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Support for the Death Penalty by Republican Legislators No Longer a Sure Thing

Posted: May 18, 2016

One year after the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and overrode a gubernatorial veto of that measure, actions in legislatures across the country suggest that the state's efforts signalled a growing movement against the death penalty by conservative legislators and that support for the death penalty among Republican legislators is no longer a given. Reporting in The Washington Post, Amber Phillips writes that Republican legislators in ten states sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to repeal capital punishment during the current legislative sessions. She reports that although these repeal bills have not become law, they have made unprecedented progress in several states. In Utah, a repeal bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart (pictured)—a former death penalty proponent who supported the state's firing squad law—came closest, winning approval in the state Senate and in a House committee. Missouri's bill saw floor debate in the Senate, and Kentucky's received a committee hearing for the first time in 40 years. An effort to return death penalty support to the platform of the Kansas Republican Party failed by a vote of 90-75, and the Kansas College Republicans passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty, highlighting a generational divide on the issue. Dalton Glasscock, former president of Kansas College Republicans, said, "My generation is looking for consistency on issues. I believe if we say we're pro-life, we need to be truly pro-life, from conception to death." The National Association of Evangelicals also changed their stance on the issue, acknowledging "a growing number of evangelicals," who now call for abolition. Though a majority of Republicans still support the death penalty, Phillips writes that "it's notable that a year after we wondered whether Nebraska was an anomaly or the start of a trend, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that conservative opposition to the death penalty may indeed be a trend -- a small but growing one."

 

On 100th Anniversary of Notorious Waco Lynching, Research Shows Link Between Lynching and Capital Punishment

Posted: May 17, 2016

100 years ago, Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black farmhand accused of murdering his white female employer was lynched on the steps of the Waco, Texas courthouse (pictured), moments after Washington's trial ended and only seven days after the murder had occurred. The gruesome lynching took place in front of law enforcement personnel and 15,000 spectators, none of whom intervened to end the violence. Washington, whom reports indicate may have been intellectually disabled, initially denied involvement in the murder, but then purportedly confessed to police. A mob of 500 vigilantes searched the county prison in an unsuccessful attempt to find Washington, whom the sheriff had moved to other counties for his safety. An estimated 2,500 people—many carrying guns and threatening to lynch Washington—packed the courtroom during the short trial. As the jury read the guilty verdict and before the judge could record its death sentence, a man reportedly yelled, “Get the n****r,” and the crowd descended on Washington, carrying him out of the courthouse with a chain around his neck, while others attacked him with bricks and knives. The incident became a turning point in anti-lynching efforts and contributed to the prominence of the NAACP. Ignored for decades, Washington's lynching recently gained local attention and prompted a condemnation by the Waco City Council and McLennan County commissioners in 2006. Studies have shown that counties that historically have had high numbers of lynchings continue to have higher levels of homicide, police violence against racial minorities, disproportionate sentencing of black defendants, and more frequent use of capital punishment. A 2005 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of death sentences, and especially the number of death sentences for black defendants, was higher in states with histories of lynching. “What the lynching proved about our community was that African-American men and women were not viewed as humans or equal citizens,” Peaches Henry, president of the Waco NAACP said. “While they no longer hang people upon trees, we do see situations where African-American lives are not valued.” McLennan County, where Washington was lynched, ranks among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death sentences in the United States. 

 

Pfizer Announces Restrictions to Keep States From Using Its Medicines in Executions

Posted: May 16, 2016

On May 13, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced that it would impose strict distribution controls to block states from obtaining and using its medicines in executions. In a statement, the company said, "Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment." With Pfizer's announcement, every major pharmaceutical company that produces drugs that have been used in lethal injections has voiced opposition to involvement in executions. The pharmaceutical companies are joined by medical organizations including the American Pharmacists Association, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacies, and the American Medical Association, which all oppose their members' participation in executions. “It’s very significant that the pharmaceutical industry is speaking with a unified, singular voice,” said Megan McCracken, a lawyer at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. “Saying we don’t want our products used this way and actually taking steps to ensure that they aren’t." Pfizer's announcement will make it more difficult for states to obtain lethal injection drugs on the open market and through drug redistributors. The unavailability of execution drugs from these sources has driven states to seek alternative, and in some cases illegal, sources for these drugs, and has caused legal challenges in numerous states.

 

Newly Disclosed California Corrections Documents Reveal Questionable Practices, Huge Price Tag for Execution Drugs

Posted: May 13, 2016

More than 12,000 pages of California prison documents disclosed by court order on May 7 reveal problematic conduct by state officials and the extraordinarily high price tag the state would have paid for lethal injection drugs if it were carrying out executions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which obtained the documents after a six-month legal battle, say they show that the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) significantly understated drug costs, advocated violating federal law in attempting to acquire execution drugs, considered obtaining execution drugs from questionable sources, and downplayed the seriousness of botched executions in other states and the prospects that botches could occur in California. The ACLU requested the documents under the California Public Records Act, saying they were crucial to informed public comment on California's recently-proposed one-drug execution protocol. Among the information revealed in the records were wildly inconsistent estimates of the cost of obtaining pentobarbital—one of four proposed lethal injection drugs. CDCR initially estimated drug costs at $4,193 per execution. Emails indicate that a compounding pharmacy agreed in May 2014 to provide 200 grams of the drug to the state for an initial cost of $500,000, but only if the company's name was kept secret. A second source quoted a price of $1,109 for 500 milligrams of pentobarbital. The emails state that 324 grams would be required to execute the 18 inmates who have exhausted their appeals, for a total cost of $718,632, plus unspecified fees to cover "service costs." The proposed protocol, however, calls for 60 grams: "Estimated chemical costs are based on a total of 60 grams. This includes the 37.5 grams required by the regulations for carrying out the execution plus 22.5 grams used during training." Based on the price quotes from the emails, 60 grams of pentobarbital would cost between $133,080 and $150,000, bringing the cost of 18 executions to $1.06-$1.20 million. 

 

Texas Court Hears Argument in State's Appeal of Drug Secrecy Ruling

Posted: May 12, 2016

Texas' Third Court of Appeals heard oral argument on May 11 on the state's appeal of a trial court ruling requiring it to reveal the identity of its lethal injection drug supplier in a pair of April 2014 executions. The suit, initially brought on behalf of the two executed prisoners, now implicates Texas' Public Information Act. The prisoners' attorneys argued that identifying the supplier of pentobarbital, the drug used by Texas in executions, was necessary to verify that the chemicals had been prepared correctly and would not cause an unconstitutionally painful execution. Then-Attorney General (now Texas Governor) Greg Abbott said that releasing the drug supplier's identity would present a threat of physical harm, because a previous drug supplier had received hate mail and threats after being identified. In December 2014, District Judge Darlene Byrne rejected Abbott's argument and ordered Texas to disclose the identity of the compounding pharmacy that had prepared the drug. The state appealed that decision. In Wednesday's hearing, defense lawyers characterized the alleged threats as "vague" and nonspecific and said they were no basis to bar public disclosure of the information. Prosecutors, without identifying the source of any threat, argued that the safety of the pharmacy was at risk because, "There's an identifiable group of people who think lethal injection is wrong—morally, politically and socially—and they are determined to oppose it." Chief Justice Jeff Rose raised concerns about the implications of allowing a broad exemption to the Public Information Act, asking, "Where do we draw the line … without blowing a hole in the (Public Information Act) big enough to drive a truck through anytime the government says, 'Well, gee, this can cause harm?'" Justice Bob Pemberton said, "It seems a potentially boundless exemption." The scope of the decision is likely to be limited, because the Texas legislature passed a law shielding execution drug suppliers, which took effect in September 2015.

 

Alabama Prepares to Execute 65-Year-Old Mentally Ill Prisoner Disabled by Several Strokes

Posted: May 11, 2016

UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stayed Madison's execution, ordering oral argument on his competency claim. Previously: Alabama is preparing to execute Vernon Madison (pictured) on May 12, as his lawyers continue to press their claim that the 65-year-old prisoner is incompetent to be executed. Defense lawyers say Madison, whom a trial judge sentenced to death despite the jury's recommendation of a life sentence, suffers from mental illness and has additional cognitive impairments, retrograde amnesia, and dementia as a result of strokes in May 2015 and January 2016. The strokes also have caused a significant drop in Madison's IQ, which now tests at 72, within the range the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as supporting a diagnosis of intellectual disability. In addition, the strokes have left Madison legally blind. In its 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to execute mentally incompetent prisoners, whom it defined as people who do not understand their punishment or why they are to be executed. Madison's lawyers have unsuccessfully argued in Alabama's state and federal courts that, because of his mental impairments, he is unable to understand why the state will execute him. An Alabama trial judge ruled earlier this month that Madison is competent, and the court denied his motion for a stay of execution. On May 6, he presented his competency claim to the federal district court, which denied relief on May 10. Madison's lawyers have appealed that ruling. Madison has been on death row for more than 30 years. His conviction for the murder of a white police officer has been overturned twice, once because prosecutors intentionally excluded black jurors from serving on the case and once because the prosecution presented improper testimony from an expert witness. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Madison's lawyers have sought review of his case in light of Johnson and are also seeking a stay of execution to permit him to litigate the constitutionality of the state's judicial override provisions. 

 

Judge Rules Florida's New Death Penalty Law Violates Its State Constitution

Posted: May 10, 2016

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch (pictured) ruled on May 9 that Florida's new death sentencing law violates the state's constitution. Ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting a capital trial, Judge Hirsch said new law's requirement that at least 10 jurors agree to the death penalty before a defendant can be sentenced to death violated Florida's constitutional requirement that all jury verdicts must be unanimous. "For the ultimate decisions made within the judicial branch of government—guilty or not guilty, life or death—majority rule is insufficient," Hirsch wrote. "We do ask, indeed we insist, that the decisions of capital juries be, in some sense, perfect; for they are, in some sense, final. We ask, indeed we insist, that they reflect the will of all rather than the will of the few or even of the many.... However outrageous a crime, however controversial a case, as Floridians and Americans we ... cannot accede, we will not accede, we have never acceded, to outcomes as to which no more can be said than that some jurors have spoken." Hirsch wrote that the state's previous death penalty statute, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida, did not raise this constitutional question because the jury's advisory penalty-phase sentencing recommendation "was, in effect, a straw poll" rather than a verdict. Hirsch's decision comes as the Florida Supreme Court considers how Hurst will affect the nearly 400 death row prisoners sentenced under the previous sentencing scheme. The Miami-Dade state's attorney's office said it would appeal Hirsch's ruling.

 

Death Penalty Support Continues Its Steady Decline in Nation's Leading Execution County

Posted: May 9, 2016

Just 27% of Houston-area residents prefer the death penalty over life sentences for those convicted of first-degree murder, according to a new report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Harris County, the largest county in the Houston metropolitan area, "earned its reputation as the 'death penalty capital of America,'” the report says, "having executed more people since 1976 ... than any other county in the nation." At its peak, Harris County sentenced 44 people to death during a three-year period (1994-1996). However, declining public support for capital punishment has contributed to a drop in the number of death sentences the county imposes. Over the last three years, five people were sentenced to death in Harris County, with no new death sentences imposed in 2015. Texas is experiencing a similar statewide trend: while the state imposed a high of 48 death sentences in 1999, it imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. The percentage of Houston residents who consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder has "dropped steadily," the report says, including a decline of 12 percentage points since 2008. It attributes the erosion of support for the death penalty to "recent revelations of discriminatory sentencing, innocent persons being freed from Death Row just before their scheduled executions, and botched lethal injections," along with the comparatively greater costs of seeking the death penalty, rather than life imprisonment, which the report says "have risen dramatically." (Click image to enlarge.)

 

30 Years After Landmark Case, Exclusion of Black Jurors Continues to Plague Death Penalty

Posted: May 6, 2016

Thirty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky prohibited the intentional exclusion of prospective jurors on the basis of race, discrimination in capital jury selection continues to plague the administration of the death penalty across the country. In articles for The Huffington Post and Slate, Angel S. Harris, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Robert Smith, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, link the continuing exclusion of black jurors in death penalty cases to the legacy of lynching in America. "While Black men are no longer lynched before all-white crowds gathered on the courthouse lawn," as was one of Harris' relatives in Florida, "Black men are all-too-often condemned to death by all-white juries that are produced by prosecutors’ deliberate exclusion of people of color, particularly Black people, from jury service," she wrote. In his Slate article, Smith describes the persistence of race-based use of discretionary strikes by prosecutors in numerous jurisdictions, and notes that "[t]he mix of prosecutorial impropriety and the exclusion of black jurors has always been a potent combination for injecting racial bias into death penalty cases." He and Harris point to studies in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, and Houston County, Alabama showing systemically discriminatory use of discretionary strikes to remove black jurors from service in death penalty cases, recent cases in which the Nevada Supreme Court found racially discriminatory jury selection in Clark County, as well as race-based jury selection practices in such cities as Dallas and Philadelphia. These practices, Smith says, expose "the inextricable ties between race and the death penalty." The successful exclusion of jurors of color also produces less reliable verdicts, Harris says, pointing to studies showing that because, "compared to diverse juries, all-white juries spend less time deliberating, make more errors, rely on implicit biases and consider fewer alternative perspectives." The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering Foster v. Chatman (defendant Timothy Foster is pictured), a Georgia death penalty case in which prosecutors struck all the black jurors after highlighting and marking their names on the jury list and ranking them against each other in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors." Prosecutors then argued to the all-white jury to sentence Foster to death to “deter other people out there in the projects.” 

 

Florida Court to Hear Argument on Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Declaring Death Penalty Process Unconstitutional

Posted: May 5, 2016

On May 5, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Timothy Hurst, whose death sentence was overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Hurst v. FloridaThe state court must determine whether the high court's ruling, which struck down Florida's sentencing scheme, entitles Hurst to a new sentencing hearing, reduces his sentence to life without parole, or requires some other outcome. The case may also decide how the Hurst ruling will affect the nearly 400 people on Florida's death row. Hurst's attorneys say he should have his death sentence reduced because, "persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony are entitled to have their now-unconstitutional death sentences replaced by sentences of life without parole." That position received support in an amicus brief filed by three former chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court, a former state representative, a former prosecutor, and past presidents of the American Bar Association. The justice and legal experts argue that  Hurst "held Florida's death penalty statute unconstitutional," and that in such circumstances Florida law requires all death sentences imposed under the statute to be reduced to life without parole. The state attorney general's office has argued that state law requires blanket imposition of new sentences only if the death penalty itself is declared unconstitutional, and that Hurst only declared Florida's method of imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. Florida has the nation's second-largest death row, with 396 people as of January 1, 2016, before the state legislature rewrote the sentencing procedure to require a unanimous jury finding of at least one aggravating circumstance, and at least a 10-2 vote to impose a death sentence.

 

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