Missouri

Missouri

VICTIMS: Troubling Aspects of the Death Penalty

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, a victim's family member in Missouri described her mixed feelings about the death penalty and the executions that have occurred there. Laura Friedman wrote, "Death penalty supporters talk of closure. That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims. Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings." Friedman said many aspects of the death penalty were disturbing: "I am troubled by the number of minorities on death row (more than half), by the preponderance of whites among their victims (about 80 percent, even though blacks and whites are victims in roughly equal numbers). I am troubled by the evidence that juries and judges make unconscionable mistakes (144 death-row inmates exonerated since 1973). And I am troubled by the pretense of execution as a medical procedure: As drug makers and medical personnel back away from participating in lethal injections, states are experimenting on condemned men with untested drug combinations and inadequately trained personnel while concealing the source, skills and methods used." She concluded with the uncertain hope that the process "will finally bring an end to killing in our lives."

Federal Judge Stays Imminent Execution Over Mental Competency Concerns

UPDATE: Middleton was executed on July 16, after the U.S. Court of Appeals lifted his stay. On July 15, a federal judge in Missouri stayed the execution of John Middleton, less than 24 hours before it was to occur. The judge was concerned that Middleton might be mentally incompetent, and hence ineligible for execution: "Middleton has provided evidence that he has been diagnosed with a variety of mental-health disorders and has received a number of psychiatric medications over the years," Judge Catherine Perry wrote in her order staying the execution. "[Other] inmates indicate that he frequently talks to people who are not there and tells stories that could not have had any basis in reality." Middleton's attorneys have also introduced new evidence to support his claim of innocence. An expert witness who supported the prosecution's case at trial has now said the murder most likely took place when Middleton was in jail in another state. Kay Parish, an attorney for Middleton, said, "Part of the reason we don't execute people with mental deficits is that they have more difficulty navigating the system. And I think that's very true in this case, and I think that's why he had trouble in the past in getting lawyers or anyone to listen to his claim of innocence or look at this evidence."

First Lethal Injections Since Botched Oklahoma Execution Veiled in Secrecy

Georgia and Missouri each carried out an execution on June 17 and 18 respectively, marking the first executions since the botched lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. Georgia executed Marcus Wellons (l.) after challenges to the state's lethal injection secrecy law were denied. One of the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that allowed the execution wrote separately of the "disturbing circularity problem" in requiring Wellons to show that the planned method of execution would cause him unacceptable harm, but denying him the information to support such a claim: "How could he when the state has passed a law prohibiting him from learning about the compound it plans to use to execute him?" In Missouri, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit lifted a stay of execution that had been in place for John Winfield (r.) allowing his execution just after midnight on June 18. Winfield's execution had been stayed because correction officials had interfered with the clemency process by pressuring a prison employee who intended to testify in favor of clemency for Winfield. Missouri's lethal injection process was also challenged because of its failure to divulge the source of its drugs.

Missouri Juror Describes Pressure to Vote for Death

UPDATE: Winfield's execution was stayed on June 12 because of state interference with the clemency process. EARLIER: John Winfield is scheduled to be executed in Missouri on June 18 despite an affidavit submitted by one of the jurors at his trial stating she was pressured to switch her sentencing vote from life in prison to death. Kimberly Turner, who served on Winfield's jury in 1998, recently described the jury's initial deliberations: "Another juror and I had voted for life without the possibility of parole. That was my vote. In my heart, that has always been my vote." In Missouri, a jury recommendation for death must be unanimous; if just one juror votes for a life sentence, the defendant is sentenced to life. When the jury told the court they were unable to reach a unanimous sentencing verdict, they were told to continue deliberating. "Even though I had voted for life without parole," Turner said, "when an officer of the Court told me to keep deliberating, I thought that I had to. It was Friday afternoon and the other jurors were tired of being sequestered and wanted to go home. They were pressuring me and the other life vote to change our votes to death...As the afternoon went on, the other jurors wore me down. I had not wanted to keep deliberating, but after the order to continue, I did not know how long I was supposed to keep defending my vote for life...So I changed my vote to death. It is a decision that has haunted me."

Recent Lethal Injection Developments in Texas, Missouri, and Indiana

As states continue to seek alternative drugs and drug sources for lethal injections, three significant developments occurred last week. Indiana announced recently that they would use Brevital, an anesthetic, as the first drug in its three-drug protocol. On May 27, Par Pharmaceutical, the producer of Brevital, released a statement announcing efforts to prevent the use of their product in executions. The statement said, "The state of Indiana’s proposed use is contrary to our mission. Par is working with its distribution partners to establish distribution controls on Brevital® to preclude wholesalers from accepting orders from departments of correction." On May 29, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster gave a speech in which he suggested that the state of Missouri begin producing execution drugs. Missouri has had difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs and faced challenges to its lethal injection secrecy law. Koster said that state production of the drugs would increase transparency, adding, "As a matter of policy, Missouri should not be reliant on merchants whose identities must be shielded from public view or who can exercise unacceptable leverage over this profound state act.” Missouri would be the first state to set up a state-operated lab for producing execution drugs. In Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an order defending secrecy for lethal injection drug sources. The statement represents a reversal for the Attorney General, who had previously rejected arguments from the Department of Criminal Justice that secrecy was necessary.

Execution of Inmate with Unique Medical Condition Stayed by Supreme Court

UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution, pending the outcome of a review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. The Court further noted: "We leave for further consideration in the lower courts whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary."

Earlier: On May 20, just hours before a scheduled execution in Missouri, the U.S. Supreme Court, acting through Justice Samuel Alito, granted a temporary stay to Russell Bucklew. Bucklew has a congenital medical condition that impedes his breathing and presents a grave risk of a very painful death by lethal injection. He was to be executed at midnight on May 21, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued a stay on the evening of May 20, saying his "unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions." That stay was lifted by the full 8th Circuit, but reinstated by the Supreme Court without comment.

News Organizations File Suit to Obtain Execution Drug Information

On May 15, the Associated Press and four other media organizations filed suit against the state of Missouri, asking a state court to order the Department of Corrections (DOC) to release information about the source of its lethal injection drugs. Under Missouri law, the identity of the "execution team" is secret, and the DOC has interpreted the drug supplier to be a part of that team. The other four news organizations are the Guardian-U.S., the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, and the Springfield News-Leader. The news organizations filed public records requests with the DOC, asking for information about the drug itself, its source, quality testing, and the qualifications of those who prepared it. They were given a copy of the execution protocol, but told that the other records were closed, "pursuant to the state secret doctrine." Dave Schulz, an attorney for the news organizations and co-director of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School, said, "We assert that there is a constitutional right for the public to know the drugs that are used when a state puts someone to death."

Should State Executions Proceed Under a Veil of Secrecy?

In his Sidebar column in the N.Y. Times, Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak recently discussed the concerns about states denying death row inmates information about how they will be executed. Liptak highlighted the recent execution of Michael Taylor in Missouri, where the state has made the pharmacy providing the drugs for lethal injection part of its "execution team," thus obscuring any failings the pharmacy may have. This secretive approach drew criticism from a minority of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and a dissent from three Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have granted Taylor a stay of execution to consider his due process rights to information about the state's method for killing him. As Liptak said, "[I]t is hard to see how death row inmates can argue that a given method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment if they are barred from knowing what the method is." Though Taylor was executed, other death row inmates are raising similar claims that may come before the Supreme Court.

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