In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Could Arkansas’ battle over the death penalty signal the beginning of its end?

The Supreme Court said Monday that Arkansas won't be able to execute two of its death-row inmates. And a growing number of conservatives, who see the death penalty as an anachronistic, religiously hypocritical and big-government waste of money, are just fine with that.

In fact, the extreme nature of Arkansas' efforts to execute eight inmates over a week and a half — after going 12 years without an execution — could even underscore anti-death-penalty conservatives' argument about why it should be abolished.

And what conservatives think about the death penalty matters perhaps more than it does for any other political faction: Public support for the death penalty and actual executions is at or near a 40-year-low. But Republicans control a majority of state legislatures and governor's mansions, so any movement to actually undo it will likely be driven by conservatives.

For the most part, the GOP in Arkansas fully supports the efforts of Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) to execute these inmates before a lethal injection drug expires.

But to growing numbers of conservatives on the fence or opposed to the death penalty outside Arkansas, what he's doing feels like it belongs in the 1990s rather than today's society, where life without parole is an option.

“For me, both as a fiscal conservative as well as a person of faith, we've evolved to a point in society where it's not necessary,” said longtime Georgia state Rep. Brett Harrell (R), who just unveiled his opposition to the death penalty.

In January, Harrell helped announced the formation of Georgia's branch of Conservatives Against the Death Penalty, a faction of a national group formed in 2013 that has now expanded to 11 states and counting, including in very red states such as Utah, Kansas and Nebraska.

But Arkansas is drawing the attention of even pro-death-penalty Republicans. Marc Hyden, with the national branch of Conservatives Against the Death Penalty, said he's in contact with national tea party leaders who are privately put off by the rush to execute in Arkansas. They're not necessarily changing their minds about it, but there's a sense that the state's rush to execute these men feels unnecessary, he said.

“I think the inevitable is the death penalty will, at some point, become a thing of the past,” Hyden said.

In Georgia — which led the nation in executions last year — Harrell agreed that there are more conservatives wary of the death penalty than those who publicly say so. When he acknowledged he had changed his mind about the death penalty, “nearly a dozen” of his Republican colleagues privately told him: “Good job. I believe the same thing.”

A messy, headline-grabbing legal battle in Arkansas could further prod them to oppose it.

“There's a growing number of people who are stereotypically pro-death penalty who are beginning to reconsider the issue,” Harrell said.

Source: The Washington Post, Amber Phillips, April 18, 2017

Death in a bottle: Capital punishment in the U.S. has no foreseeable expiration date

The fight over medications used for lethal injections is part of the continuing battle over capital punishment

Dueling was outlawed in the Arkansas Territory in 1820, but in present-day Arkansas, courtroom fencing is a blood sport. In the current legal duel over executions, the stakes are lethal - and the consequences may be felt well beyond state lines.

The fight is ostensibly over the use of specific drugs planned for a series of executions scheduled to start this week. That's not what it's really about, of course; it's about stopping those executions. Opponents of capital punishment, while successful in many venues, have failed to convince legislators and judges in several Southern states, including Arkansas, to abandon the death penalty. (Georgia and Texas led the field last year, with 9 and 7 executions, respectively.)

The limited legal avenues available to death-penalty opponents involve challenges to the methods of execution. The United States Supreme Court has narrowed the definitions of "cruel and unusual punishment" over the years, tightening the rules, but has refused to ban all executions outright.

Which leaves the question of whether specific drugs or methods used in executions fit the permissible criteria. The legal battle in Arkansas is being waged on that narrow issue, but everyone involved knows the deeper issue is life or death.

The unlikely trigger for this chain of events was a pharmaceutical label: eight executions were scheduled almost back-to-back to beat an impending expiration date for the first in Arkansas' trio of execution drugs, the controversial sedative midazolam. The state has never used the drug before, and it has a checkered history. But the new protocol, and the assembly-line plan at Arkansas' death-house near Pine Bluff, are rich in irony.

Governor Asa Hutchinson didn't want to break the law by injecting an expired drug to put a condemned man to sleep. Yes, for real. Hutchinson is, by all accounts, an obedient servant of the law - the kind of man who would never yank a "Do Not Remove" label from a mattress. But being a stickler can have consequences.

Hutchinson's decision opened the door to challenges not only to midazolam, but also to other drugs planned for the executions. While opponents of midazolam argued against its effectiveness, citing failures to fully sedate inmates in Ohio and Oklahoma executions, the manufacturers of 2 other crucial drugs went to court to prevent their use in the Arkansas death chamber. They say the state purchased them fraudulently.

Add to those circumstances the reality that public support for the death penalty is waning, even in deep-red Arkansas. The state had so much trouble lining up official witnesses for the planned spate of executions - a minimum requirement of 6 witnesses for each - that Corrections Director Wendy Kelly had to make a personal pitch to the Little Rock Rotary Club for volunteers. I'm not making this up.

Execution chambers are gruesome places. I have visited a number of them - fortunately when not in use - and the transition from hideous Old Sparky to the sterility of a medical gurney hasn't robbed them of their grisly menace. The closest I've come to the real thing is watching a precision lethal-injection rehearsal at Texas' Angola Prison, and that chilling experience explains to me why Rotarians are not signing up in droves in Little Rock.

I don't know much about the candidates for Arkansas's arsenal of disputed drugs, but the public record for each of them is pretty unsavory. What I do know, for certain - about each and every one of them - is that they lost a crapshoot.

Is the death penalty moral? Put that question aside. You don't even have to go there: The death penalty is patently arbitrary and unjust. Whether a defendant is to live or die depends not on Lady Justice, but Lady Luck.

For 200 years, the best legal minds in America have tried to come up with an equitable way to administer the death penalty - and they have failed. "Justice" depends on the vagaries of race (victim and perpetrator), location, and economic status. Add to that the ambition of prosecutors, the competence of defense counsel, the human variables of judges.

Oh, yes, there's that other pesky possibility: deadly error. DNA results have exonerated 18 condemned murderers over the last 2 decades. What errors might have occurred before DNA? And what happens when the government accidentally convicts and executes an innocent person? That has happened, too: check out the 1989 Texas execution of a 27-year-old Hispanic named Carlos DeLuna.

Over the next few days, you can expect appeals arguments in state and federal courts. My bet is that the federal appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will be decided in Arkansas' favor.

Regardless of the decision, there will certainly be an appeal to the US Supreme Court. The odds here are that the Court won't take the case, but if the dice come down differently and 4 justices vote to accept it, the decision will be based on the very narrow grounds of this case and these drugs. You can safely place a side bet that the death penalty itself will not be an issue.

The Court has on several occasions in the past come very close to a complete ban on the death penalty as "cruel and unusual" and therefore unconstitutional, but close doesn't court. These justices are unlikely to break the mold.

The clock is ticking on that drug label: the expiration date is April 30th. If the legal battles continue beyond that date, the condemned men win - but my wager, sadly, is that they will lose.

Either way, this much you can take to the bank: Capital punishment in the United States has no foreseeable expiration date.

Source: salon.com, Martin Clancy, March 18, 2017

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