|On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”|
Radley Balko, writing in the Huffington Post, has examined more closely some of the counties identified in DPIC's recent report, The 2% Death Penalty, as using the death penalty the most. Balko found that many of those high-use counties have a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and other problems. For example, Philadelphia County has sent more inmates to death row than any other county in Pennsylvania. However, a study of criminal cases overturned in the state because of prosecutorial misconduct found over 60% of the cases came from Philadelphia. Duval County, Florida, has the largest per capita death row in the nation, but recently elected a head public defender who ran on a platform of cutting funding to public defense and billing indigent defendants who are acquitted. In the California counties of Santa Clara and Riverside, courts had to review thousands of cases due to prosecutors' failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, including fraud by a crime lab technician. In some instances, this misconduct hid the actual innocence of the defendant, such as that of Ray Krone in Maricopa County, Arizona, who was sentenced to death after prosecutors withheld crucial evidence.
Legal challenges to new lethal injection procedures have delayed executions in Florida and Missouri this week. Similar challenges halted executions in Georgia in July. On November 18, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a hearing on the state's new execution protocol and stayed the execution of Askari Muhammad, who had been scheduled for execution on December 3. The hearing will examine "the efficacy of midazolam hydrochloride as an anesthetic in the amount prescribed by Florida's protocol." Florida is the first state to use midazolam in executions, having carried out two executions using this drug in combination with 2 other drugs. In Missouri, a federal judge stayed the execution of Joseph Franklin on November 19, calling the state's execution protocol, "a frustratingly moving target." She said that the Department of Corrections "has not provided any information about the certification, inspection history, infraction history, or other aspects of the compounding pharmacy or of the person compounding the drug." The stay was lifted hours later by a higher court, and Franklin was executed on November 20, though other challenges to the execution process continue. Earlier this year, a Georgia Superior Court judge stayed the execution of Warren Hill, questioning the constitutionality of the law that classified information on execution drugs as "confidential state secrets."
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.
On November 13 Ohio Governor John Kasich stayed the execution of Ronald Phillips less than 24 hours before he was to be die by lethal injection in order to consider Phillips' request to donate a kidney to his mother. Kasich stated, “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen.” Medical experts will now have time to determine whether Phillips would be a suitable donor for his mother, who is on dialysis, and other implications of the donation can be considered. In 1995, Delaware death-row inmate Steven Shelton was allowed to donate a kidney to his mother. His death sentence was later reversed for other reasons. However, in Florida, Joseph Brown was not allowed to donate a kidney to his brother, who later died. Brown was freed from death row after being exonerated in 1987. Phillips also offered to donate his heart to his sister after he was executed, but donations of vital organs have not been allowed during U.S. executions because of ethical issues. Texas allows general prisoners to donate non-vital organs, but not those on death row.
In a 5-2 decision, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the murder and sexual battery convictions and death sentence of Roy Swafford (pictured), who has been on death row since 1988. The court said in its decision that "No witness, DNA, or fingerprints link Swafford to the victim or the murder weapon. The newly discovered forensic evidence regarding the alleged sexual battery changes the very character of the case and affects the admissibility of evidence that was heard by the jury." Retesting of evidence from the case indicated that, contrary to earlier tests, a chemical found in semen was not present on the victim, suggesting that she was not sexually assaulted before the murder. The prosecution had said the assault motivated the murder, so the new evidence removes the likely motive. The Supreme Court also said that jurors did not hear evidence about another suspect who matched descriptions of the murderer, owned a car that matched the one used in abducting the victim, and owned the same type of gun used in the murder. Swafford's attorney, Terri Backhus, summed up the decision, saying, “Not only did the court say he gets a new trial on the sexual battery and the murder, but the Supreme Court said the trial court should grant a motion for judgment of acquittal on the sexual battery.”
Medical experts are concerned that untried lethal injection procedures in some states could cause prolonged, painful deaths. Ohio will try a procedure never used before in an execution on November 14 when it plans to inject a combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. According to Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine, a hydromorphone overdose can cause painful side effects, including an extreme burning sensation, seizures, hallucination, panic attacks, vomiting, and muscle pain. He said, "You're basically relying on the toxic side effects to kill people while guessing at what levels that occurs." Groner added, if the hydromorphone IV is set poorly, "it would be absorbed under the skin, subcutaneously, very slowly, and that death could be extremely prolonged…It may be painful, and it may take forever." Doctors also raised concerns about Missouri's planned use of pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. Compounding pharmacies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and drugs from one such pharmacy caused a deadly outbreak of fungal meningitis in 2012. David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School, said that contaminated pentobarbital could cause a sensation similar to rubbing an open wound with sandpaper. Florida was the first state to use midazolam, although it employed different secondary drugs than Ohio. In an October 15 execution, the inmate appeared to remain conscious longer than usual and made movements after losing consciousness.
A federal court in Florida will review challenges to the state's new lethal injection procedure, which the state plans to use in an upcoming execution on November 12. Florida is the only state in the country to use this new protocol, which begins with the sedative midazolam, followed by a paralytic drug and potassium chloride. Attorneys for Florida death row inmates allege the process could result in severe pain in violation of the 8th Amendment. Megan McCracken, an attorney at the death penalty clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, said, “If [potassium chloride is] given to a conscious person who has been inadequately anesthetized, it causes incredible pain because it activates nerve endings. It will feel like burning through the circulatory system until it reaches the heart, which it stops.” Florida switched to midazolam due to a shortage of pentobarbital, an anesthetic used in almost all executions over the past 2 years. Texas, which also has an execution scheduled for November 12, has obtained pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. It employs only 1 drug in its executions. Ohio recently announced it will use a new protocol involving midazolam and hydromorphone in its execution scheduled for November 14. That procedure is also under review in federal court.
On October 21, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a new case, Hall v. Florida (No. 12-10882), to determine whether the Florida Supreme Court properly upheld the death sentence of a man whose IQ is just above the state's standard for mental retardation. According to the state's law, defendants with an IQ above 70 cannot be considered intellectually disabled, even though most states use a broader definition and there is a margin of error in such IQ tests. Freddie Lee Hall's scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80. A state judge had previously found Hall to be mentally disabled, but the ruling took place before the state passed a law setting the IQ limit. The case will be argued later in the Supreme Court's term. In Georgia, a House committee will hold an out-of-session meeting to examine the state's strict standard for determining mental retardation in capital cases. Defendants are required to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, the strictest burden of proof in the nation.
Following the provisions of Florida's recently passed "Timely Justice Act," the clerk of the state's Supreme Court has identified 132 inmates on death row who are "warrant ready," based on their appeals. However, fewer than 20 of those inmates have begun the executive clemency process that must be completed before an execution can take place. Once the governor signals that the clemency process is over for an inmate, a death warrant must be signed in 30 days, but there is no mandatory schedule for the initial review. Over 150 attorneys representing inmates on Florida's death row are challenging the constitutionality of the law, saying it violates the separation of powers, as well as the inmates' rights to due process and equal protection. Stephen Harper, a law professor at Florida International University, said, "This [law] could create an unnecessary constitutional mess between the governor, the Legislature and the Florida Supreme Court as it's being litigated right now." Florida has already executed 5 inmates in 2013, second only to Texas. No one on death row has been granted clemency in Florida in 30 years.