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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Oklahoma still mulling execution protocols, ensuring delays

Oklahoma death chamber
Oklahoma death chamber
OKLAHOMA CITY--Oklahoma, a state with one of the busiest death chambers in the country over the last three decades, will have at least a two-year delay in lethal injections after the governing board of its prison system declined to consider new execution procedures on Tuesday.

At its regular meeting in Taft, the Board of Corrections did not take up new execution protocols that Attorney General Scott Pruitt wants in place before executions can resume. After a botched execution in 2014 and drug mix-ups during the last two scheduled lethal injections in 2015, Pruitt said he won't request any execution dates until five months after the new protocols are approved and he's confident the death penalty can be carried out without any problems.

"I want to assure the victims' families who continue to await justice that this review process will continue to be both deliberate and empirical," Pruitt said in a statement. "I am confident that the Department of Corrections, under the leadership of Director (Joe) Allbaugh, is taking the appropriate time needed to ensure the execution protocols are fully in place and without error in the most efficient way possible."

Allbaugh, tapped to head the state's prison system after its former director resigned amid a grand jury probe into the bungled executions, said Tuesday he was not ready to discuss any details about Oklahoma's execution procedures or changes to the protocols.

"The protocol is a work in progress," said DOC spokesman Alex Gerszewski. "There currently is no timeline on when anything will be released."

Meanwhile, five Oklahoma death row inmates have exhausted all of their appeals and are awaiting execution dates.

Oklahoma has executed 112 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the highest per-capita rate in the nation and second overall only to Texas, where 537 inmates have been put to death over the last 40 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Oklahoma was the first state to authorize lethal injection as a method of execution, and capital punishment has strong, bipartisan support in the Oklahoma Legislature. After the botched execution of an inmate in 2014 who writhed on the gurney during a lethal injection that prison officials tried unsuccessfully to halt, lawmakers approved the use of nitrogen gas as an alternative to lethal injection.

The Legislature also passed a resolution seeking a public vote on whether to enshrine the death penalty in the state constitution, making it more difficult for future legislators or the courts to end it. That state question will appear on the ballot in November.

Rep. Mike Christian, a former highway patrolman and staunch advocate for the death penalty who sponsored both measures, said he's disappointed prison officials have taken so long to develop new procedures and wants them to include the use of nitrogen gas as an alternative to lethal injection. Nitrogen gas has never been used to execute inmates in the U.S.

"My question is why they don't at least have some kind of protocols established for nitrogen hypoxia," said Christian, R-Oklahoma City. "It's second in line behind lethal injection, and I think lethal injection is on its way out the door."

Still, death penalty opponents voiced concern that Oklahoma appears to be moving in the opposite direction of other states, where the death penalty is being reconsidered altogether.

"The last thing the state of Oklahoma needs to do is rush back into the business of executing people," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. "We would prefer that the state get out of the business of executing its citizens altogether."

Source: Miami Herald, AP, Sean Murphy, September 13, 2016

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