Lethal Injection

60 Minutes Airs Segment on Arizona's Botched Execution of Joseph Wood

On Sunday, November 29, CBS's 60 Minutes aired a segment on Arizona's 2-hour botched execution of Joseph Wood (pictured). As described by 60 Minutes, Wood's "execution with a new cocktail of drugs was supposed to take 10 minutes. It took almost two hours, the longest execution in U.S. history." On July 23, 2014, Arizona gave Wood 15 consecutive doses of midazolam and hydromorphone, the same drug combination that had been used in the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio six months earlier. Witnesses to Wood's execution reported that he gasped and snorted more than 600 times during the 2-hour procedure. Prison officials had estimated that the drugs would take about 10 minutes to kill Wood. Prior to the execution, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had ordered the state to release information about the source of the drugs and the training of those who would carry it out, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision and allowed the execution to proceed under a veil of secrecy. Dale Baich, one of Wood's attorneys, said, "I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this. Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long." 

U.S. on Track for Fewest Executions, New Death Sentences in a Generation

Both executions and new death sentences in the United States are on pace for significant declines to their lowest levels in a generation, Reuters reports. With 25 executions conducted so far this year, and only two more scheduled, the United States could have its lowest number of executions since 1991, significantly below the peak of 98 executions in 1999. Only 8 states have carried out executions in the last two years, down from a high of 20, also in 1999. New death sentences, which peaked at 315 in 1996, declined to 73 last year, and that number is expected to drop even further this year. The slowdowns in executions and new death sentences are just two of several indicators that the U.S. is moving away from capital punishment. Reuters reports that these changes come from a combination of factors, including the high cost of death penalty cases, the recent problems surrounding lethal injection, and improved capital representation in high-use states. Texas and Virginia, two of the death penalty states that historically have been the most aggressive in carrying out executions, stand out as examples of the punishment's declining use. Both states have implemented major reforms in indigent defense in recent years, producing dramatic changes in the death penalty landscape. In Texas, which had 48 death sentences in 1999, juries have handed down only three death sentences so far this year. Virginia, which has executed the highest percentage of death row inmates of any state, is on track to have no death sentences for the fourth consecutive year.

Oklahoma Execution Irregularities Mirror Previous Errors By Arizona Involving Same Corrections Official

Robert Patton (pictured), the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections who oversaw the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, the use of the wrong third drug in the execution of Charles Warner, and the failed execution of Richard Glossip, was also involved in a number of Arizona executions that violated that state's execution protocol, a BuzzFeed investigation revealed. Lockett was Oklahoma's first execution under Patton, just two months after he became corrections director. For the previous five years, he was part of the team that planned and oversaw executions in Arizona. A 2011 deposition given by Patton in a federal court challenge to Arizona's execution protocol disclosed similar failures to adhere to state execution protocols. BuzzFeed reports that, 3 years before the Lockett execution, Patton had been involved in several Arizona executions in which corrections personnel could not find an arm vein suitable for execution and instead, as in Lockett's execution, inserted the IV into an artery in the executed prisoner's groin. In direct violation of Arizona's execution protocol, the executioners covered the IV with a sheet, risking that officials would be unable to detect problems with the IV. In investigating the Lockett case, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety found that the same deviation from Oklahoma's protocol prevented executioners from discovering problems with the IV until Lockett began to move during the execution, at which point prison personnel discovered clear liquid and blood under the sheet and noticed that Lockett had swelling "between the size of a golf ball and tennis ball" at the IV insertion site. Patton then called off the execution, but Lockett died 45 minutes after the execution began. In his 2011 deposition, Patton admitted that he never checked the forms that identified which drugs and what amounts of those drugs were to be used in Arizona executions. In January 2015, using the wrong third drug in its three-drug protocol, Oklahoma executed Charles Warner. An investigation into that execution is ongoing, and state officials have not said who was aware at the time that the wrong drug was being used. The state also halted the execution of Richard Glossip in September when prison officials became aware two hours before the execution that they had obtained the same wrong drug.

Amid Unavailability of Lethal Injection Drugs, States Push Legal Limits to Carry Out Executions

"Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the New York Times, summarizing the ongoing battles that have led states to adopt new drug sources or alternative methods of execution. Several states have obtained or sought drugs using sources that may violate pharmaceutical regulations. For the execution of Alfredo Prieto, Virginia obtained pentobarbital from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which purchased it from a compounding pharmacy whose identity is shielded by the state's secrecy law. "Even if the transactions between states do not comply with law, there is no recourse for death-sentenced prisoners," said Megan McCracken, an expert in lethal injection at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Both Nebraska and Ohio received warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that their attempts to purchase sodium thiopental from overseas suppliers violated federal law regarding the importation of drugs. Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of its own execution protocol, substituting an unauthorized chemical, potassium acetate, for the potassium chloride its regulations require. Other states have turned to alternative execution methods: Tennessee reauthorized use of the electric chair, while Oklahoma passed a bill to make nitrogen gas asphyxiation its backup method. Louisiana prison officials also recommended using nitrogen gas, but the state has not taken action on that recommendation. The scramble for lethal injection drugs has delayed executions across the country. A challenge to Mississippi's protocol has halted executions until at least next year. A Montana judge put executions on hold because the state's proposed drug cocktail violated state law, and either the drugs that comply with state law are not produced in the U.S. and may not be imported or the manufacturer refuses to sell the drug for executions. In Oklahoma, the Attorney General requested an indefinite hold in order to review lethal injection procedures after the state obtained the wrong drug for the execution of Richard Glossip.

Oklahoma Used Wrong Drug, Violated State Protocol, in January Execution of Charles Warner

A report by The Oklahoman has revealed that Oklahoma violated its execution protocol and used the wrong final drug during the execution of Charles Warner on January 15, 2015. Warner, whose final words were "My body is on fire," was executed using potassium acetate, the same drug that was delivered for Richard Glossip's aborted execution on September 30. The drug called for in the protocol is potassium chloride. Glossip's execution was stayed as a result of the mix-up, and Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested an indefinite hold on executions so his office could investigate. "I want to assure the public that our investigation will be full, fair and complete and includes not only actions on Sept. 30, but any and all actions prior, relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride,” Pruitt said. Dale Baich, who represented Oklahoma death row inmates in Glossip v. Gross, said, "We cannot trust Oklahoma to get it right or to tell the truth. The State’s disclosure that it used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride during the execution of Charles Warner yet again raises serious questions about the ability of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to carry out executions."

Montana Judge Puts Executions on Hold

On October 6, Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock (pictured) held that the state's proposed lethal injection protocol violated state law, which requires that an "ultra fast-acting barbiturate" be used in executions. Judge Sherlock said the proposed barbiturate, pentobarbital, does not qualify as such a drug. The ruling stated, "The State of Montana is hereby enjoined from using the drug pentobarbital in its lethal injection protocol unless and until the statute authorizing lethal injection is modified in conformance with this decision." In 2012, a judge struck down Montana's three-drug protocol because it differed from the two-drug protocol called for in state law. As a result of the most recent ruling, executions in Montana will continue to be on hold indefinitely. “The State has had multiple opportunities to correct the problems with the death penalty protocol. And each time they came up with a new flawed procedure,” said ACLU Legal Director Jim Taylor. “Seven years of litigation has demonstrated that Montana's death penalty is broken beyond repair." Montana has carried out three executions since 1976, the last of which was in 2006. Earlier in 2015, a bill to repeal the death penalty failed on a tie vote in the House of Representatives.

Arkansas Inmates Seek Stay of 8 Executions; Say New Secrecy Law Violates Settlement Agreement

Eight death-row prisoners whom Arkansas has scheduled to be executed in the next four months have asked a judge to issue a preliminary injunction that would put their executions on hold. They argue that the state's execution procedures are unconstitutional for multiple reasons and that Arkansas' secrecy law violates a previous settlement agreement between death row inmates and the state. Arkansas, which has not carried out an execution since November 2005, has scheduled eight executions for four dates (two executions on each date) between October of this year and January 2016, even though legal challenges to the constitutionality of the state's execution procedures were pending in state court and were scheduled to proceed to trial. The state recently passed a bill that allows the Department of Correction to keep the source of execution drugs secret. Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney for the death row inmates, said the secrecy law violates an agreement in which the state agreed to tell inmates the source of lethal injection drugs in exchange for the inmates dropping part of a prior lawsuit challenging the state's execution protocol. The inmates argue that, without knowing the manufacturer of the drugs, they cannot determine whether the execution may constitute cruel and unusual punishment. They are seeking a preliminary injunction blocking executions from proceeding until the case is decided. A state trial court has moved the hearing date for the inmates' lawsuit from October 23 to October 7. In June 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state's prior execution law as violating the state constitution. [UPDATE: On October 9, the Arkansas trial court judge who is presiding over the inmates' challenge to the state's execution process granted a temporary restraining order staying all of the scheduled executions. The court ruled that the prisoners would suffer "immediate and irreparable injury" if they were executed and that proceeding with the executions, without affording the parties an adequate opportunity for discovery and to resolve the legal issues in the case "will rob Plaintiffs of an opportunity to litigate their rights under the Arkansas Constitution."]

Virginia Executes Inmate with Appeal Still Pending Before Supreme Court

On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.

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