NEW VOICES: Nebraska Senator Changes Course After Hearing from Victims' Families

As Nebraska's legislature began debate on a bill to repeal the death penalty, one senator explained how his views on the issue had evolved. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal Star, Sen. Colby Coash said that his participation with a group celebrating an execution led him to oppose the death penalty: "I made a decision during my shame that I would no longer be a part of someone's death." A second influence was his conversations with relatives of murder victims. He quoted one family member, Merriam Thimm-Kelle, who testified to the legislature about her experience, "Death penalty supporters say that carrying out the death penalty is family closure. Closure is a myth. The death penalty does absolutely nothing for families except more pain." On March 19, the Judiciary Committee approved a repeal bill without dissent. A vote in the entire unicameral legislature may take place on May 13. (UPDATE: The repeal bill was stopped by a filibuster on May 14. The vote to end the filibuster was 28-21, but 33 votes were needed.) Read the full op-ed below.

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EDITORIALS: Miami Herald Calls on Governor to Block Fast-Track Executions

An editorial in the Miami Herald called on Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) to veto a bill recently passed by the legislature requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after state Supreme Court review, with the execution taking place within 180 days after that. The editorial listed several death row inmates who were exonerated after spending more than 10 years on death row, and noted, “All of them might have been executed if the legislation that's heading to the governor's desk had been the law.” The paper urged Gov. Scott to block the legislation and wait for a committee appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to study the state’s judicial system to release its findings. The editorial concluded, “If the point is to reduce the stay on death row to less than a decade, it's the wrong focus. The real problem is sloppy justice, cases where evidence is hidden, for instance, and current state rules that allow judges to impose the death penalty without even a unanimous jury vote.” Read the Editorial below.

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LETHAL INJECTION: Arkansas Plans to Use Untested Drug in Executions

The Arkansas Department of Corrections recently announced it will use a new drug, phenobarbital, for lethal injections. Phenobarbital is used to treat seizures but has never been used for executions in the U.S. Some experts are concerned that using drugs that are untested for this purpose could result in inhumane treatment. David Lubarsky, who chairs the anesthesiology department at the University of Miami's medical school, said, “People should not be using inmates as an experiment. And that is basically what this is. It's basically experimenting." Up until a few years ago, all states carrying out lethal injections used sodium thiopental as the first of three drugs in their protocol. States were forced to seek alternative drugs when the manufacturer stopped making sodium thiopental in response to objections about its use in executions. Oklahoma was the first state to employ pentobarbital, a sedative commonly used by veterinarians to euthanize animals, but that drug is now in short supply for executions. Last year, Missouri announced plans to use propofol for lethal injections, though the manufacturer of that drug has also restricted its sale. Arkansas also plans to use the drug lorazepam prior to the execution as a sedative. However, Jon Groner, a surgery professor at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, said lorazepam makes some people excitable, instead of relaxed.

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Connecticut Supreme Court Considers Executions After Death Penalty Repeal

On April 23, the Connecticut Supreme Court will consider whether the 11 inmates who remained on the state's row after the legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in 2012 can still be executed. Mark Rademacher, an attorney for one of the inmates, argued that the legislature’s repeal of the death penalty demonstrated the punishment is no longer necessary and, hence, executing his client would be cruel and unusual punishment. Rademacher also asserted that the law’s prospective nature violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution because it singles out a small group of defendants for the death penalty, while dictating a life sentence for defendants in similar situations. Brian Stull, of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, noted in his amicus brief that, "No state has executed a prisoner after repealing the death penalty. We just think it's so important for the court to know Connecticut would be the first state to, and that's not a stat any state wants to take." The state has argued it was the clear intent of the legislature to only have the law apply to future cases.

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RECENT LEGISLATION: Texas Legislature Examining Problems of Innocence and Racial Bias

Two bills under consideration in Texas aim to address issues in the state’s death penalty. House Bill 2458 would allow defendants to appeal their death sentences if they can prove that race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. Statistical evidence of bias can be used to support such a claim. Similar bills, referred to as the Racial Justice Act, have been considered in other states. Testimony in favor of the bill mentioned the case of Duane Buck, an African American who was sentenced to death after a psychologist testifed that Buck would likely be a future danger to society because of his race. On April 17, the Texas Senate unanimously passed SB 1292, a bill that requires the state to collect and test all DNA evidence prior to a trial in which the defendant could receive the death penalty. The bill now heads to the House.

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INNOCENCE: Alabama Lawmakers Unanimously Vote to Pardon Scottsboro Boys

On April 4, the Alabama House of Representatives voted 103-0 in favor of a bill to posthumously pardon the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-0, and Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he will sign it. All but one of the group were sentenced to death by all-white juries with virtually no legal representation. The military had to protect them from angry mobs. They lingered on death row for years. Eventually, after several arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court on the right to counsel and proper selection of juries, all of them were freed without execution. Through the years of appeals, one of the women who accused the group of rape recanted and said the claim was a lie. Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said, "Their lives were ruined by the convictions. By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago." The last of the group of defendants died in 1989. (photo: Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA).

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RECENT LEGISLATION: Death Penalty Repeal Passes Delaware Senate; Defeated in Colorado

On March 26, Delaware's Senate passed (11-10) a bill to repeal the death penalty, after amending it to exclude current death row inmates. Those who testified in support of the repeal cited racial disparities, a lack of deterrent effect, and the high costs associated with capital punishment. The bill will now move on to the House of Representatives, which is expected to consider the measure in April. On the same day, Colorado’s House Judiciary Committee voted (6-4) against a repeal bill. Legislators heard nine hours of testimony regarding the bill, largely from supporters of the measure. Seventeen states have either considered legislation to repeal the death penalty this year or will likely consider it in the next session. Earlier in March, a bill to repeal the death penalty passed the Maryland General Assembly, and the governor has pledged to sign it into law, making Maryland the 18th state to do away with the death penalty.

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EDITORIALS: "With Death Penalty Bans Gaining Steam, What's Next for Texas?"

The Dallas Morning News used the recent repeal of the death penalty in Maryland as an occasion to advocate for death-penalty reform in Texas. The editors commented on the overall impropriety of capital punishment: “At best, the death penalty is selectively used state-supported retribution, which has no place in a civilized society.” The editorial supported six pending bills aimed at improving the fairness of the death penalty. One bill would bar the use of informant testimony in death penalty cases if the testimony was obtained from a witness or accomplice in exchange for favorable treatment. Another bill would create criteria based on scientific standards for courts deciding whether a defendant has an intellectual disability that would exclude him from execution. A third bill would introduce a Racial Justice Act into law to protect against bias in death sentencing. Read full editorial below.

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Delaware Legislature Considering Death Penalty Repeal Bill

On March 12, Delaware State Senator Karen Peterson introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty and replace it with life without parole. “I don’t think the state should be in the business of killing people,” Peterson said. “It just is so bizarre to me that we would say to somebody that what you did was so horrible, that now we’re going to do it." Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, a Republican, is also backing the bill. The bill is retroactive, meaning that it would also replace the sentences of those on death row with life without parole. Supporters of the bill say that the death penalty is too costly and does not deter crime. Two police organizations oppose the bill, saying that the death penalty should be available for those who murder police officers. Governor Jack Markell has not taken a position, saying he has "an open mind" regarding death penalty repeal. Delaware has carried out 16 executions since reinstating the death penalty and has 17 people on death row.

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Maryland's Legislature Repeals the Death Penalty

On March 15, the Maryland House of Delegates passed (82-56) a bill to abolish the death penalty for future crimes. The same bill passed the Maryland Senate on March 6. Governor Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign the bill, which will make Maryland the 18th state to abolish the death penalty, and the sixth to do so in the last six years. O'Malley said, “I’ve felt compelled to do everything I could to change our law, repeal the death penalty, so that we could focus on doing the things that actually work to reduce violent crime.” Maryland currently has five people on death row, but they will not be affected by the legislation.  Prior to 2007, no legislature had abolished the death penalty since the 1960s. The other 5 states to recently abolish the death penalty are New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut.

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