Recent Legislative Activity

Veil of Execution Secrecy Expands in Several Southern Death-Penalty States

Three southern states have taken action to limit the public’s access to information relating to executions by increasing secrecy surrounding lethal-injection drug suppliers. On April 12, 2019, the Texas Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision that would have disclosed the source of lethal-injection drugs used to carry out executions in Texas in 2014, asserting that disclosure “would create a substantial threat of physical harm to the source’s employees and others.” On April 9, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law one of the most expansive and punitive execution secrecy laws in the nation, concealing the identity of lethal-injection drug suppliers from the public and criminalizing disclosure of execution-related information. Act 810 exempts lethal-injection records from the state’s Freedom of Information Act and makes the intentional or reckless disclosure of the exempted information a felony. In Louisiana, amidst partisan feuding over the reasons the state has not carried out executions, a bill that would make secret the source of execution drugs was referred to the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice on April 8, the first day of the 2019 Louisiana state legislative session. Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who voted against a similar bill five years ago while serving as a state legislator, indicated that he would likely sign the measure. Louisiana’s legislature is also considering two bills that would abolish capital punishment.

The Texas Supreme Court decision marked the culmination of several years of litigation over the state’s lethal-injection secrecy policy. A Texas district court and a state court of appeals both ordered disclosure of the drug supplier’s identity, and the Supreme Court initially upheld those lower court rulings. The state asked for a rehearing, arguing that disclosure would have “potentially devastating consequences” to public safety. The rehearing took place after BuzzFeed News revealed through investigative reporting that the state had obtained lethal-injection drugs from Greenpark Compounding Pharmacy, a Houston based compounding pharmacy with a history of safety violations. When the compounder’s identity was revealed, activists peacefully protested outside the pharmacy. Attorney Ari Cuenin, arguing for the state, said that protests, along with alleged threats, had convinced pharmacies not to provide drugs to the state. The state called the pharmacy a “soft target” in an “urban area, whose only defense is its anonymity.”

A number of states have asserted that anti-death-penalty activists have intimidated pharmacies and major pharmaceutical companies into refusing to supply drugs for executions and have argued in legislative debates and in litigation that these alleged threats justify execution secrecy. In its secrecy bill, the Arkansas legislature alleged without evidence that “there is a well-documented guerilla war being waged against the death penalty” and that “[a]nti-death penalty advocates have pressured pharmaceutical companies to refuse to supply the drugs used by states to carry out death sentences.” In fact, calling the use of their medicines in execution contrary to their medical mission, several drug companies have sued Arkansas or filed friend-of-the-court briefs alleging that the state engaged in misrepresentations and subterfuge to improperly obtain their drugs. Independent media and law enforcement investigations have concluded that the alleged threats against drug manufacturers and suppliers have been unfounded or grossly exaggerated. A 2016 BuzzFeed News investigation revealed that FBI records debunked an alleged threat that Texas and Ohio claimed established the need for secrecy. That supposed threat was an email from a university professor who provided his name and phone number and warned an Oklahoma pharmacy to take safety precautions. The email was one of three pieces of evidence, along with a blog post and comments left on the website of a previous supplier, that the Texas court relied on in its decision. “There is no evidence of a history of specific threats to that particular pharmacist or pharmacy because the source's identity has been kept confidential,” the court wrote. “Thus, the question before us in this case is whether the mere fact that the public knows that the Department is receiving lethal injection drugs from some source, whoever it might be, is enough to conclude that a substantial threat of physical harm will come to bear on the source of the drugs if the identifying information is made public.”

New Hampshire Senate Passes Death-Penalty Repeal With Veto-Proof Majority

In a vote death-penalty opponents praised as “historic,” a veto-proof supermajority of the New Hampshire legislature gave final approval to a bill that would repeal the state’s death penalty statute. By a vote of 17-6, the senators voted on April 11, 2019 to end capital prosecutions in the Granite State, exceeding the two-thirds majority necessary to override an anticipated veto by Governor Chris Sununu. In March, the state House of Representatives passed the same abolition bill, HB 455, by a veto-proof 279-88 supermajority. For the second consecutive year, the bill received bipartisan support, including sponsorship by seven Democratic and six Republican sponsors across both legislative houses. Twelve Democratic and five Republican senators voted in favor of repeal. An identical bill to repeal the death penalty passed the legislature in 2018, but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu, and an attempt to override the veto fell two votes short in the Senate.

The Governor’s office issued a statement after the vote saying that Sununu “continues to stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty.” Repeal advocates quickly responded to that claim, noting that numerous retired prosecutors, members of law enforcement, and relatives of murder victims had testified in favor of repeal. Rep. Renny Cushing (D – Rockingham), whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in two separate incidents, was one of the leading proponents of the bill. Cushing has described the death penalty as a “ritualized killing” that does nothing to compensate for a victim’s family’s loss. “The governor has positioned himself as saying he’s vetoing the repeal of the death penalty because he cares about law enforcement and victims, but he’s refused to meet with murder victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty,” Cushing said. Sen. Ruth Ward (R – Stoddard), whose father was killed when she was 7 years old, spoke briefly before casting her vote: “He never saw us grow up. My mother forgave whoever it was, and I will vote in favor of this bill,” she said.

During the Senate debate, senators mentioned costs, racial inequities, and wrongful convictions among their reasons for supporting repeal. Senator John Reagan (R – Deerfield), a Republican who voted in favor of repeal, told The New York Times that he doesn’t trust the government with capital punishment. "The more and more experience I had with government, I concluded that the general incompetency of government didn’t make them the right people to decide life and death,” he said. The New Hampshire legislative vote reflects emerging bipartisanship in state legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty. “The vote to end New Hampshire’s death penalty included many conservative Republican lawmakers,” said Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “They join a growing number of GOP state legislators around the country who feel strongly that capital punishment does not comport with their conservative beliefs, such as limited government, fiscal responsibility, and valuing life.” Republican-backed bills to abolish the death penalty or limit its use have been introduced in a number of states this year, including Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Wyoming.

The New Hampshire repeal bill applies only to future crimes, and does not address the fate of Michael Addison, the only person on New Hampshire’s death row. No one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939. If the bill becomes law, New Hampshire will be the 21st state to abolish capital punishment and the ninth in the past 15 years.

NEW VOICES: Prosecutors in Colorado and Nevada Call for Death-Penalty Repeal

Two prosecutors with different philosophical perspectives on capital punishment have called on their respective states to abolish capital punishment. Boulder County, Colorado, District Attorney Michael Dougherty (pictured, left), who opposes capital punishment in principle, and former Washoe County, Nevada, homicide prosecutor Thomas E. Viloria (pictured, right), who has successfully obtained four death verdicts, have added their voices to support efforts to repeal the death penalty in their states. Though approaching the issue with different ideologies, both prosecutors agreed that the death penalty should be eliminated because of its high cost, its ineffectiveness as a crime deterrent, and its potentially detrimental effects on victims’ families.

In comments to legislators on March 4, Dougherty said, “I’m strongly opposed to the death penalty, and it should be abolished in Colorado. … I don't believe any state or country should put its citizens to death.” The high costs in time and resources can’t be justified, he also stated, particularly in a jurisdiction such as Boulder in which juries don’t believe it should be imposed. “I talk to victims' families about it,” Dougherty said, “and one of the things we always focus on in these conversations, is it is up to the jury to decide on a sentence, and a Boulder jury would have to reach a unanimous verdict finding the death penalty sentence is morally just. As Boulder district attorney, I will not simply ignore the law that allows for use of the death penalty, but I must weigh a prosecutor’s ethical obligation to only pursue charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t believe a Boulder jury would reach a unanimous verdict finding a death sentence is justified.” Dougherty also expressed qualms about using the threat of death to obtain plea deals. “I have significant ethical concerns if people were ever to use the death penalty to motivate a guilty plea to a lesser sentence,” he said. “I would never want any prosecutor to say that a defendant has to accept life without parole in order to avoid the death penalty.”

Viloria has also come to oppose capital punishment, but he took a very different route in reaching that conclusion. In an op-ed for the Reno Gazette Journal, Viloria wrote about his experiences prosecuting five death-penalty cases and obtaining death sentences in four. “In each of the cases I prosecuted, the victim’s family members believed the death penalty would help close their emotional wounds,” Viloria said.  “Yet because none of those inmates have been executed many years later, family members haven’t received that promised closure.” He said “[d]eath penalty cases rightfully demand greater scrutiny, so murder victim family members often suffer more trauma than murder victim families in non-death penalty cases. They must endure more media coverage, court appearances, and appeals, plus, often times, a reversal of the death sentence.” Viloria also pointed to systemic problems in the administration of capital punishment, writing that the death penalty “is often unevenly and unfairly applied, partly because it is sought at the sole discretion of a particular prosecutor or prosecutorial administration. It is extremely costly to taxpayers and, because the state has no drug supply to administer an execution, it is uncertain if Nevada can even carry out the death penalty.” Viloria urged the Nevada legislators to conduct a hearing on the abolition bill “so lawmakers can decide the very serious issue of whether to maintain our broken death penalty system.”

Legislatures in Nevada and Colorado are both considering bills that would abolish the death penalty. Colorado’s bill, SB 19-182, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 3-2 vote on March 6, 2019. Nevada’s bill, AB 149, has not yet received a hearing.

Veto-Proof Majority of New Hampshire House Votes to Repeal State’s Death Penalty

By an overwhelming 279-88 margin, a veto-proof majority of the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted on March 7, 2019 to repeal the state’s death penalty. Demonstrating strong bipartisan support that garnered the backing of 56 more legislators than an identical repeal bill received in April 2018, the vote ended speculation as to how the reconstituted chamber would respond to repeal. 93 of the 400 representatives in the state house who participated in the vote in 2018 did not seek reelection, and more than one-third of the representatives had never before voted on a death-penalty issue. The bill now advances to the State Senate, where 16 of the 30 senators elected in November 2018 have said they support repeal, also a veto-proof majority. A death penalty repeal bill has been considered by the Granite State’s lawmakers every session over the last two decades and was passed by the state’s House and Senate in April 2018. However, Governor Sununu vetoed that bill in June, and the Senate fell two votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to override the veto.

More than 100 witnesses testified at public hearings conducted by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in February, with more than 90 advocating for repeal. Representative Renny Cushing, the committee’s chairman and the prime sponsor of the bill, said, “We had a very powerful, public hearing ... with all the reasons to oppose the death penalty presented in a really clear fashion.” Cushing, whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in two different incidents, has been a death-penalty abolitionist for more than two decades. The death penalty “does nothing to bring back our loved ones,” he said. “All it does is widen the circle of violence.” Republican Representative David Welch, who supported the death penalty in the last 16 legislative sessions, said his wife’s recent death made him rethink capital punishment. “The grief I’ve experienced since then has been horrible and it has not diminished,” he said. “An inmate on death row has loved ones that care for him in spite of what he has done. The victim’s family goes through grief similar to what I went through. When that inmate is put to death, there’s another family going through that grief. Both families are innocent, and they both went through the same thing.” Freshman Democratic Representative Safiya Wazir, whose family fled Afghanistan when she was a child, argued that the United States should not be among the “terrible list of states that use the death penalty” – like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Discussing the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto, she said, “Let’s put the emphasis on living. New Hampshire is better than this.”

The prospective repeal bill would not affect the only prisoner currently on New Hampshire’s death row, Michael Addison. The state has not executed anyone since 1939.

Death-Penalty Repeal Efforts Across U.S. Spurred by Growing Conservative Support

Bills to repeal and replace the death penalty with non-capital punishments have gained new traction across the United States in 2019 as a result of opposition to the death penalty among ideologically conservative legislators. That movement – buoyed by fiscal and pro-life conservatives, conservative law-reform advocates, and the deepening involvement of the Catholic Church in death-penalty abolition – has led to unprecedented successes in numerous houses of state legislatures and moved repeal efforts closer to fruition in a number of deeply Republican states. In 2019, conservative legislators are leading the call for death-penalty abolition in conservative-leaning states such as Wyoming, Montana, and Kentucky, and playing a critical role in bipartisan efforts to repeal or reform capital punishment in Virginia and New Hampshire.

The surprise strength of a death-penalty repeal bill in Wyoming is emblematic of the growing Republican abolition movement. There, in an overwhelmingly Republican legislature, a bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole garnered significant support from both parties and passed the state house and a senate committee before falling short in the full senate. In Kentucky and Montana, Republican legislators have introduced abolition legislation and are attempting to build coalition support, and in Virginia, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a bill to ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. Conservatives have said they oppose capital punishment because of pro-life beliefs, a desire to reduce government spending, and the lack of deterrent effect. In New Hampshire, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the legislature with bipartisan support, but was vetoed in 2018. The legislature has renewed bipartisan repeal efforts in 2019.

The Wyoming House of Representatives voted (36-21) on February 1 to pass HB 145, a bill to abolish the death penalty. The bill garnered the support of a majority of House Republicans, all the house Democrats who voted, and the chamber’s lone Independent. It then unanimously passed the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on February 13, before being defeated in the full Senate by a vote of 12-18. In the Senate, nine Republicans and all three Democrats voted in favor of abolition. The bill was introduced by Republican Rep. Jared Olsen of Cheyenne with Republican and Democratic co-sponsors in both houses. Senate co-sponsor Brian Boner (R – Converse) said, “We have an obligation to have a justice system that is blind and based on facts, and not based on what we wished it was or what it used to be.” Olsen said he was concerned about the number of exonerations from death row. “It is way too much authority to vest in our government, and we get it wrong,” he said. Concerns about costs convinced Sen. Bill Landen (R – Casper) to vote for abolition. "I finally decided that I can't go home and feel good about explaining to people all of those myriad of cuts we've made to the state budget and then defend expenditures like this, which have gone on for years and years and years," he said. Wyoming spends an estimated $750,000 per year on legal costs associated with the death penalty, but has not executed anyone since 1992 nor imposed a death sentence since 2004.

Kentucky House Majority Whip Chad McCoy (R – Nelson) said he hopes to get support for his abolition bill from Catholic legislators who have a moral opposition to the death penalty, as well as fiscal conservatives who see it as a costly, ineffective government program. “When you talk about death penalty, a lot of people immediately want to have a criminal justice angle on it or a morality angle. And mine is purely economics,” he said. Kentucky also rarely uses the death penalty. Its last execution was in 2008 and its last death sentence was in 2014. State Representative Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, the sponsor of Montana’s bill to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, told a House committee on February 18 that the state’s death penalty was simply ineffective. The two people sentenced to death in the state have been on death row for thirty years, he said, and “there is no logical measurement that 30 years equals a death sentence. … Regardless of how you feel because of capital punishment, nobody is dying from it.”

Colorado Governor Likely to Commute Death Sentences if State Abolishes Death Penalty

Colorado Governor Jared Polis (pictured) has said he will “strongly consider” commuting the death sentences of the three men on the state’s death row if the state abolishes the death penalty. In a February 7, 2019 interview on Colorado Public Radio, Polis told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner, “if the legislature sends us a bill to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado, I would sign that bill … [and] I would certainly take that as a strong indication that those who are currently on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison.” Polis, who voiced his opposition to the death penalty during his 2018 campaign for governor, reiterated his views during the Colorado Matters interview. “I think it’s not cost effective, I think it’s not an effective deterrent,” he said. “If the State Republicans and Democrats were to say, and I were to sign a bill that said we no longer have the death penalty in Colorado, whether it's formally in the bill or not,” the Governor said, “then I would strongly consider making sure that penalty that is no longer on the books in Colorado is not carried out for anybody who's in that process.”

Colorado’s previous governor, John Hickenlooper, imposed a moratorium on executions in 2013. Hickenlooper said he initially had supported the death penalty, but changed his views when he learned more about the issue: “My whole life I was in favor of the death penalty. But then you get all this information: it costs 10 times, maybe 15 times more money to execute someone than to put someone in prison for life without parole. There’s no deterrence to having capital punishment. And I don’t know about you, but when I get new facts, I’ll change my opinion. I didn’t know all of this stuff.” Former prosecutor and state representative Doug Friednash, who sponsored a bill to expand Colorado’s death penalty to include multiple murders committed during a single criminal episode, has undergone a similar evolution. In a February 1 op-ed in the The Denver Post, Friednash called on the legislature to repeal its capital punishment law. “Twenty-five years ago, as a freshman House Democrat, I sponsored legislation to expand the death penalty,” Friednash wrote. “I was wrong.” The law he supported was used to prosecute James Holmes, who killed 12 people in a shooting at an Aurora movie theater in 2012, and Dexter Lewis, who stabbed five people to death in a Denver bar. Juries sentenced both to life. Holmes’ case, he says, illustrates some of the problems with the death penalty – the law failed to deter Holmes and his capital trial, which resulted in a life sentence, cost taxpayers approximately $5 million. Holmes was tried in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, where defendants are "four times more likely to face a death prosecution than elsewhere in the state.” All three of the state’s death-row prisoners are Black men who were tried in that district. Friednash concludes, “It’s time to close this chapter in Colorado’s history books. The Colorado legislature should abolish the death penalty this session. And then Gov. Jared Polis should commute the death sentences of our three death-row inmates to life without the possibility of parole.”

In a February 9 editorial, the Boulder Daily Camera also urged the legislature to abolish the death penalty. Citing the lack of deterrent effect and the high cost of capital punishment, the paper wrote: “If the worth of a public policy is its ability to achieve policy objectives, then capital punishment is a failure.” The editorial also noted “great economic, geographic, and racial disparities” in Colorado’s imposition of the death penalty. “The location of the county line in relation to a crime,” it said, “should not determine whether a defendant lives or dies, and neither should the skin color of the accused.” And in conclusion, it pointed to former Governor Bill Ritter’s 2011 posthumous pardon of Joe Arridy, who was wrongfully executed by Colorado in 1939 despite what Ritter called “an overwhelming body of evidence” that Arridy was innocent. “The state-sanctioned killing of an innocent person is more morally repugnant than the execution of a guilty one could be morally just,” the editorial board wrote. “For this reason alone — given that innocent people almost certainly die under a regime of capital punishment — Colorado should abolish the death penalty.”

Bill to Abolish Wyoming’s Death Penalty Introduced with Bipartisan Support

A bipartisan coalition of Wyoming legislators has introduced a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. On January 15, 2019, Cheyenne Republican State Representative Jared Olsen (pictured, left) and Republican State Senator Brian Boner (pictured, right), introduced HB145, which would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a judicially imposed sentence of life without parole or life imprisonment. The bill, co-sponsored by sixteen other representatives and senators, has the backing of several legislative leaders, including Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. “You’ve got social conservatives and libertarians and that’s a little more of a mix than we’ve had before,” Olsen said. “And then if you look at the heavy hitters on the bill, we’ve got three-quarters of the House leadership on the bill.”

A coalition of outside organizations that includes he League of Women Voters of Wyoming, the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, and the ACLU of Wyoming also are supporting the repeal effort. The groups released a statement on January 16 calling the death penalty “a costly and unfair practice that does not enhance public safety or promote justice in Wyoming.” The breadth of the support distinguishes this year’s effort to abolish capital punishment from prior efforts over the past five years, according to Rep. Olsen. “The momentum and desire behind all those groups is just flourishing right now,” he said. “They’re coming to me every day, working different legislators and reporting back to me on what they’re doing. I think there’s a lot of outreach in the community as well. There’s a lot of momentum.”

Proponents of the bill say that Wyoming’s death penalty is impractical and costs too much. The state has only carried out one execution since 1976, and does not currently have any prisoners facing an active death sentence. (The death sentence imposed on Dale Wayne Eaton, who had been the state’s only death-row prisoner, was overturned in 2014, and federal appeals relating to that grant of relief are still pending.) Despite the rarity of the death penalty in Wyoming, the fiscal note that accompanies the abolition bill estimates it would cost the state $750,000 to maintain capital punishment in 2020. “We continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to maintain the death penalty,” Sen. Boner said. “I believe the availability of a life without parole sentence adequately balances the need to protect public safety while recognizing the need to reduce the strain on taxpayer resources.”

The Casper Star-Tribune editorialized in 2013 that life without parole was a better option than the death penalty for many family members of murder victims. The current abolition efforts have also gained the editorial support of the Powell Tribune, which wrote on January 22 that “[i]t seems that, for all practical purposes, the death penalty has already been abolished in Wyoming.” Noting that “like anything else that involves people, [the Wyoming legal system] will sometimes get it wrong,” the paper said that when someone is wrongfully executed, “that mistake is irreversible. And it’s a risk that’s not worth taking.”

Virginia Senate Passes Bill to Bar the Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Offenders

By a vote of 23-17, the Virginia State Senate has approved a bill that, if enacted, would ban capital punishment for defendants with severe mental illness. With the support of all nineteen Democratic senators and four Republicans, the bill passed the GOP-controlled Senate on January 17, 2019. It now moves on to the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates, which is comprised of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats.  

SB 1137 defines severe mental illness as “active psychotic symptoms that substantially impair a person’s capacity to (i) appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct; (ii) exercise rational judgment in relation to the person’s conduct; or (iii) conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.”However, the bill excludes disorders that are “manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct or attributable to the acute effects of voluntary use of alcohol or any drug.”Under the proposal, the determination of severe mental illness would be made in the sentencing phase of trial, after the defendant already has been convicted. The jury (or the judge, if the defendant waives the right to a jury trial) would decide if the defendant has proven “by a preponderance of the evidence” that he or she was severely mentally ill at the time of the offense. A defendant found to be severely mentally ill would be sentenced to life without parole. The bill also provides for indigent defendants with mental illness claims to receive assistance from a mental health expert appointed by the court. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Barbara Favola (D – Arlington), called the proposal “a vehicle for us to administer justice in a way that’s humane and, I would say, in a way that reflects the values of Virginians.” Sen. Scott Surovell (D – Fairfax), said the mental illness exemption would have limited impact in Virginia because of the decline in death sentences across the state, but was a necessary mental-health reform. “The reality is we have a broken mental health system in this country,” he said. “We have a broken mental health system in this state. We don’t give it enough money.” Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D – Fairfax), who called himself “a pretty strong proponent of capital punishment,” supported the bill, saying that, when it comes to defendants who are severely mentally ill, “probably we ought to think twice.”

Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out since 1976, but it has had a sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in recent years. No one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, and just two men remain on the state’s death row. In July 2017, lawyers for William Morva, a seriously mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from a delusional disorder that his lawyers said left him unable to distinguish his delusions from reality, unsuccessfully sought a commutation from Governor Terry McAuliffe. Previously, Governors James Gilmore and Timothy Kaine commuted the death sentences of Calvin Swann and Percy Walton, citing concerns about serious mental illness. Other states are also considering legislation that would ban the death penalty for seriously mentally ill defendants. In 2017, bills were introduced in seven states, including Virginia, calling for such measures. The American Bar Association in 2016 issued a white paper in support of a mental-illness exemption.

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