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Will the Supreme Court Kill The Death Penalty This Term?

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Will the U.S. Supreme Court add the fate of the death penalty to a term already fraught with hot-button issues like partisan gerrymandering, warrantless surveillance, and a host of contentious First Amendment disputes?
That’s the hope of an ambitious Supreme Court petition seeking to abolish the ultimate punishment. But it runs headlong into the fact that only two justices have squarely called for a reexamination of the death penalty’s constitutionality.
Abel Hidalgo challenges Arizona’s capital punishment system—which sweeps too broadly, he says, because the state’s “aggravating factors” make 99 percent of first-degree murderers death-eligible—as well as the death penalty itself, arguing it’s cruel and unusual punishment.
He’s represented by former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal—among the most successful Supreme Court practitioners last term. Hidalgo also has the support of several outside groups who filed amicus briefs on his behalf, notably one from a group including Ari…

In Arkansas, Behind the Executioner’s Shroud

When a three-drug lethal-injection cocktail was administered to Ledell Lee at 11:44 p.m. Central time last Thursday — the first drug to render him unconscious, the second to halt his breathing, and the third to stop his heart — Alan Blinder and Manny Fernandez, two New York Times journalists, were huddled in the Cummins Unit prison’s large visitation room. It had been converted into a makeshift media center, close to but cut off from the execution chamber.

Arkansas’s supply of midazolam, the first drug in the cocktail, is set to expire at the end of April, and, in a race against the clock, the state drew up an unprecedented plan to carry out eight executions in 10 days. The Times has been reporting from Arkansas since April 17. Since then, four executions have been blocked and three have been carried out — including two this past Monday, the first time in nearly 17 years that a state has executed two inmates on the same day. Another man, Kenneth Williams, is scheduled to die on Thursday. [This piece was originally published on April 27, 2017.]

When the Times reporters, Mr. Blinder and Mr. Fernandez, arrived at the prison on April 20, they were allowed to bring only one laptop and a single Wi-Fi hot spot — and no cellphone — between the two of them. Shortly after 11:30 p.m. local time, an announcement came from a prison spokesman that the state was commencing with Mr. Lee’s execution. The media room grew quiet.

“We’d gotten word by then that the courts had lifted all the stays, that there was nothing blocking the execution,” Mr. Blinder said. “And then we waited.”

Although certain aspects of the execution process in Arkansas hint at an outward sense of transparency — the state allowed three journalists to witness the execution in a room adjacent to the execution chamber, for instance — much of the process is shielded from view.

“Arkansas is very secretive about its execution procedures,” said Mr. Blinder, who has reported on criminal justice issues from more than a dozen states. “In terms of what can be made public — the logistics, the people involved, their background, their training — there’s a lot we don’t know about their approach to this.”

The state of Arkansas, he added, also refuses to disclose the manufacturers and the sellers of its execution drugs. (The pharmaceutical industry disclosed some information during litigation.)

Other states, including Georgia and Texas, where Mr. Blinder and Mr. Fernandez have covered executions, respectively, similarly veil information about capital punishment. In Georgia, for example, a law classifies identifying information about the execution team as “a confidential state secret.”

“It’s a real challenge when you’re trying to cover the execution and you don’t have a road map for how exactly the execution might proceed,” he added.

Of course, the state’s attempts to shield certain information regarding executions were not the only complicating factors. Reporting on executions is inherently challenging, given the intensely emotional atmosphere and the extreme public scrutiny. Those involved — from state officials to the family members of both the victim and the inmate — are often hesitant to speak with the press. And emotions, understandably, run high.

“A lot of complex issues emerge over the course of these stories,” Mr. Blinder said, “and many of them get at some of the most fundamental questions that we face as a society — like whether the state should be putting people to death, and, if so, how.”

But there are other questions, too, Mr. Blinder said — lingering questions about an inmate’s guilt, or about the fairness and thoroughness of the legal system.

“All these substantive debates are swirling around when it comes to executions,” he said. “And suddenly they all come home to roost.”

Through it all, Mr. Blinder adheres to one rule: Do not blindly accept the state’s account of the execution. “That’s one of the most important parts of reporting on these stories,” he said. “We wait to hear from the media witnesses who observed the execution — to tell us if they saw anything abnormal, or improper, or to relay if anything had gone wrong with the execution.”

In the case of Mr. Lee’s execution, the three reporters returned to the media room from the witnessing room shortly after Mr. Lee was pronounced dead and reported no obvious complications. Mr. Lee’s eyes began to droop about a minute after the injection began, according to one of the reporters who was present, and the inmate showed no signs of suffering.

Mr. Blinder and Mr. Fernandez’s experience of the event, though, was much more removed. Just before midnight, a phone in the visitation room began to ring, and a spokesman for the prison system — seated next to it, also waiting — lifted it from the receiver. He nodded, and made a few notes, then hung up the phone and made his way to a lectern in front of the few dozen journalists from various media outlets who were gathered there.

The execution had been carried out, the spokesman said; Mr. Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m.

Not much later, after hearing from the witnesses, Mr. Blinder and Mr. Fernandez filed their story, packed up their laptop and left.

Source: The New York Times, Stephen Hiltner, April 27, 2017


An Arkansas Community Looks for an Execution to End Its Ache


STAR CITY, Ark. — James Hawkins, the affable local coroner, has long performed a grim duty on execution nights: He pronounces the deaths of the condemned prisoners. He has done it more than two dozen times.

Mr. Hawkins declared another man dead on Thursday night, when Arkansas executed its fourth prisoner in seven days. Seventeen years after pronouncing the death of a murder victim and family friend, Cecil Boren, Mr. Hawkins did the same for Mr. Boren’s killer, Kenneth D. Williams.

“It’s a satisfying moment,” Mr. Hawkins said in an interview at a funeral home in this largely rural patch of southeast Arkansas, where prisons and produce are about all that power the local economy. “What I’ve heard nonstop in this community — this entire community — is: ‘This is the one we’re waiting on.’”

Mr. Williams was executed at 11:05 p.m. after the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal from his lawyers, who sought to block the execution on the grounds that their client was intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. Prison officials said that he requested holy communion as his last meal.

The death chamber in nearby Varner is Arkansas’s ultimate clearinghouse for capital cases, the site of all of the state’s executions in the modern era of the American death penalty. The area is one of the country’s sparsely populated death chamber locales, places of peculiar notoriety whose very names can be statewide shorthand for capital punishment and hard prison time: Angola, La.; Parchman, Miss.; Raiford, Fla.

But it is exceptionally rare for any such place to hold an execution for a crime committed in the area. And no case connected to Arkansas’s recent spate of executions, when the state intended to put eight inmates to death over less than two weeks, was more locally resonant than the one that involved Mr. Boren, a former Internal Revenue Service worker who had been an assistant warden at the Cummins Unit, the prison where Mr. Williams awaited his execution. Mr. Boren’s nickname was “Pee-Wee,” and Mr. Williams murdered him after escaping from the prison.

“I personally know part of the Boren family, and, of course, naturally we empathize with them,” said Charles R. Knight, the mayor of nearby Grady, where the city limits end just a few miles from prison watchtowers. “But we empathize for all of the families involved, and being Christian, we also empathize with the inmates as well. From my standpoint, I look at it as, this is the law, this is what the law has allotted and this is what we do.”

The state built its death chamber in 1978, and Mr. Williams was born the next year. In 1998, he emptied a revolver after a robbery in neighboring Jefferson County, killing a 19-year-old woman, Dominique Nicole Hurd. When Mr. Williams was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison, he mocked Ms. Hurd’s relatives, turning to them and saying, “You thought I was going to die, didn’t you?”

He was sent to Cummins and, weeks after his arrival, escaped by hiding inside a 500-gallon tank that was brimming with hog slop. Mr. Boren was in his yard, working while his wife was at church, when Mr. Williams arrived. The fugitive entered the house, stole one of Mr. Boren’s guns, shot him seven times, seized his victim’s wallet and drove off in his truck.

In Missouri the next day, Mr. Williams led the police on a high-speed pursuit that ended when he struck a water truck, killing its driver. Sentenced to death for Mr. Boren’s murder, Mr. Williams later wrote a letter to The Pine Bluff Commercial, an Arkansas newspaper, and confessed to another killing that had been unsolved.

“I don’t want to make any excuses or shift the blame,” Mr. Williams said in the 2005 letter. “I just want to be honest and accept responsibility for my actions.”

The confession, as well as Mr. Williams’s professed religious transformation, had no discernible effect on the Arkansas Parole Board, which ruled this month that his application for clemency was “without merit.”

The daughter of Michael Greenwood, the man killed during the pursuit in Missouri, urged Gov. Asa Hutchinson to stop the execution. “We are in no way asking you to ignore the pain felt by the victims of Mr. Williams’s other crimes,” Kayla Greenwood wrote in a letter this week. “We know what they are going through, but ours is a pain that we have decided not to try and cure by seeking an execution.”

Mr. Hutchinson, who set the state’s execution schedule, did not offer a reprieve.

At Carla’s Cafe, a lunch spot in Star City, the county seat, that was just fine. On Wednesday afternoon, when grilled pork chop was a lunch special, residents expressed little concern for Mr. Williams, whose lawyers argue he is intellectually disabled.

“When they apprehended him in Missouri, they should have shot him down and killed that sucker,” Wayne Harmon, 66, said.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson
But the police did not, so people like Mr. Harmon were left to worry that some court somewhere would step in to save Mr. Williams’s life days before the expiration of one of Arkansas’s lethal injection drugs.

“We’ve got some of the sorriest judges, leaders and men,” Ed Hardin, 73, said. “I got tickled the other night when the governor said this was the hardest thing he had to do. Hell, if you can’t be no better governor than that, you don’t need to be governor.”

In hotels and in restaurants, in the governor’s mansion and on Main Streets, the executions in Arkansas have occupied a large segment of conversation. Residents have debated execution methods — electrocution is still enshrined in Arkansas law as a future possibility — and analyzed last meals. Some here have committed details of the crimes to memory and recalled executions even before Mr. Hawkins’s tenure as coroner, which began in 1991. Facebook feeds have been filled with posts about — and pleas for — the state’s original plan to put eight men to death this month. (Four of the executions have been postponed indefinitely.)

Polling suggests that more than 70 percent of the state’s residents support the death penalty, but, because of drug supply issues, it is not clear when Arkansas will be able to put anyone to death again.

In this area, people welcomed the fact that Mr. Williams died just before the expected onset of an informal moratorium.

Emotions here are rarely so vivid for executions at Cummins, but, Mr. Hawkins noted, “When it hits your home, it’s a little different.”

Mr. Boren’s widow declined to be interviewed. Her family opposed clemency for Mr. Williams.

Vickie Williams, Ms. Hurd’s mother and no relation to Mr. Williams, said her daughter had ambitions of being a neonatologist as a biology and premedical student at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where she was known as Nicky. Ms. Williams said she did not plan to attend the execution, but she supported it.

“He did not receive the death penalty for killing Nicky,” she wrote in an email. “If proper justice was served, others may not have lost their lives. The justice system is very confusing. Everyone has rights except for the families of victims.”

Rodney Kennedy, a local resident, said Mr. Williams cut across his parents’ 1,500-acre property after he fled from Cummins.

“I think they’re doing the right thing executing him,” Mr. Kennedy said. “He could always escape again and kill again.”

After the execution, Mr. Boren’s daughter, Jodie Efird, said her mother’s “peace will come later.”

“Her peace will come every time we’re driving down this road,” she said. “He’s not here anymore.”

Source: The New York Times, Alan Blinder, Manny Fernandez, April 27, 2017. Alan Blinder reported from Star City, and Manny Fernandez from Houston.

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