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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…

Fall execution dates set for 2 Alabama Death Row inmates

Tommy Arthur (left) and Ronald Bert Smith Jr.
Tommy Arthur (left) and Ronald Bert Smith Jr.
The Alabama Supreme Court today set execution dates this fall for death row inmates Tommy Arthur and Ronald Bert Smith Jr.

The court set Arthur's execution for Nov. 3 at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore and Smith's for Dec. 8.

Tommy Arthur


This is the seventh time Arthur has had an execution date set.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office asked the Alabama Supreme Court in July that an execution date be set "as soon as possible" for Arthur, who was convicted in the 1982 contract killing of a Muscle Shoals man.

Arthur had six previous execution dates set by the Alabama Supreme Court: 2001, twice in 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2015. Several were stayed within one to two days of the execution dates.

Arthur was first convicted of capital murder in 1983 in the contract killing death of Troy Wicker of Muscle Shoals. Wicker's wife had claimed she hired Arthur who at the time was serving at a Decatur work release center for a conviction in the 1977 murder of his sister-in-law in Marion County.

The original Wicker conviction and a second conviction were overturned. He was convicted a third time in 1991 and that conviction was upheld. Arthur admits he killed his sister-in-law but maintains he did not kill Wicker.

"For thirty-three years, since his February 1983 conviction of the capital murder of Troy Wicker, Arthur has engaged in nearly constant litigation in every state and federal court available to him, and he has thoroughly exhausted his appeals at every level," according to the Attorney General request to the Alabama Supreme Court. "Six times, this Court has set Arthur's execution date; six times, he has managed to evade justice. The State requests that this Court issue an expedited seventh execution date so that the State may carry out the sentence that Arthur has so unjustly avoided for so many years."

Ronald Smith Jr.


Smith, who has been on death row since Oct. 6, 1995, was convicted in Madison County in the November 1994 slaying of Circle C convenience store clerk Casey Wilson during a robbery. A judge overrode a jury recommendation for life without parole and imposed the death penalty.

Smith and two others were charged with capital murder in the killing.

One of Smith's co-defendants, Jay Allen Zuercher, was sentenced to life in prison with parole possible in 10 years. The other, Chad Roundtree, accepted a reduced charge in exchange for his testimony. He pleaded guilty to felony murder and was sentenced to 20 years with parole possible in less than 10.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office in February asked the Alabama Supreme Court to set execution dates for Smith and two other inmates - Vernon Madison and Bryant Melson.

An execution date was set for Madison but was stayed hours before the execution time.

Execution method


The Alabama Supreme Court's orders setting the dates for Arthur and Smith state that "the Warden of the William C. Holman Unit of the prison system at Atmore in Escambia County, Alabama, execute the order ... by the means provided by law, causing the death of such convict."

The current execution method is lethal injection using a new drug combination. Death row inmates have been challenging the new drug combination, but in January it was used in the execution of inmate Christopher Brooks. The prison system reported no problems with the execution.

Attorneys for Arthur, and other death row inmates who have also sued, don't want their clients executed by any method. But based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in order to prevail on method-of-execution claims of cruel and unusual punishment, the inmates must name an alternative form of execution that is "feasible, readily implemented" and significantly reduces a substantial risk of severe pain.

Arthur's attorneys suggested the firing squad as one alternate method. Other inmates suggested other methods. The attorneys also suggested lethal injection by pentobarbital and sodium thiopental. State officials have argued that the state no longer has a supply of those two drugs and that's why they had to find another lethal injection drug combination.

State officials won't reveal where they get their supply of drugs, although the major manufacturers of the drugs have said they won't supply them for executions.

The Attorney General's Office had sought Arthur's execution soon after he lost his federal court challenge on method of execution. Arthur, who claims the lethal injection method could be painful because of his current health condition, has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Source: AL.com, September 14, 2016

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