death sentences

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.
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Gov. Pete Ricketts confident executions will happen for men on death row


 

LINCOLN — If Nebraska succeeds in importing the $54,400 in lethal injection drugs it ordered from India, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday he’s confident he won’t need to seek a refund.
During an interview Thursday on “The Bottom Line,” The World-Herald’s Internet radio broadcast, the governor was asked what happens to the state funds if the death penalty repeal ultimately remains in effect. Death penalty supporters are collecting signatures in an effort to let voters decide the fate of capital punishment in 2016.
“Would we then be able to sell it back to the people who sold it to us?” host Mike’l Severe asked. “Would we get our money back?”
The governor, a major contributor to the petition drive, said the state will need the drugs for the 10 men on death row, regardless of the drive’s outcome.
More coverage of capital punishment in Nebraska
“The Legislature actually doesn’t have the authority to go back and change sentences that have already occurred,” he said. “We’re still working under the premise that we’re going to continue to carry out the sentences for the inmates we have.”
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the chief sponsor of the law, has said that while the Legislature cannot change the death sentences of those already on death row, the repeal removed the statutory means for conducting an execution. That, he has said, leaves the death row inmates with a sentence that can’t be carried out.
The state has not yet imported the drugs it bought in May from a broker in India. An official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said one of the two drugs Nebraska purchased can’t legally be imported.
Ricketts said Thursday that state officials remain in discussions with the Drug Enforcement Administration to get the drugs shipped. He offered no timeline, however, on when the drugs could arrive.
A DEA official has said the agency is working in tandem with the FDA on the issue, suggesting Nebraska would not be able to use one federal agency to go around another.
The governor repeated his stance that the death penalty is a necessary policy for public safety. In particular, he said he believes it’s important to protect law enforcement and correctional officers who work with inmates serving life terms.
“That’s why I feel so strongly the folks in Nebraska should have a chance to vote on it,” he said.
The governor also was asked about a new “re-employment” program being launched by the Nebraska Department of Labor with his support. The program seeks to get unemployed people back to work as quickly as possible.

A key part of the program requires those seeking unemployment benefits to meet with a jobs coach so they can post a résumé online. That résumé could then be searched by Nebraska employers seeking to fill vacancies.

“In a state where we have a 2.6 percent unemployment rate, we’re really working hard to make sure we can do the best job possible to connect people who are looking for jobs with the companies that have them,” he said.

Ricketts, a former executive with TD Ameritrade, often discussed how he would work to make government function more like a business if he were elected. On Thursday, he said he is requiring his department heads to set goals and devise methods for measuring progress toward the goals.

For example, he mentioned the common complaints of long hold times when citizens call into AccessNebraska, the call center for public benefits. The Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the program, now keeps monthly statistics on hold times.

“If we don’t have any measurements, how can we hold people accountable?” the governor said.

NORTH CAROLINA -Bernard Lamp receives death penalty for 2008 Iredell murder


february 19, 2014 (iredell)

Two weeks to the day after he was convicted of first-degree murder, Bernard Lamp was sentenced to death Wednesday for killing Bonnie Lou Irvine nearly six years ago.

The same jury that convicted him Feb. 5 deliberated a little more than four hours over two days before recommending the death penalty in Iredell County Superior Court.

Although it is called a recommendation, Judge Ed Wilson is required to accept the jury’s recommendation and, after asking each juror if that was his or her recommendation, he pronounced the sentence on Lamp.

Prior to the sentencing, Wilson asked Lamp if he had anything to say. He made no comment and left the defense table as the jury was exiting the courtroom.

The death sentence will be automatically sent to the N.C. Court of Appeals for review. That is standard in all death sentences.

It is likely to be several years before the death sentence will be carried out. The last execution in North Carolina was in 2006. There are currently more than 150 inmates on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh.

Lamp showed no reaction as Wilson read the jury’s recommendation. One of his attorneys, David Freedman, rested his head on his hand, as he had been doing since the jury knocked on the jury room door and indicated a recommendation had been reached.

Irvine’s sister, Debbie Powers, who was the first witness in the guilt phase and who has been in court for most of the trial, showed no reaction.

Wilson complimented Powers and her two brothers, who also attended much of the trial, for their support.

“You’ve done your sister proud,” he said.

District Attorney Sarah Kirkman and Assistant District Attorney Carrie Nitzu hugged Powers after court was recessed.

Kirkman said she was satisfied with the jury’s decision.

“Ms. Nitzu and I respect the jury’s decision, and our thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family at this time,” she said. One of Lamp’s two defense attorneys, Vince Rabil, walked over and shook hands with the prosecution.

The sentencing phase brought to an end a case that began in mid-March 2008 when Lamp was arrested driving Irvine’s Volvo near Troutman. Irvine had been reported missing on March 8 but was last seen by her roommate at their Cornelius home on Feb. 28.

That’s the day, according to trial testimony, that she met Lamp in person after contacting him two weeks earlier via a Craigslist ad placed by him.

Her body was found the day after Lamp was arrested. She was buried in the backyard of a home on Weathers Creek Road that belonged to a friend of Lamp’s. She had been beaten and strangled, either one of which could have caused her death, according to expert testimony.

This was the first case in Iredell County in which a jury recommended the death penalty since 2010 when Andrew Ramseur received the death penalty for killing two people at a Statesville convenience store during a robbery in 2007.

Why so many death row inmates in America will die of old age


february 3, 2014 (economist.com)

GARY ALVORD, a Florida man who was sentenced to death for strangling three women, died in May 2013—of natural causes. He had been on death row for nearly 40 years. The state never executed him because he was “too crazy to be killed“, as the Tampa Bay Times put it: “In 1984, he was sent to a state hospital in Chattahoochee to be restored to competence. But doctors there refused to treat him, citing the ethical dilemma of making a patient well just so that he could be killed. He was quietly returned to death row in 1987 and remained there ever since. His final appeal expired in 1998.”

Alvord’s case was extreme, but condemned prisoners in America typically spend a very long time waiting to die. The appeals process drags on for decades. It is endlessly painstaking because no one wants to see an innocent prisoner executed. Even the most enthusiastic advocates of capital punishment know that such a miscarriage of justice would undermine their cause. For prisoners who are actually put to death, the average time that elapses between sentence and execution has risen from six years in the mid-1980s to 16.5 years now. And even that startling figure makes the process sound quicker than it is, since most condemned prisoners will never be put to death. It’s simple maths.

At the end of 2011, there were 3,082 prisoners on state and federal death rows in America. That year, 43 were executed. At the current rate (which is slowing) a condemned prisoner has a one-in-72 chance of being executed each year. Since the average death row inmate was 28 when first convicted, it seems unlikely that more than a fraction of them will ever meet the executioner. In 2011 24 condemned prisoners died of natural causes and 70 had their sentences commuted or overturned. (There were 80 fresh death sentences passed in 2011, so the number of people on death row shrank by 57.)

We can expect the number who die of old age to increase. The death penalty was restored only in 1976, so nearly everyone on death row was convicted after that date, and most were young when convicted. As they get older, more will start to die each year of heart attacks, strokes and cancer. Conditions on death row are grim; inmates age fast. They are often locked up in a solitary cell for 23 hours a day. Throughout this time, they live in fear that soon they will be strapped to a gurney and pumped full of lethal chemicals. Some lawyers argue that death row itself amounts to a cruel and unusual punishment of the sort the constitution forbids.