Executions

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
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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.

Autopsy Photos from Botched Florida Execution Released

The New Republic has just released autopsy photos taken after the Florida execution of Angel Diaz in 2006. The execution was so badly botched that it prompted then-Governor Jeb Bush to temporarily suspend executions so the state's lethal injection procedure could be reviewed. The needles that should have been inserted into Diaz's veins were instead pushed through into the surrounding tissue, causing extensive chemical burns. Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine, viewed the photos and said, “I’ve never seen anything like this from IV infiltration...That is the kind of injury we see when a kid has fallen in a campfire or set his arm on fire. My guess is someone who got this when alive would need skin grafts to heal.” When the first dose of the three drugs did not kill Diaz, the cycle was administered a second time. Since sodium thiopental, the first drug used in Diaz's execution, does not produce anesthesia when injected into tissue, Diaz was likely conscious as the other drugs slowly caused paralysis and prevented him from breathing. Witnesses to the execution said Diaz continued to move long after he should have been unconscious. The autopsy revealed large chemical burns on Diaz's arms and the medical examiner noted "extensive skin slippage," which occurs when the top layer of skin separates, revealing the white and pink subcutaneous layers beneath. The autopsy photos were recently found in the case files of another Florida inmate, who used them to challenge the state's execution procedure.

NEW RESOURCES: BJS Releases "Capital Punishment, 2012"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently issued a new report, "Capital Punishment, 2012," analyzing the use of the death penalty in that year and revealing overall trends since the death penalty was reinstated. The report noted that 2012 was "the twelfth consecutive year in which the number of inmates under sentence of death decreased." Among the statistics not reported elsewhere, BJS noted that the time between sentencing and execution in 2012 was 15.8 years. The average time for all executions since 1976 was 11.3 years. The average age of those on death row at the end of 2012 was 46. About 90% of those on death row went no further than high school in their education. About one-third of those on death row had no prior felony convictions.

Execution of Inmate with Unique Medical Condition Stayed by Supreme Court

UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution, pending the outcome of a review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. The Court further noted: "We leave for further consideration in the lower courts whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary."

Earlier: On May 20, just hours before a scheduled execution in Missouri, the U.S. Supreme Court, acting through Justice Samuel Alito, granted a temporary stay to Russell Bucklew. Bucklew has a congenital medical condition that impedes his breathing and presents a grave risk of a very painful death by lethal injection. He was to be executed at midnight on May 21, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued a stay on the evening of May 20, saying his "unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions." That stay was lifted by the full 8th Circuit, but reinstated by the Supreme Court without comment.

BOOKS: "Gruesome Spectacles" Reveals the History of Botched Executions

A new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, describes the history of flawed executions in the U.S. from 1890 to 2010. During that period, 8,776 people were executed and 276 of those executions went wrong in some way. Of all the methods used, lethal injection had the highest rate of botched executions--about 7%. Austin Sarat, the author of the book and a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, described the evolution of new methods of execution: "With each development in the technology of execution, the same promises have been made, that each new technology was safe, reliable, effective and humane. Those claims have not generally been fulfilled." In an interview, Sarat was asked how the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett might affect the public discussion on the death penalty. He replied, "This execution has happened at a time of national reconsideration of capital punishment. The death penalty is really declining. I’m tempted to say it’s dying in the United States. Public support is down, the number of death sentences over the last decade or so has been cut by two thirds, the number of executions is down by about 50 percent. More and more, Americans are focusing on the practical realities and worrying that while the death penalty might in some abstract way satisfy some people, when you look at how it’s actually administered, maybe it’s not worth the cost."

Oklahoma Botches Execution of Clayton Lockett

On April 29, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack approximately 40 minutes after the state began administering a new lethal injection protocol. Lockett received an injection of midazolam, the first drug in a three-drug protocol, at 6:23 pm. At 6:33, Lockett was declared unconscious, but about three minutes later, witnesses said he began to nod, mumble, and writhe on the gurney. Some witnesses described his movements as a seizure. At 7:06, Lockett died of a massive heart attack. Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections said, "The director did say that it appears that a vein blew up or exploded, it collapsed, and the drugs were not getting into the system like they were supposed to." Gov. Mary Fallin stayed the execution of Charles Warner, which was scheduled to begin just two hours after Lockett's. She said, “I have asked the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of Oklahoma’s execution procedures to determine what happened and why during this evening’s execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett.” Deborah Denno, a lethal injection expert and law professor at Fordham Law School, said, “This is one of the worst botches that we’ve had. All of this was predictable and foreseeable. How many times does this have to take place? ... We have all the evidence we need to show this is a highly problematic and potentially unconstitutional procedure."

Executions Stayed As Secrecy Issue Is Considered by Oklahoma Supreme Court

UPDATE: On April 23, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the inmates facing execution do not have a right to be informed of the source of the drugs that will be used in their executions. The Court lifted the stays of execution, which means they could occur on April 29. -Earlier: On April 21, the Oklahoma Supreme Court indefinitely stayed the executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner so it could resolve the constitutionality of a state law making the sources of its lethal injection drugs a secret. The Supreme Court had originally directed the state Court of Criminal Appeals to stay the executions, but that court declined because it said the secrecy challenge was not part of a criminal appeal. Acting under its authority as the ultimate arbiter of jurisdictional issues, the Supreme Court reluctantly assumed control over the entire case and granted the stays, lest the inmates be left "with no access to the courts" as their executions loomed. On April 22, Gov. Mary Fallin rescheduled Lockett's execution for April 29, questioning the authority of the Supreme Court to grant the stays, although it is unlikely the underlying issue will be resolved by that time. Madeline Cohen, an assistant federal public defender involved in the case, said, "We hope this case will lead to full transparency in Oklahoma's lethal injection practices and that no more executions will take place until basic questions about those practices are answered."

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