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Aging of Death Row Raises Humanitarian and Practical Concerns, As Alabama Executes 83-Year Old Prisoner

Death row is aging and increasingly infirm and, as a series of recent death warrants suggest, that phenomenon is raising legal, practical, and humanitarian concerns. One year after executing 75-year-old Thomas ArthurAlabama on April 19 executed 83-year-old Walter Moody (pictured, left), the oldest person and only octogenarian put to death in the United States since executions resumed in 1977. Attempts to execute prisoners debilitated by physical and cognitive impairments exacerbated by aging have proven problematic and inhumane. After canceling his previously scheduled cancer surgery to issue a death warrant, Alabama failed for 2 1/2 hours to set an intravenous line to execute gravely ill 61-year-old Doyle Hamm on February 22. His lawyer moved to bar the state from trying a second time, describing the failed attempt as "torture." Ohio tried and failed to execute terminally ill 69-year-old Alva Campbell (pictured, center) in November 2017. He then died of his terminal illness on March 3. And in late January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court halted Alabama's scheduled execution of 67-year-old Vernon Madison (pictured, right), who is legally blind, incontinent, and unable to walk independently, and suffers from vascular dementia caused by strokes that have left him with no memory of the offense for which he was sentenced to death. The Court on February 26 agreed to review his claim that his illness leaves him mentally incompetent to be executed. A Washington Post review of Department of Justice data reported that the percentage of death-row prisoners aged sixty or older has more than doubled this century, up from 5.8 percent of U.S. death rows in 2007 to 12.2 percent in 2013. The aging of the row has also affected executions. An Associated Press review of the Death Penalty Information Center execution database found that the median age of an executed prisoner in the U.S. rose from 34 to 46 between 1983 and 2017. A DPIC analysis of U.S. execution data found that only two of the 933 prisoners executed in the United States between 1977 and 2004 were aged 65 or older. That total was matched in a single 35-day period this year between March 15 and April 19, when Georgia executed 67-year-old Carlton Gary and Alabama executed Mr. Moody. In 23 years of executions between 1977 and the close of the 20th century, ten prisoners aged 60 or older were executed. Thirty-six have already been executed this decade, 13 since 2015 alone. The aging of death row raises humanitarian issues, separate and apart from the risk of botched executions. Speaking to Associated Press, DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham noted that, while many of the prisoners facing execution have been convicted of terrible crimes, the public is "torn between wanting to punish [them] severely and the belief it is beneath us as a nation to kill a frail person who is already dying. It’s a challenge to our morality and our sense of humanity,” Dunham said. The attempts to execute the infirm also have attracted international attention and approbation. When Alabama sought to execute Madison, David O'Sullivan, the European Union's Ambassador to the United States, wrote "an urgent humanitarian appeal" to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey not to execute him. The Ambassador's letter reminded Alabama that "[t]he execution of persons suffering from any mental illness or having an intellectual disability is in contradiction to the minimum standards of human rights, as set forth in several international human rights instruments." When Ohio sought to execute Campbell, his lawyer, assistant federal defender David Stebbins, predicted that the execution could become a “spectacle” if prison staff were unable to find a suitable vein. “All of this in an attempt to execute an old and frail man who is no longer a threat to anyone,” Stebbins said. In a statement that applies to more and more prisoners facing death warrants, Madison’s lawyer, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, summed up the issue: “Killing a fragile man suffering from dementia," he said, "is unnecessary and cruel.”


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Virginia Death-Row Prisoners Win “Landmark” Prison Conditions Lawsuit

In what lawyers for Virginia death-row prisoners have called “a landmark ruling,” a federal judge has issued an injunction barring the Commonwealth from subjecting prisoners who have been sentenced to death to automatic solitary confinement, physical isolation from visitors and other prisoners, and other harsh conditions. In a decision issued on February 21, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema wrote that the conditions to which Virginia subjected death-row prisoners before instituting reforms in 2015 violated the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishments. Virginia had refused to commit to keeping the reforms, which it adopted only after the prisoners initiated suit, and the court's order prevents the state from reverting to the prior unconstitutional conditions. Before 2015, death sentenced prisoners spent about 23 hours a day alone in a 71-square-foot prison cell and were separated from visitors—including family members—by a plexiglass wall, although the warden had discretion to permit contact visits with family. For one hour a day, five days a week, prisoners were taken to a small “outdoor cell” with a concrete floor and no exercise equipment. Death-row prisoners were barred from the recreational facilities used by prisoners in the general population and allowed to shower only three times per week. Brinkema decided in favor of the three remaining death-row prisoners who had sued the state in 2014. While the suit was pending, one of the orginal plaintiffs, Ricky Gray, was executed and another, Ivan Teleguz, was granted a commutation. Lawyers for the prisoners said Brinkema's decision was the first time a court had ruled such conditions unconstitutional. In granting the prisoners' petition, the court said that “the rapidly evolving information available about the potential harmful effects of solitary confinement” set this case apart from prior prison-conditions lawsuits, and as a result the prior “decades-old determinations” by the Supreme Court and federal appeals court upholding death-row prison conditions were not binding. “As courts and corrections officers across the country have begun to realize, the years-long isolation that the pre-2015 conditions of confinement forced on plaintiffs created, at the least, a significant risk of substantial psychological and emotional harm,” Brinkema wrote. Kathryn Ali, one of the lawyers for the prisoners, said “[t]he law in this area is very bad but it's also very old. ... Judge Brinkema's ruling is a landmark ruling but i think its also just common sense, that we shouldn't be torturing people by keeping them in isolation.” Victor M. Glasberg, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the five original plaintiffs in 2014, said the court's decision could have implications for prison-conditions lawsuits in other states. “This opinion should serve as a snowball let loose at the top of a snowy mountain, to turn into an avalanche as advocates in other states bring similar suits to end what has become increasingly recognized as untenable conditions in which to hold human beings,” he said. Under the reforms Virginia implemented in 2015, death-row prisoners are permitted to have contact visits with family members one day per week, for up to an hour and a half, as well as non-contact visits on holidays and weekends. They now have access to a covered outdoor yard for up to an hour and a half per day, five days a week. The yard has a basketball court and exercise equipment, which up to four prisoners at a time may share. Virginia now also permits daily one-hour access for up to four prisoners at a time to an indoor recreation space that has games, music, and a television. Death-row prisoners also are now permitted to shower daily.

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Pennsylvania Death-Row Prisoners File Lawsuit Challenging Automatic, Permanent Solitary Confinement

Five prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania have filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the Commonwealth's policy mandating solitary confinement for all condemned prisoners. The five named plaintiffs have been held in solitary confinement between 16 and 27 years each, kept in cells the size of a parking space, allowed out for a maximum of two hours per day for exercise, and denied human contact with family members during prison visits. The prisoners, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abolitionist Law Center, and three law firms, call these conditions "degrading" and "inhumane" and say the "policy and practice of automatically and permanently placing all death-sentenced prisoners in solitary confinement" is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said Pennsylvania's death-row solitary confinment "until either the prisoner is executed, or dies of natural causes, or has his death sentence overturned is very different from the way solitary confinement is used for all other prisoners. For all other prisoners, you earn your way in and you earn your way out. You serve your punishment, and, if you behave, you can come back to the general population.” While many states still keep death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, that practice is changing. At least eight states have recently allowed death-row prisoners more time outside their cells, including Arizona, which changed its policy in 2017 in response to a similar lawsuit. According to the Pennsylvania suit, however, about 80% of those currently on death row have been held in solitary confinement for more than ten years. The United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners prohibits solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days. One of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit who has been held in solitary confinement for 21 years "describe[d] his experience as ‘psychological torture,’ where prisoners are ‘treated like animals’ and forced to ‘depend on everybody for everything.'" The lawsuit says "[h]e feels ‘trapped in [his] cell’ – and his ‘mind is like a popcorn machine.’” Pennsylvania's death-row conditions were challenged in 1980, but upheld by a federal court. “In the intervening time, there has been a sea change in the scientific understanding of solitary confinement and increasing recognition by the courts that this crosses constitutional boundaries when it is prolonged,” said Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center. Just last year, a federal court ordered Pennsylvania to end its practice of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement even after their death sentences had been vacated, until they were formally resentenced or released. The retrial or resentencing process often took many years and, in some cases, took decades.


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