Federal Court Grants Lethal-Injection Stay to Alabama Prisoner With Claims of Attorney Abandonment, Flawed Forensics
Robert Melson (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose clemency petition alleges that abandonment by his post-conviction lawyers prevented him from adequately challenging the flawed forensic evidence in his case, received a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on a challenge to Alabama's lethal-injection protocol. Melson was convicted of three murders at a Popeye's restaurant in 1994. A survivor of the crime recognized one of two assailants as Cuhuatemoc “Tempo” Peraita, an acquaintance of Melson's, and described the second assailant only as a black man. More than an hour after the crime occurred, police pulled over Peraita's car, and arrested him along with the black male passenger, Robert Melson. At the suggestion of police, Peraita—a 17-year-old with intellectual impairments—confessed to having been present during the crime, but claimed Melson had shot the victims. (Peraita has since recanted his accusation.) Melson has consistently maintained his innocence. During the interrogation, police took Melson's shoes from him. According to Melson's clemency petition, "Five days later, a police evidence technician belatedly discovered, photographed, and cast footprints in a rainy drainage ditch behind Popeye’s restaurant, which they later said matched Mr. Melson’s shoes." Peraita didn't testify at Melson's trial, and the witness who had identified Peraita did not identify Melson in a photo lineup. No other forensic evidence—such as fingerprints or DNA—linked Melson to the crime. As a result, Melson's conviction relied heavily on the shoeprint evidence, a type of evidence that the landmark 2009 report on forensic science by the National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, found to be unreliable, unscientific, and susceptible to bias. In addition to the problems inherent with shoeprint evidence, nearly two inches of rain had fallen between the time of the crime and the time police reported discovering the shoeprint. Melson should have been able to challenge the shoeprint evidence during his post-conviction appeal, but was represented by an inexperienced volunteer attorney who was not licensed in Alabama and a local attorney who had a history of malpractice. The lawyers did not properly file Melson's state post-conviction petition, and then, on appeal, they filed the documents in the wrong court, causing his appeal to be dismissed. The error was compounded because the attorneys failed to inform Melson of the dismissal. Melson's time to file a petition for habeas corpus in federal court ran out before he learned his state case had been dismissed. Cases like Melson's raise concerns about Alabama's recently passed "Fair Justice Act," which would potentially exacerbate errors like those made by his attorneys, since state deadlines would be shorter and stricter and all state death penalty appeals would run concurrently. In a separate case, Melson and several other Alabama death-row prisoners challenged Alabama's use of midazolam in executions, highlighting problems that have occurred when the drug was used in past executions. The 11th Circuit stayed Melson's June 8 execution to allow time for it to consider that challenge. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay of execution, and Melson was executed as scheduled.]
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Indiana Appeals Court Voids State's Lethal-Injection Protocol
The Indiana Court of Appeals has voided the state's lethal-injection protocol. In a ruling on June 1, 2017, the state intermediate appeals court held that the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) had failed to comply with state rulemaking procedures when it adopted a never-before-used execution protocol without public notice or comment. In 2014, the DOC announced that it had adopted a new execution protocol "informally as an internal DOC policy." The protocol called for a three-drug lethal-injection combination of the barbiturate methohexital (Brevital), followed by pancuronium bromide, a paralytic, followed by potassium chloride to stop the prisoner's heart. No state has ever carried out an execution using that drug combination. Death-row prisoner Roy Lee Ward challenged the protocol, saying that DOC's use of informal internal procedures to put the protocol in place violated the Indiana Administrative Rules and Procedure Act (ARPA) and his right to due process. A lower court dismissed the lawsuit. On appeal, the DOC argued that it was exempt from the ARPA, but the appeals court flatly rejected that argument. It wrote: "If the legislature intended to exempt the DOC from the purview of ARPA altogether, or even to exempt the DOC’s execution protocols, it could have easily done so, but it has not." The court held, "[a]s a matter of law, DOC must comply with ARPA when changing its execution protocol, and its failure to do so in this case means that the changed protocol is void and without effect." David Frank, who represented Ward in the appeal, praised the ruling, saying "[t]he public has a right to know what unelected bureaucrats at state agencies are doing." The decision does not mean Indiana cannot carry out executions, he said, but "bring[s] what [Indiana is] doing out of the shadows" and makes state officials "accountable to the public." Indiana has not carried out an execution since 2009.
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Texas Appeals Court Rules State Must Disclose Identity of 2014 Execution Drug Supplier
The Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals has rejected claims made by state corrections officials that disclosure of the identity of its supplier of the execution drug pentobarbital would expose the company to a "substantial threat of physical harm." Finding these claims to be “mere speculation,” the appeals court ruled on May 25, 2017, that Texas must disclose the identity of the compounding pharmacy that supplied execution drugs to the state in 2014. The ruling upholds a Travis County District Court order in a suit that was filed on behalf of two death-row prisoners under the state's Public Information Act. The prisoners' attempt to litigate a challenge to the state's lethal injection practices failed to halt their executions, but the district court later determined that the identity of the drug supplier was "public information" subject to disclosure under the state public records law. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had argued that information concerning the identity of the compounding pharmacy that provided execution drugs fell within a safety exemption in the act, which shields release of otherwise public information where disclosure would create a "substantial threat of physical harm." The court found that TDCJ had shown nothing more than the risk of public criticism, which it said was not enough to block the supplier's identity from disclosure. The court recognized that "[t]here are myriad reasons why a private business or professional involved in the [execution] process would not want that fact known publicly—potential adverse marketplace effects, unwanted publicity, critical written or oral communications from members of the public, or protests, to name but a few of the unpleasantries that can accompany one’s association with such a controversial public issue." But under the law, the "sole permissible focus" is the "threat of physical harm from disclosure of the pharmacy’s or pharmacist’s identity—not, in themselves, any threats of harm to privacy or economic interests, threats of media or political 'firestorms,' or even threats of harm to property short of harm to persons." In 2016, a BuzzFeed News review of FBI records found that state claims that execution drug suppliers have been the subject of threats by anti-death penalty activists were largely unsubstantiated and exaggerated. Maurie Levin, one of the defense lawyers who filed the public records lawsuit, praised the court's ruling, saying: "They stuck to the law … and the law affirms that those who are involved in government actions don’t get to be anonymous and might be subject to criticism and protest." And she added, "That’s the nature of the beast. That is how our government works. I think the affirmation of those principles is really important." The decision is limited to the source of the state's execution drugs in 2014, because the state passed a broader secrecy law after the suit was filed. TDCJ has said it will appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. Texas is also suing the federal Food and Drug Administration over its seizure of execution drugs the FDA has said Texas attempted to illegally import from India. The FDA seized the drugs in October 2015, and issued a final order in April 2017 refusing to release the drugs.
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Alabama Prisoner Facing Eighth Execution Date Claims Innocence, Challenges Execution Procedures
Tommy Arthur (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose 35-year journey through the court system has frustrated both proponents and opponents of the death penalty, is scheduled to be executed on May 25, 2017, the eighth time Alabama has set an execution date in his case. Arthur—whose conviction and death sentence has twice been overturned by the courts and was sentenced to death by his trial judge based upon a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation—has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker. Most recently, an evenly divided U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution four hours after Arthur's execution was set to begin on November 3, 2016, so the Court could consider whether to review Arthur's challenge to Alabama's use of the controversial drug midazolam and his request to be executed by firing squad. The Court ultimately declined to review both that claim and Arthur's separate challenge to the constitutionality of Alabama's non-unanimous sentencing practices. Arthur has repeatedly raised innocence claims, seeking new forensic testing of evidence from his case. Judy Wicker, the wife of Troy Wicker, who was charged with hiring Arthur to kill her husband, testified at her trial that her husband had been murdered by a burglar who beat and raped her. After Ms. Wicker's conviction, she changed her testimony when a prosecutor, who had previously represented her at a parole hearing, offered her early release if she testified against Arthur. The rape kit taken from Ms. Wicker at the time of the murder was lost or destroyed without being tested for DNA and, according to Arthur's current lawyer, Suhana Han, “[n]either a fingerprint or a weapon, nor any other physical evidence connects Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker.” Hairs found near the victim have also never been tested with modern DNA technology. Arthur has also argued that his trial counsel was ineffective, and continues to litigate issues relating to Alabama's lethal injection protocol. He currently has an emergency motion pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, challenging the state's planned use of midazolam, a drug that has been linked to many problematic executions, including that of Ron Smith in Alabama in December 2016. He has also challenged the state's refusal to disclose records related to the Smith execution, which his lawyers say may provide critical evidence for his lethal-injection challenge. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued a preliminary ruling in Arthur's favor on a separate issue on May 23, reversing a Montgomery Circuit judge's order rejecting Arthur's claim that the legislature, rather than the Department of Corrections, should determine the state's execution method. But that procedural ruling will not delay his execution. His motion stated, "The role of the legislature is particularly critical given the controversial nature of the ADOC's current midazolam-based execution protocol. ...The choice of the first drug (midazolam) to be used is critical, because without an effective anesthetic, the second and third drugs would cause unbearable pain. But the drug the ADOC chose (in secret), midazolam, is not used in medical practice as a general anesthetic; rather, it is an anti-anxiety sedative in the same drug family as Valium and Xanax, and its use in lethal injection has been extremely problematic." [UPDATE: Alabama executed Thomas Arthur near midnight on May 25. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. on May 26. Media witnesses reported no visible indicators that the drugs had failed.]
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Lawyers Call for Investigation of "Horrifying" Arkansas Execution After Witnesses Report "Coughing, Convulsing"
Calling eyewitness accounts "horrifying," attorneys for Arkansas prisoner Kenneth Williams (pictured) are seeking the preservation of evidence and "a full investigation" into what they described as Williams' "problematic execution." Williams' attorney, Shawn Nolan, said the lawyers had "tried over and over again to get the state to comport with their own protocol to avoid torturing our client to death, and yet reports from the execution witnesses indicate that Mr. Williams suffered during this execution." Media witnesses reported that they observed Williams "coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking, with sound that was audible even with the microphone turned off" during his execution. According to Associated Press reporter Kelly Kissel, "Williams' body jerked 15 times in quick succession — lurching violently against the leather restraint across his chest." Kissel, who has witnessed ten executions, said, "This is the most I've seen an inmate move three or four minutes in." Nolan called the situation "very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions." A spokesperson for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson dismissed the witness accounts, calling the execution "flawless" and Williams' movement an "involuntary muscular reaction." Nolan characterized the spokesperson's statement as "simply trying to whitewash the reality of what happened." Williams was the fourth person executed in Arkansas in eight days. The state had originally planned to execute eight inmates in eleven days, but courts stayed four of the executions for reasons specific to those prisoners. Experts, including former correctional officials, had warned that the rushed execution schedule increased the risk of problematic executions, and attorneys for the prisoners challenged the use of midazolam as the first drug in the three-drug execution protocol, arguing it would not adequately anesthetize the prisoner. Three days before Kenneth Williams' execution, problems were reported in Arkansas' execution of Jack Jones, but a federal judge allowed the state to proceed with the execution of Marcel Williams on the same night.
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Arkansas Performs Double Execution Amid Allegations of Botched Lethal Injection
Arkansas carried out the nation's first double execution in nearly 17 years on April 24, 2017. The state executed Jack Jones (pictured, l.) and Marcel Williams (pictured, r.) about three hours apart, with Williams' execution delayed following allegations that Jones' execution may have been botched. Williams' attorneys filed an emergency request for a stay in federal district court, saying that "Mr. Jones's execution appeared to be torturous and inhumane." The state denied the allegations, calling them "utterly baseless." According to Williams' filing, prison staff unsuccessfully tried for 45 minutes to place a central line in Jones' neck, before eventually placing one elsewhere on his body. Witnesses reported that corrections officials did not wait the mandated 5 minutes to perform a consciousness check on Jones, and that he was moving his lips and gulping for air after the sedative midazolam had been administered. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a temporary stay in response to Williams' request, held a short hearing on the issue, then lifted the stay at approximately 9:30 pm Central time. The double execution was part of an unprecedented schedule of executions set by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson in order to use the state's supply of midazolam, the first of three execution drugs, before it expired. The governor initially set eight executions for an 11-day period, with two executions scheduled for each of four nights. The first two executions, set for April 17, were both stayed indefinitely, one execution was performed and one stayed on April 21. One of the prisoners scheduled for execution on April 27, Jason McGehee, has already received a stay of execution after the Arkansas Parole Board voted 6-1 to recommend that he be granted clemency. Litigation is still pending in the case of Kenneth Williams, the other prisoner scheduled for execution on April 27. [UPDATE: Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27.]
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FDA Issues Final Order Refusing to Release Illegally Imported Lethal-Injection Drugs to States
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a final order refusing to release illegally imported medicines that the states of Texas and Arizona had intended to use in executions. On April 20, 2017, the FDA notified prison officials that it would not release the two states' shipments of 1,000 vials each of sodium thiopental that the FDA had seized at U.S. airports in October 2015 when the states had attempted to import the drug from a supplier in India. Both shipments were halted at the airport by FDA officials, who said the importation of the drugs violated federal regulations. A third shipment of 1,000 vials of the drug ordered by Nebraska was halted by FedEx before it left India because the shipping company was not provided paperwork indicating FDA approval to import the drugs. Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic widely used in executions prior to 2010, is no longer produced by any U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the FDA has said that it has no legal uses in the U.S. In January 2017, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice sued the FDA, demanding a final decision on the detained imports. In a statement, the FDA announced it had "made a final decision, refusing admission of the detained drugs into the United States." FDA press officer Lyndsay Meyer said that the shipments of sodium thiopental had been confiscated because the detained drugs appeared to be unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs. The shipments, the agency said, must be either exported or destroyed within 90 days. Texas insisted that the import was covered by a "law enforcement exemption," because the drug was intended for use in executions. The FDA said its decision was made in compliance with a 2012 court order: "The court order requires the FDA to refuse admission to the US any shipment of foreign manufactured sodium thiopental being offered for importation that appears to be an unapproved new drug or a misbranded drug." Since 2012, Texas has used another anesthetic, pentobarbital, in all executions. Arizona has used several different lethal-injection protocols since sodium thiopental became unavailable.
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State and Federal Courts Grant Stays, Preliminary Injunctions Blocking 8 Arkansas Executions
In legal challenges filed separately by Arkansas death-row prisoners and a company involved in the distribution of pharmaceuticals, the Arkansas state and federal courts issued preliminary injunctions putting on hold the state's plan to carry out an unprecedented eight executions in the span of eleven days. After a four-day evidentiary hearing that ended late in the evening on Thursday, April 13, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas issued a preliminary injunction barring Arkansas from carrying out the eight scheduled executions with a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. The District Court issued its opinion and order early Saturday, April 15, finding "a significant possibility” that the prisoners' challenge to the lethal injection protocol will succeed and that Arkansas' execution plan denies the prisoners meaningful access to counsel and to the courts during the course of the executions themselves. In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Kristine G. Baker wrote, "The threat of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is significant: If midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are ‘botched,’ they will suffer severe pain before they die." The ruling came a week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction granted by an Ohio federal district court barring that state from using midazolam in a three-drug execution process. Arkansas has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
In another lawsuit filed in state court by McKesson, the company that distributed vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, an Arkansas circuit judge issued an order in the late afternoon on Friday, April 14, temporarily blocking the state from using the drug. McKesson had filed a complaint alleging that Arkansas misled them about the intended use of the drug and refused to return it even after being issued a refund. Arkansas appealed the court's order, but after the federal injunction was issued, McKesson asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to vacate the state-court order because it would not be necessary as long as the federal injunction is in place.
Two prisoners separately received individual stays of execution. The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of Bruce Ward, scheduled for April 17, to allow consideration of his claim that he is incompetent to be executed. A federal district court stayed the execution of Jason McGehee, scheduled for April 27, to comply with the required 30-day public comment period after the Arkansas Parole Board's 6-1 recommendation for clemency. [UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling staying the Arkansas executions based upon its use of midazolam and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the issue. The Arkansas Supreme Court lifted the temporary restraining order against the state's use of medicines obtained from the McKessen Corporation to carry out executions.]
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Federal Appeals Court Upholds Injunction Against Ohio Execution Protocol
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has upheld a lower federal court ruling blocking the state of Ohio from proceeding with plans to carry out executions with its new three-drug execution protocol. The decision affirmed a district court preliminary injunction that barred the state from using the drug midazolam as part of a three-drug execution process, and barred the state from using "any lethal injection method which employs either a paralytic agent...or potassium chloride." Judge Karen Moore, writing for the 2-1 majority, said, “We are bound by the district court’s factual finding that ‘use of midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug execution protocol will create ‘a substantial risk of serious harm.’” Midazolam, a sedative, has been linked to botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alabama. Three Ohio death-row prisoners, Gary Otte, Ronald Phillips, and Raymond Tibbets, challenged Ohio's proposed protocol, which would use midazolam, followed by a paralytic drug, followed by potassium chloride to stop the heart. In January, a U.S. Magistrate Judge conducted the most extensive evidentiary hearing to date on the constitutionality of using midazolam in executions. After hearing five days of testimony featuring expert medical witnesses and eyewitness accounts of previous midazolam executions, the court issued a preliminary injunction against Ohio's execution protocol. The Sixth Circuit upheld the district court's decision, ruling that—given the evidence presented at the hearing—the court's findings of fact regarding the risks posed by midazolam were not clearly erroneous. The appeals court also upheld the lower court's injunction against the use of any paralytic drug or potassium chloride, agreeing with the district court that Ohio was bound by its previous repeated representations that it would not use those drugs in future executions. In reliance on those representations, the death-row plaintiffs had dropped claims related to those drugs from the litigation. The Sixth Circuit wrote, "[a]llowing the State to reverse course and use pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in executions not only would unfairly advantage the State, but also would undermine the integrity of this litigation." In a short concurring opinion, Judge Jane Stranch commented: "This dialogue about the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is closely intertwined with our ongoing national conversation about the American criminal justice system. Woven through both is disquiet about issues such as punishing the innocent, discrimination on the basis of race, and effective deterrence of crime. These concerns are present throughout the criminal justice processes from arrest, to trial, to sentencing, to appeals, and to the final chapter in death penalty litigation such as this." Judge Raymond Kethledge dissented from the majority opinion. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.
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Virginia Increases Execution Secrecy After Difficulty Setting IV in Last Execution
After prison personnel took more than a half hour to set the IV line during Virginia's January 18 execution of Ricky Gray, the Commonwealth's Department of Corrections has changed its execution procedures to conduct more of the execution preparations out of view of witnesses. Prior to the change, witnesses watched as the prisoner entered the execution chamber and was strapped to the gurney. A curtain was closed while staff placed intravenous lines and electrodes for a cardiac monitor, then reopened when the execution was ready to be carried out. The curtain was closed for 33 minutes during Gray's execution, raising concerns that something had gone wrong in the placement of the IV. The ACLU of Virginia said, "the length of time Gray was behind the curtain, as well as the presence of a doctor who confirmed his death using a stethoscope rather than by viewing a heart monitor as the previous protocols required, suggest something unusual happened during the process of killing him." Under the new protocol, witnesses will no longer be able to view the prisoner entering the chamber, so they will not know when the process begins. In 2015, the American Bar Association adopted an Execution Transparency Resolution calling for execution protocols to be promulgated "in an open and transparent manner" and to "require that an execution process, including the process of setting IVs, be viewable by media and other witnesses from the moment the condemned prisoner enters the execution chamber until the prisoner is declared dead or the execution is called off." In response to the Commonwealth's change in policy, the ACLU of Virginia urged Governor Terry McAuliffe to halt all pending executions and initiate a public review of the execution protocol. "It seems that, when confronted with questions and criticism over issues with the written protocols and actual practice of executing people in Virginia, the DOC and the administration’s posture is to ignore these concerns and then tighten the veil of secrecy even further to avoid uncomfortable questions in the future," the ACLU stated in a letter to the governor. The Virginia ACLU's Director of Public Policy and Communications, Bill Farrar, told WVIR-TV, "We have secrets upon secrets upon secrets with Virginia's process of executing people in this state and it needs to stop."
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