America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Georgia executes J.W. Ledford Jr.

Georgia death row inmate J.W. Ledford Jr.
J. W. Ledford Jr.
JACKSON, Ga. — Georgia carried out its first execution of the year early on Wednesday, putting to death a man convicted of killing a 73-year-old neighbor in 1992.

J.W. Ledford Jr., 45, was pronounced dead at 1:17 a.m. at the state prison in Jackson, more than six hours after his initial execution time. The delay was waiting for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied his request for a stay.

He was convicted of murder in the January 1992 stabbing death of Dr. Harry Johnston in Murray County, northwest Georgia.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is the only authority in Georgia with the power to commute a death sentence, declined to spare Ledford's life.

Ledford told police he had gone to Johnston's home on Jan. 31, 1992, to ask for a ride to the grocery store. After the older man accused him of stealing and smacked him, Ledford pulled out a knife and stabbed Johnston to death, according to court filings. The pathologist who did the autopsy said Johnston suffered "one continuous or two slices to the neck" and bled to death.

After dragging Johnston's body to another part of Johnston's property and covering it up, Ledford went to Johnston's house with a knife and demanded money from Johnston's wife, according to court filings. He took money and four guns from the home, tied up Johnston's wife and left in Johnston's truck. He was arrested later that day.

Ledford told police he had a number of beers and smoked a couple joints in the hours before the killing.

Ledford's lawyers had asked the parole board to spare him, citing a rough childhood, substance abuse from an early age and his intellectual disability. After a hearing Monday, the board declined to grant clemency. Following its normal practice, the board did not give a reason for its denial.

Because of changes in brain chemistry caused by a drug Ledford has been taking for chronic nerve pain for more than a decade, there is a high risk that the pentobarbital Georgia plans to use to execute him will not render him unconscious and devoid of sensation or feeling, his lawyers wrote in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday. That would violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment enshrined in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit says.

When challenging an execution method on those grounds, a U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires inmates to propose a known and available alternative. Ledford's lawyers, therefore, proposed that he be executed by firing squad, a method that is not allowed under Georgia law.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying Ledford's attorneys had failed to show that execution by pentobarbital would be "sure or very likely" to cause him extreme pain as required by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones also said the decision to wait until just a few days before his execution date to file the lawsuit suggested a stalling tactic.

Ledford's lawyers appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and asked that court to temporarily halt the execution. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit on Monday rejected that request. Ledford's attorneys have asked the full 11th Circuit to take up the case.

Ledford's lawyers had also asked a state court judge to halt the execution because he was only 20 and his brain wasn't done developing when he killed Johnston. Just as juvenile offenders are considered less culpable and not the "worst of the worst" for whom the death penalty is reserved, the execution of those under 21 is also unconstitutional, Ledford's lawyers argue.

A Butts County Superior Court judge rejected that petition, and Ledford's lawyers have appealed to the state Supreme Court. The Georgia Supreme Court, later Tuesday, rejected the appeal of the lower court refusal to stop the execution.

Ledford becomes the 1st inmate executed this year in Georgia and the 70th overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1983. The state executed 9 inmates last year, more than any other state and the most Georgia had executed in a single calendar year since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume 40 years ago.

Ledford becomes the 11th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1453rd overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977. Only Texas (542), Oklahoma (112), Virginia (112), Florida (92) and Missouri (88) have executed more inmates since the death penalty was re-legalized on July 2, 1976.

Source: The Associated Press, Kate Brumback, Rick Halperin, May 17, 2017

US Supreme Court denies stay of execution

Georgia's highest court has declined to halt the scheduled execution of a man convicted of killing his 73-year-old neighbor 25 years ago.

Ledford's attorneys had argued execution by Georgia's lethal injection drug was likely to cause him extreme pain in violation of his constitutional rights. They had suggested using a firing squad instead, but that's not allowed under Georgia law.

Source: The Associated Press, May 16, 2017

Georgia death row inmate abuses witnesses at his execution

Alabama's death chamber
Alabama's death chamber
A grinning death row inmate in the US state of Georgia used his final words at his execution to insult the witnesses.

JW Ledford Jr's lawyers argued death by firing squad would be more humane as lethal injection would be too painful.

But witnesses said the 45-year-old - who was served a 5,000-calorie last meal - showed no obvious discomfort as he was put to death early on Wednesday.

He was convicted of knifing his 73-year-old neighbour to death in 1992.

His victim was the physician who delivered Ledford at birth.

In Georgia's first execution this year, Ledford was pronounced dead at 01:17 after an injection of compounded barbiturate pentobarbital.

Witnesses said the prisoner grinned as they entered the viewing area of the death chamber at the state prison in Jackson.

Asked if he wished to make a final statement, Ledford appeared to quote from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate," he said, a phrase uttered by the warden in the classic prison drama. "Some men you just can't reach."

Ledford added: "I am not the failure. You are the failure to communicate."

Still smiling, the prisoner said: "You can kiss my white trash ass."

Ledford continued talking, but his microphone was cut off.

Witnesses said he shut his eyes, took several deep breaths and went still three minutes after the warden left the room.

For his final meal on Friday, Ledford requested filet mignon wrapped in bacon with pepper jack cheese, large french fries, 10 chicken tenders with sauce, fried pork chops and a blooming onion.

For dessert he had pecan pie, vanilla ice cream and sherbet, washed down with a Sprite, according to WGLC-TV, an Atlanta news station.

Should killers on death row get a last meal choice?

Ledford robbed and murdered his neighbour, Dr Harry Johnston, stabbing him in the neck at his home on 31 January 1992.

He then threatened the victim's wife before stealing money, four guns and vehicle from the house.

The parole board rejected a request for clemency on Monday after Ledford's lawyers said he had a rough childhood and suffered an intellectual disability.

His legal team had argued that a lethal injection would expose him to "unconstitutional pain" because he had been taking a drug for nerve pain which they said could alter his brain chemistry.

They had argued that firing squad would be less painful, but a federal appeals court rejected the bid.

Only three states allow for this option as an alternative to lethal injection - Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia executed nine men last year, more than any other US state.

Source: BBC News, May 17, 2017

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