U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Oklahoma Case Over Improper Victim-Impact Testimony

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals that affirmed the death sentence imposed on Shaun Michael Bosse. In a unanimous per curiam decision issued October 11, the Court held that Oklahoma prosecutors had improperly presented testimony from three members of the victims' families asking the jury to sentence Bosse to death. The Court had ruled in 1987 in Booth v. Maryland that the use of victim-impact testimony in determining whether a capital defendant would be sentenced to death violated the 8th Amendment. Four years later, after a personnel change on the Court, it retreated from part of that decision, holding in Payne v. Tennessee that the presentation of testimony relating to the effect of the victim's death on his or her loved ones was constitutionally permissible. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals then ruled that Payne had implicitly overruled Booth in its entirety, permitting Oklahoma prosecutors to present highly emotional pleas from victims' family members asking juries to impose the death penalty. Oklahoma was the only jurisdiction in the country to interpret Payne in that manner, and Bosse's petition for review argued that "Oklahoma stands alone" and that its "outlier" practice was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court summarily reversed the Oklahoma court, writing that it has never overruled the portion of Booth that prohibits victims' family testimony offering "opinions about the crime, the defendant, and the appro­priate punishment." The Court further declared that its decision in Booth "remain[s] binding prec­edent until we see fit to reconsider [it]." While the Bosse decision prevents Oklahoma prosecutors from presenting this type of testimony in the future, its impact on the numerous other cases in which Oklahoma prosecutors presented this testimony is less clear. The Court remanded Bosse's case to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which may consider whether the improper testimony constituted harmless error. Similar harmless error review may be required in other Oklahoma cases.

Death Row Exonerees Speak Out on State Death Penalty Ballot Questions

As voters get set to cast ballots on death penalty questions in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, U.S. death row exonerees from across the country have been scouring those states in an effort to inform the public of the risks of wrongful executions. On September 19, 17 of the nation's 156 death-row exonerees appeared at a California press conference advocating approval of Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole plus restitution, and defeat of Proposition 66, which seeks to place limits on the capital appeals process. Many, including California exoneree Shujaa Graham (pictured), Florida exoneree Juan Melendez, Arizona exonerees Ray Krone and Debra Milke, and Louisiana exoneree Damon Thibodeaux urged a no vote on Prop. 66, arguing that they would have been executed without the chance to prove their innocence if a measure like it had been effect when they were sentenced to death. A few days earlier, Illinois exoneree Randy Steidl and Ohio exoneree Kwame Ajamu spoke to the Oklahoma Republican Liberty Caucus, a group described by its chairman, Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman, as "disenfranchised conservatives" who, as a result of their distrust of government regulation are questioning the death penalty. Steidl and Ajamu told the caucus about their wrongful capital convictions and raised concerns about the effects of limitations on judicial review under Oklahoma ballot question 776, which would bar Oklahoma courts from ruling that the imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel or unusual punishment or "contravene[d] any provision of the Oklahoma Constitution." Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted in Illinois in 1987 and exonerated in 2004, stressed the importance of appellate review in securing his exoneration: "Without the judicial review I finally got, I’d be dead today or at least be languishing in prison," he said. "I really believe that Oklahoma’s track record so far is not very pretty when you’ve got 10 people that’s been exonerated." And in Nebraska, Maryland's Kirk Bloodsworth, the first former death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA, taped an ad on behalf of Retain A Just Nebraska, the advocacy committee opposing a voter referendum that could overturn the state legislature's repeal of Nebraska's death penalty. In the ad, Bloodsworth says: "You could free a man from prison, but you cannot free him from the grave. You can not un-execute someone. ... If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal record or criminal history, it could happen to anybody in America.”

Poll: Majority of Oklahomans Support Replacing Death Penalty With Life Without Parole Plus Restitution

A new survey conducted by SoonerPoll has found that while three-quarters of likely Oklahoma voters say they support the death penalty in theory, a majority (53%) support abolishing capital punishment and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole, plus restitution to victims' families. Among every political affiliation, more supported the plan to replace the death penalty than favored keeping it, with a majority of Democrats (58%) and independents (57%) supporting abolition and a 48%-41% plurality of Republicans favoring replacing the death penalty. A similar poll from November 2015, shortly after the failed execution of Richard Glossip, found 52% support for replacing the death penalty with life without parole. The poll results reflect a pattern of softening support for capital punishment among voters in death penalty states. Recent polls in a number of such states show respondents expressing support for the death penalty generally, but favoring alternatives to capital punishment when offered a choice of punishments. A Florida poll earlier this year reported that 62% of respondents preferred some form of life in prison for those convicted of murder. In 2015, 54% of Pennsylvanians preferred life in prison. A recently-released Kentucky poll reported that 58% of respondents preferred lengthy prison terms over death sentences, with 72% supporting a moratorium on executions.

Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 1 out of 20 of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

As Legitimate Market for Execution Drugs Dries Up, States' Secret Execution Practices Become Increasingly Questionable

Pfizer's recent announcement that it was tightening controls against what it calls the misuse of its medicines in executions highlights an on-going struggle between states desperate for execution drugs and a medical community that believes its involvement in the lethal injection process violates its medical and corporate missions and the ethical standards of the pharmaceutical and health professions. As Pfizer and nearly two dozen other pharmaceutical companies have ended open market access to drugs potentially used in executions, states have responded by increasingly shrouding the execution process in secrecy. The states "are mainly concerned about losing their providers of lethal-injection drugs should the companies’ names become public," says Linc Caplan in a recent article in The New Yorker. Otherwise, "companies that do not want their products associated with executions will know that their drugs are being used." He reports that since the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's execution protocol in 2008, 20 states have responded to drug shortages by abandoning protocols that had been substantially similar to Kentucky’s, making "unfettered substitutions" to their protocols in "desperate attempts to adhere to their execution schedules.” Caplan reports that States "have also been increasingly misleading in their efforts to obtain drugs for executions." He cites documents showing that one Ohio official urged state drug purchasers to identify themselves as from the Department of Mental Health and warned they should "not mention anything about corrections in the phone call or what we use the drug for." Louisiana similarly obtained execution drugs from a local hospital, which mistakenly assumed they were needed for medical use. Last week, an Oklahoma grand jury report described that state's secrecy practices as producing a "paranoia" that "clouded [prison officials'] judgment and caused administrators to blatantly violate their own policies." An article by Chris McDaniel in BuzzFeed after the release of that report documented that the same secrecy and lack of oversight criticized by the Oklahoma grand jury is common in other states, and has contributed to execution problems in Missouri, Georgia, and Ohio. Arizona and Missouri paid executioners in cash, and Missouri's mismanagement of that fund likely violated federal income tax law. Missouri's secrecy, McDaniels writes, also "allowed it to purchase execution drugs from a pharmacy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was not licensed in Missouri and had questionable pharmaceutical practices." Other states, like Texas and Arizona "have used the secrecy to purchase drugs illegally," he reports. 

Missouri Execution Drug Supplier Being Sold After Committing Nearly 2,000 Violations of Pharmacy Regulations

The assets of The Apothecary Shoppe, a Tulsa, Oklahoma compounding pharmacy that provided lethal injection drugs to Missouri, have been auctioned off after the company defaulted on its loans, and is being sold after admitting to nearly two thousand violations of pharmacy regulations, according to a report by BuzzFeed News. Inspectors from the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Oklahoma Board of Pharmacy found that the drug compounder had committed "significant" violations of pharmacy regulations, including engaging in questionable potency, disinfecting, and sterilization practices. State investigators witnessed improper refrigeration, storage, and sterilization practices at the pharmacy and caught the company producing drugs without legitimate medical need, improperly expanding drug expiration dates, and operating during periods in which its lab was not certified. In 2013 and 2014, the pharmacy prepared execution drugs for at least three Missouri executions, receiving cash payments from the Department of Corrections. In challenges to Missouri's lethal injection practices, death-row prisoners – hampered by state execution secrecy provisions – argued in court that “Compounding-pharmacy products do not meet the requirements for identity, purity, potency, efficacy, and safety that pharmaceuticals produced under FDA regulation must meet.” Among the possibilities they listed, were that the drug may not be sterile, may be less potent than it needs to be, or may be contaminated. Missouri responded in its court filings that the condemned prisoners' concerns were speculative and that the inmates did "not make a plausible claim that Missouri’s execution procedure is sure or very likely to cause serious illness or needless suffering and give rise to sufficiently imminent dangers.” The problems found at The Apothecary Shoppe confirmed the prisoners' concerns. 

Oklahoma Knew It Had Used Unauthorized Drug Months Before It Aborted Richard Glossip's Execution

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections knew it had used an unauthorized drug in the execution of Charles Warner nearly six months before it almost repeated the mistake in the aborted execution of Richard Glossip. Oklahoma executed Warner on January 15, 2015. Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that three months later, in April, the state medical examiner submitted a report to the Department on Warner's autopsy, showing that he had been executed using potassium acetate, in violation of the state's lethal injection protocol which required the use of potassium chloride. The Department apparently received the report in advance of the April 29, 2015 Supreme Court argument in Glossip v. Gross, in which Oklahoma death row prisoners challenged the constitutionality of the use of the drug, midazolam, the first component of the state's three-drug execution process. Oklahoma had represented to the federal courts throughout those proceedings that it was complying with its protocol, and the Supreme Court narrowly upheld Oklahoma's protocol on June 29. Glossip's execution was scheduled for September 30, but was halted at the last minute after the doctor overseeing the execution noticed that the state had again obtained potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride. Emails suggest that the Oklahoma Attorney General's office may already have known about the execution problems before their recurrence in Glossip's case, because they sought details about Warner's execution from the medical examiner in early September. Shortly after Glossip's execution was stayed, The Oklahoman reported that the state had used the wrong drug in Warner's execution. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt launched a grand jury investigation into the protocol violations in October. Since the grand jury investigation began, two correctional officials and the governor's general counsel have resigned. The grand jury could release their report as early as this week.

Victim's Cousin in Oklahoma Death Penalty Case Speaks of "Awful" Guilt Upon Learning Defendants Were Actually Innocent

After Debbie Carter was raped and murdered in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982, police and prosecutors told her cousin, Christy Sheppard (pictured) that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were guilty of the crime. In 1988, Williamson was convicted and sentenced to death; Fritz received a life sentence. Eleven years later, the pair were exonerated when DNA testing excluded them as perpetrators and pointed to another man who had once been a suspect. Sheppard, now a criminal justice counselor and victim advocate in Ada, recently shared the story of her experience learning that Williamson and Fritz were actually innocent. “The guilt has been awful,” she said. “It is horrible to think that you prayed, wished, helped and condoned to bring harm to someone else and then to find out that it wasn’t deserved and later learn what they went through.” Sheppard said her family was shocked, "It was like being in a Twilight Zone. It fit nothing we knew to be true." The experience changed her views on the death penalty, which she had previously supported. "In theory, it seems like that’s the way it ought to be: The punishment fits the crime. But when you pick it apart, it’s just a mess," she said. Sheppard is serving on the recently-announced Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and is also campaigning on behalf of Retain a Just Nebraska, a group working to defeat a ballot initiative that would reverse that state's legislative repeal of the death penalty.