3 Inmates in Oklahoma are challenging the use of certain drugs in executions+ READ ARTICLE
A new Supreme Court case could mean a change in the chemicals that prisons use for lethal injections. Watch #TheBrief to find out more.
A new Supreme Court case could mean a change in the chemicals that prisons use for lethal injections. Watch #TheBrief to find out more.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday delayed the execution of three Oklahoma death row inmates who are part of a case that could decide the future of lethal injections nationwide.
The court’s order prevents Oklahoma from using the sedative midazolam to execute Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole, who are challenging the state’s current lethal injection protocol. The trio claims that the use of midazolam, which has been criticized by some anesthesiologists as not properly inducing unconsciousness, violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Glossip, who was convicted of having his boss murdered, was set to be executed Thursday. Grant, who was convicted of stabbing a co-worker to death, was scheduled to be executed in February. And Cole, handed a death sentence for killing his 9-month-old daughter, was initially set to be executed in March.
Because the Supreme Court’s order specifically prevents Oklahoma from executing the men with midazolam, it’s possible but unlikely that the state will try to use a different drug to carry out their death sentence before the court rules in their case.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last week, making it the first time the court will consider whether a specific method of capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment since Baze v. Rees in 2008. That decision upheld Kentucky’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. Since then, drug shortages have forced states to use different drugs, including midazolam.
All eyes have been on Oklahoma’s execution protocol since last April, when the lethal injection of a convicted killer went awry. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by the end of June.
Charles Warner was executed on Thursday night after the Supreme Court declined in a 5-4 ruling to intervene, making him the first death-row inmate to be put to death there since a botched lethal injection in April forced the state to reform its execution standards.
The execution of Warner, who was convicted for the 1997 sexual assault and murder of an 11-month-old, had been set for 6 p.m. CST, but was delayed while officials could learn the court’s ruling. After that came in, the Associated Press reports, prison officials said he was declared dead at 7:28 p.m., local time.
Warner’s execution had originally been scheduled after that of Clayton Lockett, who was convicted of kidnapping and burying alive Stephanie Neiman in 1999. But officials scrapped it after Lockett’s lethal injection went awry.
Executioners took 51 minutes to locate one of Lockett’s veins and then failed to insert the IVs properly, allowing drugs to leak into the inmate’s surrounding tissues. According to witness accounts, Lockett writhed on the gurney for roughly 45 minutes. An autopsy showed he died of a heart attack.
Lockett’s execution triggered a moratorium on lethal injections in Oklahoma. The state instituted changes to its drug protocol, increased training for executioners and remodeled its execution chamber.
For Warner’s lethal injection, state executioners will be using new equipment that will help prevent improper IV placement. Prison officials are also allowed to postpone an execution if there are problems in the first hour. And the dosage of midazolam, one of the drugs used that has been routinely criticized as not strong enough to adequately put an inmate to sleep, has been increased.
Warner’s legal team went to the high court for a last-minute stay after a federal court in Oklahoma City rejected the appeal, and then a federal appeals court in Denver did the same. An execution in Florida that used the same method occurred just before Warner’s following a temporary hold due to a similar case mulled by the justices.
Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented in Thursday’s ruling, with the latter writing:
I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol. It is true that we give deference to the district courts. But at some point we must question their findings of fact, unless we are to abdicate our role of ensuring that no clear error has been committed. We should review such findings with added care when what is at issue is the risk of the need- less infliction of severe pain. Here, given the evidence before the District Court, I struggle to see how its decision to credit the testimony of a single purported expert can be supported given the substantial body of conflicting empirical and anecdotal evidence.
I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution. Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished. But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death. I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions.
Ohio announced Thursday that it would stop using a 2-drug combination for lethal injections that has proved troublesome since the state began using the method last January.
The state’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections told a U.S. district judge Thursday that it would revise its two-drug method of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, and instead add sodium thiopental, a drug Ohio used from 1999 to 2011.
The move was announced shortly after Ohio said that its supply of midazolam would expire April 1, putting future executions in jeopardy. The state also postponed the upcoming Feb. 11 execution of Ronald Phillips, who was convicted of raping and murdering a 3-year-old girl. Others may also be delayed due to the changes.
Midazolam has come under scrutiny by anesthesiologists and lethal injection experts, who say it inadequately sedates inmates during executions. The drug was first used last January in the lethal injection of Dennis McGuire, who was convicted of raping and killing Joy Stewart in 1989. In the roughly 25-minute execution, McGuire reportedly snored and snorted on the gurney table, leading to a moratorium on executions in the state and a review of its lethal injection protocol.
In April, Ohio announced that it was increasing the dosage of both midazolam and hydromorphone given to inmates while insisting that the McGuire execution was conducted in a constitutional manner.
The executions of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Wood in Arizona, both widely considered botched, also used midazolam.
(MORE: Ohio’s Grisly Execution History)
Ohio is often a first mover in how lethal injections are performed in the U.S., and states frequently follow its lead. Ohio was the first to use sodium thiopental in a one-drug protocol in 2009, the first to use pentobarbital in 2011 and the first to use midazolam last year. Now, other states may follow in its footsteps in using sodium thiopental.
One thing that remains unclear, however, is where Ohio plans to get the drug, which it stopped using in 2011 when Hospira, a Lake Forest, Ill.-based pharmaceutical company, stopped making it. But officials may believe that they’ll be able to attain it from compounding pharmacies that are now shielded by a bill signed into law by Gov. John Kasich in December that allows pharmaceutical companies to supply drugs anonymously.
Sodium thiopental now joins pentobarbital, both barbiturates that can depress the central nervous system and be used as sedatives, as the two drugs permitted during lethal injections.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has commuted the death sentences for his state’s four remaining death row inmates.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, O’Malley said he hoped that the commutations might bring “a greater degree of closure” for the survivors and their families.
The four inmates will now serve life sentences without the possibility of parole rather than face execution.
The Maryland legislature passed a bill in 2013 that eliminated the death penalty in the state, but it did not commute the sentences for those already convicted on death row.
There are currently 18 states without the death penalty, with Maryland among a recent crop of six states that have banned it since 2007 that includes New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut.
There is a political angle as well. O’Malley is a likely 2016 Democratic presidential contender. He is being replaced by a Republican governor next term after his lieutenant governor was defeated for the position in November.
An Oklahoma inmate whose prolonged execution triggered a statewide moratorium on executions likely suffered excruciating pain akin to “liquid fire” throughout his lethal injection last April.
That’s how one doctor assessed what Clayton Lockett experienced as he was put to death, in a federal court hearing Wednesday that will determine whether the state can once again resume executions in January.
Lockett, a convicted murderer who shot a 19-year-old woman and had her buried alive, was put to death with a three-drug combination on April 29. He reportedly writhed on the execution table and appeared to speak and regain consciousness during the process.
Since then, several grisly details have emerged about what went wrong, problems that likely arose due to poorly trained executioners and the use of a sedative that may not adequately put inmates to sleep.
On Wednesday, anesthesiologist David Lubarsky testified that midazolam, a sedative increasingly used by states as other drug sources have dried up, should not be used on inmates because it doesn’t render them fully unconscious. Lubarsky said the injection of vecuronium bromide, a muscle relaxer, would’ve likely felt like “liquid fire” because Lockett wasn’t properly knocked out.
Joseph Cohen, a forensic pathologist hired by Lockett’s lawyers to perform an autopsy following the lethal injection, also testified that he believed Lockett was conscious during the execution and confirmed that he found multiple puncture wounds on Lockett’s body where executioners attempted to insert IV lines.
Death row inmates in Oklahoma are seeking a federal court ruling to delay their upcoming executions, arguing in part that the state’s three-drug protocol used on Lockett violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Oklahoma’s next execution is scheduled for Jan. 15, 2015.
Amidst a nationwide reflection on the future of the death penalty in the U.S., the nation in 2014 reached a 20-year low in carried-out executions, the Death Penalty Information Center said in its annual report.
Seven states executed 35 people this year, the lowest number since 1994, said the think tank, which does not have a position on whether capital punishment should be banned. The number of executed prisoners nationwide has been in decline since 1999, when 98 death sentences were carried out.
Meanwhile, the number of people sentenced to death also dropped to a 40-year low of 72 people, the report found. There are 30 executions scheduled for 2015.
The center said that three botched executions, including the 43-minute ordeal of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, where all executions are now on hiatus, prompted a national re-examination of the death penalty and led to delays. In each of those bungled executions, the state relied on lethal injection drugs it sourced from providers it refused to name, as well as mixed in untested cocktails, according to the report.
Also at issue in a re-evaluation of capital punishment are inexact or violated protocols for measuring prisoners’ mental competence and eligibility for execution, as well as the threat of executing an innocent person, the center said. Seven death row inmates were exonerated this year, according to the center.
In 1997, Andy Prince’s life was in a downward spiral. The Georgia attorney was drinking a quart of vodka a night. He stole $100,000 from a client. He was arrested for disorderly conduct after threatening to shoot his neighbors. But none of that prevented him from representing Robert Wayne Holsey, a Georgia man convicted of shooting a deputy sheriff and scheduled to die this week thanks to what Holsey’s current lawyers describe as unthinkable and almost criminally poor legal representation.
On Dec. 17, 1995, Holsey shot and killed Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputy Will Robinson in Milledgeville, Ga., after the officer pulled Holsey over for a suspected robbery. At the time, Georgia had no public defender office, leaving it up to judges to appoint a lawyer, often resorting to attorneys they knew personally. In this case, Prince was chosen to defend Holsey.
“When [Prince] took on Holsey’s case, he was in a lot of trouble,” said attorney Brian Kammer, the director of the Georgia Resource Center who is currently representing Holsey. “He was barely able to represent him. He was a chronic heavy drinker, an alcoholic. And it impacted his performance.”
Kammer says that in Holsey’s sentencing phase, Prince barely prepared the basis for why his client should be spared the death sentence. At the time, Holsey’s IQ was about 70, meaning by some standards he was intellectually disabled. Prince provided little evidence in court to bolster that defense and largely failed to provide the jury with information about Holsey’s childhood, which was rife with abuse and could have persuaded jurors to spare his life. A jury sentenced Holsey to death in 1997.
In the months and years following the trial, Prince was disbarred, sentenced to 10 years for stealing client money and later testified that he shouldn’t have been representing Holsey in the first place.
Yet the death sentence remains. While Holsey is set to die by lethal injection on Tuesday, his lawyers are working to halt his execution. On Monday, Kammer presented Holsey’s case to Georgia’s five-member clemency board, arguing that Georgia’s standard for determining intellectual disability is unconstitutional, a strict standard that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that it was unconstitutional to automatically prohibit anyone with an IQ of 70 or above from being considered mentally disabled. The Florida law initially had a strict cutoff that made those with an IQ of 70 or above eligible for the death penalty.
The parole panel, however, denied clemency on Monday, and the Georgia Supreme Court decided against a stay of execution in a 5-2 vote on Tuesday. Holsey’s lawyers have presented a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court to halt the execution, scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.
China will no longer harvest transplant organs from executed prisoners from the start of 2015, a decision praised as ethical but which renews questions about where the world’s most populous nation will find much needed organs.
State-run newspaper China Daily says the Chinese government will end the globally criticized practice of taking organs from its condemned population by Jan. 1.
China is the only country to as a rule take organs from executed people, a practice that has led to allegations that prisoners and their families are coerced into signing off on the donations and that demand for more organs could translate into more death sentences.
China carefully guards the number of people it executes as a state secret, but U.S.-based human-rights group Dui Hua estimates that the Chinese state killed about 2,400 people last year, an enormous drop from around 12,000 people in 2002 and marking a continuous decline in executions over the past decade.
Chinese supplies of transplant organs are far short of the nation’s needs, partly because of traditional burial procedures, as well as to public suspicion that organ waiting lists are holding pens for those who cannot pay their way out of them, Huang Jiefu, China’s Vice Minister of Health, was quoted in local press as saying. State officials said in 2011 that condemned prisoners provided about 64% of the nation’s transplant-organ supplies.
Huang told local media that about 300,000 patients are annually wait-listed in China for an organ donation that, ultimately, only about 10,000 of them receive. Just 1,500 organs have been donated so far this year, he said. The paucity of donated organs has fueled a black-market organ trade that has also raised considerable ethical questions.
In the U.S., which has a population about a quarter of China, 9,512 people donated organs in the first half of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some 120,000 people in the U.S. are still awaiting organs.
In 1992, Scott Panetti shaved his head, dressed himself in camo and fatally shot his in-laws in front of his wife and daughter. Afterward, he put on a suit and surrendered to police.
At his trial, Panetti wore a cowboy costume and acted as his own lawyer, waiving his right to counsel. He applied for 200 subpoenas that included John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. He asked prospective jurors whether they had any Indian blood in them. His opening statement referenced demons. And he referred to himself as Sergeant Iron Horse when he confessed to killing his wife’s parents. It wasn’t Scott who killed them, he said. It was Sarge.
Panetti’s defense appeared to be that of a seriously ill man. And by most accounts, he was. First diagnosed with early schizophrenia in 1978, Panetti had been in and out of a dozen mental hospitals over 14 years, regularly determined to have paranoia, depression, delusions and hallucinations and eventually deemed disabled by the Social Security Administration, qualifying him for monthly benefits before he turned 30. Since that first diagnosis, Panetti came to see life as a cosmic battle between good and evil, one in which he—or Sarge, or the other voices in his head—played a role.
In one instance, Panetti’s first wife came home to find that he had buried his furniture in the front yard because he believed he needed to purge Satan from the objects. In an affidavit, she said she believed her husband should be involuntarily committed and that he had become “obsessed with the idea that the devil was in our house.” Panetti’s explanation for killing the parents of his second wife was similar, according to his lawyers and court documents: the shootings were “Sarge’s” attempt to get rid of the devil he believed was inside his in-laws.
In 1995, a jury found Panetti guilty and sentenced him to death. That sentence comes due Wednesday, when Panetti is scheduled to die by lethal injection. To some, it will be justice finally being served. But to Panetti’s lawyers and other supporters, the planned execution is unconstitutional, and evidence of a capital punishment system in dire need of reform.
Panetti’s attorneys are appealing to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a last-minute stay of execution, arguing that Panetti doesn’t understand he’s being executed for the double murder. They say Panetti hasn’t been given a competency hearing in seven years, and they believe his mental state has deteriorated since then. Panetti’s attorneys are challenging an earlier denial by an appeals court to hold a competency hearing, while also seeking a stay of execution from the Supreme Court on the grounds that putting to death someone who is mentally ill is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
So far, courts haven’t been receptive to those arguments. Several witnesses for the state of Texas have testified that Panetti is competent and has an understanding of his crime. The state has provided hours of audio recordings of Panetti discussing the murders in which he “spoke rationally, demonstrated a fairly sophisticated understanding of his case, and discussed in an intelligent manner the death penalty and its moral implications,” according to court documents.
Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service who is representing Panetti, questions those accounts and says that his history with mental illness alone should be enough to prevent him from being executed.
“This is not a situation where a guy gets admitted to a hospital once and comes out and commits a crime,” Kase says. “These were multiple hospital admissions over a 12-year period. This is a pretty astonishing and well-documented history of mental illness. Nobody exists for 36 years like this in an effort to get off the hook of criminal responsibility.”
Dozens of mental health professionals and organizations have come out in support of clemency for Panetti, including the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and Mental Health America. But time is running out.
Panetti would be the 11th inmate executed in Texas this year, the most of any state. For years, Texas has killed more death row inmates than any other state.
Kase, who visited Panetti a couple weeks ago, says his mental health is worsening, possibly due to stress related to the upcoming execution date.
“He is extremely paranoid, and he is delusional,” Kase says. “And these delusions are that the prison wants to kill him to prevent him from preaching the gospel on death row or telling others about corruption at TDCJ [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice]. We’re not psychologists. We’re not mental health professionals. But we do know we’re seeing something really terrible happen.”