STUDIES: New Report--Animals Put to Death with Greater Care Than Humans in Texas

As Texas prepares to execute Cleve Foster on April 5, a new report released by the ACLU of Texas and Northwestern University's Center for International Human Rights reveals that procedures for euthanizing animals in the state are more carefully regulated than the protocol for executing death row inmates. In March, Texas announced that it will continue to use a risky three-drug protocol for executions, and will replace the critical first drug, which is in short supply, with a new drug, pentobarbital--all without an opportunity for public review.  According to the ACLU’s report, "Texas’ lax attitude regarding the taking of human life contrasts sharply with its enactment of detailed regulations to ensure that animals suffer no pain when they are euthanized. Animal euthanasia laws provide strict certification requirements for euthanasia technicians and regulate acceptable methods of intravenous euthanasia down to the correct dosage per kilogram of an animal’s body weight. By contrast, the Texas legislature has failed to enact any legislation to ensure that the individuals responsible for extinguishing human life are properly trained and qualified, and that the drugs they administer are both effective and humane.”

NEW VOICES: Prominent Texans Support Death Penalty Moratorium Legislation

Former Gov. Mark WhiteThe Texas Criminal Jurisprudence Committee of the House of Representatives heard testimony on March 29 regarding HB 1641, a bill that would put a hold on executions while the death penalty was being studied.  Charles Terrell, former Chairman of the state's Department of Criminal Justice, supported the moratorium in a statement to the committee, expressing concerns about: "fairness to those convicted on the limited testimony of witnesses, racial fairness in some areas of our state, the absence of DNA testing where it was possible to do so, and my belief that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is far worse than a death sentence for young offenders."  Former Texas Gov. Mark White (pictured) also wrote a statement to the Committee in favor of the bill, stating that "there are more safeguards beyond careful gubernatorial review that the State of Texas should put in place to decrease the likelihood of executing an innocent individual and to increase fundamental fairness in our capital punishment system."   White also wrote that "regardless of our views on the death penalty itself, we all have profound concerns that the administration of capital punishment is deeply flawed and believe that all persons facing the death penalty are entitled to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution." 


DPIC Analysis: What is the Most Executions Conducted in the U.S. in the Shortest Time Span?

Top row, from left to right: Bruce Ward, Marcel Williams, Jason McGehee, and Kenneth Williams. Botton row, Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee, Don Davis, and Jack Jones. Photos by Arkansas Department of Corrections.

Decline in "Resource-Draining" Death Penalty Trials in Amarillo Texas Mirrors Trends in State, Nation

Forty years after Gregg v. Georgia ushered in the modern era of capital punishment in the United States, the death penalty is in decline across the country and in Texas. The Lone Star State continues to lead the nation in executions—with nearly half of all executions in the U.S. this year—but the Amarillo Globe-News reports that fewer Texas prosecutors are seeking death sentences and fewer juries are imposing them. According to the Globe-News, 26 people have been sentenced to death since 1976 in the Amarillo-area counties of Potter (17 death sentences) and Randall (9 death sentences). As of January 1, 2013, Potter County ranked 11th in the country in executions, but with its last execution in 2008, it has fallen to 16th, and no Amarillo-area prisoner is on death row for an offense committed after 2003. The two Potter County death row prisoners, John Balentine and Travis Runnels, are challenging their death sentences in federal court on the grounds that the lawyers the county appointed for them at trial and in state appellate proceedings provided ineffective representation, inadequately investigating and failing to present mitigating evidence that might have persuaded the jury to spare their lives. A third Amarillo-area prisoner, Brittany Holberg, has been on death row for 18 years, and Randall County criminal district attorney James Farren estimates her case has already cost taxpayers $2 million - $3 million. Farren believes the practical costs of the death penalty are contributing to prosecutors' decisions not to seek death in new cases. “The process has become so onerous, time-draining and resource-draining that the local prosecutors who choose to seek the death penalty in most cases are going to opt not to," he said. "It’s simply unfair to the taxpayers to bankrupt the county pursuing that result in a single case.” Farren also says that legislation creating a life without parole sentencing option has changed jurors' views: “It’s difficult to find 12 people who all agree that even though this person may die in prison to vote for the death penalty.” This reflects public opinion polls, which find that a majority of the public prefers life without parole to the death penalty. A recent poll by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research indicates that only 27% of Houstonians think the death penalty is a more appropriate punishment for murder than life without parole. Houston is in Harris County, Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any other county in the nation.

A Mid-Year Review: Halfway Through 2016, Execution Pace Remains at Historic Low

Six months into 2016, the pace of executions in the United States remains at the same level as the 24-year low set in 2015. Fourteen executions have been carried out so far this year in five states - Texas (6), Georgia (5), and one each in Alabama, Florida, and Missouri - while 23 other scheduled executions have been halted by stays or reprieves. States carried out 28 executions in 2015. Eight executions are currently scheduled for the second half of the year, with seven in Texas and one in Georgia. Death penalty cases in two states that have carried out executions this year - Alabama and Florida - as well as in Delaware, are in limbo as state courts decide the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down Florida's death sentencing scheme. The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of death row prisoners in two other major cases this spring. The Court overturned the Georgia conviction of Timothy Foster because prosecutors unconstitutionally excluded blacks from the jury, and it directed state courts in Alabama and Mississippi to reconsider capital convictions in two other cases in which similar abuses have been alleged. The Court also ordered a new appeal for Terry Williams in Pennsylvania because of judicial bias in his earlier appeal. Executions also have been affected by the ongoing controversy concerning lethal injection. In May, Pfizer joined numerous other pharmaceutical companies in implementing sales and distribution restrictions to prevent states from using its products in executions. Two states - Louisiana and Arizona - have recently announced that they are unable to obtain lethal injection drugs and Arkansas' supply of the lethal injection drug midazolam expired on June 30.

Highlighting Growing Problem, California Attorney General Says Death Row Prisoner Too Mentally Ill to Execute

Saying that he has a permanent condition that makes him too mentally ill to execute, the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris (pictured) recently asked the California Supreme Court to remove Ronnie McPeters from California's death row and resentence him to life without parole. The action is rare because McPeters is not facing an imminent execution date, but Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin said his office now considers some death row prisoners so "grievously incompetent" that they will never be able to be executed. The office says that such prisoners should be declared incompetent to be executed and removed from death row. McPeters has been on death row for 30 years, and is one of nine California death row prisoners whom federal judges have found incompetent to assist their attorneys in habeas corpus appeals. His mental condition has further deteriorated while on death row, where he has received inconsistent mental health care: some prison doctors have involuntarily medicated him for schizophrenia, while another had him involuntarily retrained for five days before asserting that McPeters was faking his illness. According to prison records, McPeters has at various times spread his feces on himself and the walls, hoarded it for safekeeping, soaked himself in urine, and carried on conversations with a wife and children who do not exist, and is "tormented by the inner voices of the relatives" of the woman he murdered. He was first declared incompetent in 2007 by U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill, who at a status conference six years later said, "We don’t have one scintilla of evidence ... that he is anything but incompetent." McPeters' case highlights a growing problem in California and across the nation. A Los Angeles Times investigation found 20 inmates, including McPeters, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, psychosis, or paranoia, and California recently became the first state to open a death row psychiatric ward, which was full to capacity within a year. 

Texas Inmate Dies Days Before Appeals Court Hearing On His Innocence Claim

On April 24, just days before a Texas federal appeals courts was to hear his case, Max Soffar — who spent 35 years on death row constantly maintaining his innocence — died of liver cancer at the age of 60. No physical evidence linked Soffar to the crime for which he was sentenced to death, and Soffar — a seventh-grade drop-out with brain damage from fetal alcohol syndrome — said that he confessed to police only after hours of coercive questioning. In a 2014 interview, Soffar said, "Everything in those statements that I made does not match the crime scene. It’s all made up off the top of my head." After Soffar's first conviction was overturned in 2006, he tried to present evidence at his retrial that the murder had been committed by another man who was later convicted of similar murders in Tennessee. The trial court excluded the evidence, a witness to whom that man had allegedly confessed did not testify after prosecutors threatened to try him for murder, and Soffar was again convicted and sentenced to death. Soffar then petitioned Governor Rick Perry for clemency in 2014, receiving support from former FBI director William Sessions and former Texas Governor Mark White. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently granted Soffar permission to appeal the U.S. District Court's 2014 denial of a writ of habeas corpus. His hearing in that appeal was scheduled for April 27. Andrew Horne, an attorney for Soffar, said "[h]is confession was demonstrably false. There was evidence another man committed the crime." Horne added, "Max was very excited about the Fifth Circuit ruling, very optimistic.... I’m glad he’s not suffering anymore, but I’m frustrated that he didn’t get his rights vindicated. He protested his innocence to the last.”

Recent Executions May Have Denied Key Evidence to Defendants in Pending Innocence Cases

According to a report by Raw Story, two recent executions may have irreparably impaired efforts by several prisoners to prove their innocence, preventing them from presenting testimony from potential alternate suspects. Rodney Lincoln was convicted of the 1982 murder of JoAnn Tate and assaulting her two young daughters and was sentenced to two life terms. The primary evidence against him was the testimony of Melissa Davis, Tate's eight-year-old daughter who survived the attack. Years later, Davis saw a picture of serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells and identified him as her mother's killer. She now believes Lincoln is innocent. Sells, who confessed to several other killings while in prison, cannot be questioned about the Tate case because he was executed in 2014. A similar situation has arisen in Oklahoma, where Malcolm Scott and De'Marchoe Carpenter have been imprisoned for more than two decades for a drive-by shooting in which Karen Summers was killed. Police arrested a third man, Michael Lee Wilson, who was in possession of the gun and car used in the shooting. Wilson pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was given a five-year sentence in exchange for his testimony against Scott and Carpenter. Three months after he was released, he robbed a gas station and killed the store clerk, for which he received a death sentence. Two days before his execution, Wilson gave a videotaped statement to an attorney from the Oklahoma Innocence Project saying that Scott and Carpenter had nothing to do with Summers' murder. Prosecutors argue that Wilson's statement is an attempt to help fellow gang members, but his execution blocks any possibility of further questioning.