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2007: DPIC's Year End Report

U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Alabama execution scheduled for night of Jan. 31.

Watch the Independent Film Channel's piece on the U.S. Supreme Court case regarding lethal injection, Baze v. Rees. The video also includes a discussion of death penalty trends with DPIC's Richard Dieter and an interview with former Texas death row chaplain Carroll Pickett.

2007: DPIC's Year End Report

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE 2007 REPORT

Executions
for the year: 42 - lowest in 13 years
% Executions in Texas: 62%
% Executions in South: 86%

Death sentences: 110 projected - lowest in 30 years
Exonerations: 3 - in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina
Commutations: 11 - including 1 in Texas and 8 in New Jersey
New States without the death penalty: New Jersey and New York - bringing total to 14 states

National moratorium on executions effectively in place as Supreme Court considers lethal injection protocols.

New Voices:
“I've lived through the state's process of trying to kill [a murderer], and I can say without hesitation that it is not worth the anguish that it puts survivors through.” - Jim O'Brien of New Jersey, whose daughter was murdered in 1982

"[W]e believe the state of Texas should abandon the death penalty – because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible. - Editorial, The Dallas Morning News

Read the 2007 Year End Report, released Dec. 18, 2007.


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DPIC Releases 2007 Year End Report Noting Decline In Death Penalty

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its 13th annual Year End Report, noting that executions have dropped to a 13-year low as a de facto moratorium took hold in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s examination of lethal injection procedures. Death sentences have also dropped considerably in recent years.  DPIC projected 110 new death sentences in 2007 - the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 60% drop since 1999. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 115 new inmates were received on death row in 2006.  In 1999, there 284 admitted to death row.

The report notes that the 42 executions this year occurred in only a few states, with 40 out of the 50 states in the U.S. not having any executions this year. Almost all (86%) of the executions in 2007 were in the South, and 62% of the executions took place in one state, Texas. Executions have declined 57% since 1999.

The report also cites a number of important new developments, including the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey this month.  Governor Corzine signed the abolition legislation on December 17, after commuting the death sentences of the 8 people on death row to life without parole sentences.  New York has also been removed from the list of death penalty states, bringing that total to 14 states.  Three exonerations of death row inmates occurred in 2007: one each in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  The report contains statements from a variety of law enforcement personnel, victims, editorial boards, and judges voicing serious concerns about the death penalty.
(Death Penalty Information Center, posted December 19, 2007). Read the 2007 Year End Report. See also articles about the report in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and CNN.com.


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NEW VOICES: Former Texas Warden Reconsiders the Death Penalty

Jim Willet, former warden of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Walls Unit where Texas executions take place, recently described his experiences to the Dallas Observer as emotionally difficult for him. As warden during 1998-2001, three of the busiest years for Texas’ death chamber, Willet oversaw 89 executions.

"The first time is unbelievable," he told the Observer. "You have this healthy person–this person who was able to just jump up on the gurney–and you've said, 'Kill this person,' and someone's fixin' to. You're about to put someone to death in front of all these people. It's an overwhelming feeling. I can't describe it."


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ARTICLES: Lethal Injections and the Overall Decline in the Death Penalty

A recent Newsweek article by Evan Thomas and Martha Brant compares the historical search for humane methods of execution with the current decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S.:

The new reluctance to punish by killing is part of a historical trend. There was a time when death and torture were spectator sports, when crowds flocked to see prisoners drawn and quartered or beheaded. In some parts of the world, flogging and stoning are still public spectacles. But in the 19th century, supposedly "enlightened" states began looking for more-humane ways to serve final justice—to kill people without causing too much suffering to either the victims or their executioners. The authorities tried hanging, firing squads, electrocutions, gas chambers and, more recently, lethal injection. Each method was supposed to be an improvement over the last.

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Supreme Court Review of Lethal Injections Attracts Advocates from Many Disciplines

In addition to the main brief submitted by the Petitioner in Baze v. Rees, several amicus curiae briefs have been filed in support of the inmates from Kentucky who are challenging the constitutionality of lethal injections as practiced in their state before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is likely to be heard in January 2008 and decided by June. It appears that executions around the country have been put on hold pending the Court's decision.

The amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs submitted include:

  • The Death Penalty Clinic at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law. This "litigants" brief details how lethal injection executions are performed by "untrained, unqualified prison employees using inadequate equipment and following incomprehensible protocols." The Clinic surveyed thousands of pages of documents from more than a dozen states, concluding that states have "turned a blind eye" to the forseeable problems inherent in the three-drug lethal injection formula.
  • The Lewis Stein Center for Law & Ethics at the Fordham University School of Law. This brief describes the history of the three-drug lethal injection protocol used in virtually every death penalty state, and the movement toward methods of execution that were consistent with “evolving standards of decency.” The brief presents evidence that the present method of lethal injection was not the result of an informed deliberative process.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union and the Rutherford Institute. Arguing that lethal injections violate the Eighth Amendment, this brief shows how “lethal injection procedures and executions have been, and continue to be, shrouded in secrecy.”
  • Physicians and nurses, with a range of expertise in fields such as medical ethics, critical care, end-of-life care, pharmacology and anesthesiology. The brief informs the Court that "the medical and medical ethics communities have rejected the introduction of neuromuscular blocking agents" used in lethal injection executions because of the "significant risks" that they pose.
  • Veterinarians, with extensive experienced in veterinary anesthesia. According to this brief, “Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol would not meet the minimum standards for the humane euthanization of animals.” The brief further explores other risks associated with the chemicals used in Kentucky’s current protocol.
  • Human Rights Watch. The brief argues that the Court’s “Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has looked to international standards and practices in giving meaning to the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” and that it should do so in deciding Baze.

The briefs filed by various amici, as well as the Petitioner's brief, are available here. (Source: Death Penalty Clinic, U.C. Berkeley School of Law, Nov. 13, 2007).  See also DPIC's Supreme Court and Lethal Injection pages.


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Court Rules California's New Lethal Injection Procedures are Invalid

Superior Court Judge Lynn O'Malley Taylor held that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation failed to follow proper procedure for instituting new regulations when it issued new lethal injection protocols in May. Under state law, an agency that adopts new regulations must first publish the text, invite public comments, hold a hearing if a member of the public requests one, and submit the final draft to the Office of Administrative Law, which decides whether the proposed rule was legally authorized. Though the Corrections Department maintains that the protocols are not regulations because they apply to a small number of inmates, Taylor disagreed, stating "The undisputed evidence establishes that (the execution protocol) is a rule or regulation of general application." Taylor, a retired judge sitting by special assignment in the court, also said the protocol "implements a statewide policy on lethal injections for condemned inmates," prescribes duties for state officials outside San Quentin and applies to prisoners at other institutions.


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Texas Prosecutors Ask for Delay in Executions Until Supreme Court Issues Lethal Injection Ruling

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider the constitutionality of Kentucky's lethal injection procedures, prosecutors in three Texas counties have decided to await the Justices' ruling rather than ask judges to set execution dates and press forward through the courts. "It seems the common-sense thing to do at this point," said Roe Wilson, who handles death penalty appeals for the Harris County District Attorney's Office in Houston. Harris County sends more inmates to death row than any other county in Texas. Wilson said she plans to ask a judge to withdraw a February 26 execution date for Derrick Sonnier rather than face a court-imposed halt to his execution. Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza has also asked a judge to cancel a scheduled January 24 execution date for the same reason. He noted, "It just seemed to me that the writing was very apparent. Now we'll let them rule and we can come back in and act accordingly." In addition, Nueces County prosecutor Carlos Valdez has said he will not seek any more execution dates until the matter is resolved.


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AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION RENEWS CALL FOR NATIONAL MORATORIUM ON EXECUTIONS

The American Bar Association (ABA) renewed its call for a nationwide halt to executions following a series of state studies that found serious problems in their death penalty systems.

"After carefully studying the way states across the spectrum handle executions, it has become crystal clear that the process is deeply flawed. The death penalty system is rife with irregularity," said Stephen F. Hanlon (pictured), chairman of the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project.

During the past three years, the ABA has issued death penalty assessment reports in eight states: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. The studies were conducted by independent teams of former judges, attorneys, and academic researchers. The reports revealed ways that each state failed to meet some of the basic standards established by the ABA to ensure fairness and to minimize the risk that innocent persons could be executed.


The ABA's call for a nationwide moratorium on executions was contained in a press release accompanying their report detailing the findings of the state assessments. Among the key problems cited by the ABA were the following:

  • Spotty collection and preservation of DNA evidence, which has been used to exonerate more than 200 people, including many who were on death row
  • Misidentification by eyewitnesses
  • False confessions from defendants
  • Persistent racial disparities that make death sentences more likely when victims are white.

(Associated Press, October 29, 2007). Read the ABA State Assessment Reports. See also Studies, Innocence, Arbitrariness, Race, and Representation.


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Lethal Injection Controversy Rises to National Importance with Stays of Execution

With the stays of execution in Virginia on October 17 and in Georgia on October 18, it appears likely that no more lethal injections will take place in this country until the U.S. Supreme Court renders a decision in Baze v. Rees, a case challenging the lethal injection process in Kentucky. Christopher Emmett in Virginia was granted a stay by the U.S. Supreme Court just hours before his execution. Jack Alderman's lethal injection was stayed by the Georgia Supreme Court a day before it was to occur. Stays have also been granted in numerous other states by other federal courts, by state courts, and by governors. The Death Penalty Information Center's Web site contains a number of resources related to lethal injection:

  • Lethal Injection Web Page: This Web page contains a general overview of the constitutional questions the U.S. Supreme Court will consider when it hears Baze v. Rees next year, as well as details about the status of lethal injection challenges and stays of executions across the country. In addition, the page contains information about the drugs used to carry out lethal injections and a list of the 37 states that use this method. Lastly, the page includes links to statements from medical organizations and additional resources related to this topic.
  • Stays of Executions: This chart details stays of execution related to lethal injection challenges since 2006.
  • States Where Executions are on Hold: DPIC's "Death Penalty in Flux" Web page contains a chart that details all states where executions are on hold, including states with formal moratoriums and states where executions have been halted due to concerns about the method of execution.
  • Methods of Execution: This page contains the methods used in each of the 38 death penalty states, including states that offer inmates a choice of method, and the number of executions by each method.
  • Botched Executions: Contains examples of executions where serious problems have arisen in carrying out executions.
  • Upcoming Executions: This page allows users to track scheduled executions and follow developments such as stays and commutations.
  • Supreme Court: Contains a more complete description of the issues facing the Court in the lethal injection case from Kentucky, Baze v. Rees.

(For stay in Virginia, see Wash. Post, Oct. 18, 2007; other information from DPIC sources).


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NEW RESOURCE: Amnesty International Issues Lethal Injection Report

A new report released by Amnesty International, Execution by lethal injection - a quarter century of state poisoning, calls on medical professionals to refuse to participate in executions and details ongoing concerns about current lethal injection protocols that could result in inmates feeling excruciating pain during their executions. “Governments are putting doctors and nurses in an impossible position by asking them to do something that goes against their ethical oath. ... Medical professionals are trained to work for patients’ well-being, not to participate in executions ordered by the state. The simplest way of resolving the ethical dilemmas posed by using doctors and nurses to kill is by abolishing the death penalty,” said Jim Welsh, Amnesty International’s Health and Human Rights coordinator.


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