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National Shortage of Drug for Lethal Injections Leads to Stays of Execution

Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear recently held off signing death warrants for two inmates because of a shortage of the drug sodium thiopental, a key component of the state’s lethal injection protocol. Kentucky’s stock of the lethal injection drug expires October 1, and the Department of Corrections does not expect a new supply until early 2011 because the only supplier of this drug in the country, Hospira, is unable to obtain the active ingredient for the drug.  Even when a new supplier for the active ingredient is found, FDA approval will be needed. The governor did set a September 16 date for the execution of Gregory Wilson, which could occur before the state's supply of the drug expires.  In Oklahoma, the state’s Department of Corrections recently tried to substitute another drug for sodium thiopental for the execution of Jeffrey Matthews because of concerns about the purity of the supply on hand. A federal judge stayed the execution of Matthews in order to provide time to study the situation. Attorneys for Matthews challenged the substitution of a new drug as a form of human experimentation.  Almost all states in the country use essentially the same protocol for lethal injections.

RELIGIOUS VIEWS: Actions Affirming Catholic Opposition to Capital Punishment

The organization Catholics Against Capital Punishment recently noted activities related to the Catholic Church's official position on the death penalty.  For the first time in recent years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’s annual Respect Life program is urging its participants to make opposition to the death penalty a significant part of carrying out the Church’s pro-life teachings. The statement is based on the 1980 Statement on Capital Punishment of the U.S. Bishops in which they voiced their opposition to the death penalty and affirmed the Catholic Church’s belief in the sanctity of all human life.

In New Hampshire, Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian of the Diocese of Manchester (including New Hampshire), submitted testimony to the state's Commission to Study the Death Penalty, stating, “I suggest that the death penalty is the last frontier of this historical movement that strongly accents the intrinsic value of every human person. At least for the past four centuries, humanity has lifted women, slaves and civilians trapped in war zones from the class of ‘human objects’ to the protected status of human beings who enjoy the inviolable right to life. This same right to life must now be extended to men and women convicted of capital crimes.”

Federal Judge Sets High Standard of Proof and Rejects Troy Davis's Innocence Claim

On August 24, U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. rejected Troy Davis’s petition to overturn his conviction for killing a police officer in 1989 in Georgia. Judge Moore chose a high standard of proof that Davis would have to meet to establish his innocence claim:  Davis needed to prove by "clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence." Judge Moore did conclude that it would be unconstitutional to execute "those who can make a truly persuasive demonstration of innocence."  This holding has only been assumed for the sake of argument by the U.S. Supreme Court.  He also acknowledged that "the State's case may not be ironclad."  Davis, who has spent nearly two decades on death row, has attracted support from many human rights groups because a number of key prosecution witnesses recanted their trial testimony, and other witnesses have come forward implicating another suspect. Last year, the Supreme Court issued an historical ruling allowing Davis to present evidence that had been uncovered since his trial. It is possible that Judge Moore's ruling will now return to the Supreme Court for further review. Read Judge Moore's ruling: Part I and Part II.

North Carolina Crime Lab Audit Too Late for Three Executed Inmates

After an audit of the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) conducted by former FBI agents at the request of North Carolina's attorney general, it was revealed that officials withheld blood evidence affecting 269 defendants. The report listed three death penalty cases that resulted in executions. Although each of the executed defendants confessed to the crimes, such confessions are sometimes suspect and evidence withheld by the state might have at least led to a lesser sentence. Desmond Carter, who was executed in 2002, was represented by attorneys who were inexperienced and unqualified to handle his capital case. The attorneys never evaluated and challenged the SBI evidence, only assuming the evidence was true. Another impacted case was that of John Hardy Rose, who confessed to killing his neighbor. Ken Rose, his attorney (no relation), said there was doubt as to whether his crime was premeditated or impulsive. Rose said he believes previously undisclosed negative results of a test for blood could have been used to secure a life sentence or a second-degree murder conviction for his client, who was executed in 2001. The final executed defendant was Joseph Timothy Keel.  His lawyers are still exploring how the withheld evidence might have affected his case. Jay Ferguson, one of the lawyers, lamented, “[T]here are no do-overs with the death penalty. We can’t go back and fix these errors.”

RESOURCES: New DPIC Podcast Explores Victims' Families and the Death Penalty

The latest edition of the Death Penalty Information Center's series of podcasts, DPIC on the Issues, is now available for download. This podcast, Victims and the Death Penalty, explores the issues faced by murder victims' families when capital punishment is being considered. Generally, this series of podcasts offers brief, informative discussions of key death penalty issues.  Other recent episodes include discussions on Representation and Race. Click here to download the latest episode of the podcast on Victims. You can also subscribe through iTunes to receive automatic updates when new episodes are posted and receive access to all eight episodes. Other audio and video resources can be found on our Multimedia page.

North Carolina Bureau of Investigation Charged With False Reports, Including in Capital Cases

A government-ordered audit of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation found that the agency falsely reported blood evidence in dozens of cases, including three that ended in executions. The inquiry, ordered by Attorney General Roy Cooper, found that SBI agents improperly aided prosecutors for over a 16-year period, calling into question convictions in 230 criminal cases. Duane Deaver, a veteran SBI analyst who performed the work in five particularly troubling cases, has been suspended pending further investigation.  According to the audit, SBI lab reports omitted or overstated important information about test results that would have been favorable to the defense. The report blames the flaws on "poorly crafted policy, inattention to reporting methods which permitted too much analyst subjectivity; and ineffective management and oversight.”  The state Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that lab notes are evidence that should be made available to the defense. According to the report, however, “that did not happen for several reasons, including a mindset, led by a section chief, that the lab’s main customer was law enforcement.” North Carolina's News & Observer just completed a four-part investigative series into the SBI entitled "Agents' Secrets: Junk Science, Tainted Testimony at SBI."

NEW VOICES: Former Warden Calls Executions Traumatic for Prison Staff

Ron McAndrew, a former warden who oversaw executions on Florida's death row, recently testified at a New Hampshire hearing regarding the trauma prison staff endure during an execution. McAndrew said, “Many colleagues turned to drugs and alcohol from the pain of knowing a man had died at their hands. And I've been haunted by the men I was asked to execute in the name of the state of Florida.” The New Hampshire hearing was conducted by a legislative commission studying the effectiveness of the state’s death penalty and comparing it with a sentence of life without parole. McAndrew said he has received calls from distressed prison workers and executioners. Some corrections officers, he said, have committed suicide because of their guilt and regret. McAndrew concluded, "Being a corrections officer is supposed to be an honorable profession. The state dishonors us by putting us in this situation. This is premeditated, carefully thought out ceremonial killing."

EDITORIALS: "What Price is Too High for Death Row?"

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that his administration plans to borrow over $64 million from the state’s general fund for the construction of a new death row at San Quentin. At the same time, the governor’s lawyers have recently sought approval from the courts to furlough state workers and reduce their pay. Teachers, police officers and firefighters are losing jobs because of the budget crisis. The governor also plans to end safety net services for some of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in the state. Yet the $64 million loan would merely be a down payment on the new death row, which is estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $500 million. According to an editorial in the Sacramento Bee, “The plan to build a shiny new 541,000-square-foot death row within San Quentin's boundaries underscores fundamental problems with capital punishment. So long as there is a death penalty, the state will need to house, clothe and feed the inmates at huge costs.”