Florida man struggles to build life after death row exoneration

Seth Penalver dropped to the floor and wept into his chair when a Florida jury declared him not guilty in the shooting deaths of three people during a 1994 home invasion.
After 3 trials and 18 years in prison – including 13 on death row – a Broward County jury in 2012 found Penalver not guilty of capital murder in the 1994 slayings of Casmir Sucharski, 48, Marie Rogers, 25, and Sharon Anderson, 25.
Little did he know about the struggles that lay ahead. His release from prison marked a new chapter, one that’s been filled with ups and downs, given his prolonged absence from society. Despite his acquittal, he says he struggles to find work because of his background, which includes 2 prior nonviolent felonies.
“You Google my name and it lights up the screen. I’m 20 years minus a resume, so it’s hard,” he said.
Experts say Penalver’s struggles with reintegration are typical for death row exonerees or people found to be wrongly convicted. On paper, they’re no longer offenders, but they’re not quite free of the stigma or psychological impact of their incarceration. The duration of their incarceration can strain personal relationships, creating a void in support systems after their release. Additionally, they often lack access to the same career or counseling services available to parolees because technically, they’re not on parole.
“The media attention tends to focus on how people got wrongly convicted, what in the system led to these cases, and those are important stories worthy of attention,” said University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor Saundra Westervelt, author of “Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity.”
“But the story doesn’t end there. There’s a slew of practical problems they have to figure out how to manage.”
The state could help improve prospects for exonerees by providing monetary compensation and reintegration services, said Westervelt, a board member of Witness to Innocence, which works to abolish the death penalty and provide support to former death row inmates.
Only 30 states have laws that provide monetary compensation to wrongly convicted people, which can include death row exonerees. And in many states, including Florida, they come with limits. In some states, access to monetary compensation is available only for people exonerated by DNA evidence, who receive an official gubernatorial pardon or who don’t have prior felonies.
A crime unfolds on video
Local media dubbed the triple slayings the “Casey’s Nickelodeon murders” because Sucharski was an owner of Casey’s Nickelodeon, a Miramar nightclub where he met aspiring models Rogers and Anderson. The 3 were shot dead in Sucharski’s home in Miramar, Florida, early in the morning of June 26, 1994.
Penalver and co-defendant Pablo Ibar were charged in the crime after witnesses identified them in grainy home surveillance video showing 2 men breaking into Sucharski’s home. Penalver surrendered to law enforcement in August 1994 after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Penalver stood trial three times for the murders. His first trial with Ibar in 1997 ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt. The cases were severed, and Penalver was tried again in 1999 and sentenced to death on charges of murder, attempted robbery and burglary.
The Florida Supreme Court overturned Penalver’s verdict in 2006 based on a series of evidentiary and constitutional errors related to witness testimony and identification. Given the absence of physical evidence connecting Penalver to the crime and questions about the identification of the men in the surveillance video, “the witnesses’ statements presented at trial were of paramount importance,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
An expert witness who viewed the tape said that he couldn’t identify anyone from it, but that the person in the video had facial characteristics inconsistent with Penalver’s facial structure. Some people who knew Penalver said the video wasn’t him or they couldn’t tell. One said she couldn’t tell from the face, but the subject’s gait was like Penalver’s. Another told the police that it was Penalver, but then testified in court that she couldn’t say whether it was him or not.
With respect to this last witness, the prosecution argued that she changed her testimony after meeting with the defense, improperly suggesting — with no evidence to support it — that the defense had tampered with her, the court found. The court also found that the prosecution improperly admitted hearsay testimony that an alternate suspect was out of state, when there was no evidence that the suspect was out of state. The prosecution also presented evidence implying that Penalver had been suicidal and wrongly used that suggestion to imply consciousness of guilt, the court said.
“In light of the scant evidence connecting Penalver to this murder and the consequent importance of identifying the individual depicted on the videotape in sunglasses and hat, we conclude that the improperly admitted evidence and the State’s suggestion that the defense tampered with or suborned perjury by an identification witness meet the cumulative error requirements outlined above and require reversal,” the court said in its opinion.
The video magnified the uncertainty, making the strength of the remaining evidence all the more important, said Temple University law professor Jules Epstein, who specializes in forensics. Appellate courts assess error based on the magnitude of the mistakes and their cumulative impact.
“The weaker the rest of the evidence, the more significant the mistakes are. Conversely, the stronger the remaining evidence, the impact of mistake goes down,” Epstein said.
Stepping up for the wrongfully convicted
Penalver says he gets by on odd jobs and government assistance in the form of food stamps. He would like to attend school or learn a trade, but living hand to mouth makes it impossible to find time or money for education, he said.
Compensation from the state would help, but under the “clean hands” provision of Florida’s Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act, Penalver is ineligible because of his 2 prior nonviolent felonies, which are unrelated to the triple slayings he was accused of.
“Just because I had prior felonies in the past, that shouldn’t mean I can’t be compensated for what was done to me,” he said. “It’s hard getting back on your feet; anything would help.”
Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 1, 2015

Florida: Executions Back on Track after High Court Ruling

The US Supreme Court has ruled that the drug midazolam is acceptable for use in lethal injections. 4 Oklahoma convicts had challenged the drugs use, and Florida courts stopped executions here pending the outcome. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the ruling is now likely to open the door to dozens of executions in Florida.
The High Court ruling is 127 pages long, but its essence can be found in the 1st sentence. “Because Capital punishment is constitutional, there must be a constitutional means of carrying it out” wrote the majority.
The ruling is a set back for anti death penalty advocates in Florida. Sheila Meenan represents Citizens Against the Death Penalty and while disappointed, remains hopeful.
“I do’t think there’s going to be an end to the death penalty anytime soon, but I do believe and am extremely hopeful, and it won’t be too long from now when the US Supreme Court is going to say that the death penalty is against the constitution” says Meehan.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote one of two blistering dissents.
“She really talked about how this drug, midazolam, could even be the equivalent of the chemical of burning at the stake. She used very strong language along those lines and as I say, 3 others concurred with her in that dissent” says Meehan.
Quadruple murderer Jerry Correll’s execution was stopped in February. It could soon be back on. Jerry Correll’s execution would set a record of 22 for one governor in modern times. A list prepared by the Florida Supreme court identified more than 100 inmates who have exhausted their appeals. Meehan says the decision opens the door to multiple warrants.
“Now that this decision is out, there is really nothing to stop Governor Scott from signing lots of death warrants. We’ve got lots of people, more than 400 people on Florida’s death row” says Meehan.
The Florida Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for an interview
This afternoon’s death row count was actually 396. And late this afternoon, Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the Florida Supreme Court to lift the Stay of Execution for Jerry Correll. Once lifted, the door is open for Governor Rick Scott to sign his and other death warrants.

Florida executes Robert Hendrix

April 23, 2014

STARKE, Florida — Florida executed a man by lethal injection at 6:21 p.m. Wednesday at Florida State Prison in Starke. He was convicted of the 1990 murders of Elmer and Michelle Scott at their Lake County home.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied Hendrix’s last-minute request for a stay without comment. He ate a last meal of pork chops, sausage gravy and biscuits, German chocolate cake and a soft drink, state corrections officials said.
Prosecutors said Hendrix killed the couple because Elmer Scott intended to testify against him. But Hendrix’s attorney said there was no forensic evidence linking his client to the murders and that the witnesses against him were unreliable.
Hendrix becomes the fourth person executed in Florida this year and the 16th since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011.


last meal of pork chops, sausage gravy and biscuits, German chocolate cake and a soft drink

April 23,2014

Florida: The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to postpone the execution or Robert Hendrix, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection today at 6 p.m. for the murder of a young Lake County couple nearly 24 years ago.

 Florida executed a man by lethal injection at 6:21 p.m. Wednesday at Florida State Prison in Starke. He was convicted of the 1990 murders of Elmer and Michelle Scott at their Lake County home.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied Hendrix’s last-minute request for a stay without comment. He ate a last meal of pork chops, sausage gravy and biscuits, German chocolate cake and a soft drink, state corrections officials said.
Prosecutors said Hendrix killed the couple because Elmer Scott intended to testify against him. But Hendrix’s attorney said there was no forensic evidence linking his client to the murders and that the witnesses against him were unreliable.
Hendrix becomes the fourth person executed in Florida this year and the 16th since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011.

April 22, 2014

Robert HendrixRobert Hendrix (photo prison)

In August 1990, the night before his trial in the armed burglary case was to begin, Hendrix shot Scott in the face in his trailer home, hit him in the head with the gun and stabbed him in the neck, prosecutors have said. He then used a knife to cut the throat of Scott’s wife, Michelle, who fought back before Hendrix shot her three times, they added.

Scott had already made a plea deal with prosecutors in the armed burglary case in which he and Hendrix broke into a house but only Scott was caught. His cooperation led investigators to arrest Hendrix. In the weeks leading up to his trial, prosecutors say, Hendrix told friends he would kill Scott rather than return to prison

But Scott and his attorney, Harry Brody, said the case is plagued by problems.

“There isn’t any real forensic evidence placing him at the scene,” Brody said. “He maintains the state hasn’t proven anything.”

Prosecutors say that on the night of the murders, Hendrix’s live-in girlfriend, Denise Turbyville, drove him from Orange County, where they lived, to the Scotts’ trailer in neighboring Lake County and dropped him off. Michelle Scott welcomed Hendrix into the trailer, and told him Elmer Scott was in the bathroom shaving and would be out shortly. When Elmer Scott came out, Hendrix asked to use the bathroom. When he left the bathroom, Hendrix fired shots at Elmer Scott and then grabbed a knife and attacked Michelle Scott, according to prosecutors.

Brody said the two main witnesses against Hendrix, Turbyville and Roger LaForce, who claimed Hendrix told him details about the murders while they shared a cell in the Lake County Jail, are unreliable. According to Brody, both had a self-interest in testifying for prosecutors.

Turbyville pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 75 years in prison instead of facing the possibility of the death penalty for a first-degree murder charge. LaForce was a confidential informant for a narcotics task force and stood to gain a lighter sentence for his assistance, Hendrix’s attorneys say.

“These two main witnesses were terribly compromised,” Brody said.

Brody also said the presiding judge had a conflict of interest, Hendrix’s trial lawyer was ineffective at presenting mitigating circumstances during sentencing and that Hendrix was shackled during his trial, leading jurors to a biased impression that he was dangerous.

The conflict of interest claim arises from Hendrix’s assertion that an attorney of Hendrix’s girlfriend had consulted with the presiding judge about the case before the judge joined the bench. The girlfriend, Turbyville, was a star witness for the prosecution. Appellate courts have dismissed the allegation. Hendrix’s attorneys also claimed the judge had presided over a criminal case against LaForce.

During sentencing, Hendrix’s attorneys failed to call witnesses who could have testified that Hendrix was regularly beaten by his father and had a serious drug addiction, factors that could explain his unbalanced mental state, according to court papers filed by Hendrix.

Through the Attorney General’s Office, family members of the victims didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Prosecutors contend Hendrix’s claims of error during the trial are without merit.

“Hendrix fashions a cumulative error claim but fails to identify where any court has ever found error in any of his claims that would entitle him to relief,” Assistant Attorney General Mitchell Bishop said in a recent court filing.

If the execution is carried out, Hendrix would be the fourth person executed in Florida this year and the 16th since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011. A petition is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Hendrix has filed a request for a stay of execution with the Florida Supreme Court.





FLORIDA – Gonzalez death sentence upheld in Billings murders

April 11, 2014

The Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction and death sentence for the man authorities said masterminded the robbery and killings of Byrd and Melanie Billings nearly five years ago.

Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 40, was convicted in 2010 of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of home invasion robbery with a firearm.

Gonzalez led a group of men who forced their way into the Billings home in Beulah in July 2009 and gunned down the couple during an attempted robbery. The Billingses had 17 children, 13 of them adopted. Nine of the children were home at the time of the killing.

On Feb. 17, 2011, Circuit Judge Nicholas Geeker followed a jury recommendation and sentenced Gonzalez to death.

In imposing the death sentence, Geeker found as aggravating factors that Gonzalez had a conviction for a prior violent felony, that the murder was committed during the course of a robbery, and his crimes were heinous, atrocious and cruel.

In upholding the conviction, the state Supreme Court found that the convictions were supported by competent, substantial evidence, according to the State Attorney’s Office.

“We’re very pleased with the decision and the court’s opinion on the sentence and use of the death penalty,” said Assistant State Attorney John Molchan, who prosecuted Gonzalez along with State Attorney Bill Eddins.

Although Gonzalez’s direct appeal was denied, he still can attempt to have his conviction or sentence overturned.

Gonzalez has the option to seek post-conviction relief, a review of whether deficiencies in his attorney’s performance led to Gonzalez’s conviction. He also can file a petition for a U.S. District Court to review the case, which could overturn the conviction or overturn his sentence.

FLORIDA -Robert L. Henry executed 6.16 pm

march 20, 2014


A South Florida man convicted of killing two women by beating them with a hammer and setting them on fire during a robbery has been executed.

Robert L. Henry was pronounced dead at 6:16 p.m. after a lethal injection at the Florida State Prison.

He was convicted of the Nov. 2, 1987, murders of Phyllis Harris, 53, and Janet Thermidor, 35, his co-workers at Cloth World in Deerfield Beach.

Henry at first told authorities the crime was committed by an unknown assailant. But Thermidor lived for hours after being attacked and identified Henry to investigators.

Authorities said Henry stole $1,269 from the fabric store.

Robert Lavern Henry, who viciously beat and burned his co-workers in order to steal $1,269.26, was put to death by lethal injection Thursday at Florida State Prison.

Janet Cox Thermidor, 35, and Phyllis Harris, 53, lost their lives in the sadistic crime more than 26 years ago.

Minutes before he died, Henry apologized, then philosophized against the death penalty.

“Hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, this society shall truly evolve in its law and practice, in that if we are not a society who are comfortable with castrating and raping a rapist, and we do not chop off the hands of thieves,” he read from a statement, “well then, why would we continue to be murderers to those who have murdered?”

He went on as the family members of those he killed sat feet away, watching through a wide window.

Florida’s gruesome execution theater

march 19, 2014

In the decades he spent filing stories from Jacksonville after visits to Florida’s execution chamber, former AP reporter Ron Word saw a lot that still lingers in the back of his mind. There are the images from the old days of the electric chair: The executioner’s black hood, only visible through a slit in the wall; or the electrician’s thick rubber gloves, worn in the event of mechanical problems. And there are the dramatic episodes: the execution of Ted Bundy; electrocutions in which “there were flames coming off the inmates’ heads”; the botched, bloody death of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis in 1999, in a special electric chair built for his 344-pound body, then never used again.

There were the times the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) tried to alter the narrative. Once, Word remembers, in the early days of lethal injection, he got a call from prison officials telling him, “You’re gonna’ have to change the times in your story. They don’t agree with our times.” Word refused. Another time, after the agonizing 34-minute death of Angel Diaz — executioners pushed the IV needles into his flesh instead of his veins — Word says the DOC “pretty much lied to us that night.” Prison officials claimed Diaz had some sort of liver problem, “but as it turned out there was nothing wrong with his liver. It was because of the procedure they used.”

That happened around Christmas of 2006. Afterward, Florida temporarily halted executions and revised its protocol. And that’s when they brought in the moon suits.

“At all Florida lethal injections, a man in a purple moon suit leans over the dying inmate to listen for a heartbeat and feel for a pulse,” Word reported in the summer of 2007. “After a few seconds, he nods, and the witnesses are informed that the death sentence has been duly carried out. The man is a doctor, and the gear shields his identity — not just from the prisoner’s family and friends, but from the American Medical Association, whose code of ethics bars members from participating in executions.”

The moon suits still stick out in Word’s memories. “It kind of surprised me when they first showed up. It was kind of bizarre.” Regardless, he says, “after two or three executions they quit using them.” The moon suits appeared to attract rather than deflect attention. Other states had developed less theatrical ways of hiding the identities of doctors who helped them kill prisoners.

Word was laid off in 2009, after witnessing some 60 executions. Speaking over the phone from Jacksonville, he says that most of them blend together in his mind. Whether they used the electric chair or lethal injection, state officials aimed to make the procedure bear as little resemblance as possible to what was actually happening — the taking of a human life. “The result was the same,” he says, and both involved practiced rituals and procedures that “made it as sanitized as possible.” But Word adds, “I think it used to be more open than it is now. More transparent.” From what he could tell, “lethal injection was kind of a learning exercise.”

A learning curve for killing

“Learning exercise” is a pretty good way to describe Florida’s approach to lethal injection these days. On Thursday, the state plans to execute 55-year-old Robert Henry for a gruesome double murder committed in 1987. To kill him, prison officials will use a new protocol implemented last fall, which introduced the sedative midazolam into the state’s lethal drug mix. Commonly used for a variety of medical purposes, including patients undergoing surgery, midazolam had never before been used in executions until Florida adopted it. It’s also unclear how the state, which is now killing prisoners at a brisk pace, came up with the idea to use the drug in the first place.

Nevertheless, in a letter to Governor Rick Scott last September, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews provided lofty assurances that the new procedure “is compatible with evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society, the concepts of the dignity of man, and advances in science, research, pharmacology, and technology.”

“The foremost objective of the lethal injection process,” Crews wrote, “is a humane and dignified death.”

But the first Florida prisoner executed with the new method, William Happ, died last October “in what seemed like a labored process,” according to a reporter for the Sun Sentinel. “At times his eyes fluttered, he swallowed hard, his head twitched, his chest heaved.” An AP report said “it appeared Happ remained conscious longer and made more body movements after losing consciousness than other people executed . . . under the old formula.”

But a circuit court judge later concluded there was “no credible evidence” that Happ had suffered. So Florida stuck with the new process. Barring a last-minute stay of execution, tomorrow Robert Henry will be the fifth prisoner killed in this manner.

In the 2008 case Baze v. Rees, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the three-drug lethal injection protocol that had been used for years by most death penalty states. Ironically, a couple years after, many states began moving away from it. Shortages of the drugs used in that protocol have since forced states find new ways to kill prisoners. Those shortages are in part due to a campaign by the U.K.-based human rights group Reprieve. The group has enormous success convincing overseas companies to bar their drugs from export to the U.S. for use in executions. “Pharmaceutical companies make medicine to cure people,” Reprieve founder Clive Stafford Smith recently wrote, “so they object to their drugs being used to kill.”

What has followed is chaos, controversy and improvisation, all played out on the bodies of prisoners. States are now choosing new drugs based more on their availability than on medical science. State prison officials have been inventing protocols as they go along and conducting what amount to experimental executions.

The trend began in 2010, when diminishing supplies of sodium thiopental—the first drug in the three-drug “cocktail” upheld by the Court in Rees—prompted death penalty states to get creative in their search for execution drugs. In 2011, I wrote an article for The Nation describing the consequences in Georgia, where two inmates had recently died with their eyes open—a grim indication that the sodium thiopental had not worked as intended, and that the men had likely suffered agonizing deaths. There was also evidence that the drugs had been used past their expiration dates. Lawyers for death row inmates traced source of the drugs overseas to a sketchy pharmaceutical wholesaler named Dream Pharma, which advertised that it could discreetly sell “discontinued” and “hard to find” drugs.

Death penalty states have since given up on getting sodium thiopental — its U.S. manufacturer no longer makes the drug, and European makers are now banned from exporting it for executions — but the scattered, secretive searches have continued. Today, unregulated compounding pharmacies are increasingly the go-to source (despite few guarantees about the effectiveness of the drugs they sell) and pentobarbital — a barbituate like sodium thiopental — has become the go-to drug (despite no guarantees about how it functions in an execution). These changes have come quickly, quietly, and secretively. After Ohio became the first to use a single lethal dose of pentobarbital to kill a prisoner in March 2011, Texas swiftly announced that it would do the same. Lawyers for Cleve Foster, the next in line to die, protested the complete lack of transparency with which the drug had been adopted (which also happened to violate state law). As Foster’s attorney, Maurie Levin, told me the day before his scheduled execution in April 2011, pentobarbital “has not been vetted. It certainly hasn’t been vetted in Texas.” (After several stays from the Supreme Court, Foster was executed in September 2012.) Nevertheless, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), fourteen states now plan to use pentobarbital to kill prisoners—and five more plan to use it going forward.

No state has been more eager to experiment than Ohio, which boasts a number of lethal injection “firsts,” according to the DPIC. On January 16, the state killed Dennis McGuire using the unprecedented combination of midazolam and the pain medication hydromorphone. The execution was so dramatically botched that it made international headlines. Horrified witnesses watched as the 253-lb McGuire “repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling and arching his back” and appeared to “writhe in pain,” according to a subsequent lawsuit filed by his family. Making matters worse, state officials had been warned in advance that the use of the untested drugs put McGuire at risk of a horrific, suffocating death. They went ahead with the execution anyway.

As Florida’s execution of Robert Henry approaches, his attorneys warn that he, too, is likely to suffer. At an evidentiary hearing on March 10, Emory University anesthesiologist Dr. Joel Zivot — a vocal critic of this form of lethal injection—said that “science is being misused and misunderstood” in his case. Zivot testified that Henry’s combined health problems—including hypertension, high cholesterol, and coronary artery disease—provide a “high degree of certainty” he will suffer a heart attack on the gurney. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that argument. In response, Henry’s supporters denounced the ruling, pointing out that the court had relied on the testimony of “the Government’s go-to doctor for death,” Dr. Mark Dershwitz. Dershwitz has lent his medical expertise to reassure states of the soundness of their killing protocols in dozens of cases, including the experiments that led to Ohio’s disastrous execution of Dennis McGuire.


State secrets

Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a hearing in which Florida DOC officials explained what precautions they take to ensure that inmates experience “a humane and dignified death.” But instead of discussing why and how the state chose what drugs it uses, the hearing was a farcical discussion of minutia. As A.P. journalist Tamara Lush reported, DOC Assistant Secretary Timothy Cannon testified that DOC officials had come up with a new way of performing a “consciousness check” on a prisoner. In his capacity as the execution “team leader,” Cannon testified that whereas he previously used what he called a “shake and shout”—grabbing an inmate’s shoulders and yelling his name—he now relies on the more subtle “trapezoid pinch,” or squeezing the flesh between a prisoner’s neck and shoulder.

Cannon also explained that as part of their training, members of the execution team would take turns playing the role of the condemned. That practice, he said, generated some helpful feedback. “We’ve changed several aspects of just the comfort level for the inmate while lying on the gurney,” he testified. “Maybe we put sponges under the hand or padding under the hands to make it more comfortable, changed the pillow, the angle of things, just to try to make it a little more comfortable, more humane and more dignified as we move along.”

So while Florida DOC officials proved they have pondered the ways in which gurneys can be turned into a cozier death beds, they provided no answers regarding the efficacy, origin or humaneness of the methods they are using to kill people. In fact, a spokesperson told the National Journal last fall that the official DOC policy is to refuse “to go into any detail about how or why the protocol was designed. Those decisions are exempt from public record because they could impact the safety and security of inmates and officers who are involved in that process.”

But Florida isn’t alone in its secrecy. The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen has written at length about how “state officials all over the nation have sought to protect this information from public disclosure.” In Missouri, the only state that still carries out executions at midnight, state officials are embroiled in an ugly, ongoing battle to deny inmates any information about the drugs that will be used to kill them. In Georgia, where the federal Drug Enforcement Administration ultimately raided the Department of Correction in 2011 to seize the supply of sodium thiopental the state got from Dream Pharma, lawmakers have responded by pushing legislation that would make the origins and procurement of lethal injection drugs a “confidential state secret.” Other states whose supplies were also raided by the DEA have responded similarly. In Tennessee, which intends to execute ten prisoners beginning later this year, officials waited for such a secrecy law to pass the state legislature before announcing the parade of executions. The DPIC estimates that seven states have passed similar laws.

If today’s executions truly represented the heights of moral advancement suggested by Secretary Crews in his letter to Rick Scott last fall, it may seem odd that state governments would go to such lengths to keep the public from knowing anything about them. Of course, part of that is likely due to the success of groups like Reprieve. If states don’t reveal what drugs they’re using, Reprieve can’t pressure the drugs’ makers to refuse to sell the drugs for executions.

But today’s fight over transparency and lack of concern over botched executions are good reminders of the fundamental lie at the heart of lethal injection: It is a punishment that, by its very design, has always been rooted in secrecy rather than medical science. Never mind the rhetoric about “humane and dignified death.” However brutish the electric chair or gas chamber might appear by comparison, the only thing that truly sets lethal injection apart is that it was devised to mask what it was doing to its victims. As states have been forced to abandon that original design, lethal injection has been exposed for what it actually is: an experimental, unscientific form of premeditated killing.


“To hell with them. Let’s do this.”

Perhaps the best illustration of just how little consideration went into the design of lethal injection is the story behind the development of the protocol later used by most death penalty states and eventually approved by the Supreme Court in Rees. In a 2007 article for the Fordham Law Review, law professor Deborah Denno explained how Oklahoma first came up with the idea in 1977.

Like much criminal justice policy, it was based more on hunches and gut reactions than science and empirical data. “At each step in the political process,” Denno wrote, “concerns about cost, speed, aesthetics, and legislative marketability trumped any medical interest that the procedure would ensure a humane execution.” Although government-appointed commissions in both the U.S. and U.K. had by then studied and rejected lethal injection — with the latter finding “a lack of ‘reasonable certainty’ that lethal injections could be performed ‘quickly, painlessly and decently’”— Oklahoma legislators resurrected the idea after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty with Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. “Seemingly oblivious to prior concerns, American lawmakers emphasized that lethal injection appeared more humane and visually palatable relative to other methods,” Denno wrote.

That the method be “visually palatable” was of particular importance. In Oklahoma, two politicians led the push for lethal injection: State Rep. Bill Wiseman and state Sen. Bill Dawson. Wiseman was disturbed by the ugliness of electrocutions, later telling the Tulsa World they were “kind of a combination of Barnum & Bailey and reform.” Describing himself as a reluctant supporter of executions, he wrote a bill in 1977 to replace the electric chair with lethal injection, which he was convinced would be more humane. According to the World, he then ‘placed on every legislator’s desk an envelope containing two pictures of a man who had been electrocuted. ‘It looked like seared meat,’ he said. ‘Some people just didn’t like it.’”

As Denno explains, Wiseman was eventually told by his own physician, who was also the head of the Oklahoma Medical Association, that the organization wanted no involvement in his lethal injection project. Anxious to give the process even the thinnest medical veneer, Wiseman and Dawson settled on the help of the state’s chief medical examiner, Jay Chapman, who candidly admitted that he was more of “an expert in dead bodies” than “an expert in getting them that way.” Still, he was eager to help. When the lawmakers expressed concerns over what it could mean for his reputation within the medical community, Chapman was cavalier. “To hell with them,” he said. “Let’s do this.”

Despite his lacking credentials, Chapman devised the famed “three-drug cocktail” that would become the established protocol for the rest of the country for years. The first drug (generally sodium thiopental) anesthetized the prisoner. The second (pancuronium bromide) caused paralysis, including of the muscles used for respiration. And the third (potassium chloride) stopped the heart.

In combination, the drugs created the impression of a peaceful and humane process — the pancuronium bromide masked any ugly outward signs of what may have been happening in the prisoners’ bodies. But the states would later discover that if the anesthetic failed to work properly, the inmates would suffocate, and fall into cardiac arrest. They would experience an excruciating death, but the paralytic would prevent inmates from crying out or exhibiting obvious signs of distress. The risk of such suffering was particularly senseless given the lack of evidence that the paralyzing drug played anything other than a cosmetic role in the process. As a Tennessee judge wrote in 2003, pancuronium bromide serves “no legitimate purpose” aside from providing the “false impression of serenity to viewers, making punishment by death more palatable and acceptable to society.” Indeed, as Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times that year, the “American Veterinary Medical Association condemns pancuronium bromide” for euthanizing animals, “because, an association report in 2000 said, ‘the animal may perceive pain and distress after it is immobilized.’”

In its ruling in Baze v. Rees years later, the Supreme Court dismissed the AVMA’s position, along with the risks inherent in the use of pancuronium bromide, concluding that the drug played a legitimate role in providing a “quick, certain death.” But by then, even Chapman himself — who has expressed disgust at the way his lethal injection protocol has been bungled by “complete idiots” — had acknowledged that the paralyzing agent may have been a mistake. Asked by CNN in 2007 why he included it in the first place, he said, “It’s a good question. If I were doing it now, I would probably eliminate it.”

Given that many states are now doing just that as they move onto other lethal injection protocols, the use of pancuronium bromide has become a mostly moot point. Still, its removal from the process could have one important, if unintended effect: It could make killing look like killing. As Mike Brickner of the ACLU of Ohio told me after Dennis McGuire’s harrowing death, “Now that we’re using drug combinations where there’s no paralytic, maybe we’re seeing inmates die in ways that were always ‘botched’ — except that their body could not physically show it.”

Such bad optics were precisely what Chapman always wished to avoid. (He has called it “ludicrous,” for instance, to allow witnesses to watch as execution teams, “feeling nervous and fiddling around,” look for an inmate’s vein.) As the ongoing controversy over lethal injection continues, Chapman’s legacy as patriarch of the killing cocktail exposes our quest for “humane executions” for what it really is. It’s less about finding a dignified way for prisoners to die, and more about finding a way to kill them that preserves the humanity of the prison staff, the medical professionals, and a public largely indifferent to the Constitutional requirement that prisoners be spared from “torture or lingering death.”

Chapman himself once reflected that indifference in an exasperated email to Denno, “Perhaps hemlock is the answer for all the bleeding hearts who forget about the victims—and their suffering—Socrates style . . . the things that I have seen that have been done to victims [are] beyond belief . . . And we should worry that these horses’ patoots should have a bit of pain, awareness of anything — give me a break.”

One could perhaps understand Chapman’s perspective, given the time he spent up close with the corpses of murder victims. But the law does demand a humane death. The initial decision to turn to a man who doesn’t believe in that principle to devise a method of execution was exceptionally cynical. That Chapman’s lethal injection experiment was then replicated across the country for decades, despite it’s fundamental flaws, is a shameful history.

Worse, we seem to have learned very little from it. As the anesthesiologist Joel Zivot wrote last December, these states are “usurping the tools and arts of the medical trade and propagating a fiction.” The state of Florida plans to kill Robert Henry tomorrow by using a drug designed, tested, and sold for healing. We don’t know its effects when it’s used for killing. To borrow from Zivot, when it comes to the death penalty, “What appears as humane is theater alone.”



Florida’s Death Row For Women Is For Sale

march 7, 2014

You in the market for a new home? How about, instead of buying a house with a pool and a white-picket fence, you buy yourself and your family a prison that used to hold female serial killers? It’s plenty spacious! And it has a yard!


Apparently the old Broward Correctional Institution is going to be put up for sale at the end of March.


There’ll be a 60-day marketing period, of course, but then you’ll be free to own your very own 66-acre prison.

According to the Daily Business Review, Florida Department of Corrections is looking for a buyer for the prison that once held female prisoner’s sentenced to death by the state.


The FDC is even putting together advertisements and bod documents for the prison, which boasts
a 224,497-square-foot prison campus. A property appraisal is still in the works, and there’s yet to be a minimum bid range set, so if you wanna get in on this, do it now while the iron is hot!


The prison, which is located on 20421 Sheridan Street near State Road 27, was opened in 1977, but forced to close in 2012 after budget cuts.


Earlier this month, the state hired real estate brokerage house CBRE Inc. to market the prison and find a buyer.


According to Florida Department of Environmental Protection press secretary Patrick Gillespie, the property must be made available first to other state entities. After that, the county will have the chance to buy it at the appraised price.


If no one wants it then, it’s up for grabs to whoever feels like owning a prison.


And, Gillespie said, there’s virtually anything you can do with this place once it’s yours.


“If the state puts it for sale to a private bidder, there’s typically no restriction on uses,” he said. “It would just depend on the bidder.”


“Our role is really just to sell it” and “get the best value for the state,” Gillespie added.


Let’s all pool together some money and turn it into an amusement park!


SHANK-LAND would be a great name for it, we think.


With Death Penalty, How Should States Define Mental Disability?

march 3, 2014 (npr.org)

Twelve years after banning the execution of the “mentally retarded,” the U.S. Supreme Court is examining the question of who qualifies as having mental retardation, for purposes of capital cases, and who does not.

In 2002, the high court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing “mentally retarded” people is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. But the justices left it to the states to define mental retardation.

Now the court is focusing on what limits, if any, there are to those definitions.

The case before the court involves the brutal murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 years old and seven months pregnant when she was kidnapped, raped, and killed by Freddie Lee Hall and an accomplice.

Hall was sentenced to death, but after the Atkins decision, his lawyers challenged the sentence. They cited multiple diagnoses of Hall as having a mental retardation and quoted the state supreme court as having previously declared that Hall had been “mentally retarded his entire life.” The state court, nonetheless, subsequently upheld Hall’s death sentence on grounds that his IQ tests averaged higher than 70.

Hall appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the question Monday is whether states can establish a hard statistical cutoff in these cases.

Florida’s statute, as interpreted by the state supreme court, sets the definition of developmental disability at an IQ score of 70 or below. With anything higher, the defendant cannot put on other evidence to show he is intellectually disabled. Moreover, the state does not allow use of the standard error of measurement that is deemed inherent in IQ tests.

Hall’s various test scores added up to an average of more than 70, but no more than 75, meaning that he would qualify as having a disability if the state had used the standard five-point error of measurement. Without that statistical norm, however, Hall’s lawyers were barred from putting on any other evidence of disability — for example, school records that consistently identified Hall as being mentally retarded.

“Florida’s position is inconsistent with the views of all the mental disability organizations and professional organizations that are involved in the definition of mental retardation,” says Jim Ellis, a longtime advocate for people with mental disabilities. He has also filed a brief in the case.

Allowing states to redefine “mental retardation” in defiance of professional standards, he argues, is nothing more than a way to undo the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling.

But the state of Florida counters that the Supreme Court did not require any particular clinical definition. Rather, the court relied on what it deemed to be a national consensus that executing mentally disabled people is cruel and unusual punishment. And Florida argues that national consensus is not necessarily the same as a clinical definition.

“The line separating ‘retarded’ from ‘not retarded’ is itself arbitrary,” says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “It is itself a matter of convention and not science.” Scheidegger has filed a brief in support of Florida’s position.

Florida is one of only five states that have set an inflexible line for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. The others are Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia and Idaho, and the results there have been stark. Only two claims of mental retardation have been successful in those states since 2002, according to a Cornell University study. That’s about 2 percent, compared to a 28 percent success rate in the other 45 states.

FLORIDA – Opening statements begin in death penalty case resentencing – Richard Michael Cooper

february 26, 2014 (tampabay)

LARGO — A jury has been selected and opening statements are scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the resentencing of Richard Michael Cooper, who has been on death row for 30 years after being convicted in a triple murder.

A federal appeals court threw out Cooper’s death sentence in 2011 after finding that a jury should have heard evidence of abuse Cooper suffered as a child during the sentencing phase of his trial.

It took a day and a half to seat a jury to hear the evidence on what sentence Cooper should receive for his role in the 1982 deaths of Steven Fridella, Bobby Martindale and Gary Petersen — remembered since as the “High Point murders.”

Cooper’s guilt is not in dispute. On the morning of June 18, 1982, Cooper and three others — Jason Dirk Walton, Terry Van Royal and Jeffrey Hartwell McCoy — drove to Fridella’s Largo residence looking for cocaine or money.

They parked a distance away and, wearing ski masks, crept toward the home at 6351 143rd Ave. Among them they carried a .357 Magnum revolver, a .22 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun, according to court records.

They had originally planned to rob the men inside while they slept. But someone recognized one of the intruders, and the plan changed.

Fridella, Martindale and Petersen were bound with duct tape and forced to lie on the floor. Cooper, then 18, confessed to shooting Fridella twice with the shotgun. Cooper’s attorneys called no witnesses in his defense, arguing that he was under the spell of Walton, whom Cooper had described as “a Charles Manson-type figure.”

Cooper’s conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal. In 2011, the federal 11th Circuit again affirmed the conviction but tossed out the death sentence because of evidence the first jury never heard. That included frequent beatings at the hands of his hard-drinking father, Phillip “Socky” Cooper, who earned his nickname as a Golden Gloves boxing champion.

The elder Cooper beat his children with “boards, switches, belts and horse whips,” leaving welts all over their bodies, sometimes for offenses as small as not knowing their multiplication tables.

The abuse was so constant, a school principal, fearing he was making things worse, “stopped calling their father when Cooper would get in trouble because Cooper would show up at school beaten and with bruises all over him,” the court said.

Cooper’s stepbrother and sister also said no one had contacted them to testify at the first trial.