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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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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 -…

Ricky Gray’s execution took more than 30 minutes. His attorneys want to know why.

"Midazolam will produce relaxation and that relaxation may be sufficiently severe to produce sleep, but in studies we've conducted, it does not eliminate sensation to pain." - S. Stevens Negus, professor of pharmacology at Virginia Commonwealth University

Attorneys for Ricky Gray, a prisoner executed Wednesday night in Virginia, are questioning why the procedure took more than a half-hour and was not fully visible to observers.

When he was executed at Greensville Correctional Center, Gray was hidden from the view of witnesses for 33 minutes. According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, the delay was caused by difficulty putting an IV line in one of Gray’s veins.

But Gray’s attorneys are challenging that explanation. Gray had told them that VDOC staff had examined his veins multiple times in the days leading up to the execution.

“He was a healthy, 39-year-old man, and did not have any medical condition or history (such as intravenous drug use) that would indicate potential problems,” attorneys Rob Lee, Jonathan Sheldon and Elizabeth Peiffer said in a statement.

The three attorneys said that Gray was observed turning his head from side to side a minute or more after being given a sedative and was pinched to test his consciousness. They said they also observed “labored breathing, gasping, snoring, and other audible and visible activity.”

Prison officials explained the movements as evidence of respiratory depression. But the attorneys say he may have been reacting to the second drug in the state’s three-drug protocol, a paralytic. If he was conscious when that drug was administered, “he would have suffered excruciating pain,” they said.

The lawyers also questioned why a doctor with a stethoscope checked Gray’s heart before the prisoner was pronounced dead, when prison officials have in the past relied on a heart monitor.

“The redundancy check by the physician is not something we have seen before in the numerous lethal injections we have observed,” they wrote.

The drug used to sedate Gray, midazolam, has been implicated in several prolonged and apparently painful executions. Arizona has agreed to stop using the drug. Despite testimony from pharmacologists that midazolam is not a proper anesthetic for executions, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld its constitutionality last year.

Gray was the first prisoner to be executed in Virginia using midazolam.

A spokesman for the VDOC did not immediately return a request for comment.

Source: The Washington Post, Rachel Weiner, January 19, 2017

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