Lethal Injection

Arizona Makes Key Concessions, Reaches Deal With Prisoners to Settle Lethal-Injection Lawsuit

Death-row prisoners and the state of Arizona have reached a tentative settlement to address the state's lethal-injection protocol. Under the settlement, which could have an impact on lethal-injection litigation across the country, Arizona has dropped a three-drug formula from its protocol in favor of using a high dose of single barbiturate, and will honor a prior commitment not to use the sedative midazolam. The state also agreed not to use any paralytic drug in the execution process—which defense lawyers argued had served only to mask the prisoners' reaction to the painful third drug used to stop his heart. The proposed agreement provides greater transparency and accountability throughout the execution process, permitting witnesses to see corrections personnel escort the prisoner into the execution chamber, strap him to the gurney, and insert the intravenous line. The witnesses also will be able to view via closed-circuit monitors the drugs being inserted into the IV lines. In the past, Arizona had been sharply criticized for repeatedly changing execution procedures, and the state has agreed that the director of the Department of Corrections would no longer be able to make last-minute changes to the execution process. Arizona also agreed to test the drugs before they are used in an execution, and committed to not use expired drugs. Previously, the state had agreed it would not use the sedative midazolam—which was used in the botched execution of Joseph Wood in 2014—but had hedged on that commitment in a revised protocol published in 2015. At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Neil Wake, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Sparks said the agreement wouldn't immediately restart executions. "The state doesn't have drugs right now and has no intention of seeking a warrant," Sparks said. Dale Baich, a lawyer for the death-row prisoners, praised the settlement. "Arizona has had this history of problematic executions, but today the state is taking steps to decrease the risk that prisoners will be tortured to death," he said. Prisoners in Ohio are raising similar challenges as the state has repeatedly changed its proposed protocol, promising in 2009 that it would never again use a three-drug formula, then proposing exactly such a protocol in 2016. Arizona's lethal-injection procedure is still the subject of another lawsuit brought by a group of media organizations that are seeking transparency on the source of execution drugs and the qualifications of executioners.

Federal Court Grants Lethal-Injection Stay to Alabama Prisoner With Claims of Attorney Abandonment, Flawed Forensics

Robert Melson (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose clemency petition alleges that abandonment by his post-conviction lawyers prevented him from adequately challenging the flawed forensic evidence in his case, received a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on a challenge to Alabama's lethal-injection protocol. Melson was convicted of three murders at a Popeye's restaurant in 1994. A survivor of the crime recognized one of two assailants as Cuhuatemoc “Tempo” Peraita, an acquaintance of Melson's, and described the second assailant only as a black man. More than an hour after the crime occurred, police pulled over Peraita's car, and arrested him along with the black male passenger, Robert Melson. At the suggestion of police, Peraita—a 17-year-old with intellectual impairments—confessed to having been present during the crime, but claimed Melson had shot the victims. (Peraita has since recanted his accusation.) Melson has consistently maintained his innocence. During the interrogation, police took Melson's shoes from him. According to Melson's clemency petition, "Five days later, a police evidence technician belatedly discovered, photographed, and cast footprints in a rainy drainage ditch behind Popeye’s restaurant, which they later said matched Mr. Melson’s shoes." Peraita didn't testify at Melson's trial, and the witness who had identified Peraita did not identify Melson in a photo lineup. No other forensic evidence—such as fingerprints or DNA—linked Melson to the crime. As a result, Melson's conviction relied heavily on the shoeprint evidence, a type of evidence that the landmark 2009 report on forensic science by the National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, found to be unreliable, unscientific, and susceptible to bias. In addition to the problems inherent with shoeprint evidence, nearly two inches of rain had fallen between the time of the crime and the time police reported discovering the shoeprint. Melson should have been able to challenge the shoeprint evidence during his post-conviction appeal, but was represented by an inexperienced volunteer attorney who was not licensed in Alabama and a local attorney who had a history of malpractice. The lawyers did not properly file Melson's state post-conviction petition, and then, on appeal, they filed the documents in the wrong court, causing his appeal to be dismissed. The error was compounded because the attorneys failed to inform Melson of the dismissal. Melson's time to file a petition for habeas corpus in federal court ran out before he learned his state case had been dismissed. Cases like Melson's raise concerns about Alabama's recently passed "Fair Justice Act," which would potentially exacerbate errors like those made by his attorneys, since state deadlines would be shorter and stricter and all state death penalty appeals would run concurrently. In a separate case, Melson and several other Alabama death-row prisoners challenged Alabama's use of midazolam in executions, highlighting problems that have occurred when the drug was used in past executions. The 11th Circuit stayed Melson's June 8 execution to allow time for it to consider that challenge. [UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay of execution, and Melson was executed as scheduled.]

Indiana Appeals Court Voids State's Lethal-Injection Protocol

The Indiana Court of Appeals has voided the state's lethal-injection protocol. In a ruling on June 1, 2017, the state intermediate appeals court held that the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) had failed to comply with state rulemaking procedures when it adopted a never-before-used execution protocol without public notice or comment. In 2014, the DOC announced that it had adopted a new execution protocol "informally as an internal DOC policy." The protocol called for a three-drug lethal-injection combination of the barbiturate methohexital (Brevital), followed by pancuronium bromide, a paralytic, followed by potassium chloride to stop the prisoner's heart. No state has ever carried out an execution using that drug combination. Death-row prisoner Roy Lee Ward challenged the protocol, saying that DOC's use of informal internal procedures to put the protocol in place violated the Indiana Administrative Rules and Procedure Act (ARPA) and his right to due process. A lower court dismissed the lawsuit. On appeal, the DOC argued that it was exempt from the ARPA, but the appeals court flatly rejected that argument. It wrote: "If the legislature intended to exempt the DOC from the purview of ARPA altogether, or even to exempt the DOC’s execution protocols, it could have easily done so, but it has not." The court held, "[a]s a matter of law, DOC must comply with ARPA when changing its execution protocol, and its failure to do so in this case means that the changed protocol is void and without effect." David Frank, who represented Ward in the appeal, praised the ruling, saying "[t]he public has a right to know what unelected bureaucrats at state agencies are doing." The decision does not mean Indiana cannot carry out executions, he said, but "bring[s] what [Indiana is] doing out of the shadows" and makes state officials "accountable to the public." Indiana has not carried out an execution since 2009.

Texas Appeals Court Rules State Must Disclose Identity of 2014 Execution Drug Supplier

The Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals has rejected claims made by state corrections officials that disclosure of the identity of its supplier of the execution drug pentobarbital would expose the company to a "substantial threat of physical harm." Finding these claims to be “mere speculation,” the appeals court ruled on May 25, 2017, that Texas must disclose the identity of the compounding pharmacy that supplied execution drugs to the state in 2014. The ruling upholds a Travis County District Court order in a suit that was filed on behalf of two death-row prisoners under the state's Public Information Act. The prisoners' attempt to litigate a challenge to the state's lethal injection practices failed to halt their executions, but the district court later determined that the identity of the drug supplier was "public information" subject to disclosure under the state public records law. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had argued that information concerning the identity of the compounding pharmacy that provided execution drugs fell within a safety exemption in the act, which shields release of otherwise public information where disclosure would create a "substantial threat of physical harm." The court found that TDCJ had shown nothing more than the risk of public criticism, which it said was not enough to block the supplier's identity from disclosure. The court recognized that "[t]here are myriad reasons why a private business or professional involved in the [execution] process would not want that fact known publicly—potential adverse marketplace effects, unwanted publicity, critical written or oral communications from members of the public, or protests, to name but a few of the unpleasantries that can accompany one’s association with such a controversial public issue." But under the law, the "sole permissible focus" is the "threat of physical harm from disclosure of the pharmacy’s or pharmacist’s identity—not, in themselves, any threats of harm to privacy or economic interests, threats of media or political 'firestorms,' or even threats of harm to property short of harm to persons." In 2016, a BuzzFeed News review of FBI records found that state claims that execution drug suppliers have been the subject of threats by anti-death penalty activists were largely unsubstantiated and exaggerated. Maurie Levin, one of the defense lawyers who filed the public records lawsuit, praised the court's ruling, saying: "They stuck to the law … and the law affirms that those who are involved in government actions don’t get to be anonymous and might be subject to criticism and protest." And she added, "That’s the nature of the beast. That is how our government works. I think the affirmation of those principles is really important." The decision is limited to the source of the state's execution drugs in 2014, because the state passed a broader secrecy law after the suit was filed. TDCJ has said it will appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. Texas is also suing the federal Food and Drug Administration over its seizure of execution drugs the FDA has said Texas attempted to illegally import from India. The FDA seized the drugs in October 2015, and issued a final order in April 2017 refusing to release the drugs.

Alabama Prisoner Facing Eighth Execution Date Claims Innocence, Challenges Execution Procedures

Tommy Arthur (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner whose 35-year journey through the court system has frustrated both proponents and opponents of the death penalty, is scheduled to be executed on May 25, 2017, the eighth time Alabama has set an execution date in his case. Arthur—whose conviction and death sentence has twice been overturned by the courts and was sentenced to death by his trial judge based upon a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation—has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker. Most recently, an evenly divided U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution four hours after Arthur's execution was set to begin on November 3, 2016, so the Court could consider whether to review Arthur's challenge to Alabama's use of the controversial drug midazolam and his request to be executed by firing squad. The Court ultimately declined to review both that claim and Arthur's separate challenge to the constitutionality of Alabama's non-unanimous sentencing practices. Arthur has repeatedly raised innocence claims, seeking new forensic testing of evidence from his case. Judy Wicker, the wife of Troy Wicker, who was charged with hiring Arthur to kill her husband, testified at her trial that her husband had been murdered by a burglar who beat and raped her. After Ms. Wicker's conviction, she changed her testimony when a prosecutor, who had previously represented her at a parole hearing, offered her early release if she testified against Arthur. The rape kit taken from Ms. Wicker at the time of the murder was lost or destroyed without being tested for DNA and, according to Arthur's current lawyer, Suhana Han, “[n]either a fingerprint or a weapon, nor any other physical evidence connects Arthur to the murder of Troy Wicker.” Hairs found near the victim have also never been tested with modern DNA technology. Arthur has also argued that his trial counsel was ineffective, and continues to litigate issues relating to Alabama's lethal injection protocol. He currently has an emergency motion pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, challenging the state's planned use of midazolam, a drug that has been linked to many problematic executions, including that of Ron Smith in Alabama in December 2016. He has also challenged the state's refusal to disclose records related to the Smith execution, which his lawyers say may provide critical evidence for his lethal-injection challenge. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued a preliminary ruling in Arthur's favor on a separate issue on May 23, reversing a Montgomery Circuit judge's order rejecting Arthur's claim that the legislature, rather than the Department of Corrections, should determine the state's execution method. But that procedural ruling will not delay his execution. His motion stated, "The role of the legislature is particularly critical given the controversial nature of the ADOC's current midazolam-based execution protocol. ...The choice of the first drug (midazolam) to be used is critical, because without an effective anesthetic, the second and third drugs would cause unbearable pain. But the drug the ADOC chose (in secret), midazolam, is not used in medical practice as a general anesthetic; rather, it is an anti-anxiety sedative in the same drug family as Valium and Xanax, and its use in lethal injection has been extremely problematic." [UPDATE: Alabama executed Thomas Arthur near midnight on May 25. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. on May 26. Media witnesses reported no visible indicators that the drugs had failed.]

Lawyers Call for Investigation of "Horrifying" Arkansas Execution After Witnesses Report "Coughing, Convulsing"

Calling eyewitness accounts "horrifying," attorneys for Arkansas prisoner Kenneth Williams (pictured) are seeking the preservation of evidence and "a full investigation" into what they described as Williams' "problematic execution." Williams' attorney, Shawn Nolan, said the lawyers had "tried over and over again to get the state to comport with their own protocol to avoid torturing our client to death, and yet reports from the execution witnesses indicate that Mr. Williams suffered during this execution." Media witnesses reported that they observed Williams "coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking, with sound that was audible even with the microphone turned off" during his execution. According to Associated Press reporter Kelly Kissel, "Williams' body jerked 15 times in quick succession — lurching violently against the leather restraint across his chest." Kissel, who has witnessed ten executions, said, "This is the most I've seen an inmate move three or four minutes in." Nolan called the situation "very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions." A spokesperson for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson dismissed the witness accounts, calling the execution "flawless" and Williams' movement an "involuntary muscular reaction." Nolan characterized the spokesperson's statement as "simply trying to whitewash the reality of what happened." Williams was the fourth person executed in Arkansas in eight days. The state had originally planned to execute eight inmates in eleven days, but courts stayed four of the executions for reasons specific to those prisoners. Experts, including former correctional officials, had warned that the rushed execution schedule increased the risk of problematic executions, and attorneys for the prisoners challenged the use of midazolam as the first drug in the three-drug execution protocol, arguing it would not adequately anesthetize the prisoner. Three days before Kenneth Williams' execution, problems were reported in Arkansas' execution of Jack Jones, but a federal judge allowed the state to proceed with the execution of Marcel Williams on the same night.

Arkansas Performs Double Execution Amid Allegations of Botched Lethal Injection

Arkansas carried out the nation's first double execution in nearly 17 years on April 24, 2017. The state executed Jack Jones (pictured, l.) and Marcel Williams (pictured, r.) about three hours apart, with Williams' execution delayed following allegations that Jones' execution may have been botched. Williams' attorneys filed an emergency request for a stay in federal district court, saying that "Mr. Jones's execution appeared to be torturous and inhumane." The state denied the allegations, calling them "utterly baseless." According to Williams' filing, prison staff unsuccessfully tried for 45 minutes to place a central line in Jones' neck, before eventually placing one elsewhere on his body. Witnesses reported that corrections officials did not wait the mandated 5 minutes to perform a consciousness check on Jones, and that he was moving his lips and gulping for air after the sedative midazolam had been administered. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a temporary stay in response to Williams' request, held a short hearing on the issue, then lifted the stay at approximately 9:30 pm Central time. The double execution was part of an unprecedented schedule of executions set by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson in order to use the state's supply of midazolam, the first of three execution drugs, before it expired. The governor initially set eight executions for an 11-day period, with two executions scheduled for each of four nights. The first two executions, set for April 17, were both stayed indefinitely, one execution was performed and one stayed on April 21. One of the prisoners scheduled for execution on April 27, Jason McGehee, has already received a stay of execution after the Arkansas Parole Board voted 6-1 to recommend that he be granted clemency. Litigation is still pending in the case of Kenneth Williams, the other prisoner scheduled for execution on April 27. [UPDATE: Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27.]

FDA Issues Final Order Refusing to Release Illegally Imported Lethal-Injection Drugs to States

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a final order refusing to release illegally imported medicines that the states of Texas and Arizona had intended to use in executions. On April 20, 2017, the FDA notified prison officials that it would not release the two states' shipments of 1,000 vials each of sodium thiopental that the FDA had seized at U.S. airports in October 2015 when the states had attempted to import the drug from a supplier in India. Both shipments were halted at the airport by FDA officials, who said the importation of the drugs violated federal regulations. A third shipment of 1,000 vials of the drug ordered by Nebraska was halted by FedEx before it left India because the shipping company was not provided paperwork indicating FDA approval to import the drugs. Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic widely used in executions prior to 2010, is no longer produced by any U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the FDA has said that it has no legal uses in the U.S. In January 2017, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice sued the FDA, demanding a final decision on the detained imports. In a statement, the FDA announced it had "made a final decision, refusing admission of the detained drugs into the United States." FDA press officer Lyndsay Meyer said that the shipments of sodium thiopental had been confiscated because the detained drugs appeared to be unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs. The shipments, the agency said, must be either exported or destroyed within 90 days. Texas insisted that the import was covered by a "law enforcement exemption," because the drug was intended for use in executions. The FDA said its decision was made in compliance with a 2012 court order: "The court order requires the FDA to refuse admission to the US any shipment of foreign manufactured sodium thiopental being offered for importation that appears to be an unapproved new drug or a misbranded drug." Since 2012, Texas has used another anesthetic, pentobarbital, in all executions. Arizona has used several different lethal-injection protocols since sodium thiopental became unavailable.

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