TIME justice

Execution Gone Awry Prompts Concern Over Dubious Lethal-Injection Drugs

Arizona Execution Drugs
With the state prison in the background, about a dozen death-penalty opponents pray as they await the execution of Joseph Wood in Florence, Ariz., on July 23, 2014 Associated Press

Many states won't disclose how they obtain the chemicals used in lethal injections, bringing into question the constitutionality of recent executions

There are just over 3,000 prisoners on death row in the U.S., and 32 states where their execution remains a legal course of action. The decision to implement capital punishment in these states is generally accepted as constitutional, so long as its procedure is in line with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel-and-unusual punishment.

The execution of Arizona inmate Joseph R. Wood III on Wednesday took nearly two hours to complete, over much of which Wood “gasped and struggled to breathe,” according to a statement released by his defense team. Of the 26 state-sponsored executions committed in the U.S. so far this year, Wood’s was the third to seemingly go awry due to the use of largely experimental lethal chemicals, prompting outrage from those who cite these incidents as evidence that capital punishment is not constitutionally viable given the apparent suffering of its recipients.

“His two-hour struggle to death goes beyond cruel and unusual. It’s torment. It’s something you’d see in third-world and uncivilized societies,” Arizona state senator Ed Ableser told TIME on Wednesday night. “It’s embarrassing to see that our state once again is in the news for everything that is wrong that happens in our government.”

The execution should have lasted no more than 15 minutes; when it became clear to witnesses that Wood’s death would be prolonged, his attorneys unsuccessfully filed an emergency appeal to end the proceedings, the final of several attempts to save his life. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court had approved the execution after a lower court ruled that Arizona, in refusing to declare how it had obtained the lethal chemicals to be used in the injection, may have violated Wood’s First Amendment rights.

In Woods’ execution, the state used a combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone — the same cocktail used by the state of Ohio in the execution of Dennis McGuire in January, in which the inmate floundered and wheezed on a gurney for nearly half an hour before the state pronounced him dead.

In a statement released after Wood’s death, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said she was “concerned by the length of time” it took for the injection to kill him, and that she has instructed the state’s Department of Corrections to investigate the matter thoroughly.

It’s still not certain whether Woods indeed suffered pain — state officials have insisted that he was comatose throughout the process — but in any case, his prolonged death draws further attention to the efficacy of the lethal chemicals used for capital punishment in the U.S., one of the world’s last developed nations to still punish its worst criminals with death.

States have been struggling to devise new lethal chemicals to be used in capital punishment since 2011, when U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies ceased to manufacture and sell sodium thiopental, an anesthetic compound that has traditionally been essential to America’s execution cocktails. It has been a process of trial and error, of learning from mistakes. The mistakes are those execution attempts that do not transpire according to plan — typically marked by a death that comes more slowly and viscerally than anticipated.

In recent months, the hesitation of certain states to disclose information about the new chemicals has fueled a public skepticism over the exact physiological effects of these drugs on those to whom they’re administered.

“It’s time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement released after Wood’s death. “Instead of hiding lethal injection under layers of foolish secrecy, these states need to show us where the drugs are coming from. Until they can give assurances that the drugs will work as intended, they must stop future executions.”

Nearly a third of all executions involving the sedative used to kill Wood “have had extremely troubling problems,” according to a report released last month by the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution,” defense attorney Dale Baich told the press. “The public should hold its officials responsible and demand to make this process more transparent.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 21

1. Israel and the world must focus on not ‘going all the way’ in Gaza.

By Charles Ogletree in the Washington Post

3. Two Haitan policymakers debate what’s more important for their country: justice or tourism.

By Samiha Shafy in Spiegel

4. We can address one factor driving America’s border crisis: American guns fueling gang wars in Central America.

By Alex MacGillis in the New Republic

5. In the future, art will be for everyone, and the internet will be the delivery system.

By Lisa Wade in Sociological Images

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Crime

California Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Lethal Injection Execution
Walls Unit in Huntsville prison where lethal injections are carried out on inmates in Huntsville, Texas. Jerry Cabluck—Sygma/Corbis

Uncertainties and delays over executions violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, says federal judge

A federal judge ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional Wednesday, saying uncertainties and delays over executions violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In his 29-page decision, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, a Republican-appointed judge in Orange County, vacated the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother, while making a lengthy and detailed critique of the death penalty.

“The dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution,” Judge Carney wrote. “Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

Since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death while only 13 have been executed. More than 90 have died awaiting their executions, and more than 40% have been on death row for longer than 19 years. California currently has 742 inmates on death row, the most in the U.S. according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Death penalty experts and law professors called the decision unprecedented on Wednesday. “It’s the first time I can think of since the 1970s that a judicial opinion has taken on the death penalty as a whole rather than just the individual,” says Hadar Aviram, a law professor at the University of California Hastings.

It’s unclear how binding the ruling will be outside of the Jones case. Elisabeth Semel of the University of California-Berkeley’s Death Penalty Clinic says the state is likely to appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, potentially opening up a new chapter in the legal wrangling over the death penalty in California.

“Certainly, prosecutors will argue that the order does not have the effect of ‘automatically’ invalidating the death penalty in the cases of other individuals who have been sentenced to death or who are facing capital prosecution,” Semel wrote in an e-mail. “But also, certainly, there will and must be efforts to give the ruling traction on behalf of other defendants.”

The ruling may also give fresh urgency to calls from anti-death penalty advocates for a state referendum on executions, and may prompt Gov. Jerry Brown to re-evaluate how the system functions. Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles district attorney and a spokesperson for SAFE California, an anti-death penalty group, called the decision “historic.”

A spokesperson for the state’s attorney general’s office says it is reviewing the decision.

TIME Death Penalty

Georgia Convict First to Be Executed After Botched Oklahoma Lethal Injection

Death row inmate Marcus Wellons is seen in an undated picture from the Georgia Department of Corrections
Death row inmate Marcus Wellons is seen in an undated handout from the Georgia Department of Corrections. Reuters

Convicts in Florida, Georgia and Missouri were set to die within a 24 hour period for the first time since the botched lethal injection in Oklahoma last month

Updated on 06/18/2014 at 12.01 a.m.

(JACKSON, Ga.) — A Georgia inmate became the 1st executed convict in the U.S. since an execution-gone-awry in Oklahoma led to a defacto national moratorium on the practice seven weeks ago. The state used one drug in the execution.

A group of convicts were set to be put to death in three state over the next 24 hours.

With Georgia’s inmate executed, the other convicted killers set to die by lethal injection are from Florida and Missouri.

The states had all refuse to reveal the source of their the drug cocktail to be used in the executions or if those drugs have ben tested. Lawyers for two of the men have challenged the secrecy surrounding the drugs.

States with the death penalty have long grappled with how to continue executing prisoners in a humane way. After the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in late May, human rights activists have upped the urgency of their call to force states to release information about the drugs used to kill prisoners.

In Georgia Tuesday night, Marcus Wellons was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. ET for raping and murdering his 15-year-old neighbor in 1989. However, two hours later, the Associated Press reported that “officials were waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on an appeal.”

Just after midnight CT, John Winfield, who shot three women in the head in 1996 killing two and blinding the third, is scheduled to be executed in Missouri.

Finally, John Ruthell Henry is set to die at 6:00 p.m. ET in Florida on Wednesday. Henry was convicted of stabbing his estranged wife to death just before Christmas, 1985, then murdering her five-year-old son from a previous marriage days later. Testing has shown that Henry has an IQ of 78, the AP reported. The state says that anyone with an IQ over 70 does not qualify as mentally disabled.




TIME justice

Tennessee Says It Will Bring Back the Electric Chair

Tennessee said it would bring back the electric chair if it couldn't get its hands on drugs to perform legal executions, amid growing shortages of the drugs used in lethal injections, questions about their humaneness and a recent botched execution

Tennessee said Thursday that it would bring back the electric chair if it couldn’t get its hands on drugs to perform legal executions.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill Thursday evening, the Associated Press reports, amid growing shortages of the drugs used in lethal injections, questions about their humaneness and a recent botched execution. Though any planned electrocutions would likely spark legal challenges, one expert said the law made Tennessee the first state to bring back the chair without giving the condemned an option of how to die.

“There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution,” Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the AP. “No other state has gone so far.”

State lawmakers passed the bill by wide margins in April. Haslam didn’t comment publicly Thursday night and his office did not immediately answer requests for comment.

In recent months, serious questions have been raised about lethal injections. Manufacturers have held back supplying states with the combination of drugs used amid criticism that lethal injections aren’t humane enough. And shortly thereafter, a botched execution in which the inmate took more than half an hour to die of a heart attack drew widespread national attention, and prompted President Barack Obama to launch a Justice Department review of how executions are conducted across the country. Oklahoma’s governor also suspended executions in the state pending a review.


TIME Religion

The Death Penalty’s Underlying Problem

The death penalty illustrates our tendency to separate people into two groups: monsters who commit heinous crimes and everyone else.

Does the state have the right to execute its citizens? My answer is yes. Did the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma – 43 minutes between the beginning of the lethal injection and his death by heart attack – constitute cruel and unusual punishment? Again, my answer is yes. Does Texas, which persists in proving itself to be our nation’s most efficient capital killing field, execute citizens in a way that isn’t cruel and unusual? My answer is probably. Should Texas and other states exercise this right? Here, my answer is no.

I say that not only because the death penalty has been disproportionately imposed upon blacks and Hispanics, who make up more than half of our nation’s death row population (and more than two-thirds in Oklahoma and Texas.) Nor solely because the death penalty is sometimes wrongly imposed, most recently documented in a study published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences that concludes 4% of current death row inmates are most likely innocent. The Innocence Project reports that 18 death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence alone.

The underlying problem is that the death penalty illustrates our tendency to separate people into two groups: monsters who commit heinous crimes and everyone else. As our justice system demonstrates in the variety of sentences it imposes, moral culpability spans a wide range, perhaps wider than we think.

If Clayton Lockett deserved to die for shooting Stephanie Neiman and supervising her burial while she was still alive, for example, what about the two guys who dug her grave and listened to her cries for help? Why not sentence them to death as well, rather than merely life in prison?

But let’s go further. What if one of the perpetrators had videotaped this horrific crime – as some criminals do – and posted it on a violent porn site? If a man pays to watch this video, should he be held accountable? A recent Supreme Court decision upheld a federal law that says people who watch child pornography can be held financially liable for the losses of the victim. What about Internet providers who serve as conduits for these videos? And if my cell phone service happens to be serviced by one of these providers, should I be held accountable in some way?

If we take our place in the world seriously and assess our moral agency correctly, we’ll recognize that we’re innocent bystanders less often than we think. We each bear some responsibility, even if small, for the world we inhabit. The curve of moral culpability descends from those who commit crimes, to those who actively enable them, to those who passively allow them, and finally to those who remain willfully ignorant.

Does this mean that I’m responsible for the actions of Clayton Lockett? The answer is no, which is why Lockett was convicted of the crime and I wasn’t. But what if Lockett had had the advantages I had growing up, or I had struggled against the disadvantages Lockett faced? Would our lives have turned out differently? The answer is probably yes.

Advantages and disadvantages are distributed unevenly in our society. My culpability extends at least to recognizing that some of the violence in the world today is structural: it builds in the tendency toward certain violent outcomes. My culpability also extends to recognizing that, under the duress of bad circumstances, I have the capacity to act badly as well.

Out of one hundred people, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska asks in her poem “A Contribution to Statistics,” how many are harmless singly, but savage in crowds? “Half at least,” she says. And how many could be cruel when forced by circumstances? “Better not to know even ballpark figures.”

Even if we’re not forced by circumstances to act badly, sometimes we’re tempted to respond in kind to the evil around us. If this happens, evil has won its hardest battle, which is control of the human heart.

Tom Meagher is an Australian whose wife Jill was raped and murdered 18 months ago by a man named Adrian Bayley. Prior to Bayley’s trial, Meagher says in a post on the White Ribbon Campaign blog, “I had formed an image that this man was not human, that he existed as a singular force of pure evil who somehow emerged from the ether.” By dismissing violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, Meagher says, we avoid the even more terrifying realization that violent men are socialized by the entrenched sexism and hyper-masculinity that permeates everything, from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.

In the aftermath of Jill’s murder, Meagher received many online comments that “expressed a wish for Bayley to be raped in prison, presumably at the arbitrary whim of other incarcerated men.” Meagher says, “Putting aside the fact that wishing rape on somebody is the perhaps last thing we do before exiting civilization entirely, there is a point that these avengers may have missed – somebody has to do the raping.”

With justice by vengeance, the punishment being exacted is also the crime being punished. It requires an eye for an eye, or a rape for a rape, or a life for a life. It’s an infinite feedback loop of repaying evil with evil. For this reason, justice by vengeance represents the ultimate triumph of evil, because it succeeds in co-opting the good.

We should uphold our laws justly, punish humanely, and try to ensure that bad behavior isn’t merely the outcome of bad circumstances. In addition, we should continue tearing down the scaffolding of structural violence in our society. Along the way, we can safeguard our own moral character by not being co-opted into repaying evil in kind.

Near the end of her poem, Szymborska says that out of one hundred people, ninety-nine are worthy of compassion, suggesting that some human beings don’t deserve it. Perhaps they deserve to live out their days in prison – either a prison with bars or the prison of their own wickedness.

But they do not deserve to make us like them.

Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age (2013).


Lethal Injection Stay Denied for Inmate with Rare Birth Defect

Missouri Execution Bucklew
Russell Bucklew Missouri Department of Corrections/AP

Russell Bucklew's lethal injection, scheduled for 12:01 Wednesday morning, will be the first since the April 29 botched execution of Clayton Lockett

A federal judge denied a request to stay the execution of Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew on Monday. Bucklew’s lawyers had argued a rare birth defect would make his pending lethal injection extremely painful and therefore unconstitutional.

Bucklew is a convicted murderer and rapist with a medical condition that causes tumors, which cause bleeding and difficulty breathing, to grow in his head and neck. As a result of the tumors, his lawyers say the lethal injection drugs will fail to circulate and Bucklew will end up choking to death. Bucklew reportedly asked that his execution be videotaped and used as evidence in a civil lawsuit in the state. NBC reports that request was also denied.

His lawyers said in a statement issued Monday that they would “immediately appeal” the judges decision. Bucklew’s execution is scheduled for 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, May 21. His execution will be the first since the botched lethal injection in Oklahoma on April 29.

“We will immediately appeal the denial of a stay of execution because the courts must fully consider Mr. Bucklew’s claim that he will die a prolonged tortuous death in violation of the Eighth Amendment during his execution,” his lawyers said in a statement.

TIME justice

Newspapers Sue Missouri Over Execution-Drug Secrecy

The Guardian is one of the newspapers suing Missouri's department of corrections to force the state to reveal where it’s acquiring controversial drugs being used to execute death-row inmates Suzanne Plunkett—Reuters

The Guardian, the Associated Press and three local newspapers have joined forces in the growing controversy over death-penalty transparency. The lawsuit challenges Missouri's refusal — new as of October last year — to disclose the source of execution drugs

A group of five newspapers announced Thursday they’re suing the Missouri department of corrections to force the state to reveal where it’s acquiring controversial drugs being used to execute death-row inmates.

“Historically, information about the drugs used by [the department of corrections] in lethal injection executions was routinely made available to the public. In October 2013, DOC unilaterally changed course and began to deny all public access to this information,” the suit alleges. “Without this information, the public cannot provide meaningful oversight of the executions that the state of Missouri conducts in its name.”

The suit is the latest volley in an ongoing tug-of-war between inmates, media, transparency advocates and death-penalty states over whether governments can keep secret the identities of businesses that provide drugs used to execute convicts on death row. European restrictions on exporting drugs used in executions have caused supplies to dwindle in recent years, prompting states to seek alternatives elsewhere that may be to blame for a series of botched executions of late. States have resisted calls to reveal the source of the alternative drugs.

According to the Guardian, 13 states have changed their laws and statutes to protect drugmakers’ anonymity. But so far, legal challenges to make lethal-injection executions more transparent have failed. In Georgia, a challenge to the state’s shield law is awaiting a decision by the state supreme court. In Texas a district court rejected an appeal regarding its secrecy law involving death-row inmate Robert James Campbell. (His execution was later stayed after his lawyers successfully argued that Campbell’s low IQ made him ineligible for capital punishment.)

In Oklahoma the state supreme court ruled its secrecy law constitutional after months of back-and-forth within the state’s judicial system, allowing the eventual execution of death-row inmate Clayton Lockett to go forward. The execution, which took place a few days after that decision, went awry as Lockett jerked and twitched after prison officials had trouble locating a vein to administer lethal-injection drugs. Lockett eventually died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.

The lawsuit brought by Associated Press, the Guardian, the Kansas City Star, the Springfield News Leader and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch challenges Missouri’s refusal — new as of October last year — to disclose the source of execution drugs. Missouri has refused to disclose its source on the grounds that pharmacies that provide them are part of the execution team and thus protected under the state’s “Black Hood Law.”

A total of 41 inmates currently await execution on Missouri’s death row.

TIME Religion

Botched Oklahoma Execution Should Prompt Moral Outcry Among Evangelicals

As Christians, we believe that the image of God exists in all human beings. It is for this reason that I have recently launched the Imago Dei, a global campaign initiated and led by Christ centered, Bible believing evangelicals for the purpose of recognizing the image of God in every human being in and out of the womb, without exception. Nothing we can do – no sin too great – can ever rob us of that. In other words, no action can ever put us beyond redemption or the miraculous power of God’s grace. The inevitable conclusion from this insight is that all life, from conception to natural death, is sacred and demands our respect and protection.

Because of the deep value I hold for all human life, the details of the botched execution on April 29 in Oklahoma shook me, as it did many evangelicals and people of faith. The inmate executed, Clayton Lockett, committed horrific crimes. Based on these actions, he was a clear danger to society and needed to be permanently removed from it. Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, though, Oklahoma’s decision to move forward with this execution showed an insufficient concern for human life. Beforehand, legal and medical experts warned that the experimental execution protocol and the secrecy surrounding it could lead to disastrous consequences. Oklahoma ignored these concerns.

From all accounts, the scene was horrific. After the administration of the drugs, Lockett became unconscious and began to writhe on the gurney. Discovering a ruptured vein, officials stopped the execution and tried to resuscitate him but without success. Eventually he was pronounced dead from a heart attack. My heart breaks for everyone touched by this case and execution. In an already difficult situation, this botched execution inflicted further stress and trauma on everyone involved.

Those of us involved in the Imago Dei campaign understand that the image of God exists in all human beings. It lies within the victim and the perpetrator. We cannot stand idly by and be silent as individuals are killed in this way, and in our names. We must shine the light and stand for grace, truth, and love.

I hope that my fellow evangelicals will join me in this important dialogue about the value of human life. Our commitment to the Gospel must guide us in this conversation. No matter where you stand on the death penalty, as a Bible believing Christ centered follower, this botched execution should prompt in us a moral outcry. Let’s use this time to reflect and pray for all those impacted by violence. Let’s look for meaningful guidance from our Heavenly Father as we seek to honor all life.

Reverend Samuel Rodriguez is the lead pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.


The Slippery Slope From Medicine to Lethal Injection

Inmates who are being executed are not patients, and yet it seems that lethal injection attempts to turn them into such.

Convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett died this week in Oklahoma, despite a “botched” execution. I’ve been asked how the “botching” could have been avoided. As a physician, I find that a strange and disturbing question, similar to asking a lifeguard to advise people on how to drown better. Though I did not witness the execution firsthand, I can put my mind to the question–but with great difficulty because as a physician I am in the business of saving lives, not taking them.

To suggest that Lockett’s execution was “botched” raises an ethical question for physicians who are asked how it can be improved. Doctors swear an oath, the Hippocratic Oath, that they are concerned with the relief of suffering in others. States that utilize lethal injection appeal to a doctor’s oath to lend assistance during execution in order to reduce suffering, but that’s a suspect and misplaced appeal. Inmates who are being executed are not patients, and yet it seems that lethal injection attempts to turn them into such. But if Lockett were my patient, my duty would be to cure his sickness and reduce his suffering. At no time would it be to seek his death over his life, even if he were dying from a terminal illness.

Oklahoma chose to begin the execution with an injection of the drug midazolam, a sedative that produces amnesia after the fact. So in the moment a patient under the influence of midazolam may feel anxious, but he won’t recall that anxiety later. In the circumstance of Lockett’s death, such effect of the drug was moot—there was no later.

Lockett was then administered vecuronium bromide. This drug paralyzes all the muscles in the body, including those that control breathing. If all else fails, the eventual lack of oxygen will cause the heart to fail. Vecuronium bromide doesn’t effect consciousness, though, so an individual would be very much awake but unable to breath or move. Ironically, if Lockett had received only vecuromium bromide, he would have remained motionless and died an outwardly peaceful but inwardly painful and terrifying death. By report, Lockett did try to move, perhaps as some of the paralyzing drug may not have circulated or the quantity was insufficient. In that moment, he likely began to suffocate. His death appeared painful, according to witnesses on the scene, and most likely it was. But we will never know if Lockett, or any other person executed by lethal injection, experiences his or her own death as needlessly cruel.

The last drug given was potassium chloride. In sufficient quantities, this drug will stop the heart, though, again, not in an instant and not without pain. Oklahoma corrections claimed that Lockett died of a “massive heart attack.” Pending autopsy, that is mere speculation. My view, based on a review of events as best can be determined, was that Oklahoma executed Lockett by subjecting him to a painful and terrifying death by suffocation.

Lethal injection is merely an impersonation of medicine, nothing more. It wastes scarce drugs that could serve dozens of patients in medical need. When I study the details of the lethal injection protocol, my medical knowledge feels more like a curse, as I see the mistakes that lead to unnecessary cruelty.

Whether one is for or against capital punishment, nearly all of us abhor needless suffering and cruelty. The Constitution of the United States wisely forbids our punishments to be needlessly cruel, even for those we despise. Can lethal injection be improved? Lethal injection was never anything other than a façade for punishment, never not needlessly cruel. If capital punishment is to go on, it must set aside lethal injection, for it is time for that method to suffer its own execution.

Dr. Joel B. Zivot is an anesthesiologist and intensive care specialist. He is the medical director of the Cardio-Thoracic and Vascular Intensive Care Unit at Emory University Hospital and is Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Surgery in the Emory University School of Medicine.

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