Recent Legislative Activity

Oregon's New Governor Plans to Continue Death Penalty Moratorium

In her first press conference since taking office on February 18, Oregon Governor Kate Brown said she will continue the moratorium on executions that former Governor John Kitzhaber imposed in 2011. "There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said. "Until that discussion, I will be upholding the moratorium imposed by Gov. Kitzhaber." When the former governor announced the moratorium, he also called for a statewide discussion about capital punishment, saying, "I am calling on the legislature to bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session and encourage all Oregonians to engage in the long overdue debate that this important issue deserves. I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values." Oregon has carried out only two executions since 1976, and none since 1997. There are currently 36 people on Oregon's death row.

Ohio Senate Holds Hearing on Lethal Injection Secrecy Bill

On December 4, the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on HB 663, which would shield the identity of those who produce lethal injection drugs for the state. Previously, critics of the bill had warned that the measure could be unconstitutional because it interferes with the courts and violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Among those testifying at the committee hearing was Kevin Smith of the Society of Professional Journalists, who called the bill, "one of the most over-reaching in terms of secrecy we have encountered." Public defenders and the Ohio ACLU also testified against the bill. The Ohio House has already passed the bill. Additional Senate hearings are scheduled for next week.

Connecticut Weighs Legislation to Repeal Death Penalty

Earlier in March, hearings were held in Connecticut before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill to replace the death penalty for future crimes with a sentence of life without parole.  Many religious leaders, scholars, former death row inmates, and families of murder victims families testified in favor of the bill. Catholic Bishop Peter Rosazza, retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, said, "The death penalty diminishes us all.  We cannot teach respect for life by taking a life."  Another witness, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, pointed to needs that could be met from the money now spent on the death penalty: “[I]t is a costly endeavor to sentence a person to death, given the lengthy appeals process. . . .You spend more money on the death penalty, you take away money from public safety. … We could solve more rape cases, we could solve more robberies … if we had more money to put into that instead of the death penalty.” 

LETHAL INJECTION: Texas Switches to New Drug as Next Execution Approaches

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) announced on March 16 that it will switch to pentobarbital as part of its three-drug lethal injection protocol for the upcoming execution of Cleve Foster on April 5.  The short notice has drawn concerns from Foster's defense attorneys and lethal injection experts. Maurie Levin, a professor at the University of Texas who represents Foster, said, “Prison officials are not medical professionals. They cannot be trusted to change a medical procedure in the dark of night without public scrutiny, especially when there is such a minimal track record on the use of pentobarbital in lethal injections."  Prof. Deborah Denno of Fordham Law School, one of the nation’s leading experts on the lethal injection, said that the “Texas decision was not about making executions more humane but was meant to make the process more feasible.”  She also pointed to the fact that the problems with the earlier methods of lethal injection arose because one state blindly followed another, without careful review: "This lemming-effect has created a decades-long pattern of lethal injection botches in which department of corrections try to remain one step ahead of lawsuits."

NEW VOICES: "The Conservative Argument to Abolish the Death Penalty"

In a recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune following Illinois's abolition of the death penalty, author and attorney Scott Turow (pictured) outlined three major conservative reasons for opposing capital punishment: it is a failed government program, it is a waste of money, and it doesn't fit with the idea of limited government. Turow served on former Governor George Ryan's Commission on Capital Punishment, which found numerous problems with the state's death penalty. In highlighting the failures of the system, Turow said, "For conservatives who believe government is too large, too inefficient and too unwieldy to deliver health care, or even the mail for that matter, it should come as no surprise that government efforts to justly select those worthy of death has been a moral disaster." On the issue of costs, he addressed the high cost of death penalty trials and appeals and the lack of deterrent effect, saying, "if the death penalty clearly served a practical purpose like saving lives, these increased costs might be worth it. But in Illinois we have experienced a steady decline in our murder rate since Gov. Ryan first declared the moratorium on executions." Turow closed by noting that some of our European allies abolished the death penalty as a reaction to the horrors of World War II. "The conservative-libertarian view that says that the powers of government must be strictly limited supports drawing a clear line prohibiting a democratic government from ever lawfully killing any of the citizens from whom it draws power. That way a regime that vanished its political enemies or executed despised minorities would mark itself, whatever the legal rigamorole, as an outlaw."

EDITORIALS: Illinois Death Penalty Repeal Called a "Victory for Justice"

An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times applauded Illinois Governor Pat Quinn for signing the bill abolishing the death penalty. The editors wrote, "We’ve learned that the system makes too many mistakes to entrust it with the ultimate power of capital punishment. We’ve learned that legal safeguards can be pushed aside when emotions are high after a heinous crime. We’ve learned that political ambition sometimes blinds those in power to the weaknesses of a case. We’ve learned that evidence can disappear or be misrepresented, that witnesses seeking special deals may lie, that juries may be swayed by emotion instead of facts."  For Gov. Quinn, the flaws in the system that can lead to a wrongful execution played the most powerful role in his decision. In a statement delivered immediately after the signing, he said, “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” He continued, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”

Illinois Governor Signs Bill Ending Death Penalty, Marking the Fewest States with Capital Punishment Since 1978

On March 9, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a repeal of the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. The governor also commuted the death sentences of the 15 people on the state's death row to life without parole.  The ban on capital punishment comes after an eleven-year moratorium on executions declared by former Republican Gov. George Ryan and makes Illinois the 16th state to end the death penalty. It also marks the lowest number of states with the death penalty in more than thirty years.  The Illinois repeal is an indication of a growing national trend toward alternatives to the death penalty, and an increased focus on murder victims' families and the prevention of crime.  In light of the current economic difficulties, the public has increasingly recognized that resources used for the death penalty could be diverted to higher budgetary priorities, such as law enforcement and victims’ services.  Many murder victims’ families were among the strongest supporters of the Illinois repeal, and the high costs of the death penalty were influential in its passage.  The law requires that state funds used for the death penalty be transferred to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement.

EDITORIALS: Chicago Tribune Urges Governor to Sign Death Penalty Repeal Bill

A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune urged Gov. Pat Quinn to sign the bill to end the death penalty in Illinois.  The paper noted that former Gov. Bill Richardson signed a similar bill in New Mexico, despite previously saying he supported the death penalty when he came into office.  Richardson said that his mind was changed after studying the issue and seeing “too many mistakes” and evidence that the punishment was applied disproportionately to minorities.  The Illinois bill would divert state funds used for capital punishment to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement. The editorial stated: "Illinois [has] sent at least 20 innocent men to death row . . . .Taxpayers have spent more than $122 million in 10 years to send 15 new prisoners to death row, but the moratorium remains in place because the system can't be trusted."  Gov. Quinn has until March 18 to take action on the bill.  Read full editorial below.

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