Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

California: Execution Method Nears Final Approval

Death row cell, San Quentin State prison, California
Death row cell, San Quentin State Prison, California
Days before California voters decide whether to ban capital punishment or expedite executions, state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials have sent a new execution protocol to its final administrative review.

"The Office of Administrative Law has up to 30 working days to review and approve it," said CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton. Depending on when they are approved, the new rules would take effect no later than April 1.

A federal judge put a stop to executions in 2006, citing concerns about the state's three-drug execution protocol. The Brown administration agreed to develop a new protocol as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

Nearly 20 inmates on California's death row have exhausted their legal appeals and are eligible for execution. But Thornton would not speculate on when the next execution would be scheduled if voters reject Proposition 62, which would outlaw capital punishment.

"It's odd timing," said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, which is supporting Proposition 62. "We believe the whole question of how to kill prisoners is moot until after the election," he added.

Cherry said he's certain if Proposition 62 fails, a legal challenge would be brought against the new execution protocol.

"Even if they survive legal challenge, which I doubt they would, they would still have to find the drugs," Cherry said. "What we know about the 4 drugs proposed by the state is that 2 are forbidden by the manufacturer to be used in executions."

A CDCR official said the state has its own compounding pharmacy to make the drugs, if it comes to that.

The other 2 drugs in the new protocol, Cherry said, have never been used in executions. "Using them for that would amount to human experimentation," he added, suggesting a legal line of attack.

A new Field Poll shows Proposition 62 leading 51 % to 45 %, with the rest undecided. Proposition 66, which would expedite executions, is favored by 48 % of voters, while 42 % are opposed and 10 % aren't sure.

If both measures pass, whichever gets more votes would prevail.

Source: KQED news, November 5, 2016

California looks to single drug for carrying out executions

The death chamber's control room at San Quentin's State Prison
The death chamber's control room at San Quentin State Prison
California's death row inmates could be executed using one of four different drugs or choose the gas chamber under regulations submitted for final approval Friday, just days before state voters consider whether to do away with the death penalty or reform it.

The plan by corrections officials responds to court pressure and amid a nationwide shortage of execution drugs.

The Office of Administrative Law now has 30 working days to review the regulations for technical problems. If approved, the rules could go into effect early next year, barring court challenges.

California has 750 condemned inmates on the nation's largest death row. However, the state hasn't executed anyone since 2006 and frustration over the law and the endless appeals that go with it spawned competing initiatives on Tuesday's ballot.

Proposition 62 would end the death penalty and keep condemned inmates in prison for life. Proposition 66 would speed up appeals and let officials begin single-drug executions.

The regulations submitted Friday would let corrections officials choose between 4 powerful barbiturates - amobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital or thiopental - for each execution, depending on which one is available. Inmates also could continue to choose the gas chamber for their execution.

8 states have used a 1-drug method, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes executions and tracks the issue. 5 states in addition to California have announced plans to use a single drug but have not done so.

Executions in California stalled amid legal challenges after 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen was put to death with 3 drugs in 2006 for ordering a triple murder.

Federal and state judges suggested the state could resume the punishment if it began using a single drug, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to say in 2012 that California would consider a 1-drug lethal injection.

But there was little progress on the change until a judge forced the state's hand with a ruling last year.

Death chamber and witness room, San Quentin State Prison
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said 2 of the 4 drugs identified in the state proposal have never been used in executions.

It also questioned whether the drugs will be safe and effective, since the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to have the one used for each execution specially made.

The department "is engaging in nothing less than human experimentation," Ana Zamora, the ACLU's criminal justice policy director, said in an email.

About 36,000 people submitted about 167,000 individual comments on the new regulations, department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.

The department tried to adopt regulations for a 3-drug method in 2009 and 2010, but the attempts were blocked by a judge in 2012.

Matt Cherry, director of the campaign to eliminate the death penalty, said the "arduous legal battle over California's broken death penalty system" is another reason for voters to eliminate it.

Michael Rushford, president of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, also expects more bureaucratic and legal challenges to stall executions. The foundation sued to force corrections officials to adopt the new rules.

Proposition 66 would speed things up by eliminating the need for the department to continue the usual administrative process, he said, speaking for the pro-death penalty campaigns.

Opponents already have signaled they are likely to challenge the regulations in court, meaning more delays are likely before anyone is executed if voters keep the death penalty.

Source: Associated Press, November 5, 2016

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