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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Pfizer’s move throws a wrench into America’s death-penalty machinery

“FIRST, do no harm.” Executives of pharmaceutical companies are not subject to this guiding principle of the Hippocratic oath—only doctors are. But increasingly, drug manufacturers are taking steps to ensure that their formulations do not wind up in syringes used for lethal injections of condemned prisoners. Last week, Pfizer, one of America’s largest drug companies, announced that it would no longer supply prisons with seven drugs used to impose the death penalty. “Pfizer’s mission is to apply science and our global resources to improve health and well-being at every stage of life”, the statement says. “Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment.” The firm will sell the drugs “only for medically prescribed patient care and not for any penal purposes”, and take pains to ensure that the “select group of wholesalers, distributors and direct purchasers” who buy these drugs—pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, propofol, midazolam, hydromorphone, rocuronium bromide and vecuronium bromide—“will not resell these products to correctional institutions”.

Pfizer’s move will rankle a devoted but diminished swath of America. Though 31 states still have death-penalty laws on their books, only a handful actually follow through. In 2015, a total of six states—Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia—hosted executions. And of the 27 men and one woman put to death last year (the lowest number since 1984), all but four were in the execution-leading troika of Georgia, Missouri and Texas. The execution method in all 28 cases—and in every application of the death penalty but one over the past four years (when Virginia electrocuted Robert Charles Gleason, Jr in 2013)—was lethal injection. Pfizer’s decision will exacerbate an already difficult situation for states seeking drugs that will reliably kill their worst offenders.

If it were not for the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision a year ago in Glossip v Gross, the task of sourcing the the deadly cocktails would be even tougher. Oklahoma and a few other states had turned to one of the drugs on Pfizer’s list, midazolam, in 2013 when European drug companies opposed to the death penalty stopped supplying prisons with sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, barbiturates which induce a coma-like state. In Glossip, Richard Glossip and two other Oklahoma inmates challenged their pending executions because they believed midazolam carried a risk of torturing them to death. They presented the nightmare of Clayton Lockett’s execution in April 2014, during which he twisted in pain and regained consciousness to blurt out “this shit is fucking with my head” before succumbing after 43 minutes of apparent suffering.


Source: The Economist, Blogs, S.M., May 16, 2016

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