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.
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 -…

In Arkansas, a Tempered Victory for Death Penalty Opponents

Little Rock, Arkansas, April 14, 2017
Little Rock, Arkansas, April 14, 2017
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Barely a dozen hours had passed since a pair of execution warrants had expired.

The two men the State of Arkansas had wanted to put to death on Monday night remained alive. And near the State Capitol here on Tuesday afternoon, one of their lawyers was in his office, working on a court filing that he hoped would save the five men who still face execution this month.

“Honestly, my thinking was the next clients,” said Scott Braden, an assistant federal defender, recounting the hours after he spent much of Monday night at a rural prison, waiting to see whether a stay of execution would last. “We have clients coming right after that. There wasn’t a lot of time to be elated because I knew we had to be back here this morning to get ready and start working on the next clients.”

Mr. Braden, other lawyers and a small group of allies — polling suggests more than two-thirds of Arkansas residents favor the death penalty for murder — have had some success in their resistance to the state’s plan to execute eight men over less than two weeks. Three of the eight executions have been delayed, possibly for years.

Still, their achievement, amid international attention on the executions, was tempered, even as they filled a remarkable moment in a state with a complex history with capital punishment.

“In this fight, you have to take it a day — or, in this case, an hour — at a time,” Rita Sklar, who has been the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas for 24 years, said Monday, after Don W. Davis, one of the inmates scheduled to die that day, won a reprieve.

“We have had some significant victories,” Ms. Sklar said, “and at this point in the day, we’d call it a win.”

In addition to Mr. Davis, courts have issued stays of execution for Bruce E. Ward, who was scheduled to die on Monday, and Jason McGehee. Both have been convicted of murder.

But death penalty opponents face formidable opposition here. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, who set the state’s execution schedule, and the state attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, support capital punishment and have vowed to fight any last-minute legal challenges.

Source: The New York Times, Alan Blinder, Manny Fernandez, April 18, 2017

2 Arkansas death row inmates claim they're too obese to execute

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KATV) - Two Arkansas death row inmates, Marcel Williams and Stacey Eugene Johnson, have asked a federal judge to halt their executions because they say they are too obese for the drugs to effectively work on them.

Williams' lawyer writes in a brief that Williams gained 200 pounds while in prison and that when he went to prison he weighed 195 pounds.

Williams has stayed in a 90-square-foot cell, which is half the size of a standard parking space, and gets one hour of recreational time a day.

"Williams has been housed in extreme solitary confinement, he has gained 200 pounds and developed high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. The prison has recorded Mr. Williams' body mass index at 48.74," his lawyer writes in a brief.

Johnson's lawyer wrote in a court document that he weighs about 350 pounds and suffers from hypertension and sleep apnea.

Dr. Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at the Emory University School of Medicine, found that Johnson's large size could botch the execution and "makes it more likely that the execution will fail and Mr. Johnson will be left alive, but disabled from the attempt."

They also argue the executioners will not be able to find a vein.

"Dr. Zivot concluded that if the Arkansas lethal-injection protocol is carried out as written, Mr. Johnson, in particular, will suffer respiratory distress and hypoxia, and he is at serious risk for irreversible organ damage or for a suffocating, painful death," the lawyer writes in the brief.

Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker dismissed Johnson’s claim that Arkansas’s lethal injection protocol violates his Eighth Amendment rights.

Baker asked for the inmates to show cause for a hearing by 3 p.m. Tuesday. Baker has yet to release a decision on whether or not she'll allow a hearing for Williams' case.

Source: KATV, Elicia Dover, April 19, 2017

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