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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Judge Sees No Wrongs in Texas Executions

Texas death chamber
Texas death chamber
Texas' execution protocol is constitutional, a federal judge ruled, dismissing a lawsuit from 5 death row inmates who say the state should retest its drugs before killing them.

Texas revised its lethal-injection procedure in 2012 from a 3-judge cocktail to a dose of compounded pentobarbital. Since then, Texas has executed 30 prisoners without any reported problems, according to U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes' Aug. 19 ruling.

Texas changed its protocol and started buying its pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy after large drug manufacturers, unwilling to be complicit in the death penalty, stopped producing the drugs the state used.

Lead plaintiff Jeffery Wood sued 2 directors of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the warden of the Huntsville prison on Aug. 12, seeking an injunction to stop the state from carrying out his execution, which was set for Aug. 24.

Though Hughes refused to grant Wood relief in the federal case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday afternoon remanded Wood's case to the trial court that oversaw his death penalty conviction.

The appeals court told the trial court to look into allegations from Wood's attorneys that a psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution, the late Dr. James Grigson, dubbed "Dr. Death" by the media, lied to the jury about how often he found defendants pose a danger to society in the numerous capital murder trials in which he had testified. Wood's reprieve came on his 43rd birthday, the Texas Tribune reported.

Church leaders, death penalty opponents and state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, say Wood does not deserve the death penalty because he didn't kill anyone.

Wood was sentenced under a Texas law that makes anyone involved in a crime that causes death equally responsible.

A jury convicted Wood for the 1996 murder of a convenience store clerk in Kerrville, though Wood was sitting outside the store in a pickup when his friend fired the fatal shot.

Wood is fighting to overturn his death sentence in the state case, but his conviction will stand.

In his federal lawsuit, Wood says that because Texas agreed to retest its compounded pentobarbital before using it on inmates Perry Williams and Thomas Whitaker in a settlement of their 2013 federal lawsuit, the state should do the same for him and his 4 co-plaintiffs.

He claims that Texas will violate his Eighth and 14th Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by using a drug that presents a "substantial risk of causing severe pain," an argument his attorneys backed with an affidavit, medical report and lab results from pharmacologist James Ruble and anesthesiologist David Waisel.

Judge Hughes didn't buy it. Describing Ruble's report as a "pseudo-scientific dump of partial facts and incomplete data" and Waisel's affidavit as rife with "speculative, unsubstantiated, and partial data," Hughes dismissed the case Friday.

Wood et al. claim Texas uses expired pentobarbital, an argument Hughes found unpersuasive, because the state administers twice the lethal dose to execute prisoners.

"The plaintiffs have not shown that Texas uses expired drugs to execute people. That should end the inquiry. Their medical support is wholly unreliable to show that the drugs have a demonstrated risk of severe pain," Hughes wrote in a 12-page order, voluminous compared to his typically terse rulings.

Hughes dismissed most of the claims for not meeting Texas' 2-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims.

"The equal protection claim will be dismissed because the plaintiffs have not shown that Texas has infringed upon a fundamental right," he wrote.

Here are the other plaintiffs and their execution dates: Rolando Ruiz, Aug. 31; Robert Jennings, Sept. 14; Terry Edwards, Oct. 19 and Ramiro Gonzales, Nov. 2.

Texas leads the nation with 6 executions so far this year.

Source: Courthouse News, August 24, 2016

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