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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…

Eric Branch: From witnesses to the last meal: What happens at an execution

Florida's death chamber
Death row inmate Eric Branch will likely spend his final hours awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision as the executioner, wardens and witnesses continue preparations for the convicted killer's scheduled execution Thursday.

The execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Florida State Prison in Raiford. Branch, who has been on death row since 1994 for the murder of University of West Florida student Susan Morris the year prior, has opted out from speaking to media ahead of the execution.

He has been vocal instead through court documents, having expressed concern and discontent with the execution and judicial process through numerous appeals that last week rose to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Branch has questioned everything from the direction his body will face during the execution to the expiration date of the injection drugs. He claimed in one appeal that his 24 years on death row constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and most recently is appealing to the country’s highest court that a new Florida law requiring a unanimous jury decision on death penalty sentencing should retroactively apply to him.

The latter appeal is still in front of the Supreme Court Justices. A group of seven former Florida Supreme Court Justices, former Circuit Court judges, and one former Florida State University president banded together last week to file a “friends of the court” brief in support of Branch, asking for a stay of execution to review the constitutionality of denying the retroactive law application. Branch's counsel claims Florida's new law that requires juries unanimously recommend a death sentence should be applied to his case, despite the current cut-off date of 2002. Branch's Escambia County jury was split 10-2 in its death recommendation.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there was no decision from the U.S. Supreme Court and the execution was still scheduled for Thursday.


Who attends an execution?


A large team of people including two private executioners, a warden, physicians and other prison designates make up the execution team, according to the Florida Department of Corrections’ execution protocol.

The Office of the Governor is on an already-established telephone line during the entire execution process in order to tell the team at the prison whether a stay of execution has been granted, and to remain up-to-date on the steps in the execution process.

There are multiple official witnesses present, often made up of family members of the victim, a nurse or medical technician, media representatives, a representative of FDC’s public affairs office and any others designated by the warden.

Wendy Morris Hill, Susan Morris' sister, told the News Journal Tuesday she plans to be in attendance as an official witness along with her husband and one of her daughters. David Morris, Susan’s father, said he and his wife, Marcia, do not plan to attend the execution.


What happens at the execution?


The Florida Department of Corrections will begin the public portion of the execution process at 3:30 p.m. with its first media briefing.

The execution itself is scheduled for 6 p.m., pending any last-minute court proceedings or halts from Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

Holding cell adjacent to Florida's death chamberAccording to FDC’s lethal injection procedure documents, Branch will be served a last meal, which must cost $40 or less and be available at the institution to be prepared by the food service director.

He will shower and be issued clothing to wear for the execution. The telephone in the execution chamber will be tested, as well as two-way audio devices and visual monitoring equipment in the area.

Someone from the execution team, in the presence of additional observers and an independent observer from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, will prepare the lethal injection chemicals and label each item.

Two executioners will be involved in the lethal injection process, both having been chosen by the warden. Under Florida law, the executioner is a private citizen who is paid $150 and remains anonymous. The second executioner is chosen in case the first becomes unable to complete the execution.

Roughly 30 minutes before the execution time, one of the execution team members will establish phone connection with the Office of the Governor and that line remains open throughout the process so the team member can report ongoing activities of the execution.

Branch will be placed in wrist restraints and will be positioned on the execution gurney and be further restrained. He will be hooked to heart monitors and an IV will be inserted.

Branch will be permitted to make an oral statement, after which the execution process will begin. He will be injected first with two 100 milligram doses of etomidate, then a saline solution. The warden will then determine whether Branch is unconscious and if so, the executioner proceeds with the second drug.

Branch will be injected with two 500 milligram doses of bromide, followed by saline. The last drug, potassium acetate, will be injected in two doses of 120 milliequivalents, one after the other.

Once the inmate has died, a physician will officially pronounce Branch dead and read aloud a time of death. Scott will be notified of Branch’s death, and the warden will coordinate a hearse to take Branch to the medical examiner’s office in Alachua County for an autopsy.

The witnesses will be escorted from the witness room and a second media briefing will be held.

Source: Pensacola News Journal, Emma Kennedy, February 21, 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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