Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Ohio executes Ronald Philips

Ronald Phillips
Ronald Phillips
For the first time in more than three years, the state of Ohio executed a death row inmate, ending a lull that followed an unusually drawn-out execution relying on a controversial lethal-injection drug.

State officials executed Ronald Phillips by lethal injection on Wednesday morning at a state prison in Lucasville, about 80 miles south of Columbus, the state capital. The execution was completed at 10:43 a.m. without complications, according to multiple reporters at the prison.

Watching as Phillips died on the other side of a large glass window were Renee Mundell, the deceased girl's half-sister, and Donna Hudson and John Evans, her aunt and uncle.

Also witnessing his brother's execution was William Phillips. The execution was delayed a few minutes to permit the condemned prisoner to visit with his brother, who was late arriving at the prison. 

Phillips, 43, was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to death for raping and murdering his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, according to court documents and records that describe Phillips brutally assaulting the young child. He had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for a last-ditch stay, questioning the state’s planned method of execution and arguing that he “bears no resemblance to that teenager” sentenced to death decades ago.

Late Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied his requests to stay the execution. The justices did not offer any explanation, though two said they felt Phillips should have had a chance to further question Ohio’s execution method.

Numerous states are no longer in the business of capital punishment

Phillips’s execution marks a rare lethal injection with significance resonating beyond the Buckeye State. Executions in the United States are increasingly unusual, as infrequent as they have been in decades and confined to a small number of states. In part, this is because numerous states are no longer in the business of capital punishment, banning the practice outright or effectively halting it. Other states, like Ohio, have sought to carry out executions, but have been repeatedly delayed by an ongoing shortage of execution drugs along with court-ordered stays.

If that changes in Ohio, it could lead to a small uptick in executions nationwide this year. There still will be fewer executions in 2017 than in most years dating back to the early 1990s, but Ohio already has made plans for additional executions, including three set for later this year and 23 more scheduled to take place between 2018 and 2020. Given the nationwide drop in executions, the planned Ohio executions, should most or all of them occur, could potentially account for an outsize share of the country’s lethal injections in the coming years.

Ohio has 139 inmates on death row, among the largest such populations nationwide. For most of this young century, it also has been among the country’s most-active executioners: Between 2001 and 2014, Ohio executed at least one inmate each year, a rate matched only by Texas and Oklahoma during that span, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

The last few years of that period saw a shift that continues to reverberate through states with capital punishment. Drug companies have objected to their chemicals being used to kill people, leading to a shortage that has spurred states to postpone executions or, in some cases, adapt new and untested combinations of drugs. While the drug shortage has continued, some states also have faced logistical or legal issues, helping contribute to an overall decline in executions. There were 20 executions last year, the fewest in a quarter-century.

In January 2014, unable to obtain its preferred drug for an upcoming lethal injection, Ohio turned to a new two-drug protocol, pairing midazolam and hydromorphone. The two drugs, which had never before been used to carry out an execution in the United States, were combined to execute Dennis McGuire, who had admitted to raping and murdering Joy Stewart, a pregnant newlywed, in 1989. (Officials had originally intended to first use the new combination on Phillips two months earlier, but his lethal injection was postponed.)

According to witness accounts, McGuire appeared to gasp several times during the execution and, at multiple points, made loud snorting sounds. It took McGuire 26 minutes to die, the Columbus Dispatch reported. One witness later wrote of McGuire’s death: “I came out of that room feeling that I had witnessed something ghastly.”

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction issued a report later that year pushing back on such accounts, concluding that the drugs “had their intended effect and that McGuire did not experience any pain or distress.” The agency also said it had decided to keep using the drug pairing but to increase the doses going forward.

Several months later, Ohio reversed course, stating in January 2015 that it would switch to a different drug combination, which meant rescheduling executions. The first inmate with a scheduled lethal injection postponed at that point was Phillips, who had been set to die about a month later. Not long after the January announcement, Ohio said it would postpone even more executions because it needed time to obtain new lethal injection drugs.

Ohio’s delays occurred while midazolam, one of the drugs used in McGuire’s execution, became increasingly controversial for its use in executions. The sedative also was utilized in several bungled, unusually long or otherwise controversial lethal injections in Oklahoma, Arizona, Alabama and, earlier this year, Arkansas.

Much like Ohio, Arkansas was resuming executions after a years-long lull, hurrying to schedule an unprecedented eight lethal injections in 11 days to utilize its lethal drugs before they expired. Authorities said the schedule was needed because they were not sure they could obtain more. Ultimately, four of the eight executions in Arkansas were halted and the other four carried out; the final execution in that series prompted questions after witnesses said the inmate lurched and convulsed during the process.

A new lethal injection combination

Ohio, meanwhile, has been slowly moving toward resuming executions. Last fall, state officials announced another lethal injection combination, declaring that they would utilize midazolam along with rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride for Phillips’s execution and two others to follow, according to court records. While Phillips and other inmates challenged the new protocol, a federal judge stayed the executions, postponing them yet again, but a divided federal appeals court last month reversed that stay.

“Ohio intends to fulfill its statutory obligation of carrying out court-ordered executions in a lawful, humane and dignified manner,” JoEllen Smith, the spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, wrote in an email Tuesday.

Phillips had petitioned to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to stay his execution. In one filing, he questioned Ohio’s lethal injection protocol, and in another argued that he should not be executed for a crime committed while he was a teenager. His attorneys also said he has changed since being convicted and sentenced. “He has grown to be thoughtful, remorseful, generous, and reflective,” they wrote in a filing this week. In response, state officials dismissed his argument and urged the justices not to call off the execution.

The Supreme Court denied his stay requests in orders released late Tuesday, offering no further explanation. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented from one order and said Phillips and other inmates should have gotten a chance to pursue their claim that “Ohio’s execution protocol is a cruel and unusual punishment.”

Anti-death penalty groups called for the lethal injection to be halted, but state authorities had already denied Phillips’s earlier requests to avoid execution. The Ohio Parole Board rejected Phillips’s clemency request last year, and Gov. John R. Kasich (R) said he backed that decision.

“Given the extremely brutal nature of the offense committed against an innocent three-year-old child, I agree with the Ohio Parole Board’s recommendation that clemency is not warranted in this case,” Kasich said in a statement.

The Ohio Parole Board, which is required by law to make a recommendation to the governor in capital-punishment cases, voted 10-2 against clemency for Phillips in December. The board also had voted unanimously against clemency for him in 2013.

Phillips becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Ohio and the 54th overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1999.

Phillips becomes the 15th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1457th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Source: The Washington Post, Mark Berman; Rick Halperin, July 26, 2017

Sister Helen Prejean, on Ronald Phillips' execution by the state of Ohio

Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean
I stand alongside all people of conscience who voice their resistance and opposition to the killing of Ronald Phillips this morning in Ohio.

As together we say no to this state killing, we also hold central in our hearts Sheila Marie Evans. This little girl of three was raped, beaten and murdered. Her killing was a terrible act. There is no shying away from that fact. We acknowledge it, we mourn her loss and we recognize the terrible pain of her loss to her family.

At the same time, we must oppose the state committing another terrible act, an execution, supposedly in the name of justice. Brutality for brutality is not justice, it is barbaric revenge. And there should be no doubt that an execution is a brutal, moral horror. We try our best to mask that, to sanitize the process, but it is an undeniably brutal act that brutalizes us as a society.

We shelter ourselves from this truth by hiding the execution away in a tiny chamber with only a few witnesses. Those witnesses are further protected from the truth because mixed into the lethal cocktail that is injected into the prisoner is a paralytic agent whose sole purpose is to mask the suffering this human being is experiencing.

We must be brave enough to look squarely at both moral horrors: the death of a little girl on the one hand and the state-sanctioned murder of an adult man on the other. We must look at them both and then choose life.

Choosing life for an innocent is an easy thing to do; choosing life for the guilty, that is a far harder thing. But it is what we must do if we truly stand for life.

-- Sister Helen Prejean, on the execution of Ronald Phillips, July 26, 2017

Statement of Ohioans to Stop Executions on resumption of executions

After more than 3.5 years, Ohio carried out an execution. During the moratorium on executions, Ohio has failed to adopt long-overdue and sensible recommendations made by experts on the Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force that would ensure fairness and accuracy of the death penalty system.

Because action has yet to be taken by the Supreme Court and General Assembly, Ohio’s death penalty system undoubtedly risks executing innocent men. One need look no further than the nine exonerated death row survivors.

Because action has yet to be taken, individuals with the most serious mental illnesses will continue to be sentenced to death and executed.

Because action has yet to be taken, the needs of murder victims’ family members will continue to go unmet.

Because action has yet to be taken, Ohio’s death penalty will continue to be disproportionality sought by only a handful of county prosecutors.

Because action has yet to be taken, Ohio’s death penalty will continue to produce outcomes that demonstrate unacceptable racial bias.

And because action has yet to be taken, Ohioans will continue to lose confidence in the death penalty system. This lack of fairness and accuracy is what gives Ohioans serious concern that our state will make the gravest of mistakes by executing an innocent person.

Ohio’s death row population may have decreased by one prisoner today, but 26 still await execution. We can no longer afford to let the known and identified problems to go unaddressed by state leaders.

Source: Ohioans To Stop Executions, July 26, 2017

Killer of 3-year-old girl apologizes in final statement before execution

Ohio's death chamber
Ohio's death chamber
LUCASVILLE, Ohio -- Ohio put a child killer to death Wednesday, carrying out the state's first execution after a 3½-year delay and signaling the possible resumption of capital punishment in the state.

Ronald Phillips was executed by lethal injection at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. He was sentenced to die for the 1993 rape and killing of Sheila Marie Evans, his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter.

His chin and chest moved slightly as the lethal drugs were administered, and prison officials gave Phillips' time of death as 10:43 a.m., about 10 minutes after he gave his final statement, saying, "Sheila Marie didn't deserve what I did to her."

He apologized to the girl's family, telling them: "I'm sorry you had to live so long with my actions."

The girl's half-sister said it was the first apology they had heard from Phillips.

Sheila Marie's aunt, Donna Hudson, said: "Finally, after 24½ years, she can rest in peace."

Phillips, 43, seemed resigned at the end, looking up the ceiling and closing his eyes at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.

The execution was delayed for a few minutes so that Phillips could meet with his brother. Earlier, he had spent much of the morning praying, kneeling and reading the Bible. He became emotional with his spiritual adviser and a visiting friend, said JoEllen Smith, a prisons department spokeswoman.

Phillips lost his final appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday denied his requests for more time to pursue legal arguments, including a challenge of the state's new three-drug execution method, which includes a sedative used in some problematic executions in Ohio and elsewhere.

He also argued that his age at the time -- he was 19 -- should have been a consideration for mercy. The nation's high court already has banned the execution of people under 18.

The death penalty had been on hold in Ohio since January 2014, when a condemned inmate repeatedly gasped and snorted during a 26-minute procedure with a never-before-tried drug combination.

Republican Gov. John Kasich halted upcoming executions after that, and delays have continued because the state had trouble finding new supplies of drugs and death row inmates sued on the grounds the state's proposed new three-drug execution method represented "cruel and unusual punishment."

The state announced in October it acquired a new supply. Phillips and other death row inmates unsuccessfully fought the state's new execution method that includes a sedative, midazolam, used in some troubled executions in Ohio, Arkansas and Arizona. The other drugs are rocuronium bromide, which paralyzes inmates, and potassium chloride, which stop their hearts.

The inmates' arguments were backed up by 15 pharmacology professors, who said midazolam is incapable of inducing unconsciousness or preventing serious pain.

Phillips' execution was previously scheduled and delayed several times, including in 2013 when Kasich allowed time for a last-minute request by Phillips to donate organs. The request was ultimately denied. Phillips wanted to donate a kidney to his mother, who was on dialysis, and possibly his heart to his sister. His mother has since died.

Phillips' victim died Jan. 18, 1993, following emergency surgery after she was rushed to an Akron hospital when her mother found her motionless on her bed, according to a 2016 parole board document.

An autopsy the following day revealed more than 125 bruises on the girl indicating she'd been severely beaten on the head, face, lower torso, arms, legs and genitalia.

Phillips told police he repeatedly hit the girl after she didn't respond to his calls for breakfast, the parole board document said. Phillips also admitted raping her that day and two previous times, the document said.

Late last year, the Ohio Parole Board voted 10-2 against recommending mercy, turning down arguments that Phillips was the product of a horrific upbringing and that his trial was marked by legal mistakes.

"Phillips' crime involved the killing of a vulnerable 3-year-old victim, an abuse of trust, and extensive victimization, therefore making it among the worst of the worst capital crimes," the board said.

Phillips' attorneys called the case tragic but argued that Phillips was not among the worst of the worst offenders.

"Evidence of Phillips's background, history, dysfunctional upbringing, and his reformed character demonstrate that he should not be executed," attorneys Tim Sweeney and Lisa Lagos wrote in a filing to the parole board.

Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said Phillips had refused to accept responsibility and it was time for justice to be served.

Kasich rejected clemency late last year, citing "the extremely brutal nature of the offense committed against an innocent 3-year-old child."

The execution was the 15th in the U.S. this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Source: CBS News, The Associated Press, July 26, 2017

Lethal Injection Execution of Ohio Child Killer 'Too Easy,' Victim's Family Says

Witness room
Ohio carried out its 1st execution in more than 3 years Wednesday morning when it put to death Ronald Ray Phillips, 43, a convicted child murderer, using a new, controversial 3-drug cocktail.

The mix of midazolam, a sedative-hypnotic, rocuronium bromide, a paralytic agent that inhibits breathing, and potassium chloride, an electrolyte solution that prevents the heart from beating, had been challenged by Phillips and other death-row inmates who say it causes an agonizing death.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently reviewed appeals about whether midazolam's use in lethal injections constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Midazolam is often used to sedate patients before invasive medical procedures such as colonoscopies. However, it has been associated with multiple prolonged executions. In January 2014, Dennis McGuire became the f1st inmate in Ohio to receive midazolam during an execution rather than a sedative drug from the pentobarbital class.

The state was unable to obtain the previously used barbiturate drug from Lundbeck, the only manufacturer approved to sell the drug in the U.S. The European pharmaceutical company, tasked with manufacturing life-saving and life-enhancing medications, issued a statement: "Lundbeck adamantly opposes the distressing misuse of our product in capital punishment."

Alan Johnson, a state reporter, witnessed McGuire's execution, "There were powerful choking sounds that were wracking up his body. He was straining upward." After Ohio suspended its use of the controversial 3-drug mixture, Arizona used it to execute Joseph Wood. His execution lasted for approximately 2 hours - over 640 gasps - prompting his attorney to call a judge and request that life-saving measures be instituted.

Phillips' attorneys mounted appeals related to the use of midazolam in Wednesday's execution. They also noted that no pain medications are being used in the current lethal injection protocol. The federal judge assigned to the appeal upheld Ohio's right to use the cocktail. Although Phillips' attorneys submitted another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was not accepted for further review.

At 10:23 a.m., masked staff inspected both of Phillips' arms for veins. Within 5 minutes, he had intravenous lines placed in both. At 10:31 a.m., Phillips prayed as the midazolam flowed into his body. He apologized to the family of his victim, 3-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, who he raped and killed, and gave a thumbs-up to his own family. By 10:34 a.m., witnesses reported he was motionless except for a solitary tear escaping from his eye. His time of death was recorded as 10:43 a.m. Johnson noted, "no heaving, no coughing, no gasping, no struggling, no trying to raise up. It was incredibly different from the traumatic execution {of McGuire] I witnessed 3 1/2 years ago."

"It was too easy," Renee Mundell, the victim's half-sister stated after witnessing the execution. "[Sheila Marie] suffered. It was awful what we had to see in the courtroom, at the clemency hearings ... those pictures."

After the execution, Allen Bohnert, an assistant federal public defender, stated: "While Ohio will try to characterize today's execution as problem-free ... [midazolam] cannot render a person insensate to the unconstitutional pain and suffering of the 2nd and 3rd drugs." Bohnert intonated that Ohio was essentially "hiding visible evidence" of suffering. He noted that both Oklahoma and Alabama require at least a 5-minute interval between the injection of the sedative and the injection of the fatal drugs. In this case, Ohio gave the drugs in rapid succession. There was only 1 minute between the injections of the 1st and 2nd drugs. Bonnert implied those actions may have masked visible signs of distress caused by midazolam.

"There have been so many different appeals in this case," notes Sherri Bevan-Walsh, the Summit County prosecutor. Walsh was a victims' advocate at the time of the crime and is now serving her fifth term as the elected prosecutor. "No matter what drug is being used, no matter what method is being proposed, there is always going to be a fight ... I can't think of a case more deserving of the death penalty than what Ronald Phillips did to Sheila Evans."

At the age of 19, Phillips had raped, tortured and murdered Evans, his girlfriend's child. "She was a typical little 3-year-old," her aunt, Donna Hudson, explained tearfully, "happy, smiling, running around." Hudson had met Phillips before the crime. "At the time, you would think he would never do no wrong," she noted. "Then, walking down the hallway at the hospital, all of a sudden ... a nurse [said to me], 'I don't think your niece is gonna make it."

The coroner spent more than 2 hours counting all 125 bruises on Sheila's bloody body, according to the autopsy report. Phillips' blows caused bleeding around her heart. The bleeding around her brain increased the pressure in her skull and pushed her brain down toward her neck. Moreover, part of her intestine died, releasing feces and digestive enzymes into her belly. The freed digestive juices fed on her organs for approximately 48 hours before she finally succumbed to death. During this time, Phillips sodomized the small child.

"I flipped out and beat up Sheila ... I hit all over her body and also threw her around," Phillips admitted. However, he initially asserted it was her mother, Fae Evans, who dealt the child the fatal blow. Fae Evans was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison for her involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. She died of leukemia before her release. Meanwhile, Phillips was sentenced to death for Sheila's murder.

After the execution, Phillips' attorney Tim Sweeney stated, "Ron Phillips committed an unspeakable crime when he was 19 ... The grown man who woke up this morning at age 43 did not in any way resemble that broken troubled teen ... No one is beyond redemption." During his incarceration, Phillips became a certified minister and prepared his 1st sermon, which his attorneys stated occurred Wednesday - by his dying with dignity and courage.

"God forgave him, but I'm sorry - I don't think I can," Donna Hudson, Sheila Marie's aunt, stated today. "This is the 1st time in 24 years, we have seen any remorse in this man ... [he shed] 1 tear when they gave him his court sentence ... nothing else until today."

Sheila Marie's half sister, Renee Mundell, added: "I have mixed feelings right now. After so many years, it's time to remember my little sister: innocent and loving ... with the whole world ahead of her. It's time to say goodbye to the man who took it all away from us."

Source: newsweek.com, July 27, 2017

Execution reduces Ohio's death roll to 138

The state of Ohio now has 138 people sentenced to death, among the nation's highest death row populations.

The number of those on death roll has dropped by one in the state of Ohio, following an execution on Wednesday; the 1st time the state will carry out a death sentence in more than 3 years.

At 10:43 a.m. Wednesday, inmate and convicted murderer Ronald Phillips was pronounced dead, executed via lethal injection.

He was executed at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.

Phillips' death may mark the end of one chapter in the state's battle to find a legally permissible means of execution.

The state may soon begin carrying out many more death sentences.

Ohio paused its executions after a lethal injection in 2014 caused inmate Dennis McGuire to gasp and snort during the 15 minutes before he died.

Ohio has executed 54 people since 1999. And it has a number of executions scheduled through 2020, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott reported in April, the number of executions in the United States has declined significantly in recent years, as states have struggled to find drugs that can kill death row inmates in a constitutional manner.

Phillips, 43, was convicted in 1993 of the rape and murder of Sheila Marie Evans, his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter.

He was 19 at the time, and his lawyers had argued that his young age should have been taken into consideration.

Phillips had appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay, saying that he "bears no resemblance to that teenager" sentenced to death long ago, and asking for more time to pursue legal arguments in his case, the Associated Press reports.

But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied his request, and the state went forward with his execution. Phillips was killed using the 3 drugs that comprise Ohio's new method, including "a sedative, midazolam, used in some troubled executions in Ohio, Arkansas and Arizona."

Source: npr.org, July 27, 2017

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