Executions Slowed in 2008, But Numbers May Increase in Coming Year

The Death Penalty Information Center's Year End Report for 2008 recorded 37 executions for the year that ends today.  That is a 12% drop from the 42 executions in 2007.  However, based on executions already scheduled for 2009, the coming year may see an increase.  There are 23 executions scheduled for the first five months of 2009, and more dates are likely to be added.  As was true in 2008, almost all the executions scheduled are in the south and about half (12 of 23) are in Texas.  Although the time between sentencing and execution has grown longer, the size of death row has remained relatively stable and many inmates are running out of appeals.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that the average time between sentencing and execution for those executed in 2007 (latest figures available) was 12.7 years, the longest for any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  The average time between sentencing and execution for all executions carried out since 1976 was about 10.5 years.  At the start of 2008, there were 3,309 people on death row, a decline of just over 1% from a year ago. BJS reported 115 death sentences in 2007, the lowest number for any year since 1976.  DPIC's projections indicate a similar number of death sentences  for 2008.

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Top Medical Officer Resigns Over Participation in Executions

The top medical officer for the Department of Corrections in the state of Washington has resigned in order to avoid any participation in the state's execution process.  As the doctor responsible for preparing others to carry out lethal injections, Dr. Marc Stern concluded that his ethical obligations as a physician required that he recuse himself from such actions and that resigning was the only way to fully remove himself from this process. Dr. Stern, who supervised 700 employees around the state, said that the American Medical Association and the Society of Correctional Physicians oppose physician involvement in executions, "and they say physicians should not supervise somebody who is involved in executions."

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North Carolina Supreme Court Debates Doctors' Roles in Executions

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments on November 18 on whether the state's Medical Board can sanction doctors who participate in an execution. The Board forbids physician participation in executiions as a violation of the medical code of ethics. At the same time, North Carolina's death penalty statute requires a physician’s presence at all executions.

A Wake County judge ruled last year that the Medical Board had overstepped its authority and the state law took precedence, a decision that the Board then appealed. The debate in the state’s Supreme Court centered on the proper definition of “present” as it is used in the law and to accurately define what doctors had been doing at the state’s executions for the last hundred years.

"What does the word 'present' mean? That's really what this case turns on," said Todd Brosius, an attorney for the Medical Board. "This is a word we understand as elementary school children. When the teacher calls out your name at roll and you say, 'Present,' it means that you're there. It doesn't have any implication as to what you're doing."

Justice Edward Thomas Brady challenged the Board’s reasoning, arguing that some dictionaries define "present" as being "actively involved." He continued, "A physician has education, training and experience. If he's just standing there or sitting there like a potted plant, what's the purpose of that?" Brady asked, "If a condemned inmate is suffering and becomes conscious and is convulsing ... the doctor should just stand there?"

The hearing ended with Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson suggesting that the court refer the matter back to state lawmakers to resolve the question of doctors’ roles in executions. "This court and other courts are always taken to task for legislating. Why shouldn't we just send this right on over (to the General Assembly) where it belongs?" Timmons-Goodson said.

A ruling is not expected for a few months, and executions will likely remain on hold as the court considers the case.

(M. Burns, “Death penalty debate goes before NC Supreme Court,” WRAL News, November 18, 2008). See also Executions and Lethal Injection.

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NEW RESOURCES: BBC Documentary Examines US Capital Punishment System Through the Lethal Injection Issue

The BBC documentary "Lethal Solution" chronicles reporter Vivian White’s exploration of the death penalty in the US through the prism of the lethal injection issue. White traveled across the US to execution chambers where lethal injection executions are carried out and interviewed participants from a wide variety of perspectives.

The documentary features judges, doctors, and men on death row. White interviewed the family of a man whose execution lasted 34 minutes and a lawyer who witnessed that event, vividly recalling the details. He spoke with the doctor who first proposed the lethal injection system, and to the judge in California who recommended that medically-qualified people should be present at executions to ensure a humane death. In the California case, two doctors walked out of the execution chamber when they realized they might have to assist in the killing. The execution was called off.

The full 48-minute documentary may be viewed on the BBC Web site here.

(V. White, “Lethal Solution,” BBC, March 18, 2008; produced by Steven Grandison). See also Lethal Injection and Multimedia.

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International Organizations and Countries Mark Day Against the Death Penalty

As many countries prepare to mark the international World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10, recent trends indicate that the world is shifting away from capital punishment. According to a report published by Reprieve, an organization that represents death row prisoners around the world, 91 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes by the end of 2007, followed by three more so far in 2008. Even in Central Asia where executions are part of a long tradition, several countries have restricted or placed moratoriums on the use of the death penalty. In Africa, Rwanda abolished its death penalty in the past year while several other African nations have taken steps toward abolition. Overall, 137 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, while 60 countries continue to utilize capital punishment. Almost all state executions in 2007 were carried out by only five nations – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States. At least 1,252 executions took place in 24 countries over the course of the year, 88% of them in the five nations listed above.

As a continent, Asia continues to lead the world in the greatest number of executions, the bulk of them occurring in China. Several nations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Sudan, allow the death penalty for crimes not involving murder, such as adultery and consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex. Additionally, both Iran and Saudi Arabia executed juveniles in 2007. In Europe, where the European Union does not allow membership to any country with capital punishment, Belarus is the only nation that has retained the death penalty.

Since 2003, the United States has been the only country in the Americas to carry out executions. However, 2007 saw the lowest number of executions in over a decade and death sentences continue to drop across the nation.

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There have been 24 executions so far in 2008. Executions resumed on May 5 after the U.S. Supreme Court approved Kentucky's lethal injection process in Baze v. Rees. One hundred percent of the executions have been in the South, including 9 in Texas, 4 in Virginia, and 3 in Georgia. At least 12 cases have been granted stays of executions in the past two months, including Troy Davis, whose execution in Georgia was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. As of orders issued on October 6, 2008, the Court has taken no further action in the Davis case.

Additional facts:

Race of Defendants executed:

White: 11 (46%)

Black: 10 (42%)

Latino: 3 (12%)

Race of Victims in the underlying murder:

White: 19 (58%)

Black: 11 (33%)

Latino/a: 2 (6%)

Asian: 1 (3%)

No white defendant has been executed in 2008 for the murder of only a black victim (one defendant was executed for the murder of 2 white victims and 1 black victim). Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, only about 15 white defendants have been executed for the murder of solely black victims. About 228 black defendants have been executed for the murder of white victims. In 2007, there were 42 executions, including 86% in the South (26 in Texas). See Executions, Race, and Arbitrariness.

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Upcoming Arkansas Execution In Doubt Because of Lethal Injection Problems and Clemency Recommendation

A state judge in Arkansas has thrown further doubt on whether the upcoming execution of Frank Williams will be carried out on September 9 because the state did not follow proper procedures in adopting its lethal injection protocol.  Pulaski County Circuit Judge Timothy Fox barred the Arkansas Department of Correction from using the protocol in its execution of Frank Williams, Jr. because the new execution procedures should have been subject to public comment before implementation. Chief Deputy Attorney General Justin Allen commented, “The million-dollar question is: What does that do to the September execution date? That is still uncertain.” Judge Fox referred to the Arkansas Administrative Procedure Act in his ruling that the new protocols are subject to public scrutiny and input. Allen said Williams' execution will likely be delayed if the Arkansas Supreme Court doesn’t overturn the lower court's ruling.

Earlier in August, the Arkansas Parole Board recommended that Frank Williams' death sentence be commuted to life without parole. The Board had received petitions for clemency from 13 state, national, and international organizations and developmental disabilities experts which concluded that Mr. Williams suffers from mental retardation based on his sub-average adaptive functioning and the diagnosis of psychological experts. The requests for clemency emphasized the fact that executing a mentally retarded person is unconstitutional based on both Arkansas’ 1993 statutory ban and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. Courts have not reviewed the evidence of Mr. Williams' mental retardation because neither his trial lawyer nor his post-conviction appeals attorney raised this issue. The appellate courts have concluded that Williams is now barred from proving his mental retardation because it was not presented earlier.

The recommendation for clemency now goes to Governor Mike Beebe, who will decide whether to accept the Board's recommendation or allow the execution to go forward. The judge’s ruling on lethal injection may also affect the September 9 execution date.
(Associated Press, “Judge’s ruling could delay Arkansas inmate’s execution,” August 29, 2008; R. Moritz, “Parole board recommends clemency for condemned killer,” Arkansas News Bureau, August 6, 2008). See Mental Retardation, Lethal Injection, and Clemency. (This is an update of an item posted earlier.)


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EXECUTIONS: 100% in the South

Executions resumed in the U.S. on May 6 following the Supreme Court's decision on lethal injections on April 16. There have been 20 executions in 4 months, with 4 months of the year remaining. Pertinent statistics follow:

100% in the South
40% in Texas

Race of those executed
White 40%
Black 45%
Hispanic 15%

Race of victims in underlying murder
White 57%
Black 32%
Hispanic 7%
Asian 4%

Method of execution
19 by lethal injection
1 by electrocuton

4 in 2008, including 3 since executions resumed.

(Posted Aug. 27, 2008). See Executions and Arbitrariness.

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Executions Since Supreme Court's Upholding of Lethal Injection

On April 16, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's lethal injection process in Baze v. Rees, thereby opening the door to a resumption of executions which had been on hold since September 2007. Since then, there have been 18 executions:

  • 100% have been in the South
  • 33% have been in Texas
  • All but one have been by lethal injection.

Of the 18 defendants executed:

  • 8 were white
  • 8 were black
  • 2 were Hispanic.

Of the 25 victims in the underlying murders:

  • 13 were white
  • 9 were black
  • 2 were Hispanic
  • 1 was Asian.

During the same time period there have been:

  • 3 clemencies granted
  • 2 cases are pending relief (one stayed by Ala. Sup. Ct., one with a recommendation of clemency from the Pardons Board in Ark.).

As of August 9, 2008. See Executions and Clemency.

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Missouri Doctor Banned for Incompetence took part in Arizona's Recent Execution

The same doctor who was banned from executions in Missouri has been discovered as a participant in Arizona’s most recent execution. Dr. Alan Doerhoff’s signature was at the bottom of the EKG tape for Robert Comer, who was executed in 2007.   Eight months earlier, Dr. Doerhoff was prohibited from participating in further Missouri executions because of questions about his standards and competence. Doerhoff had assisted in more than 54 executions in Missouri, developed procedures, inserted catheters, and monitored prisoners' consciousness in federal executions carried out in Indiana. According to 2006 court records, he admitted under oath to being dyslexic, that “he ‘improvised’ the dosages of the drugs (partly because of how conveniently or inconveniently they were packaged), had no set protocol and kept no records of procedures.” The hearing’s judge prohibited Doerhoff from participating “in any manner, at any level” in Missouri’s lethal-injection process. Prior to this ruling, Doerhoff had been sued for malpractice 20 times, paid several settlements, and was officially reprimanded by the Missouri Board of Healing Arts for not disclosing malpractice suits to a hospital where he practiced. He was subsequently barred from practicing in some hospitals.

The techniques that Doerhoff developed appear to have influenced Arizona’s new execution procedures, including a complex practice of administering the lethal chemicals through a catheter in the groin instead of an arm, possibly leading to higher risks of error and undue suffering. Such a technique appears to be unique to jurisdictions where Doerhoff participated in executions. When the Arizona Department of Corrections was questioned about Doerhoff’s participation, they denied any association with the doctor. When media representatives showed proof of Doerhoff’s signature on the execution documents, the Corrections officials cited statutes that protect the identity of Arizona executioners. Arizona is still fighting petitions in court to reveal information about their execution staff. Experts say that Doerhoff techniques are overly complex and prone to error. Despite being prohibited from participating in Missouri executions, Dr. Doerhoff is still legally permitted to participate and influence other state and federal executions.
(M. Kiefer, “Doctor banned from executions in Mo. now in Ariz.,” The Arizona Republic, July 24, 2008). See Executions.

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