Innocent on Death Row? New Evidence Casts Doubt on Convictions

Rodney Reed’s death sentence was suspended. But researchers say other current cases raise similar doubt about the guilt of the accused.
The number of executions in the United States remains close to nearly a three-decade low. And yet the decline has not prevented what those who closely track the death penalty see as a disturbing trend: a significant number of cases in which prisoners are being put to death, or whose execution dates are near, despite questions about their guilt.
Rodney Reed, who came within days of execution in Texas before an appeals court suspended his death sentence on Friday, has been the most high-profile recent example, receiving support from Texas lawmakers of both parties and celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, who urged a new examination of the evidence.
Mr. Reed has long maintained that he did not commit the 1996 murder for which he was convicted. And in recent months, new witnesses came forward pointing toward another possible suspect: the dead…

Why Nevada's new lethal injection is unethical

Nevada has temporarily called off its 1st inmate execution in 11 years. Scott Dozier, sentenced for the 2002 murder of his 22-year-old drug associate, Jeremiah Miller, was to be put to death on Nov. 14. Dozier instructed his lawyer in August not to file any more appeals.

On Thursday, Nov. 9, however, Judge Jennifer Togliatti temporarily postponed the execution. Judge Togliatti said she was "loath to stop" Dozier's execution, but she did so because she was concerned about the untested and controversial drug protocol that would be used to put him to death. She wanted to give the state Supreme Court a chance to evaluate.

From my perspective as a scholar of capital punishment, Nevada's new drug protocol sheds a glaring light on the troubled state of lethal injections in the United States. It also raises some serious ethical questions.

The 1st lethal injection protocol was developed by Oklahoma's medical examiner, Jay Chapman, in the late 1970s. Back then, Oklahoma was looking for an alternative to electrocution, which was considered inhuman and brutal.

The protocol Chapman developed called for the use of 3 drugs: The 1st, sodium thiopental, would anesthetize inmates and put them to sleep before the lethal drugs were administered. The 2nd drug, pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant, was meant to render the inmate unable to show pain. The 3rd drug, potassium chloride, led to a cardiac arrest and eventual death. This protocol soon became the standard and was adopted by all death penalty states - now numbering at 31.

However, by the start of this decade, pharmaceutical companies, "citing either moral or business reasons," refused to allow their products to be used in executions.

The difficulty of securing the drugs that had been part of the standard protocol led death penalty states to experiment with many different drugs in many different combinations.

States likes Alabama and Arkansas, for example, maintained the 3-drug protocol but replaced sodium thiopental in the standard drug cocktail with midazolam or pentobarbital, which doctors normally use as sedatives or for anesthesia. Other states, including Arizona and Ohio, started using a 2-drug protocol, while a few, such as Georgia, Missouri and South Dakota, adopted a single drug.

Nevada's new protocol involves a 3-drug combination - the sedative diazepam (better known as Valium), the muscle relaxant and paralytic cisatracurium and the opioid fentanyl.

My research on methods of execution reveals that this combination of drugs has never been used in an execution.

Execution by a lethal injection, even when it follows the standard protocol, is a surprisingly complicated procedure. Finding usable veins and getting the drug dosages right has proved to be particularly difficult. As I found out, it has often been an unreliable method of execution. Since its introduction, 7 % of all lethal injections have been botched.

Those complications and difficulties increase when states try out new, untested drugs or drug combinations. Convicts have taken a leading role in opposing such experimentation. In February 2017, a death row inmate in Alabama appealed to the United States Supreme Court saying that he preferred death by firing squad to an injection of midazolam. While it recognized lethal injection's history of problems, the majority held that since Alabama did not offer the firing squad as an execution method, his preference could not be honored. In a dissenting view, however, Justice Sonya Sotomayor called the use of new drugs in lethal injection the "most cruel experiment yet."

Nevada's Dozier too has said that he is opposed to "the state's plan to kill him using a drug protocol that has never been used in an execution."

There are other troubling issues as well. Using fentanyl, a drug that is killing thousands of Americans annually during the current opioid crisis, is horrifying, to say the least.

In addition, figuring out the right dosage of diazepam and fentanyl in Nevada's new protocol will not be easy. And if this is not done correctly, Dozier could even wake up in the middle of the execution, as Susi Vassallo, a New York University professor of emergency medicine, has written on lethal injection notes. In the words of Judge Togliatti, he could be "aware of pain" and struggle to breathe.

Employing the powerful paralytic cisatracurium in this new drug protocol raises other ethical concerns.

Nevada's brand new $850,000 death chamber
If the combination of diazepam and fentanyl fails to work, cisatracurium will prevent Dozier from signaling to his executioners that they are botching the execution even as it happens. As David Waisel, an anesthesiologist at Boston Children's Hospital, claimed, "Cisatracurium can hide signs of inadequate anesthesia." That is its only purpose.

In other lethal injection protocols, the muscle relaxant was also designed to stop the heart. Thus, those who conduct the execution and those who witness it will not be able to see the visible signs of Dozier's suffering if it occurs.

In my view, if Nevada and other death penalty states insist on experimenting with new drugs to keep the machinery of death running, citizens and government officials alike need to take responsibility to prevent any cruelty.

Writing about the use of the guillotine in France more than half a century ago, Albert Camus, philosopher, author and journalist, said,

"Society must display the executioner's hands on each occasion, and require the most squeamish citizens to look at them, as well as those who, directly or remotely, have supported the work of those hands from the first."

While lethal injection is different from the guillotine, in modern times the imperative remains the same.

Source: The Conversation, Austin Sarat, Amherst College, November 14, 2017

After saying he opposes death penalty, governor hopeful Sisolak now says it would be appropriate in extreme cases

Jury box
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak is walking back a previous statement opposing the death penalty, saying he believes capital punishment would still be appropriate in "very extreme" cases such as that of Las Vegas mass shooting suspect Stephen Paddock.

Sisolak, a Clark County Commissioner and devout Catholic, staked out a strong stance against executions in an interview with The Nevada Independent last week.

"I'm opposed to capital punishment," he said. "One, there's a cost factor associated with it that's significant. Two, I think there have been cases where it was proven that the wrong person was executed, and 3, that I don't think that I should play God in terms of determining who dies and who lives."

But on Monday, his campaign sought to clarify that while Sisolak stands by his quote, he thinks capital punishment might be warranted in certain cases such as that of Paddock, who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 on the Las Vegas Strip last month. The Paddock case is moot because the shooter killed himself.

The campaign did not clarify what would constitute a "very extreme" case and whether the defendant in a forthcoming execution would fit under that category, and Sisolak himself didn't immediately respond to the question of how he would define death penalty-worthy cases.

Debate about capital punishment has reemerged as Nevada prepares to carry out the death penalty for the first time in 11 years. The execution of Scott Dozier, a former methamphetamine dealer who has been convicted of murdering 2 drug associates and is now volunteering to die, is on hold pending an order of the Nevada Supreme Court about a never-before-used lethal injection cocktail.

Governors play an outsized role in the death penalty in Nevada. They can put a temporary hold on an execution, and as part of the Board of Pardons Commissioners, hold the deciding vote on whether someone's sentence can be reduced from death to life without parole and can decide whether the board should even consider such a request.

The governor can also veto bills seeking to abolish the death penalty and the future governor's position can determine Nevada's very status as a death penalty state. Democratic lawmakers who supported a death penalty abolition bill this spring abandoned their push after Gov. Brian Sandoval signaled he was opposed to it.

The death penalty bill was not brought up for any votes in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Notably, the threat of a veto did not prevent Democrats from passing other bills that Sandoval opposed out of the Legislature and sending it to his desk, where he fulfilled the threat.

A poll conducted by The Nevada Independent in January found 66 % of voters support the death penalty.

Sisolak's position to retain the death penalty as an option puts him in line with 3 other Republicans contenders in the governor's race - Adam Laxalt, Dan Schwartz and Jared Fisher. His Democratic primary opponent, Chris Giunchigliani, opposes the death penalty.

Nevada is 1 of 31 states with the death penalty. It has executed 12 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Source: The Nevada Independent, November 14, 2017

CLU To Deliver Death Penalty Petition Today

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada will deliver a petition to Governor Brian Sandoval, asking him to help prevent the use of an untested combination of lethal drugs to execute convicted killer Scott Dozier.

The Nevada Independent reports that the petition is part of a strategy to keep Dozier from being executed, despite the fact that Dozier himself has asked the state to carry out the execution.

The execution has been delayed over concerns about the drug combination scheduled to be used, and as of now, the delay hangs on an order from the Nevada Supreme Court, which has not given a date for its decision.

Source: KNPR news, November 14, 2017

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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