New Voices

Inventor of Midazolam Opposes Its Use in Executions

As U.S. pharmaceutical companies have removed medicines from the market to prevent states from obtaining them for executions, states have turned to alternatives, like the sedative midazolam. Dr. Armin Walser, who was part of the team that invented the drug in the 1970s, is dismayed at that development. “I didn’t make it for the purpose” of executing prisoners, Dr. Walser told The New York Times. “I am not a friend of the death penalty or execution.” For most of midazolam's history, the medicine was used only for its intended purpose: as a sedative in procedures like colonoscopies and cardiac catheterizations. Since 2009, however, six states have used it to carry out a total of 20 executions. Midazolam's use in executions has been marked by controversy because, critics argue, it is a sedative, not an anesthetic, and does not adequately anesthetize the condemned prisoner before painful execution drugs are administered. Megan McCracken, a specialist in lethal injection litigation with the University of California-Berkeley law school said, “Time and time again when you see executions with midazolam, you see, at best, surprises and, at worst, very bad executions.” Midazolam was used in the botched executions of Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood in Arizona, and Ronald Smith in Alabama. In January 2017, a federal magistrate judge barred Ohio from using midazolam in executions, saying that its use presented a substantial and objectively intolerable risk of serious pain and suffering during executions. As a result of litigation challenging Arizona's lethal injection protocol in the wake of Wood's execution, that state agreed that it would never again use midazolam. The manufacturer of the drug has said it “did not supply midazolam for death penalty use and would not knowingly provide any of our medicines for this purpose," leaving states to turn to alternative suppliers if they want to continue using midazolam in executions. Walser said that, when he learned about midazolam's use in executions, "I didn't feel good about it."

Ohio Jurors Report Emotional Toll of Serving on Capital Case

The costs of the death penalty are more than financial, they are emotional; and these effects are felt not just by the parties to the trial and the families of victims and defendants, but by the jurors as well. A recent report in the Akron Beacon Journal describes the traumatic psychological impact serving in the Summit County, Ohio death penalty trial of Eric Hendon had on the jurors in that case. After a three-month trial and capital-sentencing hearing, the jury found Hendon guilty of a 2013 triple murder and sentenced him to life without parole. Before the trial even began, one juror wrote about her concerns about the death penalty, saying, "It is very difficult for me to fathom crime against people, especially violent crime. It is equally difficult for me to fathom how capital punishment can be good. I understand it is our law. If necessary, I will do my duty. I must admit, though, my hope coming in was that I would serve on a trial that would not tear my soul apart." In the aftermath of the trial, several jurors said the experience had adversely affected them. One juror reported trouble sleeping for weeks after the trial ended. Another said he was haunted by images of the crime. A white juror reported becoming paranoid after the trial, saying seeing two black men (defendant Eric Hendon is also black) in an older model car near his home "kind of freaked me out." A number of jurors did not want to talk to the press and, fearing harassment for their jury service, tried to keep their names and addresses from being released to the Beacon Journal. After the trial ended, Judge Amy Corrigan Jones held hearings to decide whether to release the jurors' information. Six jurors attended the hearings and said they worried for their safety if their information was released. One woman became emotional at the hearing, saying she did not want to relive the experience. “I don’t want to think about this,” she said. “I need to stop messing with my life. I need to move on.”

American Nurses Association Adopts Position Statement Against Capital Punishment

In an expansion of their stance opposing nurse participation in executions, the American Nurses Association (ANA) announced on February 21, 2017 that the organization now for the first time opposes capital punishment itself. "Capital punishment is a human rights violation, and ANA is proud to stand in strong opposition to the death penalty," ANA President Pamela F. Cipriano said. "All human beings, regardless of their crimes, should be treated with dignity. For those states where capital punishment is currently legal, the American Nurses Association will continue to provide ethical guidance, education, and resources for nurses and other health care providers dealing with these ethical dilemmas." The ANA had long opposed nurses participating in the death penalty in any role, adopting that position in 1983. “The drafters of the subcommittee were initially supporters of the death penalty until they started doing research," Liz Stokes, the senior policy advisor for the ANA Center for Ethics and Human Rights, said. But as they studied the issue, she said, they were moved by the body of evidence showing problems in the way it was administered. Ultimately, the ANA’s board of directors unanimously adopted the new position. The ANA statement offers nine reasons for the association's opposition to the death penalty, including racially and geographically biased application, the risk of executing innocent people, botched executions, and high costs. The new position aligns with the International Council of Nurses, which "considers the death penalty to be cruel, inhuman and unacceptable," and reflects a growing consensus among medical organizations that participation in executions by medical professionals is unethical. The American Medical Association, American Board of Anesthesiology, and American Pharmacists Association, among others, have discouraged or forbidden their members from participating in executions and American pharmaceutical manufacturers have adopted policies seeking to prevent misuse of their medicines as execution drugs.

Former Tennessee Attorney General Supports Mental Illness Exemption

In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, former Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody (pictured) has expressed his support for a bill that would exempt people with serious mental illness from the death penalty. Cody, who later served as a member of the American Bar Association's Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Team, said that "as society's understanding of mental illness improves every day," it is "surprising that people with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, can still be subject to the death penalty in Tennessee." In his op-ed, Cody describes how cases with seriously mentally ill defendants differ from other capital cases: "In 2007, an ABA study committee, of which I was a member, conducted a comprehensive assessment of Tennessee’s death penalty laws and found that 'mental illness can affect every stage of a capital trial' and that 'when the judge, prosecutor and jurors are misinformed about the nature of mental illness and its relevance to the defendant’s culpability, tragic consequences often follow for the defendant.'" He also draws on his experience as the state's top prosecutor, saying, "As a former Tennessee Attorney General, I understand how horrific these crimes are and how seriously we must take capital cases. ...But in light of our increased understanding of mental illness, I believe that for those with documented mental illness of the most severe form at the time of their crime, the maximum punishment should be life in prison without parole." Tennessee is one of at least seven states in which legislators have introduced bills that would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty. Numerous legal and mental health organizations, including the American Bar Association, American Psychiatric Association, and National Alliance on Mental Illness, support excluding defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty.

Former Federal Appeals Judge Urges Caution as Ohio Reschedules Executions

In a guest column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, retired federal appeals court judge Nathaniel R. Jones (pictured) urged Ohio to "reconsider its race to death" in scheduling executions while the constitutionality of the state's lethal injection process remains in question. Jones, who served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit from 1979 to 2002, criticized the state's proposed use of the drug midazolam in executions, describing Ohio's 2014 execution of Dennis McGuire using the drug, in which witnesses said McGuire "gasped loudly for air and made snorting and choking sounds for as long as 26 minutes" before dying. In its aftermath, Ohio temporarily halted executions and announced that it would not use midazolam—which has now been implicated in botched executions in four states—in the future. Jones wrote that, since the McGuire execution, "even more information has emerged about how unsuitable midazolam is for lethal injection." But despite its prior announcement and the additional evidence concerning midazolam, Ohio in 2016 proposed a new three-drug protocol that included midazolam as the first drug, and the state is defending that protocol in court. After a five-day hearing in which the court heard extensive expert testimony, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Merz held that Ohio had failed to prove that midazolam does not present a substantial risk of harm and declared the state's proposed execution protocol unconstitutional. Despite the on-going litigation, Ohio set new execution dates both before and after the hearing. "Ohio officials must not risk another unconstitutional execution," Jones wrote. "That can be done only by placing executions on hold while courts take the time necessary to consider whether Ohio's problematic protocol passes constitutional muster." He called on Ohio officials "to agree not to resume executions until the courts determine a lawful method." On February 10, Ohio Governor John Kasich announced that he was rescheduling eight executions as the state appealed the magistrate judge's ruling. The earliest execution, which had previously been scheduled for February 15, was moved to May 10. 

EDITORIALS: New York Times Hails Prosecutors' Changing Views on Death Penalty

In a February 6 editorial, The New York TImes hails the reform efforts of the "new generation" of state and local prosecutors who are working to change the United States' criminal justice system, and especially the use of the death penalty. The Times highlights the comments of two newly elected local prosecutors, Beth McCann, the new prosecutor in Denver, Colorado, and Kim Ogg, the new district attorney in Harris County, Texas. McCann has said her office will not seek the death penalty because she does not think "that the state should be in the business of killing people." Ogg has pledged that there will be “very few death penalty prosecutions" during her tenure as district attorney. The Times also notes the leadership of state elected officials, pointing to Washington state, where current Democratic Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, and his Republican predecessor, Rob McKenna, are jointly supporting a death penalty repeal bill. "Prosecutors aren’t just seeking fewer death sentences; they’re openly turning against the practice, even in places where it has traditionally been favored," the editorial states, citing the historically low number of death sentences in 2016. Emphasizing the influence of these state and local officials, it calls the role of prosecutor, "one of the most powerful yet least understood jobs in the justice system." Their role is especially critical as national leaders present a "distorted ... reality of crime in America" in support of a "law and order" agenda, the Times says. "In these circumstances, the best chance for continued reform lies with state and local prosecutors who are open to rethinking how they do their enormously influential jobs."

Mental Health Professionals, Religious Leaders Join Ricky Gray's Plea for Clemency

Ricky Gray (pictured), who is scheduled to be executed on January 18, is seeking clemency from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and his clemency petition has been joined by a diverse group of mental health professionals and the Virginia Catholic Conference. A letter signed by more than 50 mental health professionals, including two former commissioners of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, urges McAuliffe to commute Gray's sentence because of Gray's history of "horrific" childhood abuse and his addiction at the time of the crime. Gray's jury never heard evidence that he was raped and sodomized almost daily from the ages of four to eleven, and that he turned to drugs as early as age 12 to numb the resulting trauma. At the time of his crime, he was under the influence of PCP. “In Mr. Gray’s case, his abuse and trauma were left unaddressed and predictably led to profound despair and other serious trauma symptoms, drug addiction, and the drug use that resulted in the tragic crimes he committed with Ray Dandridge,” the letter states. Gray's lawyers seek to have Gray's sentence commuted to life—the same sentence that Dandridge received. Gray's clemency petition includes reports from mental health experts who say that the extreme childhood trauma Gray endured altered his brain development, making him particularly susceptible to the effects of drugs. Gray has apologized for his involvement in the crimes, saying, "Remorse is not a deep enough word for how I feel. I know my words can’t bring anything back, but I continuously feel horrible for the circumstances that I put them through. ...There’s nothing I can do to make up for that. It’s never left my mind, because I understand exactly what I took from the world by looking at my two sisters. I’m reminded each time I talk and see them that this is what I took from the world." Governors in other states have granted clemency in some cases with similar circumstances. In September 2011, Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence imposed on Joseph Murphy, citing Murphy's "brutally abusive upbringing." In January 2012, Delaware Governor Jack Markell commuted Robert Gattis' death sentence based on evidence of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by family members. Both are now serving life sentences. Gray is also seeking a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit as he challenges the constitutionality of Virginia's proposed lethal injection protocol. UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied Gray's request for a stay on January 13.

Denver's Newly Elected District Attorney Says She Will Not Seek the Death Penalty

Newly-elected Denver, Colorado District Attorney Beth McCann (pictured), sworn into office on January 10, 2017, has said that her administration will not seek the death penalty. Asked by 9News, Denver's NBC affiliate, whether Denver was "done with the death penalty," McCann said: "We are under my administration. I don't think that the state should be in the business of killing people." McCann told 9News that alternative sentences provide sufficient punishment at a substantially lesser cost: "I believe that life without the possibility of parole ... gets to the punishment piece, but doesn't cost the taxpayers those millions and millions of dollars that could be used to prosecute other cases." McCann also said she would support repeal of the death penalty in Colorado. No Denver jury has sentenced a defendant to death since 1986 and, after a lengthy capital trial, a jury in August 2015 sentenced Dexter Lewis to life for the stabbing deaths of 5 people in a Denver bar. The state currently has a moratorium on executions. McCann's views are in line with those of many new district attorneys across the country. In the November 2016 elections, voters replaced prosecutors who had aggressively sought death sentences in Hillsborough County, Florida, Harris County, Texas, and Jefferson County, Alabama. In an August primary, voters in Duval County, Florida, ousted Angela Corey, one of the nation's most pro-death penalty prosecutors.

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