At age 6, Clifford O'Sullivan (pictured with his mother) testified in favor of a death sentence for the man who had killed his mother. That man, Mark Scott Thornton, is on California's death row. Now, 20 years later, O'Sullivan says he believes Thornton's life should be spared. When he took the witness stand during the sentencing phase of Thornton's trial, O'Sullivan told the jury, "All I think is that what the bad man did to my mom should happen to him. It's really sad for my family 'cause she was one of the greatest mothers I've met." In the years that followed, O'Sullivan struggled to heal from his mother's death, experimenting with drugs and alcohol and even committing burglary as a teen. Today, he is an emergency room nurse in Nashville. In an interview with The Tennessean, he says he believes only a "hair-thin" difference in circumstances stopped him from ending up like Thornton. O'Sullivan also has become disillusioned with the death penalty, saying, "It certainly doesn't do the two things it's supposed to do. Offer retribution and deterrence." In 2014, he met Thornton, and the men spent 5 hours talking about their lives. The meeting cemented O'Sullivan's belief that Thornton should not be executed. "If they put him up for a date I would stop it, just like I started it," O'Sullivan says. "It wouldn't happen. Over my dead body."
Conservative commentator George Will has decribed capital punishment in America as "withering away." In his syndicated column in the Washington Post, Will outlines a conservative case against the death penalty, highlighting Nebraska's recent legislative vote to repeal capital punishment. Writing that "exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent," Will lists three primary reasons why he believes conservatives should oppose capital punishment: "First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program...Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated." Will recognizes that there is an urge to severely punish the worst crimes, saying, "Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality." However, he says, this satisfaction is "purchased with disproportionate social costs." America, he says, is exhibiting "a healthy squeamishness" about the death penalty "that should herald abolition."
Nebraska's unicameral legislature passed a bill to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. On May 20, the bill passed its third and final round of debate on a 32-15 vote, receiving bipartisan support. Senator Al Davis said, "There are so many reasons why we need to eliminate the death penalty in Nebraska. It's fundamentally unfair, a terrible mistake and bad justice." Gov. Pete Ricketts has indicated that he will veto the bill, but a veto can be overridden with the support of 30 senators. The bill is prospective only, so if it becomes law, it will not affect the 11 inmates currently on Nebraska's death row. Nebraska has executed three prisoners, all by electrocution, since re-enacting the death penalty in the 1970s. Its last execution was in December 1997.
A report of the United Nations Human Rights Council issued on May 15 has urged the United States to end capital punishment. The report, produced as part of the United Nations' periodic review of the human rights records of each of its member nations, identified capital punishment in the United States as a major human rights concern. At a hearing on the report on May 11, U.S. deputy assistant attorney general David Bitkower acknowledged that the death penalty is an issue of "extensive debate and controversy" within the U.S. and defended the American death penalty as being subject to "heightened procedural safeguards." 38 countries called for the United States to either abolish capital punishment or impose a moratorium on executions with a view toward abolition. This was more than double the number who did so during the first U.N. review of U.S. human rights practices in 2010. Other recommendations urged fair imposition of the death penalty and suggested the need for additional safeguards to end racial discrimination in death sentencing, wrongful convictions, and the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities. France encouraged transparency with regards to lethal injection drugs.
A recent publication from Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and an op-ed in the Kansas City Star highlight the views of Kansas murder victims' families on capital punishment. In Voices of Kansas, 13 families that have been affected by murder share their experiences in the aftermath of a loved one's murder and how that shaped their beliefs about the death penalty. Neely Goen, whose father, Conroy O'Brien, was killed while working as a Kansas State Trooper, said, "The death penalty focuses an incredible amount of attention on the killers, which makes victims’ families relive the painful details of a murder over and over again. At one time I believed that the death penalty would benefit people like my mother and me, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. What would help us is not to continue to pour money into the death penalty, but dedicating those funds to law enforcement, rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders, and juvenile programs, to prevent other families from having to suffer a loss like ours." Two of the featured voices, Rita Boller and Gene Kimmi, whose mother, Patricia, was murdered in 2009, also shared their views in an op-ed in the Kansas City Star. They wrote, "The death penalty keeps families stuck in the legal process, delaying when they can put difficult legal proceedings behind them and begin to heal...Kansas has hung on to its costly and broken death penalty for too long. It’s time that we as a state eliminate this harmful policy."
The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective by Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, now in its Fifth Edition, is "widely regarded as the leading authority on the death penalty in its international context." The book explores the movement toward worldwide abolition of the death penalty, with an emphasis on international human right principles. It discusses issues including arbitrariness, innocence, and deterrence. Paul Craig, Professor of English Law at Oxford University, said of the fourth edition, "Its rigorous scholarship and the breadth of its coverage are hugely impressive features; its claim to 'worldwide' coverage is no idle boast. This can fairly lay claim to being the closest thing to a definitive source-book on this important subject."
Two recent media reports reveal additional details of irregularities in Oklahoma's administration and defense of its lethal injection procedures. A story in The Atlantic describes in detail the botched execution of Clayton Lockett and the failed attempts made by a paramedic and a doctor to insert the IV into Lockett's veins. A Buzzfeed report asserts that Oklahoma's brief to the Supreme Court in the lethal injection case, Glossip v. Gross, made misrepresentations about the state's efforts to obtain lethal injection drugs. The Atlantic reports that, after failing to insert the IV in Lockett's arm, the paramedic sought help from the doctor, Johnny Zellmer, and describes their unsuccessful attempts to insert the needle in Lockett's neck and chest before deciding to place the IV in the femoral vein near his groin. However, the longest needle available in the execution chamber was less than half the length necessary to reach the femoral vein. "We'll just have to make it work," the doctor reportedly said. After the drugs were administered and Lockett began to struggle and writhe on the gurney, the doctor checked the IV and found that it was displaced. When Zellmer pushed the needle back into Lockett's vein, blood squirted all over him, soaking his jacket. "You’ve hit the artery,” the paramedic said. “It’ll be all right,” Zellmer told her. “We’ll go ahead and get the drugs.” Ten minutes later, before additional drugs could be administered, Lockett was delcared dead. Buzzfeed reported that Oklahoma had misinformed the Supreme Court that its supplier of compounded pentobarbital had come "under intense pressure from death penalty opponents" to cease making the lethal injection drug "and subsequently declined to continue supplying the drug to Oklahoma." It supplied a redacted copy of letter in support of that claim. The pharmacy, however, told Buzzfeed that it had never supplied any drugs to Oklahoma for any execution, and an unredacted copy of the letter showed that it had actually been sent to Texas, not Oklahoma, prison officials.
Two prominent Georgians, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher (pictured, l.), and David J. Burge (pictured, r.), the Chairman of Georgia's 5th Congressional District Republican Party, have recently voiced their opposition to the death penalty. Justice Fletcher voted to uphold numerous death sentences during his 15 years on Georgia's highest court. Since retiring from the Court in 2005, his views have changed. “With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Justice Fletcher said. “There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country,” Justice Fletcher said. He now believes that the death penalty is "morally indefensible" and "makes no business sense." Mr. Burge voiced similar concerns in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying that "Our government is not perfect, and when you give an imperfect state the power of life and death, innocent lives will inevitably be exposed to the fallibility of the system." He called the death penalty "plagued by frequent errors, inefficiency and waste." A lifelong conservative Republican, Burge stated that "Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program."
A recent editorial in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) has criticized legislative efforts to restart North Carolina's death penalty as "retrogressive" and "macabre." The editorial opposes a bill that would allow executions to resume in North Carolina by "expanding the list of medical personnel who can monitor executions." In 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board said that doctor participation in executions violates professional ethics, effectively blocking any doctors from participating in executions. The new law would allow physician assistants, nurses, and emergency medical technicians to oversee executions in place of a doctor. The editorial said, "The death penalty is unnecessary, unjust and irreversible. Its use now is only an act of vengeance against a few prisoners who happened to be convicted in death penalty states and whose lawyers failed to negotiate the many legal options that could have spared them." It goes on to criticize the arbitrariness of the death penalty: "The erratic application of the death penalty makes it unfair and its unfairness is dangerously compounded by its finality. Wrongly convicted people could be executed and likely have been." It concludes, "The state Senate should reject this bill and, if necessary, Gov. Pat McCrory should veto it. Lives, perhaps even innocent lives, will depend on it."
Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed more men and women than any other county in the United States, but a recent poll shows that a strong majority of its residents now support alternative sentences. A report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that only 28% of respondents in Harris County prefer the death penalty to life without parole as punishment for first-degree murder. The poll also found that overall support for the death penalty was at a 20-year low, with 56% saying they were in favor of capital punishment. As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so have Harris County death sentences. The County handed down a combined 44 death sentences from 1994-1996, but sentenced only 5 people to death from 2012-2014. Death verdicts are also down statewide. According to a Dallas Morning News commentary, Texas imposed 11 death sentences in 2014, down from 39 in 1999. No death sentences have been imposed in the state so far this year. (Click image to enlarge.)