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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…

Arkansas high court lifts stays for 2 death row inmates

Bruce Earl Ward, left, and Don William Davis
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas’ Supreme Court on Thursday lifted stays of execution for two condemned killers, saying they were not entitled to special assistance from mental health professionals before and during their trials.

Bruce Ward and Don Davis were among eight prisoners scheduled to die over 11 days last spring, but their April 17 executions were postponed so the state’s high court could consider their arguments that, by law, independent psychiatrists should have been available to help develop trial strategies. Lawyers for the state argued that the men didn’t meet the minimum threshold to qualify for such aid and that they were “sandbagging” the court to delay their executions.

The court said the men’s mental health issues had been sufficiently addressed.

“While the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to a competent psychiatrist, it does not guarantee a psychiatrist who will reach the medical conclusions the defense team desires,” Justice Shawn Womack wrote as the court unanimously moved Davis closer to the execution chamber.

Justice Karen Baker used similar language as the court voted 5-2 against Ward. She said his latest argument “rehashes” previous ones and noted he refused to cooperate in previous mental health evaluations at the state hospital.

The federal public defender’s office has 90 days in which to appeal the rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it intends to do so, lawyer Scott Braden said. “The psychiatrist has to be independent and available. Just sending someone to the state hospital is not sufficient.”

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said that once her office confirms Davis’ status in the courts, the next step would be asking Gov. Asa Hutchinson to set an execution date.

“Ward does have an active case before the Supreme Court still. Davis does not, so he has exhausted all his appeals,” she said. “I will be discussing with my team to ensure that is in the fact the case.”

Davis, 55, was convicted of killing Jane Daniel after breaking into her Rogers home in 1990 and shooting her with a .44-caliber revolver he found there. Ward, 61, was convicted in 1990 for the strangulation death of convenience store clerk Rebecca Lynn Doss, 18.

Arkansas had planned to execute eight prisoners over 11 days last spring — Ward first and Davis second — because its supply of an execution drug was about to expire, but it only executed four in eight days.

From the state’s current drug supply, the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide, which stops the inmate’s lungs, is set to expire after midnight on Thursday. The state’s potassium chloride, which stops the heart, expires Aug. 31 and its sedative midazolam is good through Jan. 31, 2019.

Hutchinson said he had not heard from the Department of Correction on whether it has an adequate supply of drugs, but that he would take the “appropriate steps” if Rutledge tells him Davis could be executed.

Twice in the past year, Arkansas’ Department of Correction has shown it can obtain additional supplies.

In the cases decided Thursday, the inmates said they had failed to receive assistance required after a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court targeting mentally ill indigent defendants. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed that decision last spring but left it largely unchanged.

In separate cases still pending, Ward and Jack Greene each say Arkansas’ prison system director, Wendy Kelley, shouldn’t be an “arbiter of sanity” and declare them eligible for execution because her boss, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, sets execution dates.

Source: The Washington Post, Associated Press Kelly P. Kissel, March 1, 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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