Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Nebraska: Execution drugs still a question in death penalty campaign

An Omaha senator is asking the state auditor's office to investigate the attempt by the Department of Correctional Services to acquire lethal injection drugs from a foreign broker.

Sen. Burke Harr is asking questions about a contract with Chris Harris, salesman and owner of HarrisPharma, which as of last year had sold or tried to sell execution drugs to 4 or 5 states, and Nebraska.

"I'd sure like an audit to see why we didn't receive the drugs and if we didn't, why we didn't receive our money back," Harr said.

He's a step behind Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers.

Auditor Charlie Janssen said inquiries on the Harris contract, and other questions asked of the Corrections Department and Harris, are already in progress after Chambers made the request several months ago.

"We take it seriously and we're going to find out, hopefully, all the answers to the questions the senators have," he said Thursday afternoon.

Harr said in his letter to Janssen that the incomplete acquisition of drugs that can't legally be imported into this country raises questions about the contract.

If there's a contract, and Harris isn't able to fulfill his end, he asked, why isn't the state suing to get the money back?

"Do we just walk away? Is that normal for the state just to walk away when the other side breaches a contract?" asked Harr. "I don't think we want to set a precedent of allowing people to breach contracts and know that we won't go after them."

Nebraska ordered sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide and paid $54,400 for them, but never received the drugs.

In an execution by lethal injection, sodium thiopental renders the inmate unconscious and pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant, stops breathing. A 3rd drug, potassium chloride, stops the heart.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes sent a letter to Harris Jan. 6 asking for reimbursement of $26,700 paid by the state in April for 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental. Harris responded on Jan. 28, saying the refund was not possible and that the failure to deliver wasn't the company's fault.

Harr also wants to know how Nebraska found Harris.

The Corrections Department has emails that show Harris made contact in April 2015, asking if the state would be interested in ordering sodium thiopental.

Other questions concern what kind of vetting process took place before Nebraska signed the contract and whether there actually was a signed contract.

Supporters of Retain a Just Nebraska said Thursday at a news conference that Nebraska is unlikely to ever execute someone even if voters bring back the death penalty.

Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash and University of Nebraska law professor Eric Berger represent the anti-death penalty side of a question that will be on the Nov. 8 ballot asking voters to decide whether to retain a law passed in 2015 that abolished the death penalty in Nebraska, or to repeal that law.

Even if the state could get the drugs, Berger said, it would be only a short-term fix. They expire, and the state would need to be able to buy them over and over. It's already difficult to find sellers, he said, because pharmaceutical companies are saying they don't want their drugs used in that way.

"It's a problem that's not going away," he said. "If anything, it's a problem that's probably going to get harder and harder for the state."

Chris Peterson, spokesman for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, pointed to the planned resumption of executions in Ohio with a new protocol and new drug cocktail similar to Oklahoma's. The protocol has been found not to violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

According to National Public Radio, Ohio's protocol calls for the drugs midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride. They are FDA-approved, as far as the integrity of the drugs, and they do not come from a compounding pharmacy.

Berger said Ohio still could have trouble getting the drugs needed, especially on a sustained basis. This particular protocol is dangerous, he said, because there's a risk an inmate will suffer extreme pain from potassium chloride if he or she is not anesthetized. Midazolam, he said, is not an anesthetic but is used to calm patients before an anesthetic is used for surgery.

Bob Evnen, a co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said Nebraska can have a successful drug protocol. Its current protocol was adopted because it was the protocol of the federal government.

"It is a shame that death penalty opponents are trying to politicize this issue and confuse Nebraskans at a time when ballots have been mailed to early voters and we are less than 5 weeks before Election Day," Evnen said.

Coash said the problem that really needs solving in the state is not where to get death penalty drugs, but how to reform the prison system and restore safety for corrections officers.

"I would much rather spend that money supporting (the officers)," he said.

Frakes is a competent leader, Coash said.

"(He) does not need to be running on a fool's errand to find drugs we know he can't get. He needs all hands on deck protecting and supporting his officers."

Source: Journal Star, October 7, 2016

Nebraska better off without death penalty, Catholics say

Catholic leaders in Nebraska spoke out in favor of a vote to maintain a ban on the death penalty, calling it unnecessary and "unjustified." "The Catholic Church and Nebraska bishops oppose the death penalty because it is not necessary to protect society," Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said at a Sept. 29 press conference. "We urge Catholics and all people of good will to vote to retain the repeal of the death penalty on Referendum 426."

This November, voters can decide whether to approve or reject the Nebraska Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum, Referendum 426. The referendum would repeal the Nebraska legislature's May 2015 vote to ban the death penalty. Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode it.

The Catholic conference is hosting speaking events about the referendum at each cathedral parish and other parishes and venues. Venzor said Nebraska's bishops and the Catholic conference will engage in "significant efforts" to ensure Catholics understand Catholic teaching on the death penalty and are encouraged to vote to retain the legislature's death penalty repeal.

Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha spoke in favor of retaining the ban in an Oct. 3 video. "In our particular circumstance, the death penalty is unnecessary and therefore unjustified. This principled Catholic response is shaped by our commitment to the life and dignity of every human person and the common good," he said. He cited Catholic teaching that the state may impose the death penalty if it is "the only available means to protect society." The option should not be exercised when "other non-lethal means that are more respectful of human life are available."

Father Douglas Dietrich also backed a vote to retain the ban. He is pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lincoln, not far from the capitol building, Human lives are "unrepeatable, intrinsically valuable gifts that we must not deprive others of," he told the Sept. 29 press conference. "Along with my brother priests we are taking a principled pro-life stance in proclaiming we do not need the death penalty in Nebraska," he said adding "what human life God creates, we must not destroy."

About 49 % of Americans support the death penalty for convicted murderers, down from 80 % in 1995. In 1995 only about 16 % of Americans opposed the death penalty. That figure has risen to 42 %. Since 1936, opposition to the death penalty peaked in the mid-1960s when 47 % of Americans opposed it and only 42 % supported it, according to the Pew Research Center. Death penalty opposition is the highest since 1972. About 72 % of Republicans support the death penalty, compared to 44 % of unaffiliated voters and 34 % of Democrats. 43 % of Catholics support the death penalty, while 46 % oppose it. White Catholics are somewhat more likely to support the death penalty.

Fr. Dietrich said alternatives to the death penalty offer the convict the chance at rehabilitation and conversion. He cited St. John Paul II's words during his 1999 visit to the United States: "A sign of hope is the Increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."

Sister Jean O'Rourke, a Sister of Mercy from Omaha, Neb., said that women religious have advocated for the abolition of the death penalty for decades. She said the death penalty is an "ineffective and unfair" policy, given the risk of executing innocent people, the costs of appeal, and the personal effects of the lengthy appeals process on victims' families. "It promises closure, but all too often brings prolonged agony," Sister O'Rourke said.

"The Death penalty is not merciful, because it views a person as not deserving God's gift of life," she said. "When the state kills, in our name, we have blood on our hands."

The Nebraska Catholic Conference has a webpage about the death penalty measure at http://www.necatholic.org/deathpenalty

Source: angelusnews.com, October 7, 2016

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