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.
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Death penalty gets boost in three US states

Oklahoma now hopes to be able to use nitrogen asphyxiation
"Oklahoma now hopes to be able to use nitrogen asphyxiation."
Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump's upset presidential election win has dominated global headlines, but for those against capital punishment, Election Day offered other surprise: three states voted to reinstate or otherwise support the death penalty.

The measures voted through in Oklahoma, Nebraska and California via referendum are not expected to spark a sharp rise in the number of executions, but activists say they are a step in the wrong direction.

"Those states have chosen a failed, broken policy when they had the chance to move towards a new dawn," said Shari Silberstein, director of the advocacy group Equal Justice USA.

"The death penalty's demise is inevitable. We have a long list of evidence why that's true," she added.

In 2016, the United States is on course for its lowest number of executions since 1991.

This comes as post-conviction appeals in capital cases tend to become more and more frequent than in other cases, increasing the time and cost before an execution can actually be carried out.

There is also a shortage of the chemicals needed for lethal injections because pharmaceutical firms, mainly those located in Europe where the death penalty has been abolished, refuse to supply them.

The death penalty was not a major issue in the presidential campaign, as neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton oppose it. But in three states of varying political stripes, voters chose to back it.

Nitrogen gas

In Oklahoma, the death penalty was legal, but it faced mounting challenges in court over the lethal injection materials used, with lawyers for inmates charging that they cause undue suffering -- a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans "cruel and unusual punishment."

Besides voting 65 percent in favor of Trump, voters in this conservative Midwestern state made clear they are tired of executions being delayed.

They voted two to one for a measure enshrining the death penalty in the state constitution -- a clause designed to counter possible judicial appeals from defense lawyers of death row inmates.

The new law in Oklahoma also allows the authorities to choose "any method of execution not prohibited by the United States Constitution."

Authorities in Oklahoma now hope to be able to use nitrogen asphyxiation.

Ban lifted

Nebraska, a bit further to the north and also strongly Republican, reinstated the death penalty by a vote of 61 percent in favor. The referendum rescinds a law banning the death penalty that the state legislature passed last year.

But this Great Plains state, where the last execution was carried out in 1997, will likely run into a shortage of lethal chemicals. This problem affects nearly all of the 31 US states that allow the death penalty.

"Nebraska has no avenue to purchase killing drugs and has no execution process in place. There will be no executions there any time soon," said Helen Prejean, a nun whose work fighting the death penalty was immortalized in the Oscar-winning film "Dead Man Walking."

Prejean urged those against capital punishment not to be discouraged by the Election Day setbacks, the third of which came in California, where voters faced a radical choice.

Californians had to vote on two contradictory measures. One aimed to ban capital punishment; that was rejected by 54 percent of voters. The other aimed to speed up the procedure and limit prospects for appeal; it passed.

California has not executed anyone for a decade, but it has the most crowded death row of any US state, at 741 inmates.

Executions are now on hold in the Golden State because of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the lethal injection method.

Experts expect longer delays in carrying out executions.

Elsewhere, in Georgia, authorities announced Thursday that Steven Frederick Spears, convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in 2007, would be put to death next week.

If the execution goes ahead, the southern state will have carried out six executions this year -- a record since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment four decades ago.

Source: Agence France-Presse, Sébastien Blanc, November 11, 2016

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