FEATURED POST

Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Reporting on a Drug With a Role in Executions

At first glance, the documents the retiree had spread out on a table in Tucson looked as if they could have been keepsakes from just about anyone’s career: a company magazine, a timeline, letters of commendation and congratulation.

But Armin Walser had one item, elegantly printed and secure in a handsome folder, that was particularly uncommon: a certificate citing the work that led to his discovery of midazolam, a drug that became one of the most popular sedatives in the world.

Midazolam is not new; Dr. Walser helped invent it in the 1970s. But after the State of Arkansas announced plans to execute eight prisoners over 10 days in April, it became a subject of fresh reporting that led to a front-page article on March 14. Although Arkansas says little about executions, officials in Little Rock were candid about the rationale behind the scheduling: The state’s supply of midazolam, one of the drugs that it needs to carry out the executions, will expire at the end of April.

After Arkansas’s announcement of an execution schedule that death penalty researchers said was without equal in the modern history of capital punishment in the United States, a brainstorming session among reporters who cover the South for The Times led to an idea for an article that would focus on the drug as a central character. The idea held immediate appeal for reporters in Atlanta and editors in New York: An article would require a new line of investigation about how a common drug was again going to be used for lethal injections. It was an idea that would reach beyond the story in Arkansas, into states where executions have been botched.

The reporting turned out to be as fruitful as it was complex.

Database searches and a review of an aging patent led to a name, a phone number and a call to Dr. Walser, who is many years into his retirement in Tucson. He was astonished to hear from The Times decades after his groundbreaking work, but was willing to be interviewed at his home, about an hour’s drive from a prison where Arizona officials used midazolam for an execution in 2014. Unlike most doctors who turn to midazolam for their patients, Dr. Walser would know important details about the drug’s development.

In an interview on his back patio, he offered significant insights about the drug, including explanations of its chemistry and effects. He also talked, only occasionally and with visible discomfort, about how midazolam had been used in at least 20 executions nationwide.

“I wish they would not, but if there is no law against it,” Dr. Walser said, his voice trailing off.

Despite his clear preference to talk chemistry instead of executions, he never wavered in his commitment to be interviewed.

But for all of Dr. Walser’s intimate knowledge of midazolam, he could speak only to part of its history. Quickly mapping midazolam’s transformation into a lethal injection drug required other reporting strategies, including lengthy interviews with people like Dale A. Baich, an assistant federal defender who witnessed an execution that involved midazolam.

There was also a time-intensive, old-fashioned and absolutely crucial reporting tool: a dive into documents.

There were thousands of pages of court filings and depositions. There were hearing transcripts and independent reports. And there were affidavits, emails, letters and news media accounts.

The stockpiles of records, shared by sources and also located independently, helped to build a complex narrative in less than a week. The documents proved essential since, unsurprisingly, states either ignored queries or provided no substantive response to questions.

Now the drug is scheduled to face nine tests in a month: eight executions in Arkansas, and one in Virginia. Soon after the article went online before dawn on Monday, editors and reporters began discussing plans for more coverage and more questions.

The conversation needed to resume quickly. If Arkansas keeps to its schedule, the next execution involving midazolam is just over a month away.

Source: The New York Times, Alan Blinder, March 13, 2017

⏩ Related article: When a Common Sedative Becomes an Execution Drug, March 13, 2017

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