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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 -…

On Death Penalty Cases, Tim Kaine Revealed Inner Conflict

Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton
Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton
Kevin Green’s lawyers were pleading with the governor for mercy.

It was spring 2008, and Mr. Green, a 31-year-old who had shot and killed a grocery owner, was on Virginia’s death row. His woes, his lawyers said, dated to childhood; he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, repeated three years of elementary school, could not even tie his shoes.

His was precisely the kind of execution a young Tim Kaine, a Harvard-educated lawyer with a deeply felt revulsion for capital punishment, would have worked himself to the bone to stop.

“Murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County,” he once declared, as one of his clients was about to be put to death. “And even the Spring Street Penitentiary.”

But on the night of May 27, Mr. Green was led into the execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center, strapped to a gurney and hooked up to intravenous lines.

Shortly after 10 p.m., he became the fifth person put to death while Mr. Kaine was the governor of Virginia.

For Mr. Kaine, now a senator and Hillary Clinton’s newly named running mate, no issue has been as fraught politically or personally as the death penalty. His handling of capital punishment reveals a central truth about Mr. Kaine: He is both a man of conviction and very much a politician, a man of unshakable faith who nonetheless recognizes — and expediently bends to, his critics suggest — the reality of the Democratic Party and the state he represents.

He opposes both abortion and the death penalty, he has said, because “my faith teaches life is sacred.” Yet he strongly supports a woman’s right to choose and has a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. And Mr. Kaine presided over 11 executions as governor, delaying some but granting clemency only once.

He cast his decisions in simple terms: As Virginia’s governor, he was sworn to uphold the law — a message that helped him get elected governor. Calm, never letting his passion overtake reason and open to compromise, Mr. Kaine, 58, is well liked even by many Republicans he has worked with. His centrist appeal is one reason Mrs. Clinton added him to her ticket.

But some death penalty opponents cast his decisions as political survival and ambition.

“Tim is a politician,” said Jack Payden-Travers, who served as the executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty when Mr. Kaine was the governor. “Even though they say they’re not running for the next office, there’s always something coming up.”

Deep inside, Mr. Kaine’s allies say, his role in seeing prisoners put to death tore at him. On days when an execution was scheduled, said Wayne Turnage, his former chief of staff, the normally outgoing governor would be “less communicative, and quietly pensive,” and when the moment was near, he would retreat to his corner office and remain there alone.

When it was over, an aide would enter quietly, to report the dead man’s last words.

Wherever Mr. Kaine could hold to his ideals, his supporters say, he did. Though he commuted only one sentence, to life in prison, Mr. Roberts said the governor’s team had used an expansive legal theory to have that inmate declared mentally unfit for execution, interpreting Supreme Court case law in a way Mr. Kaine’s predecessors probably had not.

When the Supreme Court took up the constitutionality of lethal injection in 2008, Mr. Kaine suspended executions until the court ruled to allow the procedure.

And when Republicans in the General Assembly tried to expand use of the death penalty to cover more crimes, the governor blocked them.

“If there was any death penalty bill that came up, it would go into the incinerator, I will tell you that,” Mr. Turnage said. “There was no sentiment for expanding the death penalty. That wasn’t going to happen.”


Source: The New York Times, July 23, 2016


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

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