Suspends Executions

On April 10, the Tennessee Supreme Court canceled the execution dates for all four Tennessee death-row inmates currently under death warrant, and returned their cases to the lower courts to address the inmates' challenges to the state's lethal injection procedures. The executions had been scheduled for October 2015 through March 2016. Tennessee has not carried out an execution since 2009, but the state announced in 2013 that it would switch from a three-drug lethal injection protocol to a one-drug protocol using pentobarbital. Because of difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs, Tennessee also passed a law in 2014 permitting the use of the electric chair if lethal injection drugs are not available. A group of inmates are currently challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee's lethal injection protocol as constituting cruel and unusual punishment, and the inmates have also challenged the State's use of the electric chair.  The Tennessee Supreme Court is expected to decide soon if it will review the inmates' challenges to the electric chair.

RECENT LEGISLATION: Varied Coalition Seeks Repeal of Nebraska's Death Penalty

UPDATE: The repeal bill unanimously passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Mar. 9. Earlier: At a Nebraska legislative hearing on March 4, dozens of people testified in favor of abolishing the death penalty, including representatives from families of murder victims, from law enforcement, the judiciary, and Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Among the co-sponsors of the bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole are seven Republican legislators. Jim Davidsaver, a retired Lincoln police captain, submitted testimony saying, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty does not make us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." Elle Hanson, who lost three loved ones to murder, said the death penalty was applied arbitrarily, "I want to share the pain and outrage I feel when I hear politicians say that we need the death penalty for the worst of the worst. This is an absurd notion. I guarantee you, each of our losses is the worst of the worst." Sen. Ernie Chambers (pictured) of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said he expects it to be debated by the full legislature this session. Only one person, a County Attorney, testified against the bill.

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