Lethal Injection

Arkansas Supreme Court Holds Lethal Injection Law Unconstitutional

Arkansas state sealOn June 22, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state’s lethal injection law as unconstitutional because it delegated too much authority to the Department of Corrections. In a 5-2 decision, the court sided with 10 death row inmates who argued that, under Arkansas's constitution, only the Legislature can set execution policy, and that legislators violated the state's separation of powers doctrine when it voted to give that authority to the prison system in the Method of Execution Act of 2009. The ruling does not invalidate Arkansas’s death penalty but does leave the state without a lawful way to carry out executions until a new law is passed.  Associate Justice Jim Gunter, writing for the majority, said that the law governing executions failed to include reasonable guidelines for executive branch agencies to follow when deciding on an execution protocol: "The statute provides no guidance and no general policy with regard to the procedures for the (Arkansas Department of Corrections) to implement lethal injections.” There are currently 40 prisoners on Arkansas’s death row. The last execution carried out in the state was in 2005.

Court Requires Greater Public Access for Viewing Executions

On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that witnesses should have full viewing-access to executions carried out in Idaho, siding with the Associated Press and other media outlets. Seventeen news organizations had argued that the state’s protocol was unconstitutionally restrictive because it prevented witnesses, including reporters acting as representatives of the public, from viewing executions until after catheters had been inserted into the veins of death row inmates. The court stated, "Nearly a decade ago, we held in the clearest possible terms that ‘the public enjoys a First Amendment right to view executions from the moment the condemned is escorted into the execution chamber.’ . . . The State of Idaho has had ample opportunity for the past decade to adopt an execution procedure that reflects this settled law." The ruling will immediately affect the execution of Richard Leavitt, who is facing lethal injection on June 12. Jeff Ray, a spokesperson for Idaho’s Department of Corrections said, "We, of course, respect the court's decision. We will take the necessary measures to assure that the execution continues as scheduled.”

LETHAL INJECTION: Missouri Intends to Use Propofol in One-Drug Lethal Injection

The Missouri Department of Corrections has announced that it is switching from a three-drug lethal injection protocol to a single-drug method, using Propofol. Missouri would be the first state to use Propofol (Diprivan) as an execution drug.The drug is manufactured by AstraZeneca. At least one medical expert has questioned whether the new execution drug is appropriate. Missouri’s written protocol does not require a physician to be a part of the execution team. Dr. Jonathan Groner, an Ohio State University surgeon who has studied lethal injection extensively, said that improper administration of the drug could cause pain at the injection site. Dr. Groner said high doses of Propofol will cause respiratory arrest, but the dosage must be accurate and the process must move swiftly because the drug wears off in just a few minutes. According to Dr. Groner, "If they start breathing before the heart stops, they might not die.” It is not clear when Propofol would first be used in an execution.  Missouri has scheduled an execution for August 3, but some appeals remain.  The state has carried out only two executions in the last seven years.

EDITORIALS: "Shortage of Key Drugs May Suspend Death Penalty in Missouri"

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch urged Missouri to end its death penalty as the system has ground to a halt because of controversies involving its method of execution. On May 8, a federal appeals court declined to rule on a challenge to the state’s lethal injection protocol because the Department of Corrections could no longer obtain one of the three drugs specified in the protocol. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit said, “The DOC is unable to carry out the challenged protocol as written, and it appears unlikely it ever will.” A new protocol will be needed.  The drug shortage will almost surely halt executions in the state. The editorial called this recent turn of events “an ideal time for Missouri to follow the lead of 17 other states and forego capital punishment. It's expensive and serves no deterrent effect. Its administration is always arbitrary and capricious. Missouri so botched its procedures in the mid-2000s that a federal judge suspended executions until the state fixed the problems. Only two men have been executed since 2005.” Read full editorial below.

LETHAL INJECTION: Execution Process Often Masked Behind a Veil of Secrecy

Controversies surrounding the lethal drugs used in U.S. executions continue to arise in many states.  Documents obtained by the Associated Press reveal the secretive process in which the Delaware Department of Corrections obtained the drugs necessary for the its lethal injection process. Delaware officials solicited the help of the state’s Economic Development Director, Alan Levin, in obtaining lethal injection drugs after its previous supply expired in 2005. Levin, the former head of the Happy Harry’s drugstore chain, contacted the CEO of Cardinal Health Inc., a supplier of pentobarbital. "I was happy to help facilitate it," said Levin, explaining that Happy Harry's, which he sold in 2006 to Walgreen Co., had done business with Cardinal for a decade or more.  "I understand the judicial system," said Levin, a former prosecutor who added that he believes in the death penalty.  DOC Commissioner Carl Danberg wrote in an e-mail to key lieutenants, “This is NOT for discussion or distribution to anyone, including your own staff until we get a chance to discuss… Emphasize that I do not want this discussed yet. Certainly not until the drugs are on hand. I am not even telling the AG yet.” The batch of drugs was delivered last June and was used in the lethal injection of Shannon Johnson, who was executed on April 20.

Federal Court Overturns FDA's Approval of Foreign Shipments of Lethal Injection Drugs

Judge Richard LeonOn March 27, a federal District Court held that foreign-manufactured sodium thiopental was improperly approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in executions.  Judge Richard Leon (pictured) of the District Court of the District of Columbia ordered any correctional departments in possession of the drug to return it to the FDA. The ruling granted summary judgment in favor of a lawsuit filed by death row inmates in Arizona, California, and Tennessee against the FDA. Those states, along with several others, had obtained sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used in lethal injections, from foreign sources after the sole U.S. manufacturer ceased production. The inmates contended "that unapproved foreign thiopental will fail to anesthetize plaintiffs properly during execution, causing conscious suffocation, pain, and cardiac arrest." According to Judge Leon, the foreign sodium thiopental "is a misbranded drug and an unapproved new drug" and "the FDA neither approved nor reviewed thiopental for safety and effectiveness." A January 2011 statement released by the FDA said "[r]eviewing substances imported or used for the purpose of state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of FDA's explicit public health role." The judge disagreed, saying "the FDA appears to be simply wrapping itself in the flag of law enforcement discretion to justify its authority and masquerade an otherwise seemingly callous indifference to the health consequences of those imminently facing the executioner's needle."

California Governor Announces Moratorium on Executions

California Governor Gavin Newsom on March 13, 2019 declared a moratorium on executions in the state with the nation’s largest death row. Newsom implemented the moratorium through an executive order granting reprieves to the 737 prisoners currently on California’s death row. He also announced that he was withdrawing the state’s execution protocol—the administrative plan by which executions are carried out—and was closing down the state’s execution chamber. In his executive order imposing the moratorium, Newsom said, “I will not oversee the execution of any person while Governor.”

With the governor’s announcement, California joins Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania as states in which governors have imposed moratoria on executions, meaning that more than one-third (34.1%) of all death-row prisoners in the U.S. are now incarcerated in states in which governors have said no executions will occur. As a result of legal challenges to the state’s execution protocol and appeals challenging the constitutionality of the state’s death-penalty system, California has not carried out an execution since 2006. “Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure,” Newsom said in a statement accompanying his moratorium declaration. “It has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute. It’s irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.”

Despite the large number of death sentences in California, the state has conducted only 13 executions since reintroducing the death penalty in 1978. A 2011 study estimated the state had spent more than $4 billion on death penalty trials, appeals, and incarceration, and estimated an annual savings of $170 million if the death penalty were abolished. In his executive order, the governor said that the cost has since risen to $5 billion. In his remarks at the news conference, Newsom said that 164 wrongly convicted prisoners have already been exonerated from U.S. death rows since 1973, and an estimated 30 innocent prisoners may be among those still sentenced to death in California. In 2012 and 2016, voters narrowly rejected referenda that would have abolished capital punishment. In 2016, a voter referendum intended to speed up executions by limiting appeals passed by a two-percentage point margin. That measure, Proposition 66, was upheld but curtailed by a 2017 California Supreme Court decision.

Governor Newsom follows the lead of governors in three other Western U.S. states who have imposed moratoria on executions in the last decade. Governors John Kitzhaber of Oregon (November 2011), John Hickenlooper of Colorado (May 2013), and Jay Inslee of Washington (January 2014) halted executions in their states, and Kate Brown of Oregon announced in February 2015 that she would extend the existing moratorium. Washington’s supreme court struck down the death penalty in October 2018 on grounds of geographic arbitrariness and racial bias, making it the 20th state to abolish the death penalty. Legislators in Colorado and Oregon are considering bills to abolish or seriously restrict the death penalty, and a Republican-backed bill to repeal the death penalty passed the Wyoming state House and a Senate committee earlier this year before failing in a vote before the full Senate. No state west of Texas carried out any executions in 2018, and those states collectively imposed the fewest new death sentences since California brought back capital punishment in 1978. Newsom said “[t]he intentional killing of another person is wrong” and that his moratorium was a first step towards the ultimate goal of ending the death penalty in California.

Amidst Nebraska Execution-Secrecy Controversy, California Judge Lets Execution-Access Lawsuit Proceed

As lawyers for Nevada told their state supreme court that a controversial Nebraska execution had been carried out without problems, a federal judge issued a ruling allowing a lawsuit to proceed that would force California to allow media witnesses to observe executions in that state in their entirety. The developments in the cases in the two states highlight an ongoing controversy over the lack of transparency and accountability in recent lethal-injection executions. Attorneys representing the Nevada Department of Corrections said in a court filing on August 16, 2018 that media witnesses to Nebraska's four-drug execution of Carey Dean Moore, which used three of the drugs Nevada plans to use to execute Scott Dozier, "reported no complications, only some coughing before Moore stopped moving." They failed to report to the court that the witnesses did not see when the lethal-injection chemicals had been administered or what lethal-injection expert, Fordham Law Professor Deborah Denno, called "[t]he parts of the execution that would be most problematic" - when the IV lines are set and the period after the final drug is administered. Those occurred behind drawn curtains. Contrary to what Nevada's lawyers told the court, the Lincoln Journal-Herald, compiling witness observations to the execution, wrote: "Nebraska witnesses actually reported Moore coughed, his diaphragm and abdomen heaved, he went still, then his face and fingers gradually turned red and then purple, and his eyes cracked open slightly. One witness described his breathing as shallow, then deeper, then labored." Nebraska College of Law Professor Eric Berger, who studies the death penalty, called the eyewitness reports "somewhat troubling." He said, "It's certainly possible that everything went smoothly and humanely, but it's also possible that it didn't ... We just don’t have enough information to make that determination." Similar concerns with the ability of the public to view potentially problematic executions animated the federal court's ruling on the California execution process. Noting that the public has a First Amendment right to “view executions from the moment the condemned is escorted to the execution chamber," federal district court judge Richard Seeborg denied a motion filed by lawyers for the California Department of Corrections seeking to dismiss a lawsuit challenging administrative rules that bar the public from viewing the preparation and injection of lethal drugs and to keep the curtain open through the completion of the execution process. Christopher S. Sun, who represented media plaintiffs The Los Angeles Times, KQED, and the San Francisco Progressive Media Center, called public access to executions "critical to informing our national dialogue about the death penalty" and said the suit was filed to ensure that the public knows what actually happens during an execution. Sun said current California state regulations afford execution personnel discretion during the execution to draw the curtain on the window through which witnesses see the execution and require the curtain to be closed and the public address system turned off if three doses of the lethal-injection drugs fail to kill the prisoner, denying important information to the public in a matter of heightened public interest. In allowing the suit to proceed, the court said the media had made a threshold showing that it was entitled to observe prison personnel "preparing the chemicals[,] ... the process of administering the chemicals," the entire execution itself, and "the administration of medical care ... in the Lethal Injection Room" in the event of a failed or botched execution. The California lawsuit is not the first of its kind. In 2016, an Arizona federal court ruled that the First Amendment affords the public the right to view executions in that state in their totality.

Pages