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Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich said he is "more open" to the abolition of the death penalty after hearing Pope Francis' address to Congress. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism several years ago, said he was "very impressed" with Pope Francis' comments. In an appearance on HuffPost Live, Gingrich highlighted the work he has done on criminal justice reform, saying, "I very deeply believe we need to profoundly rethink what we've done over the past 25 years in criminal justice." With regards to the death penalty, he raised particular concerns about innocence: "You do want to be careful not to execute somebody who you find later on, as we've found, to be innocent." Openness to the idea of abolition represents a significant change in Gingrich's stance on the issue, as he was House Speaker when Congress passed the law (known as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)) limiting the availability of federal judicial review of death sentences imposed in the state courts and once advocated a mandatory death penalty for drug smugglers.
An unusually high number of executions are scheduled for late September and early October - five states intend to carry out six executions in nine days. Pieces in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post describe the larger issues raised by the cases in this "burst of lethal activity." In the Los Angeles Times, Scott Martelle examined the three executions scheduled for consecutive days in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia, concluding, "So here we have three pending executions: One of a woman who received a harsher penalty than the co-conspirator who committed the murder; one of a man who very possibly is innocent; and one of a man whose intellectual disability should make him ineligible for the death penalty." Mark Berman, of the Washington Post, noted the overall rarity of executions and the small number of states that carry them out. He says "most states have ... not been active participants in the country's capital punishment system" and "executions remain clustered in a small number of states, a dwindling number of locations accounting for an overwhelming majority of lethal injections." Berman notes that the number of executions, the states executing inmates and the number of death sentences have all fallen significantly since the 1990s and the upcoming executions share one common characteristic: "The states planning the executions this week and next — Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Missouri — are among the country’s most active death-penalty states since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976."
Virginia may execute Alfredo Prieto on October 1 despite concerns by disability advocates that he may be intellectually disabled. Governor Terry McAuliffe (pictured) announced on September 28 that he would not grant Prieto a reprieve. Gov. McAuliffe issued a statement saying "It is the Governor’s responsibility to ensure that the laws of the Commonwealth are properly carried out unless circumstances merit a stay or commutation of the sentence. After extensive review and deliberation, I have found no such circumstances, and have thus decided that this execution will move forward." Prieto's attorneys say he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution and that an adverse Virginia state court determination of that issue employed a scientifically invalid strict IQ cutoff score. Later, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of strict IQ cutoff for ruling out intellectual disability without considering other factors violated the Eighth Amendment. The Arc of Virginia, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said, "We believe that allowing Mr. Prieto’s execution to go forward on the evidence as it stands is unjustified scientifically and would endorse a misunderstanding of intellectual disabilities that was refuted long ago."
Defense lawyers have filed a motion in the case of Richard Glossip (pictured) alleging that two witnesses who have come forward with evidence of Glossip's innocence have been intimidated by prosecutors. Glossip was sentenced to death for the murder of Barry Van Treese, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, Justin Sneed, who was spared the death penalty in exhange for testifying that Glossip had offered him thousands of dollars to kill Van Treese. On September 23, Glossip's attorneys filed allegations that Michael Scott and Joseph Tapley had been arrested and interrogated by prosecutors in retaliation for providing statements that Sneed had acted alone. Prior to Glossip's scheduled September 16 execution, Scott had provided an affidavit stating that, "Among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river." On September 16, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a two-week stay of execution to allow consideration of new evidence in the case, including Scott's allegations. Later, a second former inmate, Joseph Tapley, came forward to say he was "sure that Justin Sneed acted alone." Tapley, who had been Sneed's cellmate, said Sneed offered "very detailed accounts" of the murder, but "never gave me any indication that someone else was involved. He never mentioned the name of Richard Glossip to me." Tapley also said Sneed, "was very concerned about getting the death penalty. He was very scared of it. The only thing that mattered to him was signing for a life sentence." The defense filing alleges that, after the stay was granted, Scott was arrested for a parole violation and questioned by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office prosecuted Glossip. It says that "Mr. Prater specifically told Mr. Scott that he ordered this action so that Scott would be forced to talk with Prater and his investigator." An arrest warrant was also issued for Tapley after he told Prater he did not wish to speak with him. Prater sharply denied the allegations of intimidation, calling them "lies."
Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher and former State Corrections Deputy Director Vanessa O’Donnell have joined the effort to spare Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on September 29 for recruiting Gregory Owen, with whom she was romantically involved, to murder her husband. Owen made a deal with prosecutors for a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in 8 years. Justice Fletcher wrote a letter to the
A group of former Georgia prisoners is calling for clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed on September 29. The women say Gissendaner gave them hope and helped them turn their lives around. Nikki Roberts said she spoke to Gissendaner through a heating vent after Roberts had been placed in "lockdown" for trying to slit her wrists. Gissendaner told her, "Don't wish death on yourself. You sound like you've got some sense." Gissendaner encouraged Roberts to take taching courses and study theology. Roberts joined a choir and became a prayer leader. She was paroled last year and now teaches adult literacy. "Killing Kelly is essentially killing hope. Kelly is the poster child for redemption," Roberts said. Another woman, Nicole Legere, said Gissendaner helped her and many others. "I saw the change in (other inmates) who talked to her. There needs to be people like her, someone to be a mentor. She’s a lot of hope. And there’s not much hope in there." Gissendaner was convicted for her role in facilitating the murder of her husband, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, who received a deal in which he will become eligible for parole. If Gissendaner is executed, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945 and the only person who did not directly commit the killing to be executed in Georgia since the state reestablished the death penalty in the 1970s.
In an historic address before a joint session of the United States Congress, Pope Francis called for the abolition of capital punishment. Linking to the broader theme of protecting human life and dignity, he said, "This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes." He commended the United States bishops for their commitment to abolition. He went on to say, "Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation." This was the first time a pope had addressed the U.S. Congress. Pope Francis has made several previous statements against the death penalty, including an address to the International Association on Penal Law and a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty.
Sun Pharma, which is based in India, has publicly dissociated itself from the use of its drugs in upcoming Arkansas executions. The company said it prohibits the sale of its products to entities that might use them for killing. Sun Pharma was notified of the possible misuse of its products by the Associated Press, which had obtained redacted photographs of the drugs Arkansas planned to use in eight scheduled executions. A recently passed secrecy law allows the state to withhold the source of its execution drugs from public scrutiny. (Virginia's Supreme Court also recently shielded some information about executions from the public.) Other companies whose drugs might be used by Arkansas have also objected. Hikma Pharmaceuticals said it was investigating whether Arkansas had obtained midazolam from one of its subsidiaries, and Hospira, which was identified as a possible source of the potassium chloride that Arkansas plans to use, was one of the first companies to bar its drugs from executions.
A Reuters analysis of more than 2,000 state Supreme Court rulings in capital cases has found that elected judges are much less likely to overturn death sentences than judges who are appointed. In the 15 states in which the state Supreme Court is directly elected, justices overturned death sentences only 11% of the time as compared to a 26% reversal rate in the 7 states in which justices are appointed. 15 states have a hybrid system, where justices are initially appointed, but must then face election to remain on the bench; those states fell in the middle, with a 15% reversal rate. Tennessee Justice Gary Wade, who ran television ads during his re-election campaign touting the court's 90% rate of affirming death sentences, told Reuters, "Those who were employed to run the campaign believed that it was important for this court to have a demonstrated record, or willingness, to impose the death penalty." An Ohio defendant, Ashford Thompson, is arguing that politics played a role in the Ohio Supreme Court's 4-3 decision to uphold his death sentence in a decision rendered less than a week before two of the majority justices faced re-election. The justice who wrote that opinion was the beneficiary of a $600,000 advertising campaign that featured television ads praising her previous votes to uphold death sentences. Dissenting Justice William O'Neill wrote, "The majority’s failure to seriously engage in the weighing process provides yet another reason why, in my opinion, Ohio’s system of imposing and reviewing death sentences is unconstitutional."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hear arguments on September 23 regarding Scott Panetti's competency to be executed. Panetti is a severely mentally ill man who represented himself at his trial wearing a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena the Pope, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus Christ. As the court prepares to hear Panetti's case, opinion pieces in two Texas newspapers used it to illustrate larger problems with the death penalty and mental illness. In an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News, conservative commentator Richard Viguerie said Panetti's execution would not be "a proportionate response to murder," but "would only undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system." He wrote that people with severe mental illness, like juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities, should not be executed because they have diminished capacities to understand the consequences of their actions. "The rationales for the death penalty — retribution and deterrence — simply do not apply to a severely mentally ill individual like Panetti, who believes that a listening device has been implanted in one of his teeth." Executing Panetti, Viguerie said, would be "a moral failure for conservatives." A Houston Chronicle editorial discussed Panetti's case and the case of another mentally ill capital defendant, James Calvert. A Texas court terminated Calvert's self-representation after, in the words of the editorial, Calvert "took to defending himself with a farcical style that likely did more to hurt than help his case." Just before the court terminated Calvert's self-representation, a court deputy administered an electric shock to Calvert, causing him to scream for several seconds. The editorial said that "[t]he ultimate punishment - death - merits our highest standards of care" and that "judges must carefully balance the Sixth Amendment's right to represent oneself with the guarantee of competent representation." Calling for the end of the death penalty, the editorial board wrote, "Cases like Calvert and Panetti's show how something as serious as life and death can easily be turned into a farce."