death penalty

In the Execution Business, Missouri Is Surging


Defense lawyers call it a crisis; the state says it’s just doing its job.
Since Texas carried out the country’s 1st lethal injection in 1982, the state has performed far more executions than any other state. To date, 528 men and women have been put to death in Texas, more than the total in the next 8 states combined.
But viewed from a slightly different angle, Texas has lost its place as the epicenter of the American death penalty, at least for the moment.
Since November 2013, when Missouri began performing executions at a rate of almost 1 per month, the state has outstripped Texas in terms of the execution rate per capita. In 2014, both states executed 10 people, but Texas has more than 4 times the population of Missouri. This year, the difference is not quite as stark (Texas: 10, Missouri: 5) but Missouri still ranks number 1. The state that has become the center of so many conversations about criminal justice through the courts and cops of Ferguson is now the center of one more.
Why?
The politicians, judges and prosecutors who keep the system running at full steam simply say the death penalty is a good thing and the pace of executions is a sign that nothing is gumming up the pipes of justice. Defense attorneys are more eager to talk about the reasons for the current situation. They tend to use the word “crisis.”
The Drugs
The most important reason for the rise in Missouri’s rate of execution is also the most mysterious. As other states have dealt with a nationwide shortage in lethal-injection drugs by turning to new and experimental combinations – leading to grisly botched executions (Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, and Joseph Wood in Arizona) and lawsuits that have slowed down the pace of executions – Missouri has managed to get a steady supply of pentobarbital, a common execution drug.
Like their counterparts in all death-penalty states, Missouri officials are pushing in court to keep the source of their pentobarbital a secret. Texas has also exclusively used pentobarbital for executions in recent years, but has struggled to find a compounding pharmacy that will produce it. In Missouri, corrections officials had also struggled, but now have managed to stockpile the drug.
“We’re the only state in the union with no trouble getting pentobarbital,” says Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City attorney who has represented death-row inmates. The pentobarbital made by small, generally unregulated compounding pharmacies – the choice in Texas – does not have a long shelf-life, leading Pilate and her colleagues to wonder whether Missouri officials are getting the drug from a veterinary supplier (the drug is often used to euthanize animals) or a manufacturer from overseas. Attorney General Chris Koster recently said in a court filing, quoted by BuzzFeed, that “Missouri uses pentobarbital as the lethal chemical in its execution process, but does not admit nor deny the chemical now used is compounded as opposed to manufactured.”
The Governor and the Attorney General
Attorney General Koster, as well as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, are both Democrats and both outspoken supporters of the death penalty. Nixon himself was the attorney general before Koster, so both have overseen the state’s side in fighting the appeals of death-row inmates, pushing them along toward execution. Koster has suggested that the state set up a laboratory to make its own supply of lethal-injection drugs.
Nixon has the power to commute death sentences to life in prison, but he has done so once in his 6 1/2 years as governor, and he provided no explanation for why. Many political commentators have speculated that Nixon and Koster, as Democrats in a primarily conservative state – where the electoral votes went to Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election – use executions to establish their tough-on-crime bonafides. “As a Democrat in public office, you would lose a lot of votes by not being enthusiastically in support of the death penalty,” says Joseph Luby, an attorney with the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic in Kansas City.
Nixon and Koster’s support for the death penalty fits a historical pattern of death-penalty support among blue governors in red states. In the 1990s, Texas Governor Ann Richards never commuted a death sentence and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton famously flew home from the presidential campaign trail to preside over an execution of a man missing part of his brain. (Nixon had his own similar case earlier this year.) At the same time, Republicans in states near Missouri – Governor John Kasich in Ohio and former Governor Mike Huckabee in Arkansas – have regularly granted clemency to death-row inmates.
Nixon’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the politics of the death penalty, while Koster’s press secretary, Nanci Gonder, replied that he “has consistently supported the death penalty for the most serious murder convictions” and “1 of the duties of the Attorney General is to ensure that legal punishments for violating Missouri’s criminal laws are carried out.”
The Courts
Sean O’Brien, a professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, spent much of his career defending death-row inmates and recalled a case in which the judges at the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the prosecution. In 2003, the court ruled in favor of a man who committed a murder before turning 18, a decision that was later ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court and became the basis for a nationwide ban on the execution of juveniles.
Missouri Supreme Court judges are appointed by the governor, and in 2013 Governor Nixon selected Judge Mary Russell to be chief justice, overseeing the setting of execution dates. Her court set up the 1-a-month schedule in November of that year. When she stepped down in July this year, she told several reporters that the pace of executions picked up because they had been on hold during the lethal-injection drug shortage. Once the state had the drugs, she said, “there were a number of people who had been backlogged whose appeals were exhausted.”
“It’s required by law that the Supreme Court shall set execution dates,” she added. “It’s not that we agree or disagree with the death penalty.”
The Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which has final say over death cases in Missouri, rarely stops executions, according to O’Brien, the law professor. “We’ve got a situation where all 3” – the governor, attorney general, and supreme court – “are lickety-split gung-ho on this, and the federal courts aren’t stopping them.”
The Defense Bar
During a short phone interview last week, the Missouri capital-defense attorneys Cheryl Pilate and Lindsay Runnels used the words “crisis,” “disaster,” “horrific” and “overwhelming” as they described their “extremely small and embattled defense bar.” They see their cohort’s rushed work and missed deadlines and paltry resources as signs of broader problems with public defense in the state. Missouri was ranked 49th by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association in per-capita spending on indigent defense in 2009.
My colleague Ken Armstrong has chronicled the experience of one overburdened defense lawyer who dealt with the executions of 2 clients over 2 months at the end of 2013. In a March 2015 letter to the Missouri Supreme Court, members of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Assessment Team wrote, “The current pace of executions is preventing counsel for the condemned from performing competently.”
“You live in a perpetual state of tension,” Pilate said, “thinking your client could be next.”
This state of affairs may not last. A pending lawsuit over the secrecy of the lethal injection drugs might force the state to divulge its source, allowing for more litigation that could lead to a slow-down. The Missouri Supreme Court will soon have a new chief justice. A future Republican governor or attorney general could follow the lead of Kasich or Huckabee. The defense bar may get more help from national anti-death penalty groups now that the state is ground zero. For now, though, as the death penalty declines nationally, Missouri is headed in the other direction.
Source: themarshallproject.org, August 31, 2015

What’s the Future of the Death Penalty in America?


Two recent high-profile cases have once again highlighted America’s complex relationship with the death penalty. In Colorado, a jury declined to impose the death penalty on theater shooter James Holmes. And in Connecticut, whose legislature had recently abolished capital punishment prospectively, the state supreme court held that the Connecticut constitution barred the execution of those whose offenses had preceded that legislative change.
Both cases contributed to the ongoing national capital punishment debate. Some openly wondered whether the availability of the death penalty in Colorado still has any practical meaning, if jurors couldn’t be convinced to impose it on someone like Holmes. And the Connecticut court’s opinion included an extensive discussion of the various trends taking shape across the country. It’s clear that the question of the future of capital punishment in America remains a lively one. (Full disclosure: I’m a criminal defense attorney, and my practice includes capital cases, including one that is currently pending.)
It’s not hard to understand why this debate generates such strong feelings on both sides. Although my work has been on the defense side, anyone involved in the justice system gets a first-hand look at the heinous nature of violent crime. Crime scene and autopsy photos, and the visible emotions on the faces of the family members who attend every hearing, are constant reminders of the horrific harms that human beings can inflict on one another and the irreparable damage caused to those left behind.
On the other hand, some believe that regardless of the circumstances it’s simply unacceptable for the state to take the life of one of its citizens. Others who can accept capital punishment in theory question whether our existing system is sufficiently reliable to support that penalty (a concern I’ve come to share based on my time in that system).
With such powerful motivations on both sides and the highest of stakes involved, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is such a passionate debate. And one development that’s significantly affected the course of capital punishment in America is the fact that death penalty opponents have been extremely effective in making it increasingly difficult to actually secure and impose a death sentence.
First, they’ve devoted an extraordinary amount of effort and resources to training defense lawyers at the trial level to avoid death sentences for their clients. (Colorado, where the Holmes trial took place, is a national center for this type of education; the “Colorado Method” of jury selection is a staple of capital defense training.)
And of course, an initial death penalty determination doesn’t end the matter. There are several layers of appellate review through a series of courts, and cases involving death sentences get extra appellate scrutiny. The actual legal rules are more demanding, and those rules may be applied in an especially exacting way–particularly if some of the judges along the way have their own reservations about capital punishment. The result is that death-penalty cases are regularly reversed and sent back for new trials or sentencing proceedings. For example, in Oregon, where my practice is based, the State is about to take its fourth shot at securing a death sentence for serial killer Dayton Leroy Rogers; Rogers was convicted back in 1989 and has been sentenced to death 3 times, with the Oregon Supreme Court ordering resentencing each time.
Finally, even if a death sentence survives all of this review, it still has to be imposed, and this is no mere formality–again, partly because of the efforts of abolitionists, who have made it difficult for companies to supply the chemicals needed for executions. The result is that even some states with large numbers of prisoners on death row virtually never actually execute anyone. In recent years, several governors have gone as far as declaring moratoria on executions in their states, in some cases formalizing what had already been the rule in practice.
All this means that it takes a lot of political will to actually carry the process to its end and execute someone–a point illustrated by some intriguing facts cited in the Connecticut court’s opinion. Apparently, the vast majority of American executions are concentrated within a small band of states–in 2014, for example, Texas, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma collectively accounted for approximately 90 % of the nation’s 35 executions, and similar concentrations within small subsets of states appear across broader time periods. Presumably, these are the states where legislators, prosecutors and others not only believe strongly in the death penalty themselves, but understand that their constituencies share that belief and will support them in the face of vigorous opposition.
So what’s the future of the death penalty in America? I don’t see it going away at the national level. Abolitionists have fought for decades to have the Supreme Court declare capital punishment categorically unconstitutional, but although they’ve come close at times and clearly have the ears of some current justices, I don’t expect that the Court will ever go that far–at least not anytime soon. So I expect that capital punishment will remain constitutionally permissible, and that those states with steadfast support will continue imposing it.
Meanwhile, those states whose residents are more ambivalent about the death penalty may increasingly reconsider whether a capital punishment regime is worth the immense costs, burdens and endless litigation required to keep it in place–especially given the increasingly significant possibility that even a defendant sentenced to death may never actually be executed. These questions may be mulled over by legislatures, governors, prosecutors, and others. (A judge in Kentucky, for example, recently forbade the state from seeking the death penalty in a murder case based on her apparent conclusion that that penalty would never actually be imposed, so that the enormously increased costs and burdens compared to a non-capital case would end up being wasted.) And through it all, Americans of goodwill will continue to debate the questions of whether and when the ultimate penalty should be imposed.
Source: Huffington Post, Kevin Sali, August 29, 2015. Mr. Sali is a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Nebraska death penalty repeal on hold


Supporters of retaining the death penalty in Nebraska turned in thousands more signatures than necessary on Wednesday to suspend the repeal and place the issue before voters.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty turned in petitions containing 166,692 signatures. Leaders of the group called that a surprisingly large number and said it signaled that voters in the 2016 general election will retain the ultimate penalty for the most heinous murders, reversing the repeal enacted by the State Legislature this spring.
A lot of senators will find out that their constituents have a different view, I really believe that,” said State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, a death penalty supporter who circulated petitions.
Opponents of the death penalty, meanwhile, said that they expect Nebraska voters to come to the same conclusion as 30 of the state’s 49 state lawmakers. Voters will learn that the risks of executing innocent people, the “tremendous waste” of taxpayer dollars and the hurdles in obtaining the necessary drugs have made the death penalty immoral, unjust and unworkable, said the Rev. Stephen Griffith of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
“Just like the legislators they elected, we believe the more Nebraskans learn about the failures of capital punishment, the more they will be inclined to get rid of it,” said Griffith, the group’s new executive director.
The pro-death penalty group formed in June and launched its petition drive just after state lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto and repealed the death penalty.
The vote drew national attention as Nebraska became the first conservative state since North Dakota in 1973 to do away with the death penalty. Currently, 31 states have capital punishment.
But the victory by death penalty opponents in Nebraska now appears to be in jeopardy.
The pro-capital punishment group turned in nearly 3 times as many signatures as is necessary to place the issue on the ballot: 5 % of the state’s registered voters, about 57,000 signatures. The drive must also meet that 5 % threshold in 38 of the state’s 93 counties.
But Nebraskans for the Death Penalty also appears to have a comfortable cushion to suspend the repeal of the death penalty until voters decide its fate at the ballot box.
To do that, the drive needed to submit valid signatures of 10 percent of the state’s voters, or about 114,000 signatures.
Typically, 15 % to 25 % of signatures are invalidated, either because a signer wasn’t registered to vote or for other technical reasons. Even if 25 % of the signatures were disqualified, the drive would still have 125,000 valid signatures, more than enough to suspend the repeal.
State Treasurer Don Stenberg, a former attorney general who was an honorary co-chairman of the pro-death penalty group, said there was “a lot of significance” to collecting so many signatures.
“It’s reflective of the tremendous support that Nebraskans have in keeping the death penalty,” Stenberg said.
He was one of several supporters of capital punishment who spoke at an afternoon press conference, staged in front of an 8-foot-high wall of boxes holding petitions gathered by the group’s nearly 600 paid and volunteer circulators. Signatures were collected in all 93 counties.
Officials in the counties are expected to take more than a month to count and validate the signatures.
Stenberg, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, both said the signatures are presumed valid when they are turned in, until the count proves otherwise.
So, they said, the repeal of the death penalty – which was scheduled to go into effect on Sunday – is on hold until the count is completed.
“There will be some uncertainty in the law,” Stenberg said. But, he added, “It’s not unusual to have uncertainty in the law.”
Nebraska lacks the necessary drugs to carry out an execution via its only legal means, lethal injection. But Stenberg, who as attorney general presided over the state’s last 3 executions in the 1990s, said that if the state obtains the necessary drugs, there’s nothing preventing current Attorney General Doug Peterson from asking for execution dates for the 10 men on death row.
Peterson, on Wednesday, said he was reviewing the cases.
The State Supreme Court would have to approve any requests for execution dates. It’s unclear if the court would do that while a referendum on the issue is pending and after the Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty.
One of the senators who voted for the repeal, Bob Krist of Omaha, said death penalty supporters will need a lot more support to overturn the repeal in the 2016 election.
He said the referendum should not be about vengeance but “justice and fiscal conservatism.” Krist said the state has spent millions and only executed 3 people in the last 6 decades.
He also questioned if the drive collected most of its signatures from Omaha and Lincoln, or from areas like Norfolk and Falls City, where there have been horrible murders and support for capital punishment is higher.
“So here we go. Game on,” Krist said.
Officials with Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said they collected enough signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot in the 1st month, then used a last-minute push to qualify the measure in the necessary 38 counties.
Chris Peterson, the drive’s spokesman, said the group expects to spend about $800,000 to $900,000 on its petition-gathering effort, which included hiring hundreds of paid circulators and an Arizona consulting company.
That spending, he said, is comparable to what a group spent last year to get an initiative petition on the ballot to increase the state’s minimum wage. Nebraskans for Better Wages turned in 134,899 signatures after a 60-day drive.
Ricketts and his family were among the prime financiers for the pro-death penalty drive. The Republican governor contributed $200,000 in the first 2 months, and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, gave $100,000.
Officials with the pro-death penalty group said that petition signers overwhelmingly said they deserved a chance to vote on the issue.
“It’s too important of an issue to be left to the give-and-take of politics,” said Groene.
Vivian Tuttle of Ewing, whose daughter Evonne was 1 of 5 people slain during an attempted robbery at a Norfolk bank in 2002, said she put 8,000 miles on her car seeking support for the referendum drive.
“Wherever I went, people said ‘I want to help do this,'” Tuttle said.
The last time a referendum petition appeared on the ballot was in 2006, when voters were asked whether to overturn a law mandating the consolidation of Class I school districts.
Source: lexch.com, August 29, 2015

BOOKS – NEW 2015 “An Evil Day in Georgia”


Through the lens of a 1927 murder and the ensuing trials of three suspects, An Evil Day in Georgia examines the death penalty system in Prohibition-era Georgia. James Hugh Moss, a black man, and Clifford Thompson, a white man, both from Tennessee, were accused of the murder of store owner Coleman Osborn in rural north Georgia. Thought to be involved in the illegal interstate trade of alcohol, they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence within a month of the murder. Thompson’s wife, Eula Mae Elrod, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death the following year, but was released in 1936 after her case gained notoriety in the press. “Moss, Thompson, and Elrod…were almost classic examples of perceived social outsiders or rebels who ran afoul of a judicial system not designed to protect them but to weed them out and discourage others who might think about challenging the system,” author Robert N. Smith says. “Moreover, all three trials were held in circumstances where local tensions ran so high that conviction was virtually assured.” John Bessler, author of Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, said, “In An Evil Day in Georgia, author Robert Smith raises lingering questions about the guilt of two men—one white and one black—executed for a murder in the Deep South in the 1920s. . . . The telling of this story, one that played out in the Jim Crow era and the days of bootlegging and the Ku Klux Klan, exposes the death penalty’s imperfections even as it calls into question the veracity of a woman’s confession, later recanted, that once brought her within a stone’s throw of the state’s electric chair.”

(R. Smith, “An Evil Day In Georgia,” The University of Tennessee Press, 2015.)

California Death Penalty, Struck Down Over Delays, Faces Next Test


August 29,2015 (NYT)

Whether California’s application of the death penalty is so drawn out and arbitrary that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment will be argued on Monday before a federal appeals court in Pasadena.

If the lawyers for a condemned man are victorious, the case could bring a reprieve to more than 740 prisoners now on death row at San Quentin State Prison and send legal ripples across the country. Either way, legal experts say, it raises issues about the administration of capital punishment that are likely to reach the Supreme Court over time.

In Monday’s hearing before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, California officials will seek to overturn a surprise ruling last year by a lower federal court, which declared the state’s “death penalty system” to be unconstitutional

Hailed by death penalty opponents as a breakthrough and attacked by others as unwise and legally out of line, the decision was issued on July 16, 2014, by Judge Cormac J. Carney of Federal District Court in Santa Ana. It focused not on disparities in the meting out of death sentences in the first place — the more familiar charge — but on the decades of tangled and prolonged reviews that follow and the rarity of actual executions.

In a scathing account of what he called a dysfunctional system, Judge Carney noted that of the more than 900 people who had been sentenced to death in California since 1978, when the current legal structure was established, only 13 had been executed.

Citing growing delays in a judicial review process that can take 25 years or more, far above the national norm, Judge Carney said death sentences had been transformed, in effect, into “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

The “random few” who are put to death, he said, “will have languished for so long on death row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

Judge Carney ruled on the appeal of Ernest Dewayne Jones, who was condemned to die in 1995 for a murder and rape and made a last-ditch plea to a federal court after his appeals to the California Supreme Court had been denied. The judge vacated Mr. Jones’s death sentence as he declared California’s capital-punishment process to be generally unconstitutional.

The decision was a stunning one, and California officials have sharply challenged it on both procedure and substance. They say it was illegitimate because Mr. Jones’s arguments about the arbitrariness of the review system — issues going beyond the long delays alone — had not first been considered in the California courts, as required.

Beyond that, according to the brief from the state’s attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, a Democrat, the delays and rarity of executions do not reflect random quirks. Rather, it says, they are a product of California’s effort to be scrupulously fair, ensuring that condemned prisoners have high-quality lawyers and every opportunity to question the legality of their sentences.

California legislators have required such exhaustive reviews and procedures as “an important safeguard against arbitrariness and caprice,” the state holds, quoting from a 1976 Supreme Court decision.

In a plebiscite in 2012, California voters affirmed the death penalty by a narrow margin, with 52 percent voting to keep it and 48 percent voting to replace it with life in prison without parole.

California inmates normally wait three to five years just for the appointment of a qualified defense lawyer, a delay that may be repeated as convicts pursue two successive state appeals and then a federal one. Beyond the prolonged process of reviewing death sentences, California has had a de facto moratorium on executions since 2006 because of disputes over the method of lethal injection.

The questions of arbitrariness and extreme delay that are raised by the Jones case are important and may well gain purchase in the courts, said Eric M. Freedman, a professor of constitutional law and death penalty expert at Hofstra University.

“But that does not necessarily mean that this particular litigation will be the vehicle by which the courts resolve these issues,” he added, noting that procedural or other questions could lead the appeals panel to overrule the Jones decision.

The arguments made by Mr. Jones’s lawyers — and echoed by Judge Carney — are similar in part to those made in June by Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the Supreme Court. In a sweeping dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Breyer went beyond the lethal-injection issue at hand to ask whether the death penalty was so marred by unreliable decisions, arbitrary application and delays that it should be abolished.

But conservative justices responded that death penalty opponents, in their zeal to erect obstacles to executions, were responsible for inordinate delays and unpredictability.

If the Ninth Circuit and even the Supreme Court should uphold Judge Carney’s ruling, this would not necessarily cause the death penalty to unravel nationwide, said Douglas A. Berman, an expert on criminal law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Judge Carney’s decision turned on details specific to California, and with its high number of condemned prisoners and very low pace of executions, the state is in a class by itself, Mr. Berman said. Still, he added, a similar critique might succeed in a few other states, including Pennsylvania and Florida.

Given the deep divisions within California over the death penalty, Mr. Berman added, the state may, in an odd way that has nothing to do with constitutional principles, be well served by the status quo.

“Voters, and perhaps the executive branch, too, are not that troubled with a system that has lots of death sentences and few executions,” Mr. Berman said.

Nebraska group says it can stop death penalty repeal


An organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska’s death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state’s counties. Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the 1st traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.
The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 % of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.
“Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers,” said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive.
The announcement came just before the repeal law was set to go into effect on Sunday, but the signatures still need to be verified. The petitions now go to the Nebraska secretary of state’s office, which will forward them to counties to verify the signatures in a process that will take about 40 days.
Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are “presumptively valid” until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they’re submitted.
Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks 2 of the 3 required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can’t be legally imported.
Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts’ veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money.
“What the Nebraska Legislature did is going to have an effect,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, whose group takes no stance on the death penalty but often criticizes how it’s administered. “The message that conservative legislators can reach across the aisle with moderate and liberal legislators – that message is still there and still resonates.”
Nebraska hasn’t executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state’s current 3-drug lethal injection protocol.
The state was the 19th to abolish capital punishment, as has the District of Columbia, while the death penalty is legal in 31 states and for some federal crimes. The number of executions in the United States has gradually declined in recent years and only a handful of states led by Texas regularly put inmates to death.
The announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.
The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.
Source: Associated Press, August 28, 2015

 

High court won’t rehear death penalty case


The Supreme Court refused Friday to reconsider the death-row appeals of 3 Oklahoma prisoners whose pending executions by lethal injection were upheld by the justices in June.
Without comment, the court denied a petition filed by the prisoners’ lawyers that would have turned the case into one testing the overall constitutionality of the death penalty.
The justices ruled 5-4 on June 29 that Oklahoma can use the sedative midazolam as part of a 3-drug lethal injection protocol, despite contentions that it may not render prisoners completely unconscious and incapable of feeling pain. The court’s majority said the inmates failed to suggest any better alternative.
But the decision included a sweeping dissent from Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg that questioned whether capital punishment is no longer constitutional. The 2 liberal justices cited scores of death-row exonerations, racial and geographic disparities, decades-long delays between sentencing and executions and a trend away from capital punishment in courts and states.
Breyer, who wrote the dissent, urged the court to hear a case in the near future on whether the death penalty violates the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled that way in 1972, resulting in a 4-year moratorium on executions, but reversed itself in 1976.
“It would be appropriate for the court to use this case to address the constitutionality of the death penalty, because the outcome will turn not on facts specific to any single litigant, but on circumstances common to the administration of the death penalty,” attorneys for death-row inmates Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole said.
A similar effort was mounted in early July by Missouri prisoner David Zink, but the Supreme Court refused to delay his execution, and he was put to death July 14. Barring a last-minute reprieve, Glossip is scheduled to die Sept. 16, with Grant and Cole to follow later this year.
A more likely candidate for the Supreme Court to consider whether the death penalty is constitutional will come before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Monday. In that case, a federal district judge already has declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional because of long delays, inadequate funding for defense lawyers, and the lack of a lethal injection protocol.
The June Supreme Court case concerned the specific drug used by Oklahoma and some other states to sedate prisoners before lethal drugs are administered. While Florida has used midazolam with apparent success, three executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma resulted in condemned prisoners gasping and writhing on their gurneys.
The high court’s 5-member conservative majority ruled that states may continue to uses midazolam because the defendants could not suggest an alternative – a burden that the court’s 4 liberal members criticized in a dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Source: USA Today, August 28, 201

2 Colorado juries reject death penalty in a month: Will Colorado ever execute a criminal again?


DENVER – Two Colorado juries have rejected the death penalty for mass murderers in a single month. Add to that the governor’s controversial decision to grant clemency to the last killer who was supposed to be executed, and it begs a question: Will Colorado ever use the death penalty again?
Jurors in Arapahoe County, the only Colorado County that currently has killers awaiting the death penalty, could not unanimously agree to sentence the Aurora movie theater gunman to die by lethal injection. Instead, the man who killed 12 people and wounded 70 others during a movie premiere was sentenced to 12 lifetimes in prison plus 3,318 years — one of the longest prison terms in history.
Just days later, a Denver County jury decided that mitigating factors were sufficient to stop the process in pursuit of the death penalty for the man who stabbed five people to death in a bar that was subsequently set on fire. The mitigating factors included an abusive childhood.
“The question everybody is asking is if these cases didn’t justify handing out the death penalty, executing somebody, what case could possible merit that?” said former Douglas County judge Jim Miller.
Miller says concerns ranging from the cost of trying a death penalty case to morality are fueling opposition.
“I think a combination of those factors make it very unlikely that you’ll anyone executed in Colorado again,” said Miller.
Yet, just last month, a poll found Colorado voters wanted death, two-to-one, in the theater shooting case.
“I think it’s worth a conversation, but the idea that Coloradans have moved on from the death penalty is not accurate,” said Arapahoe district attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the theater shooting case.
Under Colorado law, juries must unanimously agree to impose death sentences. In the theater case, one juror was steadfast against the death penalty and at least one juror sided with Lewis’ defense team’s presentation of mitigating factors.
The Colorado legislature last tried to repeal the death penalty in 2013. Supporters of repeal argued that the death penalty is applied unfairly and arbitrarily. But the bill died in committee as Democratic lawmakers wavered on doing away with capital punishment. Governor Hickenlooper, a fellow Democrat, had signaled he might veto the bill. His office had issued a statement saying, “the governor has conflicting feelings about the death penalty. Those feelings are still unresolved.”
Death penalty facts:
  • No Denver jury has sentenced someone to death since 1986.
  • Colorado has not executed anyone since 1997.
  • State law requires the Colorado Supreme Court to review all death sentences and defense appeals typically last more than a decade. Afterward, the court that oversaw the case must issue a death warrant indicating the week in which the lethal injection would occur.
  • Colorado law dictates that the death penalty can only be carried out by means of a “continuous intravenous injection of a lethal quantity of sodium thiopental or other equally or more effective substance.”
Three other convicted killers are currently awaiting executions in Colorado, but they were all sentenced between 5 and 20 years ago.
Sir Mario Owens: A jury sentenced Sir Mario Owens to death on June 16, 2008 for the 2005 ambush murders of Vivian Wolfe and her fiance, Javad Marshall-Fields, who were gunned down in their car at an Aurora intersection. Javad Marshall-Fields was scheduled to testify against Owens’ friend Robert Ray.
Robert Ray: A jury sentenced Robert Ray, a 23-year-old drug dealer, to death on June 8, 2009, for planned and ordering the killings of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée Vivian Wolfe.
Nathan Dunlap: He was sentenced to death in 1996 for shooting to death four employees at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in 1993. In May 2013, Dunlap was three months from a scheduled execution when Gov. John Hickenlooper granted him a controversial “temporary reprieve.” In a move that outraged Dunlap’s victims, the governor said, “Colorado’s system of capital punishment is imperfect and inherently inequitable.” While it’s unlikely that Hickenlooper will reconsider executing Dunlap, a future governor could agree to carry out the execution.
Source: 7News Denver, Marc Stewart, Phil Tenser, Alan Gathright, August 28, 2015

 

Boston Bombing juror says he regrets giving Tsarnaev the death penalty


Kevan Fagan, ‘Juror 83’ in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, says he probably would not have voted for the death penalty had he been aware that the families of some victims wanted a life sentence.
On Monday, the same day a federal judge ruled to keep the names of all jurors in the trial sealed, Mr. Fagan sat down for an interview with WBUR-FM.
Fagan is the first juror to speak publicly using his name, and to be photographed, according to the station.
Fagan would not discuss deliberations but said he “would probably change” his vote in the penalty phase of the trial if he had been aware that the parents of 8-year-old victim Martin Richard opposed the death penalty.
The week before the jury was set to deliberate on life imprisonment or death for Mr. Tsarnaev, nearly two years to the day of the bombing, Bill and Denise Richard wrote an essay, published in The Boston Globe, that a death sentence would only lead to lengthy appeals and draw out the anguish for their family:

We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.

The jurors were ordered to avoid social media and press throughout the trial.
Source: Business Insider, August 25, 2015

William Petit, Dad of Murdered Family, Reacts to Connecticut Death Penalty Ruling


It was a crime of epic cruelty, and the culprits were sentenced to pay the ultimate price.
Steven Hayes (Left) and Joshua Komisarjevsky  AP PHOTO/CONNECTICUT STATE POLICE
But a decision by Connecticut’s highest court means the 2 men who carried out the chilling Petit family murders will be spared execution, along with 9 other death-row inmates.
Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky now get life sentences for a 2007 home invasion robbery in which they raped and strangled Jennifer Petit, tied her daughters Hayley and Michaela to their beds, and set the home ablaze.
Petit’s sister, Cynthia Hawke Renn, told NBC News that she is “disheartened” by the Connecticut Supreme Court’s finding that a 2012 legislative repeal of the death penalty should also apply to those who committed their crimes earlier.
“I really do think that cruel and unusual crimes really do deserve cruel and unusual punishment,” she said.
“For people who commit such heinous and horrific crimes – when you torture and rape them and their children, douse them with gasoline and burn them alive – is there not something that should be worse?
“Shouldn’t there be a worse punishment out there for someone who takes a life in such a cruel and unusual way?”
Jennifer Petit’s husband, Dr. William Petit, who was beaten during the siege but escaped to call for help, had fought against the 2012 repeal of the death penalty. He noted in a statement Thursday that the court was divided in its ruling.
“The dissenting justices clearly state how the 4 members of the majority have disregarded keystones of our government structure such as the separation of powers and the role of judicial precedent to reach the decision they hand down yesterday.
“The death penalty and its application is a highly charged topic with profound emotional impact, particularly on their victims and their loved ones.”
Connecticut’s death row includes killers who have been there since 1989. The latest addition is Richard Roszkowski, who was sentenced last year, after legislative repeal, but was still eligible because the crime occurred in 2006.
He was convicted of killing a former neighbor, Holly Flannery, her 9-year-old daughter Kylie and a landscaper, Thomas Gaudet.
Kylie’s grandmother, Flo Tipke, said the court ruling was a blow.
“We went through two trials and now it kind of feels like it was a huge waste of time and money,” she said. “We’re very sad. We feel that the way he murdered our grandchild and our daughter-in-law was cruel and heinous and I don’t feel any punishment they could have given him would be too cruel or heinous.”
Mary Jo Gellenbeck – whose sister Diana was kidnapped and killed by another death-row prisoner, Daniel Webb – said she favors Thursday’s ruling.
“I don’t support the death penalty so I’m happy to see that Connecticut is moving in the direction of eliminating that,” she said.
Gellenbeck said her opposition to capital punishment stems in part from the danger that someone innocent could be put to death, though she is certain Webb murdered her sister.
“I think David Webb is a danger to society,” she said. “But if he is behind bars without parole, it’s what everybody wants.”
Source: NBC news, August 14, 2015