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A shipment of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic once widely used in executions, was recently stopped in India before it could reach Nebraska. The Indian distributor sold more than $50,000 worth of sodium thiopental to the state in May, but the shipment was stopped before leaving the country because of "improper or missing paperwork." FedEx said it halted the shipment because it did not have Food And Drug Administration clearance: "As with any international importation of a drug, data about that shipment is transmitted to federal agencies in advance, including U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration. If the shipment is authorized, we will deliver it to the recipient; if it is not, we will return it to the foreign shipper." Nebraska purchased the drugs despite the FDA's warning that importation of sodium thiopental for executions violates federal law. The FDA has consistently said that it will not allow execution drugs into the U.S. because the producers are not FDA-credited and the drugs are not approved for that purpose.
So far in 2015, no one has been sentenced to death in Texas. The death row population has dropped to 257, down from 460 at its peak in 1999. In that year, Texas sentenced 48 people to death, the most in any year since the death penalty was reinstated. Among the reasons for the decline in death sentences has been the adoption of the alternative sentence of life without parole (adopted in 2005), and a change in the political climate that had led politicians to compete in trying to appear "tough on crime." The Austin American-Statesman recently examined the cases of the 48 defendants sentenced to death in 1999. Harris County (Houston) handed down more of the sentences (11) than any other county, even though the number of murders there had been declining. Of those sentenced to death in 1999, half have been executed. One, Michael Toney, was exonerated in 2009. Two died of natural causes. Six had their sentences reduced when the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles in 2005 - all six were 17 at the time of their crimes. The rest remain on death row.
In New Book, Media Interviews, Justice Breyer Addresses International Opinion, Arbitrariness of Death PenaltyPosted: September 16, 2015
In his new book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, and in media interviews accompanying its release, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses the relationship between American laws and those of other countries and his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, which questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty. In an interview with The National Law Journal, Breyer summarized the core reasons underlying his Glossip dissent: "You know, sometimes people make mistakes, [executing] the wrong person. It is arbitrary. There is lots of evidence on that. Justice Potter Stewart said it was like being hit by lightning, whether the person is actually executed. If carried out, a death sentence, on average takes place now 18 years after it is imposed. The number of people who are executed has shrunk dramatically. They are centered in a very small number of counties in the United States. Bottom line is, let's go into the issue. It is time to go into it again." In his book, Breyer argues that the laws and practices of foreign countries are relevant to and might be particularly informative on questions regarding the Eighth Amendment. He notes that international opinion has influenced decisions to end the death penalty for juveniles and for crimes that do not result in death. His Glossip opinion also mentioned international practices - that only 22 countries carried out executions in 2013 and that the U.S. was one of only eight that executed more than 10 people - among the reasons American capital punishment may be an unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment." That phrase, he says in his book, is itself of foreign origin. "It uses the word 'unusual,'" Breyer says, "and the founders didn't say unusual in what context." Foreign law and practices, he argues, should form part of that context.
In a sweeping look at the current state of the U.S. death penalty, USA Today reporters Richard Wolf and Kevin Johnson highlight several recent story lines that collectively illustrate a dramatic decline in the country's use of capital punishment. Their conclusion: "The death penalty in America may be living on borrowed time." Wolf and Johnson recount recent cases in which high-profile crimes resulted in a life without parole sentence, in many instances because victims' families raised concerns about the painful emotional impact of a lengthy appeals process. Skeet Glover, whose father and stepmother were killed in Texas, explained his family's support for a plea deal resulting in a life without parole sentence: "As a family, we were going to do this together. I couldn't help my dad anymore. I couldn't help (stepmother) Peggy ... and I didn't want to punish anyone else in the family...There are no regrets." The article also tells the stories of death row exonerees, including the seven men exonerated in the last two years after spending 30 years or more on death row, and persistent questions of innocence for inmates still facing execution. The story then turns to ongoing battles in courts and legislatures. It chronicles the difficulties surrounding lethal injection, from trade regulations and opposition from the medical community that has made it more difficult for states to obtain execution drugs to legal challenges against execution protocols. Legislative action has shown "a clear trend in favor of retreat or repeal," the article states, noting the seven states that have recently repealed capital punishment, and the four states where moratoriums are in place. (Click image to enlarge.)
Montez Spradley, sentenced to death by an Alabama judge in 2008 over a jury's 10-2 recommendation for life without parole, was freed from prison on September 4. Spradley spent 9.5 years incarcerated, including 3.5 years on death row. He was granted a new trial in 2011 as a result of multiple evidentiary errors in his trial. The state's key witness against Spradley, his ex-girlfriend, Alisha Booker, later testified that she had lied at trial because Spradley was cheating on her. "I just felt he was doing me wrong," she said. Booker also testified that when she told law enforcement officials that she had lied, they told her that she faced jail time and having her children taken away from her if she did not stick to her original story. The defense has also alleged that Booker received $10,000 in reward money for her testimony. Spradley agreed to an Alford plea or "best interest" plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt, but finds it in his best interest to plead guilty. Alabama is one of only three states that allows a judge to override a jury's recommendation for life, and the only state where such a judicial override has been used in 16 years. In more than 90% of the overrides, judges overruled life verdicts to impose a death sentence, mostly against African-American defendants and disproportionately during judicial election years. Upon his release, Spradley said, "It was horrible, horrible to be on death row for a crime I didn't do. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I can't make up for the years I've missed, but I'm so glad to be alive so I can be there for my children."
UPDATE: Former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (pictured), former Oklahoma Sooners and Dallas Cowboys football coach Barry Switzer, and John W. Raley, Jr., the former chief federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, have joined with innocence advocates Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, and Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, in a letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin urging her to stay the execution of Richard Glossip. Glossip is scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma on September 16, and is seeking a stay to allow consideration of his claims of innocence. The letter points to the exonerations of 29 innocent defendants who were convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of testimony after "another person who was himself a suspect in the murder gave a confession that also implicated the innocent defendant." It calls Richard Glossip's case "a classic example" of that phenomenon. The writers say they "don't know for sure whether Richard Glossip is innocent or guilty. That is precisely the problem. If we keep executing defendants in cases like this, where the evidence of guilt is tenuous and untrustworthy, we will keep killing innocent people."
Richard Glossip, who is scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma on September 16, is seeking a stay of execution to allow consideration of his claims of innocence. Glossip was convicted solely on the testimony of Justin Sneed, then 19 years old, who confessed to the crime and said he hired Glossip to help him. No physical evidence linked Glossip to the crime, and Sneed gave investigators multiple contradictory descriptions of the murder before adopting police suggestions that Glossip was involved. He received a plea deal avoiding the death penalty in exchange for his testimony against Glossip. Glossip's cause has been championed by death-penalty opponents actress Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean, as well as by television host Dr. Phil McGraw and British business tycoon Richard Branson, among others. As the execution date approaches, Sky News reports that an on-line petition to spare Glossip has "topped 250,000 signatures and is still growing." In a Sky News interview and on the Dr.Phil Show, Sarandon made impassioned pleas for a stay, calling Glossip, "clearly innocent." Branson wrote, "there are plenty of reasons to believe Glossip did not commit the crimes he was accused of," and urged Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to grant a reprieve, saying, "Giving him another opportunity to prove his innocence is not being weak on crime, it’s being strong on justice." He tweeted "10 deathrow prisoners exonerated in Oklahoma since ’76, 4 based on findings of false testimony.” Glossip told Sky News reporter Ian Woods, “My main goal was to make sure the whole world knew that I was innocent... More and more people sign every day because they see that this is an injustice, and a massive injustice.” Woods summarized Glossip's case, saying, "There is no incontrovertible proof that Richard Glossip is guilty of murder. No forensic evidence, no eyewitness account, other than that of the killer, who saved his own skin by blaming Richard. The state of Oklahoma is going to kill him on Wednesday, so I'm not going to sit on the fence any longer. I'm telling you: I think that's wrong."
Riverside County, California is "the buckle of a new Death Belt," says Professor Robert J. Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, producing 7 death sentences in the first half of 2015. This, Smith says, is "more than California’s other 57 counties combined, more than any other state, and more than the whole Deep South combined." Los Angeles County has produced 33 death sentences since 2010 - the most in the Nation - and 5 Southern California counties (also including Kern, Orange, and San Bernardino) are among the most prolific 15 counties nationwide in producing death sentences in that time period. Meanwhile, there has been a dramatic drop in new death verdicts in the Deep South, which Smith notes formerly produced the most death sentences. No one has been sentenced to death in 2015 in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, or Texas. However, the Southern California counties "have more in common than overzealous use of the death penalty," Smith says. Prosecutor's offices in these counties face charges of rampant misconduct, including deliberately withholding favorable evidence and lying to courts. The entire Orange County District Attorney's office was recused from a recent capital prosecution as a result of extensive misconduct. Its Deputy District Attorney Erik Petersen recently resigned and left the state after he came under scrutiny for the use of an illegal jailhouse informant program to secure testimony against defendants. In Riverside County, federal courts overturned a murder conviction earlier this year because a prosecutor lied about whether an informant received incentives for testifying. Kern and Los Angeles prosecutors have also been cited for repeated acts of misconduct. (Click image to enlarge. Map shows counties that handed down the most death sentences in 2014.)
Robert Cindrich, a former U.S. District Judge and U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, recently wrote an op-ed for the Harrisburg Patriot-News calling Governor Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania "appropriate" and "reasonable." Expressing concerns about "multiple, serious problems with the death penalty" in Pennsylvania, Judge Cindrich says Governor Wolf "was absolutely correct" that no executions should take place until the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee and Task Force on Capital Punishment completes its study of the state's death penalty and makes recommendations for reform. In particular, Cindrich is "highly concerned about the fairness of [Pennsylvania's] capital punishment system." He points to "the reversals of most death sentences, the poor compensation of public defenders in capital cases, and the racial bias in Pennsylvania's imposition of death sentences" as areas all "in dire need of improvement." More than half of the 400 death sentences imposed in Pennsylvania have been reversed "due to serious flaws or misconduct at trial," he says, which indicates "that far too many individuals received unfair and unwarranted sentences of death."
As national execution numbers drop to historic lows and a growing number of states halt executions or repeal the death penalty altogether, Missouri has recently increased the number of executions it is carrying out and overtaken Texas for the highest per-capita execution rate. Missouri and Texas have carried out all of the last 15 executions in the U.S. and 80% of executions through September 1 of this year. A report by The Marshall Project explores why Missouri is bucking national trends, highlighting the availability of execution drugs, Missouri's political climate, and the lack of adequate defense resources. While shortages of lethal injection drugs have slowed executions in many states, Missouri has managed to stockpile pentobarbitral for use in executions. Because of state secrecy laws, the source of the drug is unknown, and state officials will not confirm whether the drug is produced by a compounding pharmacy or obtained from another source, such as a veterinary supplier or overseas manufacturer. The governor and attorney general of Missouri have pushed to move executions forward, using the death penalty to establish "tough-on-crime" credentials as Democrats in a politically conservative state. Courts have also contributed to the unusual situation in Missouri. The state Supreme Court, which sets execution dates, scheduled one execution per month to make up for holds due to drug shortages. Finally, underfunding and heavy caseloads have created what defense attorneys are calling a "crisis" in capital representation. Missouri was ranked 49th of the 50 states in per-capita spending on indigent defense in 2009. In March, the American Bar Association Death Penalty Assessment Team told the Missouri Supreme Court, "The current pace of executions is preventing counsel for the condemned from performing competently. "