Utah is bringing back the firing squad, California's death row is overflowing with inmates, but Peter Foster argues the death penalty is on its way out
When the state of Utah announced last week that it was bringing back the firing squad, it seemed for a moment as if the debate on the death penalty in the US had come full circle – or more accurately, gone nowhere at all.
After all, it was in Utah nearly 40 years ago that the US resumed executing criminals after a four-year break when the practice was briefly ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.
That first execution of the modern era took place on January 17, 1977 when 36-year-old Gary Gilmore, a career criminal and double murderer, was tied up, blindfolded and shot five times in the chest at close range. Asked for his last words, he famously replied: "Let’s do this."
Since that day some 1,404 American criminals have been executed, but it would be a mistake to think that Utah’s step back into the past represented any kind of victory for advocates of the death penalty.
On the contrary: the fact that Utah may have to return to shooting people points to the existential crisis that is now facing America’s death penalty system.
All of America’s 32 remaining death penalty states are now struggling to obtain the necessary ‘medicines’ needed to conduct executions because of ethical and legal qualms about supplying drugs for the specific purpose of killing people.
Last week the department of criminal justice in Texas – which has carried out 522 of those 1,404 executions - announced that it has managed to source fresh supplies of pentobarbital, but only enough to cover the four executions it has scheduled for April.
Even Texas is down to its last drop, and with the American Pharmacists Association telling members this week they should refuse to supply drugs that could be used in executions there don't appear to be any new supplies coming soon.
California, meanwhile, has only executed 13 convicts since 1978, but now has a staggering 751 inmates on death row - so many that Governor Jerry Brown had to propose emergency measures to open more cells to death row inmates. It has been nearly a decade since California has executed anyone. The state, like a growing portion of America, is comfortable imposing a death sentence, but not carrying it out.
The difficulties that these states are facing reflect a growing shift of public attitudes towards the death penalty over the last 20 years, fueled by concerns over wrongful convictions, botched executions and the exorbitant cost of administering the system.
The sheer number of wrongful convictions has been the most powerful force driving a steady erosion of support for the death penalty from 80 per cent 20 years ago, to 63 per cent today according to Gallup.
But even that apparently still-healthy support is flakier than it first appears.
Source: The Telegraph, Peter Foster, April 1, 2015
Is This The Beginning Of The End Of The Death Penalty?
Thanks to a new policy adopted by a major doctors’ group this week, the country has quietly taken a big step toward putting an end to lethal injections as a means of executing inmates.
The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) is officially discouraging its 62,000 members from participating in executions, declaring that helping states carry out the death penalty runs contrary to what it means to be a pharmacist. While the new policy is not legally binding, the positions of the APhA — which is responsible for setting ethical standards for the pharmacists practicing throughout the country — do carry significant weight in the field.
The move also brings pharmacists in line with the rest of the health community. Groups like the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, and the American Nurses Association have already explicitly prohibited their members from assisting in executions, saying it conflicts with doctors’ moral obligation to heal their patients.
“It is in some ways unremarkable that pharmacists would reach the same conclusion that nurses, physicians, and anesthesiologists all already have,” Bill Fassett, a member of the APhA and a professor of pharmacy law and ethics at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy, told ThinkProgress. “Using chemicals to kill people isn’t medical care. As health professionals, we can have no part of it.”
In other ways, however, the move could have implications that are quite remarkable. As states have recently been left scrambling to figure out how to procure the lethal drugs they need to carry out executions, the APhA’s decision threatens to have a ripple effect that could change the landscape of the death penalty as a whole.
Over the past two years, pharmacists have come to play a key role in the executions of condemned prisoners. As pharmaceutical companies have begun to refuse to allow states to use their products to execute inmates, and the international supply of lethal drugs has dried up, states are facing a growing shortage of the drugs they need to perform lethal injections. So state officials have been forced to turn to “compounding pharmacies,” which are facilities where pharmacists can create drugs from scratch without going through a drug company. The pharmacists who work at compounding pharmacies — often called “compounders” — have quickly become critical to the states that continue to execute inmates on a regular basis.
But that’s all poised to change. The APhA has made it harder for individual pharmacists to justify their participation in supplying death penalty drugs.
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Source: Think Progress, March 31, 2015
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