NEW VOICES: Military and Diplomatic Leaders Urge Reprieve for Foreign National Facing Texas Execution

On June 7, a clemency petition was filed with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles requesting a halt to the July-7 execution of Humberto Leal, a Mexican citizen who was not advised of his consular rights upon arrest for a murder in San Antonio in 1994.  The petition was accompanied by letters from former U.S. diplomats, retired military leaders, former prosecutors and judges, and assocations of Americans living abroad calling for a stay of execution until Congress can pass legislation to guarantee proper notification in such cases.  The U.S. is a party to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that requires officials to inform foreign nationals of their right to contact their consulate when arrested.  The treaty is designed to protect both U.S. citizens abroad and citizens of other countries in the U.S.  Among the signers of the letter from retired military officers were Rear Admiral Don Guter, USN, Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, USN, and Brigadier General James P. Cullen, USA.  They wrote:  "International consular notification and access obligations are essential to ensuring humane, non-discriminatory treatment for both non-citizens in U.S. custody and U.S. citizens in the custody of foreign governments. As retired military leaders, we understand that the preservation of consular access protections is especially important for U.S. military personnel, who when serving our country overseas are at greater risk of being arrested by a foreign government."

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COSTS: Nevada Senate Approves Bill to Study Death Penalty Costs

On May 28, the Nevada Senate passed a bill authorizing an audit of the cost of the state's death penalty.  By a vote of 11-10, the Senate called for the legislative auditor to compare the costs of prosecution and appeals in capital cases to non-death penalty cases, examining the cost of defense lawyers, juries, psychiatric evaluations, appellate and post-conviction proceedings. The auditor would also examine the cost of an execution, including the costs of facilities and staff. The report would be due Jan. 31, 2013. Nevada has not had an execution since April 2006, and has 77 inmates on death row. The bill originally called for a moratorium on executions, but prison officials said they did not presently have the drugs to carry out an execution anyhow.  The bill now goes back to the Assembly.

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Update on Lethal Injection Issue

In a clear national trend, seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina) have used pentobarbital instead of sodium thiopental in their executions in 2011. The most recent such execution was that of Donald Beaty in Arizona on May 25, following a temporary stay as the state made a sudden switch to the new drug.  Ohio is the only one of the seven states to use pentobarbital as the sole drug in its lethal-injection process.  At least five states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina) that acquired sodium thiopental through an overseas source have had the drug seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  In addition, Arizona was instructed by the DEA not to use its foreign sodium thiopental just prior to the May 25 execution. Arkansas and California also have supplies of sodium thiopental originally obtained from a supplier in Great Britain.  In Nebraska, questions about its supply of sodium thiopental--obtained from a company in India--has postponed the execution of Carey Dean Moore.  South Dakota's sodium thiopental was also reportedly obtained from India.  Other states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia have indicated they intend to switch to pentobarbital in future executions.

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EDITORIALS: Birmingham News Calls for Moratorium on Alabama's Death Penalty

A recent editorial in the Birmingham News called on Alabama lawmakers to pass legislation that would require a three-year moratorium on imposing death sentences and carrying out executions, giving the state time to address flaws in the death penalty system. The editorial outlined five reasons why legislators with various positions should be united in such an effort. The paper stated:

- Lawmakers who are pro-life should be concerned Alabama is among the nation's most gung-ho and careless states in putting people to death.

- Lawmakers who are fiscally conservative should be concerned that studies in other states have shown it's much less expensive to lock up killers for life than to put them to death. A newspaper report found Florida could save a whopping $51 million a year by sentencing killers to life without parole rather than death.

- Lawmakers who are troubled by racial disparities should be concerned the color of a defendant's or victim's skin plays a role in who gets executed.

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Key Connecticut Committee Approves Death Penalty Repeal Bill

On April 12, the Connecticut legislature's Judiciary Committee approved (26-17) a bill to repeal the death penalty for future crimes and replace the sentence with life without parole. Supporters of the bill said it would avoid the risk of wrongful executions and save taxpayers the costs of lengthy trials and appeals. Both supporters and opponents of capital punishment agreed that the state’s current system is not working. Sen. Eric Coleman said the state’s justice system “is not infallible.” He also noted that the state spends $3.4 million per year enforcing the death penalty. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there has only been one execution in Connecticut, an inmate who waived his appeals and hastened his execution. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives. In March, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill repealing the death penalty in his state. Several other states have considered bills to repeal the death penalty during their 2011 legislative session, including Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

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NEW VOICES: Prominent Texans Support Death Penalty Moratorium Legislation

Former Gov. Mark WhiteThe Texas Criminal Jurisprudence Committee of the House of Representatives heard testimony on March 29 regarding HB 1641, a bill that would put a hold on executions while the death penalty was being studied.  Charles Terrell, former Chairman of the state's Department of Criminal Justice, supported the moratorium in a statement to the committee, expressing concerns about: "fairness to those convicted on the limited testimony of witnesses, racial fairness in some areas of our state, the absence of DNA testing where it was possible to do so, and my belief that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is far worse than a death sentence for young offenders."  Former Texas Gov. Mark White (pictured) also wrote a statement to the Committee in favor of the bill, stating that "there are more safeguards beyond careful gubernatorial review that the State of Texas should put in place to decrease the likelihood of executing an innocent individual and to increase fundamental fairness in our capital punishment system."   White also wrote that "regardless of our views on the death penalty itself, we all have profound concerns that the administration of capital punishment is deeply flawed and believe that all persons facing the death penalty are entitled to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution." 


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Connecticut Weighs Legislation to Repeal Death Penalty

Earlier in March, hearings were held in Connecticut before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill to replace the death penalty for future crimes with a sentence of life without parole.  Many religious leaders, scholars, former death row inmates, and families of murder victims families testified in favor of the bill. Catholic Bishop Peter Rosazza, retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, said, "The death penalty diminishes us all.  We cannot teach respect for life by taking a life."  Another witness, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, pointed to needs that could be met from the money now spent on the death penalty: “[I]t is a costly endeavor to sentence a person to death, given the lengthy appeals process. . . .You spend more money on the death penalty, you take away money from public safety. … We could solve more rape cases, we could solve more robberies … if we had more money to put into that instead of the death penalty.” 

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LETHAL INJECTION: Texas Switches to New Drug as Next Execution Approaches

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) announced on March 16 that it will switch to pentobarbital as part of its three-drug lethal injection protocol for the upcoming execution of Cleve Foster on April 5.  The short notice has drawn concerns from Foster's defense attorneys and lethal injection experts. Maurie Levin, a professor at the University of Texas who represents Foster, said, “Prison officials are not medical professionals. They cannot be trusted to change a medical procedure in the dark of night without public scrutiny, especially when there is such a minimal track record on the use of pentobarbital in lethal injections."  Prof. Deborah Denno of Fordham Law School, one of the nation’s leading experts on the lethal injection, said that the “Texas decision was not about making executions more humane but was meant to make the process more feasible.”  She also pointed to the fact that the problems with the earlier methods of lethal injection arose because one state blindly followed another, without careful review: "This lemming-effect has created a decades-long pattern of lethal injection botches in which department of corrections try to remain one step ahead of lawsuits."

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NEW VOICES: "The Conservative Argument to Abolish the Death Penalty"

In a recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune following Illinois's abolition of the death penalty, author and attorney Scott Turow (pictured) outlined three major conservative reasons for opposing capital punishment: it is a failed government program, it is a waste of money, and it doesn't fit with the idea of limited government. Turow served on former Governor George Ryan's Commission on Capital Punishment, which found numerous problems with the state's death penalty. In highlighting the failures of the system, Turow said, "For conservatives who believe government is too large, too inefficient and too unwieldy to deliver health care, or even the mail for that matter, it should come as no surprise that government efforts to justly select those worthy of death has been a moral disaster." On the issue of costs, he addressed the high cost of death penalty trials and appeals and the lack of deterrent effect, saying, "if the death penalty clearly served a practical purpose like saving lives, these increased costs might be worth it. But in Illinois we have experienced a steady decline in our murder rate since Gov. Ryan first declared the moratorium on executions." Turow closed by noting that some of our European allies abolished the death penalty as a reaction to the horrors of World War II. "The conservative-libertarian view that says that the powers of government must be strictly limited supports drawing a clear line prohibiting a democratic government from ever lawfully killing any of the citizens from whom it draws power. That way a regime that vanished its political enemies or executed despised minorities would mark itself, whatever the legal rigamorole, as an outlaw."

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EDITORIALS: Illinois Death Penalty Repeal Called a "Victory for Justice"

An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times applauded Illinois Governor Pat Quinn for signing the bill abolishing the death penalty. The editors wrote, "We’ve learned that the system makes too many mistakes to entrust it with the ultimate power of capital punishment. We’ve learned that legal safeguards can be pushed aside when emotions are high after a heinous crime. We’ve learned that political ambition sometimes blinds those in power to the weaknesses of a case. We’ve learned that evidence can disappear or be misrepresented, that witnesses seeking special deals may lie, that juries may be swayed by emotion instead of facts."  For Gov. Quinn, the flaws in the system that can lead to a wrongful execution played the most powerful role in his decision. In a statement delivered immediately after the signing, he said, “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” He continued, “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”

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