U.S. on Track for Fewest Executions, New Death Sentences in a Generation

Both executions and new death sentences in the United States are on pace for significant declines to their lowest levels in a generation, Reuters reports. With 25 executions conducted so far this year, and only two more scheduled, the United States could have its lowest number of executions since 1991, significantly below the peak of 98 executions in 1999. Only 8 states have carried out executions in the last two years, down from a high of 20, also in 1999. New death sentences, which peaked at 315 in 1996, declined to 73 last year, and that number is expected to drop even further this year. The slowdowns in executions and new death sentences are just two of several indicators that the U.S. is moving away from capital punishment. Reuters reports that these changes come from a combination of factors, including the high cost of death penalty cases, the recent problems surrounding lethal injection, and improved capital representation in high-use states. Texas and Virginia, two of the death penalty states that historically have been the most aggressive in carrying out executions, stand out as examples of the punishment's declining use. Both states have implemented major reforms in indigent defense in recent years, producing dramatic changes in the death penalty landscape. In Texas, which had 48 death sentences in 1999, juries have handed down only three death sentences so far this year. Virginia, which has executed the highest percentage of death row inmates of any state, is on track to have no death sentences for the fourth consecutive year.

Oklahoma Used Wrong Drug, Violated State Protocol, in January Execution of Charles Warner

A report by The Oklahoman has revealed that Oklahoma violated its execution protocol and used the wrong final drug during the execution of Charles Warner on January 15, 2015. Warner, whose final words were "My body is on fire," was executed using potassium acetate, the same drug that was delivered for Richard Glossip's aborted execution on September 30. The drug called for in the protocol is potassium chloride. Glossip's execution was stayed as a result of the mix-up, and Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested an indefinite hold on executions so his office could investigate. "I want to assure the public that our investigation will be full, fair and complete and includes not only actions on Sept. 30, but any and all actions prior, relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride,” Pruitt said. Dale Baich, who represented Oklahoma death row inmates in Glossip v. Gross, said, "We cannot trust Oklahoma to get it right or to tell the truth. The State’s disclosure that it used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride during the execution of Charles Warner yet again raises serious questions about the ability of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to carry out executions."

Virginia Executes Inmate with Appeal Still Pending Before Supreme Court

On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.

One Year After Botched Execution, Many States Still Haven't Resumed Executions

On July 23, 2014, Arizona's execution of Joseph Wood was botched, taking nearly two hours from the time the state began injecting him with lethal drugs until he was finally pronounced dead. Witnesses reported that Wood gasped more than 640 times during the course of the execution, and an official report later revealed that he was injected with 15 doses of the execution drugs. Michael Kiefer, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, who witnessed Wood's execution, described it, saying, "He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed." Arizona used a combination of midazolam, the drug recently reviewed by the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross, and hyrdromorphone, a narcotic. Wood's lawyer, Dale Baich, describing the execution, said "The experiement failed." The same drug protocol had been used in Ohio's botched execution of Dennis McGuire earlier in 2014 and witnesses to an October 2014 execution by Florida using midazolam reported that the death took longer than usual. In the year since Wood's execution, Arizona has not carried out any executions as a stay issued by a federal judge remains in place. In that time, Oklahoma and Florida have used midazolam in a total of three executions, with Charles Warner in Oklahoma saying "My body is on fire." Both states temporarily put executions on hold while the Supreme Court review was underway, but indicate they intend to resume executions now that the use of midazolam has been upheld. An Oklahoma federal court has scheduled a trial for 2016 on Oklahoma's use of midazolam. All other executions since Wood's have used a one-drug protocol of pentobarbital, likely obtained from compounding pharmacies, since the primary manufacturer of the drug opposes its use in executions. Ohio delayed all executions until at least 2016 to review executions procedures, and executions in Tennessee are on hold because of legal challenges to its lethal injection protocols. Georgia is conducting an investigation into problems with execution drugs and has not set new execution dates as a result.

Missouri Execution Clouded by Concerns About Mental Illness and Lethal Injection

On June 9, Richard Strong was executed in Missouri, despite the fact that four Justices of the Supreme Court would have granted him a stay and despite evidence that he suffered from severe mental illness. A broad challenge to Missouri's secretive lethal injection process (Zink v. Lombardi) has yet to be resolved, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan voted to stay Strong's execution because of that challenge. However, five votes are needed to stay an execution. In addition, Strong's original trial counsel failed to adequately explore his mental illness and the mental problems in his family. After a fuller investigation, Strong was diagnosed with major Axis I illnesses, including: Major Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Strong's counsel asked the Supreme Court to spare his life because society's standards of decency have turned away from executing people with such severe mental problems. Strong was convicted of murdering his wife and two-year-old daughter in a brutal manner. He acknowledged the crime but could not understand why he did it. Another child was left untouched. Now 14 years old, she pleaded for mercy for her father. Gov. Jay Nixon denied clemency.

Florida's Troubled History With the Death Penalty

A recent retrospective in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly on the state's death penalty traced some of the problems that have arisen since Florida resumed executions in 1979. During the execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990, six-inch flames shot from the prisoner’s head, and three separate jolts of electricity were required to kill him. Prison officials attributed it to “inadvertent human error.” In the execution of Pedro Medina in 1997, flames and smoke again spewed out from under the head gear. Ron McAndrew, the warden at the time, recently remarked, “For the next 11 minutes, instead of electrocuting this man, we burned him to death. We literally burned him to death.” Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw called such executions “barbaric spectacles” and said they were “acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state.” Florida also has more exonerations (24) from death row than any other state. It is the only state that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence by a simple majority; most states require unanimity. The state's recent passage of the Timely Justice Act, designed to speed up executions, has raised concerns that it will reduce death row inmates' opportunities to prove their innocence.

Lawsuit Following Botched Oklahoma Execution Names Participating Doctor

On October 14 a lawsuit was filed by the family of Clayton Lockett (l.) against the state of Oklahoma for damages related to his botched execution in April. The suit alleges “unsound procedures and inadequately trained personnel” and claims that Dr. Johnny Zellmer was the physician present at Lockett's execution. The family asserts that Zellmer, “was willing to, and did in fact, conduct the medical experiment engaged in by Defendants to kill Clayton Lockett regardless of the fact that these chemicals had never been approved or tested by any certifying body.” Oklahoma law makes the names of its execution team, including participating doctors, secret. In Lockett's execution, most of the execution team was out of view of witnesses, but the doctor who pronounced death was visible. Oklahoma has delayed all executions for the remainder of 2014 in order to allow time to obtain lethal injection drugs and prepare personnel. The state revised its execution protocol and remodeled its execution chamber after Lockett's execution, but retained the controversial drug midazolam and secrecy surrounding the sources of drugs and personnel.

Botched Execution Results in $100,000 Renovation and Fewer Media Witnesses

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections recently gave the media a tour (see video here) of its newly renovated execution chamber. The state spent over $100,000 updating the rooms in response to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Among the changes are a new gurney (an "electric bed"), a new intercom, and an atomic clock. Previously, communications included colored sticks pushed through a wall, with a red stick indicating something had gone wrong. Correctional officials were secretive about the participation of medical personnel, citing ongoing litigation. The state has said it will reduce the number of media witnesses from twelve to five. The ACLU and two media outlets have asked a judge to stop the state from reducing the number of media witnesses. "They took a process already corrupted by secrecy that had already led to at least one botched execution, and managed somehow to make it even more difficult for the people of Oklahoma and their representatives in the media to know anything about that process," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. (Image: The Guardian, link to video in text above).