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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 -…

The executions Justice Sotomayor calls ‘horrifying deaths’

Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Justice Sonia Sotomayor
The Supreme Court said Tuesday that it would not hear the case of an Alabama inmate whose execution the justices delayed in November. This decision was accompanied by a critical dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who questioned whether lethal injection — the primary method of execution in the United States — “appears humane [but] may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet.”

Sotomayor’s explanation for this sentiment doubles as a modern history of the death penalty, which has been on the decline nationwide for years. In her 18-page dissent, she excoriates the use of midazolam, a sedative that Alabama uses in its lethal injection protocol and has cropped up recently in other executions that were apparently bungled or took longer than usual.

Early in her dissent, Sotomayor describes lethal injections in the United States as being “generally accomplished through serial administration of three drugs.” This is actually no longer the case, although it was when the Supreme Court, in 2008, upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol and essentially ended a nationwide moratorium on executions.

Since then, lethal injection drugs have become more difficult to obtain amid a shortage, and executions have become a fractured process, with different states using different chemicals and combinations. This fact, though, feeds into Sotomayor’s argument about the use of midazolam in executions that have drawn scrutiny, because it was this shortage and the ensuing scramble that led states to adopt midazolam.

The three-drug protocol Sotomayor outlines — an anesthetic, a paralytic and a drug that stops the heart — was used in most lethal injections until 2010, when the drug shortage, prompted in part by European objections to capital punishment, began to dry up the supply. State officials began scrambling to obtain other drugs and rewrite their lethal injection protocols in an effort to continue carrying out executions, but the drug shortages and legal challenges helped contribute to plummeting execution rates.

One of the drugs added to the mix since the shortage began is midazolam, which a handful of states incorporated into their plans. Sotomayor, joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer in her dissent on Tuesday, outlined what she calls the “terrifying” recent history of midazolam — with the most recent headline-generating incident occurring in December, when Alabama executed Ronald Bert Smith Jr.

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Source: The Washington Post, Mark Berman, February 21, 2017

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