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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Liberal U.S. justice questions death penalty as court spurns cases

US Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals by a convicted murderer who said he should not be executed because Ohio tried unsuccessfully to put him to death once before and three other death row inmates, putting a spotlight again on divisions among the eight justices over capital punishment.

The justices spurned the request by Romell Broom as well as appeals by convicted murders Henry Sireci in Florida, James Tyler in Louisiana and Sammie Stokes in South Carolina.

The court let stand a March ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that the state could try to execute Broom, convicted of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl named Tryna Middleton in 1984, a second time. His 2009 lethal injection attempt was stopped after authorities were unable to get a needle into his vein to administer the drugs.

Justice Stephen Breyer, an outspoken critic of the way the death penalty is implemented, and fellow liberal Justice Elena Kagan said in the brief order they supported taking up the case. Four votes are needed for the court to hear an appeal.

Broom, 60, said a second execution attempt would violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the double jeopardy clause, which prevents people from being punished more than once for the same offense.

Breyer mentioned the Broom case in a statement he issued in the separate appeal by Sireci, which the court rejected with Breyer the sole dissenter.

In Broom's case, Breyer said the court should have considered whether a second attempt to execute someone constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. During the first execution attempt in 2009, medical personnel spent two hours trying to find a vein through which they could inject lethal drugs, in some cases hitting bone and causing Broom considerable pain, Breyer wrote.

Sireci was sentenced to death 40 years ago after being convicted of killing a used car salesman in Orlando. The victim, Howard Poteet, was stabbed 55 times.

Breyer asked whether such a long period waiting "under threat of execution" represented cruel and unusual punishment.

"I should hope that this kind of delay would arise only on the rarest of occasions. But in the ever diminishing universe of actual executions, I fear that delays of this kind have become more common," Breyer wrote.

Breyer reiterated his concerns about disparities across the United States over the imposition of the death penalty.

The defendants are not necessarily the "worst of the worst," he said, but are instead "individuals chosen at random, on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race."

Currently, 31 states have the death penalty on the books, but the vast majority of executions take place in a handful of them such as Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Florida and Georgia.

The Supreme Court is closely divided over the death penalty. Last week, the justices allowed the execution in Alabama of convicted murderer Ronald Smith after splitting 4-4 over a stay request. The four liberal justices favored putting the execution on hold.

Five votes are needed for a stay request to be granted.

In November, the court granted Alabama inmate Thomas Arthur's request to put his execution on hold, but only because Chief Justice John Roberts chose to side with the four liberals as a courtesy.

The court is in the process of considering whether to hear oral arguments in Arthur's case.

Source: Reuters, Lawrence Hurley, December 12, 2016

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