Several state legislatures have recently taken action on bills related to capital punishment. In Arkansas, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote. Bill sponsor Sen. David Burnett, a former prosecutor and judge who both sought and imposed the death penalty, said, "It's no longer a deterrent. It's a punishment that's actually broken. It doesn't work. And it costs a huge amount of money to try and prosecute those cases." Arkansas last carried out an execution in 2005. A similar bill in Montana was approved by a House committee with bipartisan support, but failed on a tied vote (50-50) in the full House. Before the vote, repeal supporter Rep. Mitch Tropila said, “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives. It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history." Montana's last execution took place in 2006. Virginia legislators rejected a bill to shield information related to lethal injection as state secrets. The House of Delegates voted 56-42 against the bill, which would have exempted “all information relating to the execution process,” including the source of execution drugs and the buildings and equipment used for executions, from open records laws. Del. Scott A. Surovell commented, "Anytime somebody in the government wants to restrict information about what the government is going to do, I think we need to ask some really difficult questions and get some straight answers before we grant them that right.”
Cynthia Portaro, whose son, Michael (pictured), was killed in 2011, stood before a Nevada courtroom on February 23 and asked prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty for the man convicted of her son's murder. Prosecutors agreed to the request and said they would ask the judge to sentence Brandon Hill to life without parole. Portaro said, “I personally didn’t want to see another person die. I got what I wanted — an apology from Brandon. I felt a sense of relief that there is no hatred, animosity, anger.” Joseph Abood, Hill's defense attorney, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. ... I’m just happy that the healing for everybody can start today. … He’s matured a lot since this killing, and I’m glad he’s finally able to recognize that he made a grave error and to know that he needs to apologize.” In the years since her son's death, Portaro has started a support group to help others through the loss of loved ones. “I just help other families through trauma, give them hope, give them tools, guidance, comfort, love, support, knowing that if they can see me being able to do it, they can do it, too,” Portaro said. “It helps me to help others."
UPDATE: Gissendaner's execution has been rescheduled to Monday, March 2, due to a winter storm forecast to hit Georgia. Previously: On February 25 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on the state's death row. Gissendaner was convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, but did not carry out the killing herself. At Gissendaner's clemency hearing, 21 people testified in favor of a reduction in sentence, including two of Gissendaner's children, several prison volunteers, and members of the clergy. Gissendaner's daughter, Kayla, said, "My father’s death was extremely painful for many people, but I’ve recently concluded that in many ways I was the person who was most impacted by his murder. The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can’t fathom losing another parent.” The man who committed the murder pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Gissendaner's attorney advised her not to take the same deal, saying that he thought a jury would not sentence her to death, "because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug." Unless an appeals court halts the execution, Gissendaner will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years.
Mike Farrell, actor and human rights leader, argued in an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the case of Anthony Apanovitch in Ohio demonstrates several significant problems with the death penalty. Apanovitch was recently granted a new trial, 30 years after he was convicted. Evidence in Apanovitch's case was withheld from his defense, and a DNA test was not performed until decades after the trial. "[W]hen the state seeks the penalty of death -- the one punishment that is irreversible," Farrell wrote, "there is a need for certainty that is at odds with the outrage of the public and the pressure on prosecutors." When a DNA test was eventually performed, it excluded Apanovitch, leading a judge to acquit Apanovitch on one count of rape, dismiss another rape charge against him, remove a specification from the murder charge, and order a new trial on the remaining murder and burglary charges. Farrell, who has been involved in the case for decades, emphasized how the uncertainty of the case effected the victim's family: "For 30 years, the Flynn family has lived with nearly unendurable pain while those in charge of our system have struggled to justify killing Anthony Apanovitch." He concluded, "It is too soon, even after 30 years, to call this case resolved. But it is not too soon to say that the death penalty system is a failure. In fact, it is long past time for us to declare that the death penalty does not serve the interests of society, the interests of victims, or the interests of justice."
In her first press conference since taking office on February 18, Oregon Governor Kate Brown said she will continue the moratorium on executions that former Governor John Kitzhaber imposed in 2011. "There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said. "Until that discussion, I will be upholding the moratorium imposed by Gov. Kitzhaber." When the former governor announced the moratorium, he also called for a statewide discussion about capital punishment, saying, "I am calling on the legislature to bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session and encourage all Oregonians to engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves. I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values." Oregon has carried out only two executions since 1976, and none since 1997. There are currently 36 people on Oregon's death row.
On February 18, the Montana House Judiciary Committee voted (11-10) to advance HB 370, a bill to replace the death penalty with a maximum sentence of life without parole. The same committee had rejected similar bills several times in recent years. The bill will now move to the full House. Republican bill sponsor Rep. David Moore (pictured) said he thought the bill had a decent chance of passing in the House. Rep. Clayton Fiscus, one of two Republican members of the Judiciary Committee who supported the bill, said, "Our death penalty is a joke." He cited the high cost of capital trials and concerns about executing an innocent person as reasons for supporting abolition. Rep. Bruce Meyers, the other Republican who voted to advance the bill, said he was religiously opposed to capital punishment: “That was part of my conscience, the way I was raised. Native Americans view all life as being sacred.” All 9 Democratic members of the committee also voted in favor of the bill.
Jeanne Bishop has written a new book about her life and spiritual journey after her sister was murdered in Illinois in 1990. Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer tells Bishop's personal story of grief, loss, and of her eventual efforts to confront and reconcile with her sister's killer. She also addresses larger issues of capital punishment, life sentences for juvenile offenders, and restorative justice. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan said of the book, "When I commuted the death sentences of everyone on Illinois's death row, I expressed the hope that we could open our hearts and provide something for victims' families other than the hope of revenge. I quoted Abraham Lincoln: 'I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.' Jeanne Bishop's compelling book tells the story of how devotion to her faith took her face-to-face with her sister's killer .... She reminds us of a core truth: that our criminal justice system cannot be just without mercy."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that all executions be put on hold while the Supreme Court is considering Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. Speaking for himself, rather than the administration, at a press luncheon on February 17, Holder said, "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate." Holder has previously criticized state secrecy in lethal injections, but voiced broader concerns about executing the innocent in his remarks: “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there's always the possibility that mistakes will be made...There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” Holder said that the Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which President Obama ordered after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, is still underway, and is unlikely to be finished before Holder steps down as Attorney General.
Attorneys for Rodney Reed, a death row inmate in Texas, have filed a petition in a county court with new evidence supporting an alternate theory of the crime that led to Reed's conviction. Reed is scheduled to be executed on March 5 for the murder of Stacy Stites. The petition included affidavits from three forensic experts who contend Stites died much earlier than police originally said, and that her body was stored for several hours in a different location than where it was found. They also said that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that Stites had been sexually assaulted. Attorneys for Reed said Stites was likely killed by her fiance, a former police officer who is now in prison for the abduction and rape of a young woman while on duty. Affidavits from two of Stites' coworkers state she would "deliberately hide" from her fiance because “she was sleeping with a black guy named Rodney and … didn’t know what her fiancé would do if he found out.” Reed previously sought DNA testing of Stites' shirt and the belt used to strangle her, but that request was denied by the Bastrop County District Court.
A recent article by Prof. Eric Berger of the University of Nebraska College of Law argued that defendants facing execution have a fundamental right to know important information about the lethal injection drugs they will be given. Berger wrote, "Judicial recognition of this due process right would both protect Eighth Amendment values and also encourage states to make their execution procedures more transparent and less dangerous." After discussing the history of recent developments in lethal injection, the right to discover evidence under the Federal Rules of Procedure, and the need to be fully informed in order to demonstrate the cruelty of a method of execution, the article concluded: "By permitting states to execute inmates without disclosing key details about their lethal injection procedures, courts are not only denying inmates their Eighth Amendment due process rights but are also implicitly blessing states' secretive and often unprofessional administration of their most solemn task."