Recent Legislative Activity

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Seeks Ban on Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Defendants

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton (pictured) testified in state legislative hearings on October 14 that Ohio should ban use of the death penalty against defendants who suffer from serious mental illness when they commit a capital crime. Stratton, a Republican who was appointed to the court in 1996 and served, following reelection, until 2012, called the death penalty "inefficient, ineffective and a great burden on our society." Stratton said that the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities because of their reduced culpability.  She told the Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee that people with serious mental illnesses have similarly reduced culpability. "Do we as a society say we want to execute someone who has diminished capacity and mental Illness?" Stratton asked the committee. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Death Penalty issued 56 reform recommendations, including a ban on executing those with serious mental illness. Stratton said the bill would apply to defendants diagnosed with such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depressive and delusional disorders. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and is also supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

California Law Aims to Reduce Prosecutorial Misconduct

California has enacted a new law giving judges greater authority to remove individual prosecutors - and in some instances entire prosecutorial offices - from cases if they willfully withhold evidence from the defense. Passage of the law was prompted by disclosure of systemic misuse of jailhouse informants by Orange County prosecuters, which led Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals (pictured) to bar the entire Orange County District Attorney's Office from participation in a death penalty case earlier this year. That misconduct included secretly using jailhouse informants to elicit confessions from suspects after they had invoked their right to counsel - a practice that has been declared unconstitutional - lying to the courts about the use of informants, and withholding potentially exculpatory evidence. In addition to providing judges expanded authority to remove offending prosecutors from cases, the new law requires judges to report such prosecutors to the state bar, which may take disciplinary action. While denying that there had been any "interntional bad faith withholding of evidence" by prosecutors in his office, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukus praised the statute, calling it "a good law." Jeff Thoma, the president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said, "The public deserves to have confidence that prosecutors are committed to playing by the rules instead of trying to win at all costs. I applaud the passage of AB1328 and it being signed into law. I believe this has the positive effect of insuring greater due process by reducing (discovery) violations and holding those accountable that do so in bad faith."

Death Row Exonerees Meet in Ohio, Call for Abolition of the Death Penalty

A group of death row exonerees, including Kwame Ajamu (pictured), held a press conference in Cleveland on October 9 in which they called for the end of the death penalty. Ajamu - the nation's 150th death-row exoneree - was freed from Ohio's death row in 2014 along with his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, and another man, Ricky Jackson. The three had been convicted 39 years earlier on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted, saying he had been pressured by police. "We hope that we can end this atrocity today. We hope that tomorrow's newspapers would say that there's no more death penalty.... If there's anything that I would beg for this country, for this world to listen to is the heartfelt cries and pleas of myself and fellow comrades who have been exonerated from death," Ajamu said. He was one of about 20 exonerees who appeared at the event, which was organized by Witness to Innocence, a national organization of death row exonerees. State Representative Nickie Antonio, who has introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty, said, "The best reform is to abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. It is time to execute justice, not to execute people."

Montana Judge Puts Executions on Hold

On October 6, Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock (pictured) held that the state's proposed lethal injection protocol violated state law, which requires that an "ultra fast-acting barbiturate" be used in executions. Judge Sherlock said the proposed barbiturate, pentobarbital, does not qualify as such a drug. The ruling stated, "The State of Montana is hereby enjoined from using the drug pentobarbital in its lethal injection protocol unless and until the statute authorizing lethal injection is modified in conformance with this decision." In 2012, a judge struck down Montana's three-drug protocol because it differed from the two-drug protocol called for in state law. As a result of the most recent ruling, executions in Montana will continue to be on hold indefinitely. “The State has had multiple opportunities to correct the problems with the death penalty protocol. And each time they came up with a new flawed procedure,” said ACLU Legal Director Jim Taylor. “Seven years of litigation has demonstrated that Montana's death penalty is broken beyond repair." Montana has carried out three executions since 1976, the last of which was in 2006. Earlier in 2015, a bill to repeal the death penalty failed on a tie vote in the House of Representatives.

Another Drug Company Opposes Use of Its Product in Executions

Sun Pharma, which is based in India, has publicly dissociated itself from the use of its drugs in upcoming Arkansas executions. The company said it prohibits the sale of its products to entities that might use them for killing. Sun Pharma was notified of the possible misuse of its products by the Associated Press, which had obtained redacted photographs of the drugs Arkansas planned to use in eight scheduled executions. A recently passed secrecy law allows the state to withhold the source of its execution drugs from public scrutiny. (Virginia's Supreme Court also recently shielded some information about executions from the public.) Other companies whose drugs might be used by Arkansas have also objected. Hikma Pharmaceuticals said it was investigating whether Arkansas had obtained midazolam from one of its subsidiaries, and Hospira, which was identified as a possible source of the potassium chloride that Arkansas plans to use, was one of the first companies to bar its drugs from executions.

Nebraska's Attempt to Import Execution Drug Halted in India

A shipment of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic once widely used in executions, was recently stopped in India before it could reach Nebraska. The Indian distributor sold more than $50,000 worth of sodium thiopental to the state in May, but the shipment was stopped before leaving the country because of "improper or missing paperwork." FedEx said it halted the shipment because it did not have Food And Drug Administration clearance: "As with any international importation of a drug, data about that shipment is transmitted to federal agencies in advance, including U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration. If the shipment is authorized, we will deliver it to the recipient; if it is not, we will return it to the foreign shipper." Nebraska purchased the drugs despite the FDA's warning that importation of sodium thiopental for executions violates federal law. The FDA has consistently said that it will not allow execution drugs into the U.S. because the producers are not FDA-credited and the drugs are not approved for that purpose.

USA Today Chronicles Declining Death Penalty: It "May Be Living on Borrowed Time"

In a sweeping look at the current state of the U.S. death penalty, USA Today reporters Richard Wolf and Kevin Johnson highlight several recent story lines that collectively illustrate a dramatic decline in the country's use of capital punishment. Their conclusion: "The death penalty in America may be living on borrowed time." Wolf and Johnson recount recent cases in which high-profile crimes resulted in a life without parole sentence, in many instances because victims' families raised concerns about the painful emotional impact of a lengthy appeals process. Skeet Glover, whose father and stepmother were killed in Texas, explained his family's support for a plea deal resulting in a life without parole sentence: "As a family, we were going to do this together. I couldn't help my dad anymore. I couldn't help (stepmother) Peggy ... and I didn't want to punish anyone else in the family...There are no regrets." The article also tells the stories of death row exonerees, including the seven men exonerated in the last two years after spending 30 years or more on death row, and persistent questions of innocence for inmates still facing execution. The story then turns to ongoing battles in courts and legislatures. It chronicles the difficulties surrounding lethal injection, from trade regulations and opposition from the medical community that has made it more difficult for states to obtain execution drugs to legal challenges against execution protocols. Legislative action has shown "a clear trend in favor of retreat or repeal," the article states, noting the seven states that have recently repealed capital punishment, and the four states where moratoriums are in place. (Click image to enlarge.)

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."