1,000 Faith Leaders Call for End to the Death Penalty

As the 1,000th execution approaches, over 1,000 religious leaders from more than a dozen religious faiths have issued an open letter calling for an end to capital punishment in the United States. The letter reaffirms the leaders’ moral opposition to the death penalty and reiterates the groups’ belief in the sacredness of life and the human capacity for change. The faith leaders called on public officials to reexamine capital punishment and to seek better ways to help communities heal from violence. The letter states:

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1000th Execution Approaches

The U.S. conducted the 1,000th execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 on December 2. This is a somber milestone in the history of capital punishment, but it comes at a time when the use of the death penalty in this country is sharply declining. Death sentences, the size of death row, executions, and public support for the death penalty are all lower than they were five years ago.

This event presents an opportunity to reflect on the application of the death penalty over the past 30 years. The following are resources that may be helpful in such a review:

Other organizations' responses (including the letter from 1,000 religious leaders):

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NEW VOICES: Originator of Lethal Injection Voices Regrets, Opposes Death Penalty

Bill Wiseman, the former Oklahoma legislator who introduced lethal injection as a method of execution in the U.S. in order to make death row inmates' deaths more humane, now regrets having pushed the concept into law. He notes that he introduced the measure in order to ease his shame for having voted to restore the death penalty in Oklahoma, stating, "I'm sorry for what I did. I hope someday to offset it by helping us realize that capital punishment is wrong and self-destructive." While discussing recent court challenges regarding lethal injection practices, Wiseman stated, "I'm aware of my responsibility. It keeps me tied to the problem. And the problem is that we're killing people. That's what's wrong, not how we're doing it." Wiseman is no longer an elected official and was recently ordained as an Episcopal priest.

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Executions by Lethal Injection Being Challenged around the Country

A number of states are grappling with the question of whether the lethal injection drug Pavulon, also known as pancuronium bromide, paralyzes a condemned inmate's muscles in a way that masks horrific pain felt during an execution, a side-effect that experts say could violate of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments about this issue in a death row case in June 2005 and a similar case is expected to reach the Kentucky Supreme Court soon. In May 2005, a Missouri inmate was given a last minute stay so that the U.S. Supreme Court could review his death penalty procedure case. His claim was denied 5-4, and he was later executed.

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Death Penalty Trends



Death Penalty Trends (1976-2005)


Most U.S. states either do not have a death penalty at all or almost never use it. Twenty-nine states have carried out three or fewer executions in the past 30 years or have a moratorium on executions. Almost all of these states carried out no more than one execution in 30 years. Only 9 states have averaged at least one execution per year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and only 4 of those states (Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Missouri) have averaged two or more executions per year during that time.

(Click on graph to view larger version)

The status of the death penalty in the 29 states mentioned above is as follows:

  • Twelve states do not have the death penalty on their books: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. In addition, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico do not have the death penalty.
  • Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and South Dakota have had no executions in the past 30 years, even though they have had a death penalty statute during at least part of that time. The same is true for the U.S. Military.
  • Kansas’ statute was overturned by the state supreme court in 2004 and is pending review in the U.S. Supreme Court. 
  • New York’s statute was overturned in 2004. The state legislature in 2005 rejected a bill to change the law and reinstate the death penalty.
  • Illinois has had a moratorium on all executions since 2000.
  • New Jersey has had no executions and has a court-imposed moratorium on executions.
  • New Hampshire has had no executions and no death sentences imposed.
  • Wyoming has had no executions in 13 years and only 1 in 30 years
  • Idaho has had no executions in 11 years and only 1 in 30 years.
  • Colorado has had no executions in 7 years and only 1 in 30 years.
  • Connecticut, New Mexico, and Tennessee each had only 1 execution in 30 years.
  • Oregon has had only 2 executions in 30 years and none in past 8 years.; both inmates waived their appeals.
  • Kentucky and Montana each had only 2 executions in the past 30 years.
  • Pennsylvania has had only 3 executions in the past 30 years and all three were inmates who waived their appeals.
  • Nebraska has had only 3 executions in the past 30 years and none in the past 7 years.
  • Only Texas has averaged 4 or more executions per year in the past three decades.

See also DPIC's 2004 Year End Report.

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Nebraska Supreme Court to Hear Electric Chair Challenge

The Nebraska Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the state's use of the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment. The case, brought by death row inmate Carey Dean Moore, will be heard on May 5. Every other death penalty state has adopted lethal injection as an alternative method of execution. A bill to offer lethal injection in Nebraska remains stalled in the state's Senate Judiciary Committee.

Three people have been put to death in Nebraska since executions resumed in 1994. Coroner reports document that one of the men, John Joubert, suffered a 4-inch brain blister on the top of his head and blistering on both sides of his head above his ears. The reports note that another man, Robert Williams, had a "bubble blister" the size of a baseball on his left calf and had pronounced "charring" on both sides of a knee and the top of his head. A witness to Williams' execution reported seeing smoke coming from his head.

Moore's attorney, Alan Peterson, notes, "Now, no other state mandates that humans face the horror of death by internal burning and shock, with the well-known history of bungled, smoking failures of the century-old technique. [Electrocution] involves more than mere extinguishment of life and will subject defendant to needless agony, physical suffering, torture, mutilation, disfigurement, and degradation.... No longer can this state tolerate the form of punishment now almost universally recognized to be beyond the bounds of minimum human dignity, civility, and decency."  (Associated Press, April 19, 2005).

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Lethal Injection To Be Examined In Kentucky

A Franklin County, Kentucky, court will hear arguments beginning April 18 to determine whether the state's lethal injection procedures rise to the level of cruelty that is forbidden by the U.S. and state constitutions. In November 2004, the same court cited questions about the lethal injection process when it issued a stay of execution for Thomas Clyde Bowling, Jr. just days before his scheduled execution. Attorneys for Bowling and death row inmate Ralph Baze, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, now plan to present an anesthesiologist, a pharmacologist, and 18 other witnesses whose testimony will challenge the state's lethal injection procedures, the drugs used in these executions, and the training of the personnel who carry them out. Currently, Kentucky uses a series of three drugs during lethal injections that are designed to relax and put inmates to sleep before killing them. Bowling's attorney plans to present evidence that the first drugs do not get into the blood stream before the killing drugs are administered, leading to a "death that is pure torture." Among the evidence presented will be an autopsy report for Eddie Lee Harper, the state's first and only inmate to be executed by lethal injection.

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MEDICAL JOURNAL, THE LANCET: Inmates Probably Conscious During Lethal Injections

inmates affected A team of medical doctors reported in the British medical journal The Lancet that in 43 of 49 executed inmates (88%) studied, the anaesthetic administered during lethal injections was lower than that required for surgery.  Toxicology reports from Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina revealed that post-mortem concentrations of thiopental in the blood were below typical surgery levels, and in 21 inmates (43%) the concentrations of thiopental in the blood were consistent with awareness.  Their investigation of lethal injection practices from several states found that the guidelines for delivering the essential anaesthesia drug thiopental are flawed and that some inmates might experience awareness and suffering during their execution. In Texas and Virginia, the researchers found that those administering thiopental during lethal injections had no training, and that the drug was administered remotely with no monitoring for anaesthesia. The study also found that in these states no records were kept regarding the administration of thiopental and no peer-review was done.  The report concludes, "Failures in protocol design, implementation, monitoring and review might have led to the unnecessary suffering of at least some of those executed. Because participation of doctors in protocol design or execution is ethically prohibited, adequate anaesthesia cannot be certain. Therefore, to prevent unnecessary cruelty and suffering, cessation and public review of lethal injection is warranted."  (The Lancet, Volume 365, Page 1412, April 16, 2005).  See Methods of Execution






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Kentucky to Conduct Hearing on Whether Lethal Injection Is Humane

In Kentucky, a Franklin Circuit Court judge will hear evidence for possibly five days in April on whether the state's method of executing prisoners is humane. Medical experts will testify about the drugs, dosage and training of the people who administer the 3-drug lethal-injection cocktail. Lawyers for condemned inmates Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr. and Ralph Baze sued the state in August, saying Kentucky's method of execution violates a prisoner's Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

Among the issues to be reviewed are the type of chemicals used in lethal injection, the dosage, and how much of the drugs make it into the body of the condemned. Kentucky has executed only one person, Eddie Lee Harper, by lethal injection, in 1999. In court papers, Baze and Bowling's lawyers have argued that there is more than a 50 percent chance that Harper was awake when the third drug was administered, meaning he could have felt pain. But because the state uses a drug called Pavulon, which paralyzes the muscles, Harper could not have communicated that he was in pain.

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A Tale of Two Texas Cases

EXECUTED:  Cameron Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004 for an arson that killed his three children. He steadfastly maintained his innocence.
FREED:  Ernest Willis, freed from death row in Texas in 2004 after the arson investigation that led to his conviction was discredited.

There are many similarities between these two alledged arson cases from Texas. The main difference is that one resulted in an execution, the other in the inmate being freed.

Some similarities in the cases:

  • Both convictions were based upon the theory that accelerants were used, indicating that the fires were intentionally set.
  • Both convictions were based on speculative interpretations of "crazed glass" that was found at the crime scene.  The splintered glass was originally believed to be caused by an accelerant spray. However, crazed glass may also occur when cold water that is used to put out a fire hits hot glass.
  • The deputy state fire marshal, Manuel Vasquez, testified to similar conclusions in both cases.
  • The convictions were only five years apart (Willingham in 1987, Willis in 1992).  Both were appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and both were denied.
  • In both cases, reinvestigations of the evidence by fire expert Gerald Hurst stated that the burn patterns and residue were consistent with "flash over," a phenomenon unique to electrical fires, rather than being attributable to arson.
  • According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, Wilingham's and Willis' cases were "nearly identical" based upon investigations by Hurst and Louisiana fire chief Kendall Ryland.  Then- Texas deputy fire marshall Edward Cheever has admitted, since the Hurst investigation and Willingham's execution, that "we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today. They were true then, but they aren't now... Hurst was pretty much right on. ... We know now not to make those same assumptions."  (Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2004)
  • One key difference in the two cases was that Ernest Willis was represented in his federal appeals by the high-profile law firm of Latham & Watkins, which represented Willis without charge.

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