Recent Legislative Activity

Death Penalty on Hold in Most of the Country

Thirty-six states have either abolished the death penalty, have executions on hold, or have not carried out an execution in at least 5 years. Recently, three states, Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma, temporarily halted executions as reviews are conducted of botched executions. In six states, Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, and North Carolina, a de facto moratorium on executions is in place because of lethal-injection challenges; most of those states have not had an execution since 2008. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have formal moratoriums on executions imposed by their governors. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. In 6 additional states, while no formal hold is in place, no execution has been conducted in at least five years. The U.S. military and federal government also authorize the death penalty, but neither has had an execution in over ten years. Click image at left to see enlarged chart with further details.

EDITORIALS: Connecticut's The Day Calls for Retroactive Death Penalty Repeal

When Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2012, it did so prospectively, leaving its death row population in place. Now, Connecticut newpaper The Day is calling on the state to "have the courage and consistency to outlaw government sanctioned killing in all instances." The editorial first highlights the paper's longstanding opposition to capital punishment, saying "It remains our position that a state-sponsored execution disproportionately targets minorities, has no deterrent value, cannot be undone if there is a mistake and is a barbaric act that lowers the state to the level of the killer." It then draws on recent events to point out the practical problems with Connecticut's execution method, lethal injection. "The Department of Correction has confirmed it has none of these drugs and no way to obtain them because many domestic and foreign drugmakers, including those in the 28-nation European Union, have objected to using their products in executions." The editorial closes by mentioning the ongoing court case challenging the consitutionality of Connecticut's current death penalty law, saying "The likelihood is that none of the 12 [men on death row] will ever be executed and some court, state or federal, will find, as Michael Courtney, the state's head of the Office of Public Defender, has said, "there is nothing more arbitrary and capricious" than the present situation in which a person committing a capital felony on April 24, 2012, the day before Connecticut abolished capital punishment, can be executed while the person committing the exact same crime the next day cannot." Read the full editorial below.

Kentucky Lethal Injection Protocol Under Scrutiny

Executions have been on hold in Kentucky since 2010, when Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd began a review of the state's lethal injection protocol. The state revised its protocol in 2012 to call for a one-drug method, with a two-drug method as a backup if specific drugs were not available. Now, that new protocol is also being scrutinized because it calls for the same drugs that caused the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio. Corrections officials say they don't know if any lethal injection drugs would be available, because the Department of Corrections is currently, "prohibited from taking any steps regarding execution -- and this would include the purchase of the drugs, so we don't know if they are available because we haven't tried to purchase." David Barron, an attorney representing five inmates on death row, called the Ohio execution, "an utter disaster," and said that Kentucky's plan to use a smaller dose is, "not enough to prevent the condemned person from feeling pain." Earlier this year, Republican state Representative David Floyd proposed a bill to repeal the death penalty in Kentucky, saying "The government needs to be infallible when it comes to killing people and it's not," adding, "The alternative of life in prison is much more cost effective."

Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Lethal Injection Secrecy

In a 5-2 ruling issued on May 19, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the state's law that hides the source and the identity of the preparer of drugs and equipment used in executions. The court said, “We conclude that Georgia’s execution process is likely made more timely and orderly by the execution-participant confidentiality statute...." The ruling lifted the stay of execution that was in place for Warren Hill, whose lawyers challenged the law. In a dissent, Justice Robert Benham referenced the recent botched execution in Oklahoma, writing, “I fear this state is on a path that, at the very least, denies Hill and other death row inmates their rights to due process and, at the very worst, leads to the macabre results that occurred in Oklahoma." Hill's lawyer, Brian Kammer, said the decision, “effectively affords the State of Georgia carte blanche to alter their lethal injection protocol in any way it sees fit, and to conceal from the public and even the courts the identity and provenance of the chemicals it intends to use to carry out executions.” A similar secrecy law in Missouri is being challenged by five news organizations, who say the law violates the First Amendment.

Tennessee Governor Signs Forced Electrocution Bill

On May 22, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that will allow the state to use the electric chair in executions if lethal injection drugs are not available. While seven states, including Tennessee, allow inmates to choose the electric chair as their method of execution, no other state forces inmates to be executed by that method. Defense attorney David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee's death penalty law in the 1970s, said that changing the execution method retroactively would be unconstitutional. Inmates might also raise challenges to electrocution under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Executions by electric chair have resulted in inmates bleeding and catching fire, and some have required multiple jolts of electricity before death occurred. Since 1976, 158 people have been executed by the electric chair. The last use of the electric chair in Tennessee was in 2007, when Daryl Holton chose electrocution over lethal injection. Read the text of the bill here.

Florida Passes Bill to Compensate Exonerated Death Row Inmate

As the last act of its legislative session, the Florida Senate passed a bill allowing the state to compensate James Richardson, who had been wrongfully sentenced to death and incarcerated for 21 years. In 1967, Richardson, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the murder of his seven children. Many years later, a former babysitter confessed to the crime, prompting an investigation that revealed that witnesses had been beaten to convince them to falsely testify against Richardson. In 1989, Richardson's conviction was thrown out and he was released. Richardson, now a frail old man, had not been able to receive compensation for this injustice because the evidence from his case had been lost or destroyed. Now he will be able to apply for compensation based on the special prosecutor's investigation and the order to release him from prison. Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a sponsor of the bill, said "This will allow him to have an opportunity to revisit some dreams that were deferred early in his very young life." Robert Barrar, an attorney who has represented Richardson, said, “The Legislature did the right thing. To right an injustice for all those years that were taken away from him.”

New Hampshire Retains Death Penalty on Tie Vote

On April 17, the New Hampshire Senate voted 12-12 on a bill to repeal the death penalty. The Senate then voted to table the bill, meaning it could be brought up for reconsideration later in the legislative session. New Hampshire has not had an execution since 1939 and has only 1 person on death row, whose status would not have been affected by the bill. The bill had overwhelmingly passed the House earlier, and Gov. Maggie Hassan indicated she would have signed the bill if it passed the Senate. Senator Bob Odell, one of two Republicans who voted in favor of repeal, had previously supported the death penalty, but said he could not explain an execution to his grandchildren. Some of those who voted to retain the death penalty were concerned that passage might reduce the sentence of the one man on death row, even though the bill stated it would apply only to future cases. In other states where inmates were left on death row after repeal, none have been removed because of the repeal legislation.

EDITORIALS: "New Hampshire Should Abolish Death Penalty"

In advance of a New Hampshire Senate vote expected on April 17, the Boston Globe published an editorial calling on their neighboring state's legislators to support repeal of capital punishment. The editorial highlighted the bipartisan support for abolition in the New Hampshire House, and Gov. Maggie Hassan's pledge to sign the repeal bill if it passes the Senate. Among their reasons for endorsing the measure, the Globe said, "Death-penalty prosecutions are expensive, verdicts often reflect racial bias, and there’s little evidence that executions actually deter violent crime." Moreover, the editorial continued, "[A] state with a libertarian heritage like New Hampshire’s should regard with deep suspicion a punishment that can only make sense if the government has the right suspect 100 percent of the time." In response to the argument that prosecutors need the death penalty as a bargaining tool, the editors said, "[T]hat’s among the weakest of reasons to keep the death penalty, because it could serve to coerce an innocent or less culpable defendant into taking a plea bargain just to avoid the possibility of death." Read the editorial below.

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