Lethal Injection

Georgia Execution Postponed Due to Problem with Execution Drugs

The execution of Kelly Gissendaner was postponed just hours before it was scheduled to take place on March 2, after correctional officials in Georgia became concerned that the lethal injection chemicals appeared cloudy. "The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed," the Department of Corrections said in a statement. Georgia is one of several states that have turned to compounding pharmacies for lethal injection drugs after large pharmaceutical companies blocked the use of their products in executions. A state secrecy law shields the identity of the drug preparer. Gissendaner's lawyers had filed appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the lack of transparency could allow the use of drugs that were unreliable. Georgia has not yet announced a new execution date. Gissendaner's execution was previously moved from February 25 to March 2 due to a winter storm.

Recent Developments in Death Penalty Legislation

Several state legislatures have recently taken action on bills related to capital punishment. In Arkansas, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote. Bill sponsor Sen. David Burnett, a former prosecutor and judge who both sought and imposed the death penalty, said, "It's no longer a deterrent. It's a punishment that's actually broken. It doesn't work. And it costs a huge amount of money to try and prosecute those cases." Arkansas last carried out an execution in 2005. A similar bill in Montana was approved by a House committee with bipartisan support, but failed on a tied vote (50-50) in the full House. Before the vote, repeal supporter Rep. Mitch Tropila said, “This is an historic moment in the Montana House of Representatives. It has never voted to abolish the death penalty on second reading. This is a momentous moment, and we are on the cusp of history." Montana's last execution took place in 2006. Virginia legislators rejected a bill to shield information related to lethal injection as state secrets. The House of Delegates voted 56-42 against the bill, which would have exempted “all information relating to the execution process,” including the source of execution drugs and the buildings and equipment used for executions, from open records laws. Del. Scott A. Surovell commented, "Anytime somebody in the government wants to restrict information about what the government is going to do, I think we need to ask some really difficult questions and get some straight answers before we grant them that right.”

Eric Holder Advocates for a Hold on Executions

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that all executions be put on hold while the Supreme Court is considering Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. Speaking for himself, rather than the administration, at a press luncheon on February 17, Holder said, "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate." Holder has previously criticized state secrecy in lethal injections, but voiced broader concerns about executing the innocent in his remarks: “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there's always the possibility that mistakes will be made...There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” Holder said that the Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which President Obama ordered after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, is still underway, and is unlikely to be finished before Holder steps down as Attorney General.

LAW REVIEW: Lethal Injection Secrecy and Due Process

A recent article by Prof. Eric Berger of the University of Nebraska College of Law argued that defendants facing execution have a fundamental right to know important information about the lethal injection drugs they will be given. Berger wrote, "Judicial recognition of this due process right would both protect Eighth Amendment values and also encourage states to make their execution procedures more transparent and less dangerous." After discussing the history of recent developments in lethal injection, the right to discover evidence under the Federal Rules of Procedure, and the need to be fully informed in order to demonstrate the cruelty of a method of execution, the article concluded: "By permitting states to execute inmates without disclosing key details about their lethal injection procedures, courts are not only denying inmates their Eighth Amendment due process rights but are also implicitly blessing states' secretive and often unprofessional administration of their most solemn task."

American Bar Association Calls for Unanimous Juries and Greater Transparency in Execution Process

On February 9, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association unanimously passed two resolutions calling for unanimous juries in capital sentencing and greater transparency in lethal injection procedures. Resolution 108A stated: "Before a court can impose a sentence of death, a jury must unanimously recommend or vote to impose that sentence," and, "The jury in such cases must also unanimously agree on the existence of any fact that is a prerequisite for eligibility for the death penalty and on the specific aggravating factors that have each been proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Currently, some states, including Florida, Alabama, and Delaware, allow a jury to recommend a death sentence without unanimity. Resolution 108B called for all death penalty jurisdictions "to promulgate execution protocols in an open and transparent manner and require public review and comment prior to final adoption of any execution protocol, and require disclosure to the public by all relevant agencies of all relevant information regarding execution procedures." As lethal injection drug restrictions have caused states to seek out new sources of drugs, many states have adopted secrecy policies surrounding their lethal injection process. 

January's Executions Underscore Core Death Penalty Problems

Even as executions have declined in the U.S., those being carried out often illustrate serious problems that have plagued the death penalty for many years. Of the six executions January, two (in Florida and Oklahoma) involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Warren Hill, an inmate who was found intellectually disabled by state doctors, but who failed to meet the state's highly unusual standard of proving his disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Texas executed Robert Ladd, an inmate with an IQ of 67. Texas courts have devised their own largely unscientific criteria for determining intellectual disabilty. That leaves Arnold Prieto, also executed in Texas. He was offered a plea bargain and probably would have been spared if he had testified against his co-defendants. Of those involved in the brutal crime, only Prieto received the death penalty.

Supreme Court Agrees to Review Oklahoma's Lethal Injections

On January 23 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed  to hear a challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection procedures, particularly its use of midazolam that was used in three botched executions in 2014. Four Oklahoma inmates asked the Court to review the state's procedures, but one of them, Charles Warner, was executed before the Court agreed to take the case. It is likely the other three defendants will be granted stays. When Warner was executed, Justice Sotomayor along with three other Justices, dissented from the denial of a stay, saying, "I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol...." The case will be argued in April and likely decided by the end of June. The questions presented by the petitioners appear below. Florida uses the same drugs as Oklahoma.

NEW VOICES: Anesthesiologist Points to Risks in Upcoming Executions

As Oklahoma prepared to carry out its first execution on January 15 since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Heath of Columbia University Medical School expressed serious concerns about the drugs it will use, particularly one that paralyzes the inmate: "Oklahoma and other states ... should abandon the barbaric use of paralyzing drugs entirely." He explained that when the prisoner is given paralytic drugs, he "will die of suffocation whether they are unconscious or they are wide awake." Dr. Heath also criticized the use of midazolam, which Oklahoma plans to use again, despite the problems in multiple states with that drug in 2014. He said it is particularly ill-suited as the first lethal injection drug because it is a weaker anesthetic than barbiturates, such as pentobarbital. In an op-ed, he concluded, "Oklahoma and other states should not be executing prisoners with midazolam; they should not proceed in the absence of qualified medical practitioners; they should only use FDA-approved drugs, and they should abandon the barbaric, outmoded and unnecessary use of chemical paralysis – ....The public and the courts could then return their attention to the more important questions and debate surrounding the death penalty enterprise."

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