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The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 13 in Hurst v. Florida, a case challenging provisions in Florida's death penalty statute that do not require jurors to unanimously agree to the facts that could subject a defendant to a death sentence or to reach unanimity before recommending that the judge sentence a defendant to death. Florida is one of just three states that does not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. A study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School found that requiring jury unanimity in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware would have caused a dramatic drop in death sentences over the last 5 years. Overall, the three states would have returned 26 death sentences since 2010, instead of 117 - a 77% drop - and Florida would have imposed 70% fewer death verdicts. The three states that do not require unanimity in death sentencing have produced a disproportionate share of the nation's death sentences, accounting for 28% of all U.S. death sentences since 2010. Had these states followed the sentencing system used by every other death penalty state, the total number of death sentences imposed in the United States would have decreased by 21%. (Click image for full infographic.)
In an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, former corrections official David Rose criticizes the arbitrariness and dehumanizing nature of the death penalty. Rose, who spent 30 years working in corrections in Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey, said, "I don’t think the public realizes the impact that executions have on the public servants who are tasked with carrying them out." Rose draws on his own experiences and those of his colleagues to describe the toll that capital punishment takes on people who work in prisons. He says he knows of no corrections officials who believe the death penalty is necessary for the safety and security of prison personnel, but has met a number who considered the death penalty "a waste of money that caused serious security issues when executions were actually carried out." Rose said it is "sometimes difficult to distinguish those who end up on death row from those who get lesser sentences based on their crimes or level of culpability" and describes a time he was assigned to monitor a newly death-sentenced inmate until he could be transferred to death row: "I still remember the time that I spent sitting outside the cell of that condemned inmate, thinking of how absurd it was that my employment could one day depend on getting some inmates ready for release and another day on keeping an inmate alive so the state could kill him." Rose recommends other programs in place of the large amounts taxpayers spend on the death penalty.
"Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the New York Times, summarizing the ongoing battles that have led states to adopt new drug sources or alternative methods of execution. Several states have obtained or sought drugs using sources that may violate pharmaceutical regulations. For the execution of Alfredo Prieto, Virginia obtained pentobarbital from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which purchased it from a compounding pharmacy whose identity is shielded by the state's secrecy law. "Even if the transactions between states do not comply with law, there is no recourse for death-sentenced prisoners," said Megan McCracken, an expert in lethal injection at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Both Nebraska and Ohio received warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that their attempts to purchase sodium thiopental from overseas suppliers violated federal law regarding the importation of drugs. Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of its own execution protocol, substituting an unauthorized chemical, potassium acetate, for the potassium chloride its regulations require. Other states have turned to alternative execution methods: Tennessee reauthorized use of the electric chair, while Oklahoma passed a bill to make nitrogen gas asphyxiation its backup method. Louisiana prison officials also recommended using nitrogen gas, but the state has not taken action on that recommendation. The scramble for lethal injection drugs has delayed executions across the country. A challenge to Mississippi's protocol has halted executions until at least next year. A Montana judge put executions on hold because the state's proposed drug cocktail violated state law, and either the drugs that comply with state law are not produced in the U.S. and may not be imported or the manufacturer refuses to sell the drug for executions. In Oklahoma, the Attorney General requested an indefinite hold in order to review lethal injection procedures after the state obtained the wrong drug for the execution of Richard Glossip.
A report by The Oklahoman has revealed that Oklahoma violated its execution protocol and used the wrong final drug during the execution of Charles Warner on January 15, 2015. Warner, whose final words were "My body is on fire," was executed using potassium acetate, the same drug that was delivered for Richard Glossip's aborted execution on September 30. The drug called for in the protocol is potassium chloride. Glossip's execution was stayed as a result of the mix-up, and Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested an indefinite hold on executions so his office could investigate. "I want to assure the public that our investigation will be full, fair and complete and includes not only actions on Sept. 30, but any and all actions prior, relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride,” Pruitt said. Dale Baich, who represented Oklahoma death row inmates in Glossip v. Gross, said, "We cannot trust Oklahoma to get it right or to tell the truth. The State’s disclosure that it used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride during the execution of Charles Warner yet again raises serious questions about the ability of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to carry out executions."
On October 6, Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock (pictured) held that the state's proposed lethal injection protocol violated state law, which requires that an "ultra fast-acting barbiturate" be used in executions. Judge Sherlock said the proposed barbiturate, pentobarbital, does not qualify as such a drug. The ruling stated, "The State of Montana is hereby enjoined from using the drug pentobarbital in its lethal injection protocol unless and until the statute authorizing lethal injection is modified in conformance with this decision." In 2012, a judge struck down Montana's three-drug protocol because it differed from the two-drug protocol called for in state law. As a result of the most recent ruling, executions in Montana will continue to be on hold indefinitely. “The State has had multiple opportunities to correct the problems with the death penalty protocol. And each time they came up with a new flawed procedure,” said ACLU Legal Director Jim Taylor. “Seven years of litigation has demonstrated that Montana's death penalty is broken beyond repair." Montana has carried out three executions since 1976, the last of which was in 2006. Earlier in 2015, a bill to repeal the death penalty failed on a tie vote in the House of Representatives.
Eight death-row prisoners whom Arkansas has scheduled to be executed in the next four months have asked a judge to issue a preliminary injunction that would put their executions on hold. They argue that the state's execution procedures are unconstitutional for multiple reasons and that Arkansas' secrecy law violates a previous settlement agreement between death row inmates and the state. Arkansas, which has not carried out an execution since November 2005, has scheduled eight executions for four dates (two executions on each date) between October of this year and January 2016, even though legal challenges to the constitutionality of the state's execution procedures were pending in state court and were scheduled to proceed to trial. The state recently passed a bill that allows the Department of Correction to keep the source of execution drugs secret. Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the death row inmates, said the secrecy law violates an agreement in which the state agreed to tell inmates the source of lethal injection drugs in exchange for the inmates dropping part of a prior lawsuit challenging the state's execution protocol. The inmates argue that, without knowing the manufacturer of the drugs, they cannot determine whether the execution may constitute cruel and unusual punishment. They are seeking a preliminary injunction blocking executions from proceeding until the case is decided. A state trial court has moved the hearing date for the inmates' lawsuit from October 23 to October 7. In June 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's prior execution law as violating the state constitution. [UPDATE: On October 9, the Arkansas trial court judge who is presiding over the inmates' challenge to the state's execution process granted a temporary restraining order staying all of the scheduled executions. The court ruled that the prisoners would suffer "immediate and irreparable injury" if they were executed and that proceeding with the executions, without affording the parties an adequate opportunity for discovery and to resolve the legal issues in the case "will rob Plaintiffs of an opportunity to litigate their rights under the Arkansas Constitution."]
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Williams v. Pennsylvania, a case challenging former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille's participation in an appeal of a case that had been tried in Philadelphia while Castille was the city's district attorney. Terrance Williams (pictured) was convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia in 1984 for the murder of a man prosecutors had described to the jury as "a kind man [who had] offered [Williams] a ride home." Williams was 18 at the time of the murder. His death sentence was reversed days before his scheduled execution in 2012 because prosecutors under Castille's tenure had withheld information that the victim, a church deacon, had sexually abused teenagers he had met through his church and that the trial prosecutor knew that the victim had sexually abused Williams. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated Williams' death sentence. Williams' lawyers asked Castille to recuse himself from the case, saying he had "personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment" against Williams, continued to head the office when it defended the death verdict on appeal, and, in his electoral campaign for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, had touted "the number of defendants he had 'sent' to death row, including [Williams]." Castille denied the motion for recusal and authored a concurring opinion that criticized Williams' lawyers and the judge who had ruled in Williams' favor.
On October 2, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon commuted the death sentence of Kimber Edwards to life without parole. Edwards had faced execution on October 6 for the alleged murder-for-hire killing of his ex-wife. Prosecutors said Edwards had hired Orthell Wilson to kill his ex-wife to prevent her from testifying in a child-support hearing. Wilson pled guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. He subsequently recanted his story, saying that he had acted alone and had lied about being hired by Edwards. Edwards has professed his innocence, despite confessing to police. His lawyers argue that he has a form of autism that makes him vulnerable to falsely confessing in the face of coercive interrogation tactics. Edwards' case also sparked charges of racial bias. He is one of 7 black men on death row from St. Louis County - the home of Ferguson - and was sentenced to death by an all-white jury after prosecutors used their discretionary strikes to remove three black prospective jurors. Missouri courts have found that St. Louis County prosecutors have unlawfully excluded black jurors because of race at least five times since 2002, and several other black death row prisoners in Missouri - including Andre Cole, Herbert Smulls, and Leon Taylor - were executed after having been sentenced to death by all-white juries. In addition, a recent study reported stark racial and geographic disparities in Missouri's application of the death penalty, and St. Louis County has executed more defendants than any other county in the state.
On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.
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.