DPIC News

Nebraska Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Death Penalty Referendum

The Nebraska Supreme Court heard oral argument on May 25 in a challenge to the proposed November referendum that could reverse the state legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty (vote results pictured left). Christy and Richard Hargesheimer, who oppose the death penalty, are challenging the documents submitted by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the organization supporting the referendum, on the grounds that the group violated state law when they failed to list Governor Pete Ricketts as a sponsor of the referendum. Nebraska state law requiring the proponents of a ballot initiative to disclose all of the sponsors of the proposed referendum. Ricketts vetoed the legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty, but the legislature voted 30-19 to override his veto. Ricketts then personally contributed $200,000 and, in combination, he and his father donated approximately one-third of all the money raised by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty to gather the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot. Much of the argument Wednesday focused on the definition of who is a "sponsor" for the purposes of a referendum campaign. Alan Peterson, an attorney for the Hargesheimers, said the sponsor is the primary initiating force, "the initiator, the instigator." Attorneys for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty argued that the sponsor is someone willing to take legal responsibility for the petition paperwork and said Peterson's definition was "unworkable and would chill involvement in the democratic process." Peterson also argued that a key document required to place the referendum on the November ballot had been filed improperly because it was not an affidavit or sworn statement, as required by Nebraska law. A trial court ruled in February in favor of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, leading to the Hargesheimer's appeal.

Advocates Say California Ballot Initiative to Limit Death Penalty Appeals Risks Executing the Innocent

As California prosecutors and law enforcement officials submitted signatures backing a ballot initiative intended to speed up the state's dysfunctional death penalty appeals process, a coalition of innocence advocates and wrongfully convicted exonerees warned that the proposal will substantially increase the risk that California will execute an innocent person. The initiative, sponsored by district attorneys with major funding by the state's prison guards’ union, would respond to appellate delays caused by the state's failure to timely meet its obligation of providing legal representation to hundreds of death row prisoners by mandating that lawyers who are deemed qualified to handle capital appeals must accept court appointments in these cases. The initiative also would impose time limits on appellate briefing and review of death penalty cases. The proposal would continue a legislative cap on the number of lawyers the Habeas Corpus Resource Center -- the state's institutional capital defender with the most experience in capital representation -- may hire and limit the types of assistance the center may provide to other lawyers appointed to handle these cases. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, whose office has been been disqualified from prosecuting one capital case and is under fire for withholding information from defense lawyers and lying to courts about its use of prison informants, said the crimes for which defendants have been sentenced to death "are so horrendous there is no real punishment other than the death penalty that will bring justice in those cases.” He described the submission of the signatures as a “really good day for the victims of crimes across California.” But innocence advocates and exonerees disagree. Alex Simpson, Associate Director of the California Innocence Project, said “California’s legal process in death penalty cases exists for a reason: to make sure that innocent people aren’t executed. This measure guts these important protections by applying unrealistic and arbitrary timelines, greatly increasing the chance that we send an innocent person to the death chamber and allow a guilty person a free pass to victimize again.” Barry Scheck, Director of the national Innocence Project in New York, warned that "California would be making a grave and irreversible mistake by approving this initiative." And Randy Steidl, one of the nation's 156 death row exonerees and current Board President of Witness to Innocence, summed up the problems he sees with the initiative, saying "This initiative will lead to the execution of innocent people just like me.” 

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NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."

Federal Court Ruling Permits Arizona Lethal Injection Challenge to Move Forward, Keeps Executions on Hold

U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake ruled on May 18 that a lethal injection challenge brought by Arizona death row prisoners may move forward, preventing Arizona from carrying out any executions before the reported expiration date of its supply of a key execution drug. Arizona has said that it is unable to replenish its supply of midazolam, an anti-anxiety medication that a number of states have used as a sedative in multi-drug lethal injection procedures. The death row prisoners are challenging the state's use of midazolam in conjunction with a paralytic drug, saying that "midazolam is not reliable as a sedative, which means the paralytic will mask the inmate’s pain." Judge Wake called the argument "plausible on its face," and said that it was not blocked by earlier U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Baze v. Rees had reviewed the constitutionality of a drug protocol that had employed an anesthetic that, unlike midazolam, "would render the inmate insensate to pain caused by the paralytic and the potassium chloride." Wake also said that the Supreme Court's decision in Glossip v. Gross—which involved midazolam but was decided at a preliminary stage of a challenge brought by Oklahoma death row prisoners, without a full evidentiary record—did not control the outcome of this case because the Arizona inmates "will present substantial new evidence challenging midazolam’s efficacy as a sedative." The judge also criticized the state's conduct in carrying out six separate executions, saying, "In recent history, the Department has deviated from its published execution procedures in ways ranging from minor to fundamental. It has deviated in the course of an execution without explanation." Judge Wake said that Arizona's "unlimited major deviations" from its execution protocol, and its claim that the state had unfettered discretion to deviate from its protocol at any time, "threaten serious pain." The ruling paves the way for further litigation on the prisoners' claims that Arizona's protocol violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, the court dismissed other claims brought by a coalition of media groups that the state's denial of information about the drugs violated the First Amendment. Previously, Arizona had used drugs believed to have been illegally brought into the country to execute Richard Landrigan. The FDA impounded a later shipment of drugs that it said Arizona had attempted to import from India in violation of federal law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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