Recent Legislative Activity

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.

Recent Developments in Death Penalty Legislation

Several state legislatures have recently taken action on bills related to capital punishment. In Arkansas, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote. Bill sponsor Sen. David Burnett, a former prosecutor and judge who both sought and imposed the death penalty, said, "It's no longer a deterrent. It's a punishment that's actually broken. It doesn't work. And it costs a huge amount of money to try and prosecute those cases." Arkansas last carried out an execution in 2005. A similar bill in Montana was approved by a House committee with bipartisan support, but failed on a tied vote (50-50) in the full House. Before the vote, repeal supporter Rep. Mitch Tropila said, “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives. It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history." Montana's last execution took place in 2006. Virginia legislators rejected a bill to shield information related to lethal injection as state secrets. The House of Delegates voted 56-42 against the bill, which would have exempted “all information relating to the execution process,” including the source of execution drugs and the buildings and equipment used for executions, from open records laws. Del. Scott A. Surovell commented, "Anytime somebody in the government wants to restrict information about what the government is going to do, I think we need to ask some really difficult questions and get some straight answers before we grant them that right.”

Death Penalty Repeal Bill Advances with Bi-Partisan Support in Montana

On February 18, the Montana House Judiciary Committee voted (11-10) to advance HB 370, a bill to replace the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without parole. The same committee had rejected similar bills several times in recent years. The bill will now move to the full House. Republican bill sponsor Rep. David Moore (pictured) said he thought the bill had a decent chance of passing in the House. Rep. Clayton Fiscus, one of two Republican members of the Judiciary Committee who supported the bill, said, "Our death penalty is a joke." He cited the high cost of capital trials and concerns about executing an innocent person as reasons for supporting abolition. Rep. Bruce Meyers, the other Republican who voted to advance the bill, said he was religiously opposed to capital punishment: “That was part of my conscience, the way I was raised. Native Americans view all life as being sacred.” All 9 Democratic members of the committee also voted in favor of the bill.

NEW VOICES: Bi-Partisan Bill Introduced to Abolish Washington's Death Penalty

Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray, all 9 members of the Seattle City Council, and City Attorney Pete Holmes signed a letter in support of a bi-partisan bill to abolish the death penalty in Washington. Tim Burgess (l.), the President of the City Council, is a former police officer and detective. The joint letter said: “There is no credible evidence showing that the death penalty deters homicide or makes our communities safer. Instead, pursuing capital punishment diverts precious resources from critical public safety programs, delays final resolution for victims’ families and has serious implications for racial and social equity.” Among the reasons given for abolition were the high cost of death penalty trials and the lengthy appeals required in death penalty cases. The nine inmates on Washington's death row have spent an average of 17 years awaiting execution. King County, where Seattle is located, has already spent $15 million on two capital trials currently underway and a third that has not yet begun, the letter said.

NEW VOICES: Kentucky Judge Calls for Legislation to End the Death Penalty

Speaking from the bench at a hearing in a Kentucky capital case, Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine said, "Something needs to be done legislatively in Kentucky and in every state in the U.S. I think the death penalty probably should not be a penalty, ever." Despite her personal views, Goodwine ruled that the death penalty could be sought against a man accused of participating in a murder, even though he did not shoot the victim. "As the law in Kentucky stands right now ... he's death-eligible as a conspirator in this case," Goodwine said. "That's the law as it stands right now. I, as a trial judge, have to follow that law whether I agree with it or not. If I had my druthers, there would be no death penalty in Kentucky." She added that she was frustrated with the time and expense of capital cases and the emotional toll they take on everyone involved. 

Maryland Governor Will Commute Sentences of Remaining Death Row Inmates

On December 31, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announced he will commute the sentences of the four men remaining on the state's death row to life without parole. O'Malley signed Maryland's death penalty repeal bill into law in 2013, but the repeal was not retroactive. In a statement, O'Malley said, "Recent appeals and the latest opinion on this matter by Maryland’s Attorney General have called into question the legality of carrying out earlier death sentences — sentences imposed prior to abolition. In fact, the Attorney General has opined that the carrying out of prior sentences is now illegal in the absence of an existing statute." Prior to announcing the commutations, O'Malley met with family members of the murder victims in the cases related to the four death row inmates. He called the "un-ending legal process" of the death penalty an "additional torment" on the families of murder victims. He said, "Gubernatorial inaction — at this point in the legal process — would, in my judgment, needlessly and callously subject survivors, and the people of Maryland, to the ordeal of an endless appeals process, with unpredictable twists and turns, and without any hope of finality or closure."

NEW VOICES: Retired Police Captain Says Repealing Death Penalty Is "Smart on Crime"

Jim Davidsaver, a retired police captain with over 25 years experience in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department, recently advocated for repeal of the state's death penalty from a law enforcement perspective. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Davidsaver said, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." He highlighted the financial tradeoff between the death penalty and other crime prevention measures: "The millions of dollars we’ve spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers." He concluded, "The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are ‘soft’ on crime. It means we are smart on crime."

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