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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…

Texas Court Grants Execution Stay — State’s Eighth Execution Delay In Recent Months

"The Walls" Unit, Huntsville, where Texas carries out its executions.
"The Walls" Unit, Huntsville, where Texas carries out its executions.
Robert Jennings was scheduled to be executed in October for the 1988 murder of a Houston police officer.

WASHINGTON — On Friday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution for Robert Jennings.

Jennings was scheduled to be executed on Sept. 14 for the 1988 murder of Elston Howard, a Houston police officer. He was sentenced to death after his trial in 1989.

The stay of execution means that this is the eighth consecutive scheduled execution date in Texas to have been withdrawn, stayed, or moved to a later date.

The unsigned opinion — from which four of the court’s nine judges dissented — was a brief three pages, laying out the legal history of the case and Jennings’ current request before the court. Among Jennings’ arguments is that improper jury instructions prevented the jury from “properly considering and giving effect to” the mitigating evidence raised at his sentencing.

The only explanation given by the court for granting the stay was a single sentence: “After reviewing applicant’s pleadings, this Court has determined that applicant’s execution should be stayed pending further order of this Court.”

This is the second Friday in a row in which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the state’s highest appellate court for criminal matters — issued a stay of execution with little explanation for its action. A week earlier, the court stayed the pending execution of Ronaldo Ruiz.

At this point, the next scheduled execution is the scheduled execution of Barney Fuller on October 5 — nearly six months since the most recent execution in the state, which took place April 6.

This long of a gap between executions in Texas — a state that has conducted more than 500 executions since it began executing people again in 1982 — is very rare. The only other time a gap of more than five months between executions happened in Texas in the past 20 years was between September 2007 and June 2008, when executions across the country hit a standstill because the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear a case regarding the constitutionality of a lethal injection protocol.
Unlike then, however, the reasons given for withdrawing, staying, or moving the past eight execution dates in Texas have differed and have also at times, as with Friday’s order, been less than transparent.

Source: BuzzFeed, Chris Geidner, Sept. 3, 2016, at 3:23 a.m.

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