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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Could these cases, including some from Louisiana, end America's death penalty?

Louisiana State Penitentiary
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Last June, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the death penalty might be close to its ultimate demise. "Rather than try to patch up the death penalty's legal wounds one at a time," he wrote in a dissent to Glossip v. Gross, to which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added her name, "I would ask for a full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution."

Attorneys for death-row inmates, generally a tight-knit group, immediately started talking about what to do next. While some urged caution — arguing that if the court upholds capital punishment it could set their cause back indefinitely — others sensed a rare opportunity.

The most outspoken advocates for a more aggressive strategy have been the 8th Amendment Project, a group of lawyers who oppose the death penalty and are tracking cases that might allow the court to strike it down for good.

On Friday (Jan. 15), the high court will discuss whether to hear a challenge to the death sentence of a Pennsylvania woman named Shonda Walter. Her case is one of several posed as direct responses to Breyer's invitation to attack the death penalty head-on. The cases include several from Louisiana. 

There is no way to know whether the justices will take any of these cases; for the court to take a case, four justices must agree, and aside from Breyer and Ginsburg, no other justices have indicated their views on whether to take such a challenge. If they do take a case, there is also no way of knowing which one they will position as the next potential landmark, the next Brown v. Board of Education or Miranda v. Arizona or Roe v. Wade.

Regardless of what case they pick, the justices have many options; they could restrict the death penalty without abolishing it altogether. They could raise the age of who qualifies for the punishment or define more stringent tests for IQ or other indicators of mental ability.

They could strike down the laws governing how juries make death decisions in some states but not others, or strike down laws keeping information about execution drugs secret. They could restrict the death penalty to the most heinous crimes, such as mass acts of terrorism or killing a police officer or prison guard.

These options would pare the death penalty down to a "smaller, more carefully defined set of defendants," says Evan Mandery, the author of "A Wild Justice," a history of efforts to bring down the death penalty in the 1960s. But this could be an unsatisfying victory for abolitionists, since "it might have the side effect of making it appear that the problems with the death penalty have been fixed and restore public confidence."


Source: nola.com, January 13, 2016

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