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

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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…

Attorney general: Tennessee should set 8 executions before June 1, when drug availability becomes 'uncertain'

Tennessee's death chamber
The Tennessee attorney general wants the state Supreme Court to schedule 8 death sentences before June 1, when the availability of lethal injection drugs would become "uncertain."

The proposed ramp up in Tennessee executions signals a potentially massive shift for a state that hasn't put someone to death since 2009.

"Years of delay between sentencing and execution undermines confidence in our criminal justice system," Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery wrote in a court document filed Thursday.

"Because there is no legal basis to deny or further delay the setting of new execution dates in these cases, the State of Tennessee requests that the court set the executions in these cases for dates before June 1, 2018."

In 2017, the general counsel for the Tennessee Department of Correction said the state did not have the drugs needed to carry out an execution but could get them if they were needed.

"The state, through the Department of Correction, is required by law to carry out executions by lethal injection; however, its ability to do so after June 1, 2018 is uncertain due to the ongoing difficulty in obtaining the necessary lethal injection chemicals," reads the statement from the office of the attorney general.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Barbara Peck confirmed the high court received Slatery's filing.

"In all of these cases, previous execution dates have been set and the defendants have completed the 3-tier appeals process: direct appeal, post-conviction relief, and federal habeas corpus. The motion will be reviewed and the court will issue an order with its decision," Peck said Thursday afternoon.

Controversies around the country show a three-drug combination Tennessee is prepared to use may leave witnesses scarred and death row offenders in pain - and alive.

Documents obtained in January by the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee show the state has a new protocol for what drugs it will use to put inmates to death. A supplier of those drugs also warned the state they may not actually stop inmates from feeling pain before they die, according to emails also obtained.

The issues already prompted a legal challenge and will likely spur death penalty critics to characterize the use of the drugs as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Lethal injection is the primary means of carrying out the death penalty in Tennessee, although the electric chair is also legal. The state had used pentobarbital, a barbituate, but manufacturers have largely stopped selling the drug to anyone using it for executions.

In January, the Supreme Court and Tennessee Department of Correction confirmed 3 execution dates had been set for 2018.

2 of the inmates have additional avenues for appeal, while the 3rd - a Knox County man who has spent more than 3 decades on death row - has fewer remaining paths to avert execution this year.

That man - Billy Ray Irick, a 59-year-old convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl - is set to be executed Aug. 9.

The 8 inmates referenced in Slatery's court request are:

- Donnie Johnson, Shelby County: Convicted in 1985 of killing his wife.

- Stephen Michael West, Union County: Convicted in 1987 of kidnapping, rape and murder.

- Edmund Zagorski, Robertson County: Convicted in 1984 of murdering 2 people.

- Leroy Hall, Hamilton County: Convicted in 1992 of murder and aggravated arson.

- Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, Davidson County: Convicted in 1987 of murder.

- Charles Walton Wright, Davidson County: Convicted in 1985 of 2 murders.

- Nicholas Todd Sutton, Morgan County: Convicted in 1986 of murder.

- David Earl Miller, Knox County: Convicted in 1982 of murder.

There are 60 people on death row in Tennessee.

Source: The Tennessean, Dave Boucher, February 15, 2018


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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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