Recent Legislative Activity

Ohio's New Lethal Injection Procedures Include 'Pinching Inmate' to Test for Consciousness

The first execution under Ohio’s new lethal injection procedure was conducted on June 3.  Questions about the effectiveness of the first of the three drugs used, as well as recent botched executions, have brought Ohio’s procedures under scrutiny. The new procedures include a procedure for the warden to pinch the inmate to make sure the first drug works before administering the second, which has been described as excrutiatingly painful . "The warden will call their name, shake their shoulder a bit and give the upper arm a pinch just to see if he responds," explained Chief Legal Counsel for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Greg Trout. "An unconscious person shouldn't respond. If there is no response, we assume the offender is unconscious." Prior to the procedure update, prison officials had trouble inserting shunts to carry the drugs during the execution of two inmates, Christopher Newton in 2007 and Joseph Clark in 2006. Newton’s procedure lasted so long he was given a break to use the restroom; Clark cried out during his execution that the injection “isn’t working.”  Ohio defense lawyer Jeffrey Gamso doubts the effectiveness of the new rules. "They are still using three drugs. There is no reason to use three drugs," said Gamso, the former legal director for the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union. "Here is what we know about three drugs: two of them serve no purpose in getting the guy dead ... Our expert and the state's expert have said using three drugs increases the risk of causing excruciating pain. So this new policy, it's nibbling around the edges."

Alabama's New Law Providing DNA Testing Has Limitations

Alabama has adopted new legislation that allows some inmates to obtain DNA testing on old evidence.  However, critics have pointed out important limitations in the new law.  The new procedure is limited to inmates who were convicted of capital crimes, including those on death row.  The Department of Forensic Sciences requested this limitation because they believed they did not have the resources to handle a larger class of cases.  Even those convicted of a capital crime face further hurdles.  For example, the law requires petitioners to show that the identity of the guilty party was “at issue in the trial that resulted in the conviction.”  In cases where a confession existed or the inmate pled guilty, DNA testing could be denied. DNA technology has cleared people in those circumstances before, yet this law precludes testing in such cases.  Some see the legislation as at least a beginning in a state that was one of the very last in the country to adopt a law to provide after-the-fact DNA testing in criminal cases.

Nebraska Governor Signs Bill Changing Method of Execution to Lethal Injection

On May 28, Nebraska’s Governor Dave Heineman signed a bill changing the state’s method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection.  Nebraska had been without a legal method of execution since February 2008 when the state’s Supreme Court found the electric chair unconstitutional.  Before executions in the state can resume, Nebraska still needs to develop procedures for lethal injections and the new law will be tested in court.  Nebraska was the last state to have the electric chair as its sole means of execution. 

NEW VOICES: 3 Connecticut Senators Change Opinion on Death Penalty

The recent 19-17 vote in the Connecticut Senate to abolish the death penalty was made possible by three senators who moved from supporting the death penalty to opposing it.  Sen. Gary LeBeau had long favored the death penalty, partly because of "political calculations."  His stance shifted in the last couple of years witnessing a series of high-profile exonerations of innocent people.  At 61, LeBeau, a retired schoolteacher, came to view life as a gift, one "we shouldn't take away from anybody ... in the name of the people of Connecticut. It's not our right to take away a person's life.''  Joining LeBeau’s change of heart were Senators Andrea Stillman and Edith Prague.  Prague said, "I always believed if someone was so cruel to take someone else's life ... they deserve it.  Then along came Mr. Tillman,'' Prague said, referring to James Tillman, an innocent man who served 18 years for a crime before he was exonerated on the basis of new DNA evidence. "I know that the mistake made [was] horrendous,'' she said.  "My sense is that the justice system makes mistakes.''  Sen. Stillman had first voted in support of the death penalty in 1995, but now says, “The world was different then,” and believes her own gradual shift in opinion mirrors that of her constituents.  Connecticut’s House voted 90-56 to abolish capital punishment as well, but Governor Jodi Rell has indicated she will veto the bill.

Connecticut Legislature Votes to Abolish the Death Penalty

Connecticut’s Senate gave final legislative approval to a bill that would abolish the death penalty in an early morning vote on May 22.  After a nearly 11-hour debate, the Senate voted 19-17 to end capital punishment, eight days after the House of Representatives approved the bill 90-56.  The bill will now go to Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s desk.  When asked the day before its passage if she would veto the bill, Rell said, "I haven't seen it, but you know how I feel about the death penalty. I've always believed that there are some crimes that are so heinous that it deserves the death penalty." State Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams expressed his hopes that the governor would sign the bill, given the turn of events in the legislature, "History has been made in the state legislature," Williams said. "We have seen a sea change in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate, and I think it reflects something that's going on across the country. ... I think it's very important that we stress that what we're talking about now is a very certain sentence of life in prison, without the chance of parole. ... I would hope the governor would reflect upon the evidence." 

Racial Justice Act Moves Closer to Passage in North Carolina

On May 12, the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to prevent racial bias in the administration of the death penalty. The senate's action came just hours after a House panel passed a nearly identical bill, known as the Racial Justice Act.  The bill allows those convicted or accused of capital murder to argue through the use of statistical studies that race played a role in their death sentence or a prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty.  If that bias is proven, a judge could vacate the death sentence or order that capital punishment not be sought.  The next step for either version of the Racial Justice Act is a vote on the House or Senate floor. Two years ago, the House approved a similar bill.  A video about the Racial Justice Act produced by the North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium may be viewed here.



With Death Penalty System Bogged Down, Connecticut Considers Abolition

On March 8, Connecticut held a legislative hearing about what should be done with the state's death penalty. The Judiciary Committee has already approved a bill to abolish capital punishment.  Connecticut has carried out only one execution since 1973, and that was with an inmate who waived his appeals and volunteered for execution.  The Chief State’s Attorney, Kevin T. Kane submitted a proposal to reform the system, but it would curtail the appeals process used to protect against mistakes.  Kane told the Committee that the death penalty should be abolished if it wasn’t fixed. ”Right now, we have a situation that there's no end to it,” said Kane. “There's no end that I can see, at least in my lifetime. There's no hope that I can give a victim … that the death penalty will be imposed. The legislature should either repeal it or fix it.”   In 2005, Connecticut lawmakers also debated a proposal to repeal capital punishment.

Colorado Continues Death Penalty With Legislators Evenly Split on Repeal

A bill to repeal the death penalty and use the funds saved to investigate unsolved murder cases in Colorado was defeated in the state senate by a vote of 18-17 on May 6.  The House had earlier approved the bill by a vote of 33-32.  On May 4, the senate had approved an amendment, dropping the repeal of the death penalty and funding the cost of investigating cold cases through a $2.50 fine to convicted felons.  However, the conference committee restored the repeal provision and the senate rejected the committee's proposal after an impassioned debate.  The repeal bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Morgan Carroll, expressed concerns about the risks of the death penalty, including executing the innocent. “In a democracy,” she said, “the decisions of the state come with blood on all of our hands in the event that we are wrong.” In all, 50 legislators voted for repeal, and 50 voted against repeal.