Twenty-one Oklahoma death row inmates, including three with upcoming execution dates, have filed suit against the state of Oklahoma challenging the state's lethal injection protocol. At a hearing in the case on September 18, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot urged the state to stay the executions, which are scheduled for November and December, saying, "It does not seem realistic to me that the steps that need to be taken can hardly be completed between now and then." The inmates have asked that the state be prevented from executing them “using the drugs and procedures employed in the attempt to execute Clayton Lockett, or similarly untried, untested and unsound drugs and procedures.” The state is currently revising its protocol, but the director of the Department of Corrections has said he will need time to train his staff on the new protocol. Patti Ghezzi, an attorney representing the death row inmates, told the judge that the inmates seek a finding that Lockett's execution violated the Eighth Amendment. “We do not want our plaintiffs to suffer the cruel and unusual punishment that Clayton Lockett suffered," Ghezzi said.
The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed an ongoing decline in the size of the death row population. The number of prisoners on death row decreased from 3,070 on January 1, 2014, to 3,054 on April 1. The new total represented a 12% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,487. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania (194). The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (72%), among states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races. Only 1.9% of death row prisoners were female.
In a recent speech in the U.S. Senate calling for the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) spoke about the recent exonerations of two men in North Carolina, citing the importance of DNA testing in their release from prison after 30 years: "The dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value," Leahy said, "Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown are just the latest examples. The injustice they survived – and the fact that North Carolina nearly executed an innocent man–should dispel any doubt that this legislation is urgently needed." The Act was first passed in 2004 and has provided important assistance to states and local governments in using DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. The reauthorization is sponsored by Leahy and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The testing in the North Carolina case was funded by the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program, a portion of the Justice for All Act named for the first man exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Read Leahy's statement below.
In The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution, historian John Bessler reveals the profound influence that the Italian thinker, Cesare Beccaria, had on the constitutional founders of the United States, including George Washington and John Adams. Beccaria's bestselling book, On Crimes and Punishments, argued against torture and the death penalty, saying only punishments proven absolutely necessary should be used. Bessler shows that the death penalty was more controversial at the writing of the constitution than is often assumed today. America did abandon England's Bloody Code and eventually most corporal punishment, but still retains capital punishment. Julie Silverbrook, executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project, said of the book, "John Bessler masterfully and comprehensively traces how Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments deeply affected early American views on crime and the proportionality of punishments for crime. Just as John Adams gifted Beccaria’s treatise to his sons, John Bessler has gifted Beccaria to a new generation of Americans."
A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard's trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard's teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard "to a reasonable medical certainty," but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard's case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.
On September 11, four news organizations filed suit in federal court challenging Pennsylvania's secrecy about the source of its lethal injection drugs as a violation of the first amendment rights of the media and the citizens of Pennsylvania. The suit was filed by the Guardian, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Philadelphia City Paper in advance of the execution of Hubert Michael, which had been scheduled for September 22, but has now been stayed because the state was not prepared to carry it out. Under a court order from 2012, the identity of the compounding pharmacy that provides the lethal injection drugs was kept secret. Information was released to Mr. Michael's lawyers, but not to the public or the media. “The information sought by our clients is central to the debate about capital punishment. If the drugs are not made properly, they will not work properly, and the public should be very concerned about that possibility given the gruesome executions we have heard about in other states,” said Mary Catherine Roper, the lawyer who is representing the newspapers. Media organizations have also filed similar suits in Missouri and Oklahoma over execution secrecy.
(Click to enlarge graph) A Field Poll of voters in California found that support for capital punishment has reached its lowest level since 1965. Only 56% of respondents said they favored keeping the death penalty, down from 69% in 2011. Support for the death penalty among Californians peaked in the mid-1980s at 83%. Some of the strongest opposition to keeping the death penalty came from voters under 30, African Americans, and Democrats. Daisy Vieyra, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Northern California, said support for capital punishment has declined because, "The public is becoming more aware of all the flaws that riddle the system." In 2012, a referendum to replace California's death penalty with life without parole almost passed, coming up short in a 52-48% vote.
The highly acclaimed resource on the death penalty -- "America's Experiment with Capital Punishment" -- has just been released in its Third Edition. This compendium of essays by experts covers the history, politics, and law of the death penalty, as well as related issues, such as innocence, intellectual disability, and race. DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter, contributed a chapter on the costs of the death penalty. The editors encourage readers to grapple with the many questions surrounding capital punishment, saying, "Today, more than 40 years after the death penalty came to an abrupt but temporary halt with the Supreme Court's ruling in Furman v. Georgia (1972), a host of fundamental questions involving law, social policy, and essential justice remain unanswered about America's renewed commitment to capital punishment." This edition includes a particular focus on lethal injection and trends in the Supreme Court's interpretation of the nation's "evolving standards of decency."