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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…

U.S.: Efforts to end death penalty gain steam

Nebraska: Gathering signatures against the death penalty repeal
Nebraska: Gathering signatures against the death penalty repeal
After nearly 2 decades of declining use, opponents of the death penalty have begun what they characterize as a sustained legislative and political push to end capital punishment in states across the country.

Voters in California and Nebraska will decide this year whether to end the death penalty.

Legislators appear poised to end capital punishment in states as different as deep-blue Delaware and ruby-red Utah. And public opinion polls show that while a majority of Americans still back executions for those convicted of murder, that majority is shrinking.

"The growing opposition to the death penalty is evident among every demographic group. You see the same type of patterns among all age groups, among all races, among all religions and among every political affiliation," said Robert Dunham, who runs the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that advocates for an end to capital punishment.

At the presidential level, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both support the death penalty. But Trump hasn't discussed the issue in detail, and Clinton at a debate earlier this year suggested she'd be happy if the Supreme Court or states began to eliminate the death penalty. The Democratic platform calls for repealing the death penalty.

At the state level, calls for an end to the death penalty are coming from an unlikely corner of the political spectrum: Conservatives.

Nebraska's legislature, ostensibly nonpartisan but in practice controlled by Republicans, made headlines in 2015 by repealing the death penalty.

Utah's Republican state Senate passed a repeal bill earlier this year, though it died in the state House. In Kentucky, where Republicans only recently gained control of the state Senate, a Senate committee held hearings on a repeal vote, the first such hearing since 1976. Another repeal measure stalled on a tie vote in Montana's legislature, where Republicans are in control.

"You're going to see more conservative states moving toward repeal," said Marc Hyden, a former National Rifle Association staffer who now runs Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. "The death penalty is dying out."

While 30 states allow capital punishment, the governors of four of those states - Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania - have set a moratorium on executions while they are in office. 20 states do not allow executions.

The number of executions carried out across the country has declined precipitously in recent years. In 2015, states carried out just 28 executions, the lowest number since 1991 and down from a high of 98 in 1999. Through July 15, when Georgia executed a man convicted of murder in 1982, 15 executions had taken place in 2016.

Part of the reason the number of executions have fallen is that states are having a tough time getting the drugs necessary for lethal injections. All thirty states that allow the death penalty use lethal injections as their preferred method of execution. But some of the pharmaceutical companies - mostly based in Europe - that produce those drugs have refused to sell their products to states for use in executions, leading to nationwide shortfalls.

The fact that so few executions are taking place has spurred legislators in at least a few states to rethink capital punishment.

"We started to look at the institution of the death penalty as a broken government system. We had a system that was not being used, that was costing us money," said Colby Coash, the Nebraska state senator who sponsored his state's repeal measure in 2015. "If any other program in history had been this costly or ineffective, we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago."

Death penalty advocates are fighting repeal supporters in a handful of key states. After Nebraska passed its repeal in 2015, over the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts, advocates forced a voter referendum on the measure onto this year's ballot, aided by $300,000 from the governor and his father, a major Republican donor who founded the online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade.

"There was a real groundswell of anger from different corners of the state about the repeal,' said Chris Peterson, a spokesman for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. Peterson's group is preparing an ad campaign that highlights those on Nebraska's death row, and the crimes they have committed.

Peterson pointed to a poll conducted for his group earlier this month that showed 58 % of Nebraska voters back keeping the death penalty. Just 30 % favor repealing the legislation.

Repeal backers in Nebraska are touting a study conducted by Ernest Goss, an economist at Creighton University, which found Nebraska spends $14.6 million every year on the death penalty, even though the state has not executed a prisoner since December 1997. Death penalty supporters countered with a study from a state legislative analyst that found the death penalty has no such impact.

The Nebraska vote, Peterson said, appeared as the first in what could become a series of anti-death penalty dominos. But, he said: "We're going to work aggressively and we're optimistic that we're going to set our domino back up."

Death penalty proponents have a chance to bolster capital punishment in 1 state this year: Voters in Oklahoma will face a state question that would specifically declare the death penalty is not cruel or unusual punishment.

There is likely to be at least 1 legislative push to reinstate the death penalty next year: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) said last week she would make a legislative priority of reinstating the death penalty for those convicted of murdering police officers and children. Martinez cited the murders of 5 police officers in Dallas last month, a police officer in Hatch, N.M., and a Navajo child earlier this year.

"[A] society that fails to adequately protect and defend those who protect all of us is a society that will be undone and unsafe," Martinez said in a statement emailed to The Hill.

Voters in California will decide 2 ballot measures that would lead to polar opposite outcomes: One measure, Proposition 62, would end California's death penalty altogether. The other, Proposition 66, would maintain capital punishment and speed the appeals process.

It was not immediately clear what would happen if both measures pass in November. In other cases, when 2 contradictory ballot measures have passed, courts have tended to side with the measure that won a higher level of support among voters.

A majority of Americans continues to support the death penalty, according to public opinion polls, but that support has dropped. In October, Gallup found 61 % of Americans support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, down from a high of 80 % in 1994. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last year found 56 % of Americans favor the death penalty, down from a peak of 78 % in 1995.

Source: the hill.com, August 23, 2016

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