Executions

As Supreme Court Denies Stay of Execution, Justice Breyer Urges Consideration of Death Row Conditions

On March 7, the United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution for Texas death-row prisoner Rolando Ruiz, declining to consider his claim that the more than 20 years he had been incarcerated on death row, mostly in solitary confinement, violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Ruiz's lawyers had urged the Court to consider this issue, writing, "At this point, a quarter-century has elapsed since Mr. Ruiz committed a contract murder in 1992, two days after he turned twenty years old. Mr. Ruiz has lived for over two decades under a death sentence, spent almost twenty years in solitary confinement, received two eleventh-hour stays of execution, and has received four different execution dates.” Justice Stephen Breyer (pictured) agreed, saying, "Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution 'violates the Eighth Amendment' because it 'follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,' principally his 'permanent solitary confinement.' I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it." Breyer dissented from the Court's denial of a stay, citing the Court's "serious objections" to extended solitary confinement, which date back as far as 1890, when the Court, "speaking of a period of only four weeks of imprisonment prior to execution, said that a prisoner’s uncertainty before execution is 'one of the most horrible feelings to which he can be subjected.'" He also quoted fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 2015 urged the court to consider the constitutionality of extended solitary confinement. Justice Breyer and former Justice John Paul Stevens have repeatedly questioned the constitutionality of prolonged incarceration under death-row conditions, but the Court has never reviewed the issue. Long stays on death row are increasingly common: the Fair Punishment Project estimates about 40% of death row inmates have spent more than 20 years on death row. These delays, Breyer noted in Ruiz's case, are "attributable to the State or the lower courts." Ruiz was the fifth prisoner executed in the U.S. in 2017 and the third in Texas. Prior to his execution, he expressed his remorse to the victim's family, saying, “Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am and the hurt I have caused you and your family. May this bring you peace and forgiveness.”

Arkansas Schedules Unprecedented Eight Executions in Ten-Day Period

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed orders on February 27 for an unprecedented eight executions to be carried out over a period of ten days in April. The scheduled dates for the four sets of double executions are: April 17, Bruce Ward and Don Davis; April 20, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee; April 24, Jack Jones and Marcel Williams; and April 27, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked that the dates be set after the U.S. Supreme Court on February 21 declined to review a state court decision upholding Arkansas' lethal injection protocol. Because of drug shortages and challenges to its lethal injection procedures, the state has not carried out an execution since 2005. If all eight executions are performed, it will be the first time since 1997 that a state has executed eight people in one month, when Texas conducted eight executions in both May and June of that year. No other state has conducted as many as eight executions in a single month since executions resumed in the U.S. in 1977, and no state has carried out eight executions in ten days. Scheduling two or more executions on the same day is also unusual; states have executed two or three inmates on the same day just ten times in the last forty years, and no state has carried out more than one double execution in the same week. The hurried schedule appears to be an attempt to use the state's current supply of eight doses of midazolam, which will expire at the end of April. Arkansas does not currently have a supply of potassium chloride, the killing drug specified in its execution protocol, but believes it can obtain supplies of that drug prior to the scheduled execution dates. Attorneys for the eight death-row prisoners filed an amended challenge to Arkansas' lethal injection procedures in state court on February 25 and wrote a letter to the governor urging him to reconsider the lethal injection protocol. "We believe it would be a mistake for you to uncritically accept the Supreme Court's opinion as a license to use the current protocol," the attorneys said. "Not only would our clients suffer, but so would our state's image and moral standing in the eyes of the country and the world." No state has successfully executed two prisoners on the same day using midazolam. Oklahoma attempted to do so on April 29, 2014, but called off the second execution after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett earlier that night. The eight prisoners scheduled for execution make up 23% of Arkansas' current death row.

INTERNATIONAL: Human Rights Group, Reprieve Issues Report on Global Executions in 2016

Despite a sharp drop in executions, the United States ranked sixth among the world's executioners in 2016 behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to a report by the British-based international human rights group, Reprieve. Maya Foa, a director of Reprieve, said "[i]t is alarming that countries with close links to the UK and [European Union] continue to occupy the ranks of the world's most prolific executioners in 2016." Questions of innocence, execution of juvenile offenders, and use of the death penalty for non-lethal drug offenses were among the top worldwide problems in the administration of the death penalty cited by Reprieve in the report. "[W]e have found children on death row, innocent people hanged, drugs offences dealt with as capital crimes, and torture used to extract false confessions," Foa said. "Countries that oppose executions must do more in 2017 to ensure that their overseas security assistance does not contribute to others states use of the death penalty.” Reprieve's analysis of global executions in 2016 found that China continues to carry out the most executions of any country, though the exact number is a state secret. Nearly half of the more than 500 prisoners executed in Iran were killed for committing drug offenses. In Saudi Arabia, those executed included juvenile offenders and political protestors. The ongoing armed conflict in Iraq made information on the country's executions difficult to obtain. Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions in 2014, ostensibly in response to terrorism. But Reprieve found that 94% of those executed had nothing to do with terrorism. The Pakistan Supreme Court found in 2016 that two men who had been hanged were innocent. The Reprieve report also raised concerns about Egypt's high rate of death sentencing -- more than 1,800 people have been sentenced to death in that country in the last three years.

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Death Penalty Use Continue

Death sentences, executions, and public support for the death penalty continued their historic declines in 2016, according to DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2016: Year End Report," released on December 21. The 30 death sentences imposed this year are the fewest in the modern era of capital punishment in the U.S.—since the Supreme Court declared all existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972—and declined 39% from 2015's already 40-year low. Just 20 people were executed in 2016, the fewest executions since 1991. Both death sentences and executions were increasingly geographically isolated. Two states—Georgia and Texas—accounted for 80% of executions, and more than half of all death sentences were imposed in just three states—California, Ohio, and Texas. Election results reflected America's deep divisions about the death penalty, as voters in three states decided to retain the death penalty or add it to the state constitution, while voters in five of the highest-use death penalty counties replaced prosecutors who strongly supported the death penalty with candidates who promised reform and reductions in capital prosecutions. Courts struck down practices in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oklahoma that had contributed to disproportionately high numbers of death sentences. “America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment. While there may be fits and starts and occasional steps backward, the long-term trend remains clear,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “Whether it’s concerns about innocence, costs, and discrimination, availability of life without parole as a safe alternative, or the questionable way in which states are attempting to carry out executions, the public grows increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty each year.” See DPIC's Press Release. Watch a short video summary of the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Texas Executions Drop to Lowest Level in 20 Years

Texas is poised to have the fewest number of executions in 20 years. As of October, the state has executed seven prisoners in 2016, with just one more execution scheduled this calendar year. The total would mark the fewest executions in the state in any year since 1996. In that year, three people were executed, as legal challenges to a new state law billed as speeding up appeals put most executions on hold. Fifteen execution dates for 11 people have been stayed or halted in Texas this year. Several of those, most notably the case of Jeffrey Wood, hinged on questions about "junk science" testimony. Wood's execution was stayed to permit review of claims that his death sentence was a product of false psychiatric testimony from James Grigson, who earned the nickname "Dr. Death" for his testimony in numerous capital cases claiming that defendants were certain to commit future acts of violence. Another Texas prisoner, Robert Roberson, was granted a stay to allow him to challenge now-debunked testimony that his daughter died of shaken baby syndrome, when several alternative, non-homicide explanations for her death better fit the evidence. At the same time as Texas courts have halted executions over questionable scientific testimony, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two Texas cases this term (Buck v. Davis and Moore v. Texas) that also involve scientifically-unsound mental health testimony that was used to obtain or defend death sentences. "Texas courts are now aware of the dangers associated with forensic sciences and are closely scrutinizing this evidence,” said Greg Gardner, an attorney for John Battaglia, who had an execution date set for December 7. Along with the drop in executions, Texas has also seen a dramatic decline in death sentences. Death sentences have declined steadily since 2005, as life without parole became available as a sentencing alternative in death penalty trials, but the past two years have seen even lower numbers. Just two people were sentenced to death in 2015, and Texas juries have handed down three death sentences so far this year. Experts say that changing public attitudes, falling murder rates, and better lawyering have also contributed to the decline. (Click to enlarge.)

STUDIES: Ohio Executions Reveal Vast Racial, Gender, and Geographic Inequities

"Ohio’s death penalty is plagued by vast inequities" grounded in race, gender, and geography, according to a new University of North Carolina study. UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner examined the 53 executions Ohio has conducted since resuming capital punishment in the 1970s. His study found "quite significant" racial, gender, and geographic disparities in Ohio's executions that, Baumgartner said, "undermine public confidence in the state’s ability to carry out the death penalty in a fair and impartial manner." The data showed that Ohio was 6 times more likely to execute a prisoner convicted of killing a white female victim than if the victim was a black male. Although 43% of Ohio murder victims are white, 65% of Ohio executions involved the murder of white victims. Similarly, while only 27% of Ohio murder victims are female, 52% of all executions involved cases with female victims. The study also discovered significant geographic disparities in Ohio executions. More that half of the state's executions were concentrated in just 4 counties, while more than 3/4 of Ohio counties have not produced any executions. Lake County had an execution rate that was 11 times the statewide average. Although the state's three most populous counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton) have similar murder rates, Hamilton's .60 executions per 100 homicides was more than double the rate in Cuyahoga and nearly 9 times that in Franklin. Sharon L. Davies, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, said that the "race or gender of a victim, and the county of the crime, should not influence who is sentenced to die" and urged "Ohio citizens and lawmakers[to] review the findings of this important research." (Click image to enlarge.)

Missouri Likely to See Change After Historic High in Executions

A decline in executions is likely in Missouri after two years of unusually high numbers. In 2014, Missouri tied with Texas for the most executions in the U.S., and it was second to Texas in 2015. However, changing attitudes about the death penalty--similar to national shifts--are evident in Missouri's sentencing trends: no one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, and less than one person per year has been sentenced to death in the past seven years. Moreover, a bill with bi-partisan support has been introduced to repeal the death penalty. It passed the Senate General Laws committee in late January. An editorial in the Columbia Daily Tribune highlighted the political diversity in the legislative support for the measure. Among those who voted the bill out of committee were two Democrats and two Republicans. Sen. Paul Wieland cited his pro-life views as a reason for support, while Sen. Rob Schaaf said, as long as it is "not fairly applied...I'm going to be opposed to the death penalty."

Innocents Lost: Remembering The Wrongfully Condemned Who Died in 2015

Three death-row exonerees, including two who became symbols of the risks of wrongful capital convictions, died in 2015. David Keaton (pictured, far left), the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty, died on July 3 at the age of 63. A teenaged Keaton was sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based upon a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. Keaton was exonerated in 1973 when new evidence revealed the actual perpetrator. Glenn Ford (pictured, left), who was exonerated in 2014 after spending nearly 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at age 65. Ford was tried before an all-white jury, represented by appointed counsel who had never handled a criminal case. He was convicted despite the absence of any evidence linking him to the murder weapon, when prosecutors failed to disclose that confidential informants had identified two other men as the murderers. They ultimately admitted that "credible evidence" showed that "Ford was neither present at, nor a participant in," the murder. Death-row exoneree Andrew Golden, who spent 26 months on Florida's death row from 1991 to 1994, died in May. Golden had been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife although police investigators and the medical examiner had testified that the evidence did not suggest foul play. At least four other death-row prisoners who may have been wrongfully condemned - Lester BowerBrian Keith TerrellDonnis Musgrove, and Ronald Puksar - were executed or died on death row before judicial review of their cases were complete.

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