Executions

Arizona Repeated Execution Protocol 15 Times Before Inmate Died

On August 1, the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) released 330 pages of documents related to the execution of Joseph Wood on July 23. Although not a report on why the execution took nearly 2 hours to complete, the documents reveal that Wood was injected with 15 consecutive doses (50 mg each) of midazolam and hydromorphone, far more than indicated in the state's protocol. Dale Baich, an attorney for Wood, said, “The Arizona execution protocol explicitly states that a prisoner will be executed using 50 milligrams of hydromorphone and 50 milligrams of midazolam. The execution logs released today by the Arizona Department of Corrections show that the experimental drug protocol did not work as promised.” Prison officials had estimated that the drugs would take about 10 minutes to kill Wood. Charles Ryan, director of the DOC, responded to calls for an independent investigation of the execution, saying, “I am committed to a thorough, transparent and comprehensive review process. This will be an authoritative review to ensure that fact-based conclusions are reached regarding every aspect of this procedure, including the length of time it took for the execution to be lawfully completed.”

STUDIES: 'Volunteers' for Execution

A new study by Prof. Meredith Martin Rountree of Northwestern University Law School examined the characteristics of Texas death row inmates who waived all or part of their normal appeals, thus hastening their execution. Referring to these inmates as "volunteers," she compared them with similarly-situated inmates who did not waive their appeals. She found that more volunteers experienced depression or had attempted suicide than non-volunteers. She also examined the role of "self-blame" in prisoners' decisions to move towards execution. Inmates who waived appeals were more likely "to have been previously convicted of a crime, to have been convicted of a crime against another person, to have been incarcerated, to have committed their capital offenses alone, and to have committed the capital offense with a gun." Prof. Rountree criticized the legal changes begun in the mid-1990s that have allowed inmates to waive appeals earlier in the process "when prisoners may be most vulnerable to desires to die." She noted "the State’s interest in fair and constitutional death sentences, something only ensured through adversarial testing of the conviction and sentence," and called for further research in this area.

Death Penalty on Hold in Most of the Country

Thirty-six states have either abolished the death penalty, have executions on hold, or have not carried out an execution in at least 5 years. Recently, three states, Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma, temporarily halted executions as reviews are conducted of botched executions. In six states, Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, and North Carolina, a de facto moratorium on executions is in place because of lethal-injection challenges; most of those states have not had an execution since 2008. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have formal moratoriums on executions imposed by their governors. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. In 6 additional states, while no formal hold is in place, no execution has been conducted in at least five years. The U.S. military and federal government also authorize the death penalty, but neither has had an execution in over ten years. Click image at left to see enlarged chart with further details.

Arizona Botches Execution of Joseph Wood

The execution of Joseph Wood III in Arizona on July 23 took nearly two hours, with witnesses reporting that Wood gasped and snorted over 600 times during the procedure. Wood was executed using midazolam and hyrdromorphone, the same drug protocol used in January's botched execution of Dennis McGuire. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had stayed Wood's execution and ordered the state to release information about the source of the lethal injection drugs and the training of those who would carry out the execution, but the stay was lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court on July 22, allowing the state to maintain secrecy. Attorneys for Wood tried to file an emergency request to halt the execution because Wood was still awake an hour into the procedure. Dale Baich, one of Wood's attorneys, said, “I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this. Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.” Arizona Governor Jan Brewer ordered a review of the execution, saying she was “concerned by the length of time” that it took. The director of the Department of Corrections said they will conduct a full review and are waiting on results of a toxicology study and autopsy. 

Federal Judge in California Rules State's Death Penalty Unconstitutional

In a sweeping ruling on July 16, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney held that California's death penalty is so dysfunctional as to amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Vacating the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who has been on death row for almost 20 years, Judge Carney said the punishment cannot serve the purposes of deterrence or retribution when it is administered to a tiny select few, decades after their sentencing: "Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional." Read the Court's Opinion.

China Rethinking the Death Penalty

According to a recent op-ed about China in the New York Times, the world leader in executions is having second thoughts about the death penalty. Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the annual number of executions in China dropped by half from 2007 to 2011, as more offenders were given "suspended death sentences," which are generally reduced to life sentences. According to a 2008 poll in three provinces, public support for the death penalty is about the same in China (58%) as in the United States (60%), but China carries out an estimated 3,000 executions per year, many more than the U.S. (The U.S. ranks 5th in the world in the number of executions.) There is concern in China about the uneven application of the death penalty: 69% of respondents in the poll said they believed that poor offenders were more likely to be executed than rich ones, and 60% said they thought innocent people could be wrongfully convicted. China's Supreme People's Court recently overturned the death sentence of a woman who killed her husband after suffering years of domestic abuse, perhaps signaling a broader trend toward less use of capital punishment.

A Turn-Around in Texas's Use of Death Penalty

A recent op-ed by Jordan Steiker, endowed professor of law and Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas, highlighted the declining use of the death penalty in that state. AlthoughTexas leads the nation in executions, death sentences and executions per year have dropped sharply since the 1990s. Prof. Steiker wrote, "In 1999, Texas juries returned an astounding 48 death sentences. Since 2008, however, Texas has annually sent fewer than 10 defendants to death row.  Executions in Texas have declined as well, from a high of 40 in 2000 to fewer than 20 since 2010." While describing the "perfect storm" of conditions that led to Texas's high use of capital punishment in the past, the op-ed also noted changes that have led to less death-penalty use, such as the creation of a statewide defender's office to represent death-sentenced inmates in state post-conviction and the broader disclosure of evidence to the accused. Prosecutors have increasingly accepted plea agreements to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, saving taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on expensive capital trials and appeals.

Number of States Carrying Out Executions Declining

State Executions Graph
Click to enlarge

Despite the 3 executions carried out on June 17 and 18, executions and death sentences in the U.S. have steadily declined since the 1990s. Moreover, the number of states carrying out executions has also dropped to a small minority (see chart). Since executions peaked in 1999, the number of states carrying out at least one execution in a year has fallen by over 50%. In 1999, 20 states carried out executions. In 2012 and 2013, just 9 states did so. As of June 20, 2014, only 6 of the 32 states that have the death penalty have had an execution. More than half of the states in the country (30) have not carried out an execution in the past 5 years. Twenty-one (21) states have either abolished the death penalty or declared an official moratorium on executions, with six states ending the death penalty in the last six years. The growing geographical isolation of the death penalty is also evident on a county level. A majority of executions since 1976 and a majority of all those on death row each came from just 2% of U.S. counties; 85% of counties have not had a single case result in an execution since 1976.

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