Death Row News and Developments: 2005

1,000 Faith Leaders Call for End to the Death Penalty As the 1,000th execution approaches, over 1,000 religious leaders from more than a dozen religious faiths have issued an open letter calling for an end to capital punishment in the United States. The letter reaffirms the leaders’ moral opposition to the death penalty and reiterates the groups’ belief in the sacredness of life and the human capacity for change. The faith leaders called on public officials to reexamine capital punishment and to seek better ways to help communities heal from violence. The letter states:

We join with many Americans in questioning the need for the death penalty in our modern society and in challenging the effectiveness of this punishment, which has consistently been shown to be ineffective, unfair, and inaccurate. The death penalty not only applies disproportionately to the poor and to people of color, but also continues to make fatal mistakes, with 122 people now freed from death rows across the country due to evidence of wrongful conviction. As the number of executions increases, the likelihood that we have, or that we will, execute an innocent person becomes a near certainty.

The United States continues to be one of the top executing nations in the world and is out of step with the majority of its global allies on this issue. We would be a better society by joining the many nations that have already abolished the death penalty.

The views of the letter’s signatories are shared by faith groups around the nation. For example, hundreds of churches nationwide are planning to mark the 1,000th execution by holding vigils and tolling bells in memory of all murder victims, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently approved new, stronger language aimed at ending the death penalty in the U.S. The 1,000th execution is currently scheduled to take place on December 2, 2005. (United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society Press Release, “1,000 Religious Leaders Renew Call for Death Penalty Abolition As 1,000th Execution Approaches,” November 28, 2005) Read the letter and the press release. See New Voices and Executions.

1000th Execution Approaches

The U.S. conducted the 1,000th execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 on December 2. This is a somber milestone in the history of capital punishment, but it comes at a time when the use of the death penalty in this country is sharply declining. Death sentences, the size of death row, executions, and public support for the death penalty are all lower than they were five years ago.

This event presents an opportunity to reflect on the application of the death penalty over the past 30 years. The following are resources that may be helpful in such a review:

CALENDAR (subject to stays)
No. since 1976
Date of execution
Elias Syriani
Executed- NC
Eric Nance
Executed- Ark.
John Hicks
Executed - OH

Robin Lovitt

Daryl Mack
STAYED--Dec. 1 - NV
Executed Dec. 2 - NC
Shawn Humphries
Executed Dec. 2 - SC

Other organizations' responses (including the letter from 1,000 religious leaders):

NEW VOICES: Originator of Lethal Injection Voices Regrets, Opposes Death Penalty Bill Wiseman, the former Oklahoma legislator who introduced lethal injection as a method of execution in the U.S. in order to make death row inmates' deaths more humane, now regrets having pushed the concept into law. He notes that he introduced the measure in order to ease his shame for having voted to restore the death penalty in Oklahoma, stating, "I'm sorry for what I did. I hope someday to offset it by helping us realize that capital punishment is wrong and self-destructive." While discussing recent court challenges regarding lethal injection practices, Wiseman stated, "I'm aware of my responsibility. It keeps me tied to the problem. And the problem is that we're killing people. That's what's wrong, not how we're doing it." Wiseman is no longer an elected official and was recently ordained as an Episcopal priest. (Mother Jones, September/October 2005). See Methods of Execution and New Voices. Executions by Lethal Injection Being Challenged around the Country A number of states are grappling with the question of whether the lethal injection drug Pavulon, also known as pancuronium bromide, paralyzes a condemned inmate's muscles in a way that masks horrific pain felt during an execution, a side-effect that experts say could violate of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments about this issue in a death row case in June 2005 and a similar case is expected to reach the Kentucky Supreme Court soon. In May 2005, a Missouri inmate was given a last minute stay so that the U.S. Supreme Court could review his death penalty procedure case. His claim was denied 5-4, and he was later executed.

Opponents of Pavulon say the drug could render the most widely-used lethal injection proceedure in the U.S. unconstitutional, noting that the paralyzing drug has been banned by the American Veterinary Medical Association for animal euthanasia because it can mask any signs that an anesthetic has failed to work. During the lethal injection process, the first drug administered is an anesthetic that puts an inmate to sleep. Pavulon is the second drug used and it is designed to paralyze the person's muscle system. The third drug, potassium chloride, stops the heart.  A University of Miami study of autopsy toxicology report data in 49 U.S. executions using Pavulon revealed that 21 of those inmates were probably conscious when they received potassium chloride, which meant that Pavulon had masked the ability to determine if there was pain and suffering. (The Tennessean, July 5, 2005). See Methods of Execution.
Nebraska Supreme Court to Hear Electric Chair Challenge The Nebraska Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the state's use of the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment. The case, brought by death row inmate Carey Dean Moore, will be heard on May 5. Every other death penalty state has adopted lethal injection as an alternative method of execution. A bill to offer lethal injection in Nebraska remains stalled in the state's Senate Judiciary Committee.

Three people have been put to death in Nebraska since executions resumed in 1994. Coroner reports document that one of the men, John Joubert, suffered a 4-inch brain blister on the top of his head and blistering on both sides of his head above his ears. The reports note that another man, Robert Williams, had a "bubble blister" the size of a baseball on his left calf and had pronounced "charring" on both sides of a knee and the top of his head. A witness to Williams' execution reported seeing smoke coming from his head.

Moore's attorney, Alan Peterson, notes, "Now, no other state mandates that humans face the horror of death by internal burning and shock, with the well-known history of bungled, smoking failures of the century-old technique. [Electrocution] involves more than mere extinguishment of life and will subject defendant to needless agony, physical suffering, torture, mutilation, disfigurement, and degradation.... No longer can this state tolerate the form of punishment now almost universally recognized to be beyond the bounds of minimum human dignity, civility, and decency."  (Associated Press, April 19, 2005).

Georgia's Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair violated the state's constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in 2001. A few states allow inmates to choose the electric chair rather than lethal injection as their method of execution. See Methods of Execution.
Lethal Injection To Be Examined In Kentucky A Franklin County, Kentucky, court will hear arguments beginning April 18 to determine whether the state's lethal injection procedures rise to the level of cruelty that is forbidden by the U.S. and state constitutions. In November 2004, the same court cited questions about the lethal injection process when it issued a stay of execution for Thomas Clyde Bowling, Jr. just days before his scheduled execution. Attorneys for Bowling and death row inmate Ralph Baze, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, now plan to present an anesthesiologist, a pharmacologist, and 18 other witnesses whose testimony will challenge the state's lethal injection procedures, the drugs used in these executions, and the training of the personnel who carry them out. Currently, Kentucky uses a series of three drugs during lethal injections that are designed to relax and put inmates to sleep before killing them. Bowling's attorney plans to present evidence that the first drugs do not get into the blood stream before the killing drugs are administered, leading to a "death that is pure torture." Among the evidence presented will be an autopsy report for Eddie Lee Harper, the state's first and only inmate to be executed by lethal injection. (Associated Press, April 14, 2005).  Similar concerns about lethal injection were recently raised in a study that was published in the British medical journal The Lancet. See more about this study. See Methods of Execution. MEDICAL JOURNAL, THE LANCET: Inmates Probably Conscious During Lethal Injections inmates affected A team of medical doctors reported in the British medical journal The Lancet that in 43 of 49 executed inmates (88%) studied, the anaesthetic administered during lethal injections was lower than that required for surgery.  Toxicology reports from Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina revealed that post-mortem concentrations of thiopental in the blood were below typical surgery levels, and in 21 inmates (43%) the concentrations of thiopental in the blood were consistent with awareness.  Their investigation of lethal injection practices from several states found that the guidelines for delivering the essential anaesthesia drug thiopental are flawed and that some inmates might experience awareness and suffering during their execution. In Texas and Virginia, the researchers found that those administering thiopental during lethal injections had no training, and that the drug was administered remotely with no monitoring for anaesthesia. The study also found that in these states no records were kept regarding the administration of thiopental and no peer-review was done.  The report concludes, "Failures in protocol design, implementation, monitoring and review might have led to the unnecessary suffering of at least some of those executed. Because participation of doctors in protocol design or execution is ethically prohibited, adequate anaesthesia cannot be certain. Therefore, to prevent unnecessary cruelty and suffering, cessation and public review of lethal injection is warranted."  (The Lancet, Volume 365, Page 1412, April 16, 2005).  See Methods of Execution.  Kentucky to Conduct Hearing on Whether Lethal Injection Is Humane In Kentucky, a Franklin Circuit Court judge will hear evidence for possibly five days in April on whether the state's method of executing prisoners is humane. Medical experts will testify about the drugs, dosage and training of the people who administer the 3-drug lethal-injection cocktail. Lawyers for condemned inmates Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr. and Ralph Baze sued the state in August, saying Kentucky's method of execution violates a prisoner's Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

Among the issues to be reviewed are the type of chemicals used in lethal injection, the dosage, and how much of the drugs make it into the body of the condemned. Kentucky has executed only one person, Eddie Lee Harper, by lethal injection, in 1999. In court papers, Baze and Bowling's lawyers have argued that there is more than a 50 percent chance that Harper was awake when the third drug was administered, meaning he could have felt pain. But because the state uses a drug called Pavulon, which paralyzes the muscles, Harper could not have communicated that he was in pain. (Kentucky Herald-Leader, Jan. 20, 2005). See Methods of Execution. 9th Circuit Weighs Lethal Injection Challenge in California Note: The Court of Appeals denied the challenge to California's lethal injection process. Just one week before the scheduled execution of California death row inmate Donald Beardslee, judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit are considering a suit filed by the ACLU of California, Death Penalty Focus, and Beardslee's defense attorneys concerning the state's use of a paralyzing chemical called Pavulon in lethal injections. Beardslee's attorneys said that Pavulon could prevent an inmate from crying out in pain, and that it could mask suffering caused by asphyxiation and the searing sensation caused by the last administered chemical in the lethal injection process, potassium chloride. Some of the judges expressed concerns about the state's secretiveness and lack of detail regarding the chemical: "You're putting us in an awkward position," said Judge Sidney Thomas to the state's lawyer. "Some other states don't use it." Defense attorneys argued that the purpose of including Pavulon is to keep the public in the dark about whether the state's lethal injection method is inhumane. A ruling is still pending regarding this appeal, and a separate bid for clemency from the governor will be heard soon by the state's parole board. (Sacramento Bee, January 13, 2005). This would be the 11th execution in California since the death penalty was reinstated 30 years ago. There are 638 people on the state's death row. See Methods of Execution and Clemency.