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Conservative Nebraska Abolishes Death Penalty

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Legislators on Wednesday voted 30-19 to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, making it the first Republican-led state to abolish capital punishment in more than 40 years.

In California, Ron Briggs, a conservative Republican who, with his father John Briggs, led the 1978 initiative that reintroduced the death penalty in the Golden State, is now active in the campaign to end it.

“The death penalty is the ultimate failed big government program,” said Briggs, a former El Dorado County Supervisor. “Nowhere is that more true than in California, which has the largest and most dysfunctional death penalty system in America. It’s time that conservatives who don’t trust the government to run their lives stop trusting the government to decide who dies.”

In addition to concerns about big government, conservative opposition to the death penalty stems from religious values that protect life, the high cost of capital punishment, the expanding list of proven wrongful convictions, and the fact that it does not deter people from committing crime.

The repeal in Nebraska is part of a movement nationwide to abandon the practice and signals a growing concern among conservatives about the death penalty. Republicans are leading repeal efforts in at least a half dozen states nationwide including Kentucky and Wyoming.

A majority of Americans now prefer a sentence of life in prison. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2014 Year End Report, the country saw the lowest number of death sentences handed down in 40 years and the lowest number of executions in 20 years. Though California still houses the largest Death Row in the country, a Field Poll last year found that support for the death penalty was falling rapidly, with voters’ support at its lowest point in half a century.

Nebraska is now the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, while eight other states have abandoned it in practice.

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Tsarnaev verdict shows three fatal flaws of death penalty

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on May 20th, 2015

On May 15, we learned that a Boston federal jury had returned a penalty verdict of death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who with his older brother Tamerlan was convicted of the Boston Marathon bombings. Certainly the crimes of Tsarnaev and his elder brother, who was killed in a shootout with police four days later, were horrible. The two bombs near the finish line at the Marathon killed three people and maimed hundreds. The horrible wounds and amputations inflicted and the spectacle of the most powerful government in the world attempting to execute a boy who was only 19 at the time of the crimes, have aroused special emotion. However, we must remember that the main issue here is the death penalty itself, and the harm and trauma it inflicts on all it touches, like those bombs.

Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, who played an instrumental leadership role in his state's abolition of the death penalty in 2013, offered some comments about the Tsarnaev verdict that show us how to move forward. Expressing respect for the jury, and offering his prayers for the victims and their families, he focused both on the needs of victims and on the death penalty as a violation of human rights. Before considering Governor O'Malley's points about harm to victims and human rights, let's address an issue that grows out of his reminder that the jurors themselves deserve our respect: the way that the death penalty puts these jurors in an unfair position and harms them also.

1. Cruel and unusual punishment -- for the jurors

First, we should consider that the jurors were unable to adequately represent their community and became victims of a bad system. Massachusetts itself is a strongly abolitionist state, with the last execution in 1947 and abolition in 1984. In Boston, this sentiment is even stronger, with only 25 percent of those polled favoring the death penalty in any case, and only 15 percent for Tsarnaev.

However, Tsarnaev was prosecuted under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, meaning the judge could exclude anyone unwilling to vote for capital punishment. A jury so selected simply could not represent the conscience of the community against whom the bombings had been directed. Nor is this problem new in Massachusetts. A minority report of a Committee on Capital Punishment of the State's House of Representatives, in 1848, observed:

"In Massachusetts, there is notoriously an increasing disinclination to convict, even though jurors are _packed_ as they are, by a most cruel policy, against the prisoner. In the present state of public feeling, every man who has scruples about capital punishment being of course excluded from the jury, and all of humane feelings avoiding, if possible, sitting on a capital case, jurors in capital trials are almost necessarily made up of the hard-hearted -- those who have almost prejudged the case; and yet, even in Massachusetts, either through the partiality of the jury, or the clemency of the executive, it is some years since the death-penalty has been inflicted."

Given the thankless task of speaking for a community they could not truly represent, the jurors were traumatized in two special ways. First, they were asked by the prosecution to overcome their natural instinct against killing, a process which can do immense and enduring psychological harm. Secondly, while any murder trial with its autopsy reports and reliving of gruesome and tragic scenes must be an ordeal for jurors, the logic of the death penalty here made it even worse.

To overcome the reluctance of the jurors to kill a teenager who had no previous criminal record, and since his arrest had been a peaceful prisoner, the prosecution saturated both phases of the trial with gory images, videos, and detailed medical testimony about the effects of the bombs on the victims. This went far beyond the evidence needed to prove the crimes and demonstrate the horrible nature of these explosive devices with their nails and shrapnel.

Without the death penalty, a trial of Tsarnaev in either state or federal court would have been faster and simpler. The prosecution would have produced overwhelming evidence of the defendant's liability for all four murders, either directly or by aiding and abetting his brother, and the jury would have found him guilty as charged. He would have been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) -- case closed!

2. Cruel and unusual punishment -- for the victims

As Governor O'Malley pointed out, "the appeals process is expensive and cruel to the surviving family members." He knows well, because murder survivors were central both to abolition in Maryland, and in the subsequent effort fulfilling the Governor's promise that funds saved by abolition would be directed to victims services.

After Tsarnaev was convicted in April of the four murders, some of the victims spoke publicly in favor of dropping the death penalty and negotiating a plea agreement to give him LWOP. Most memorably, the family of Martin Richard wrote the Boston Globe to ask that the legal process end without years of death penalty appeals, which would place Tsarnaev in the limelight to reopen their wounds.

Murder survivors with various views on the death penalty itself have drawn the same conclusion either about their own personal needs, or more broadly about what policy is in the interest of victims generally. Thus the family of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998, preferred a plea agreement for LWOP with no appeals as best meeting their desires for healing, although they are not opposed to the death penalty. Victim and advocate Kathy Garcia is not opposed in principle to capital punishment, but has championed its abolition in States such as New Jersey (2007) and Illinois (2011) because of the immense harm she has seen it do to victims.

Many other survivors, of course, are against the death penalty in principle; but this is an area where people with different views can unite in seeing that LWOP is a better practical solution to give the Richard family and others in their situation a space for privacy, dignity, and healing.

Although the wishes of the Richard family were not followed, President Obama could step in and end their ordeal of being trapped in years of appeals and publicity for Tsarnaev.

Prosecutors argued that, if sentenced to LWOP, Tsarnaev might have his conditions of confinement eased over the years. However, under the Supreme Court decision in Schick v. Reed (1974), the President has the power to modify a death sentence to life on any terms. Within the limits of the Eighth Amendment, it appears that President Obama has virtually unlimited discretion in setting the terms of the LWOP sentence that would replace the death penalty.

Also, federal funds saved by not pursuing years of appeals could be directed to assisting the victims of the bombings, many of whom have ongoing medical issues and dilemmas. That would be a worthy national response to this saga of tragedy and community resilience.

3. Human rights: The company we keep

Governor O'Malley also reminded us that the death penalty for Tsarnaev puts us in the company of the other nations where "the vast majority" of executions happen: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and China. One might add Saudi Arabia; and also the Islamic State as a reminder of how legal or extrajudicial executions are a hallmark of precisely the terrorism that we seek to counter.

In the course of his remarks, the Governor offered a familiar truth applying to capital crimes generally: "The death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent." However, that truth applies with special force to terrorist crimes, where the terrorists may either themselves seek death, or may be ready to die if they are unable to escape.

In our imperfect world, although we may be unable totally to abolish murder and terrorism, we do have the power both drastically to reduce their frequency and to limit their moral domain. Let the killing of subdued prisoners be a trademark of tyrants and terrorists, as opposed to responsible governments.

Margo Schulter was born in Los Angeles in 1950 and became a committed death penalty abolitionist shortly after the execution of Caryl Chessman in 1960. Since 1977, as a non-attorney, she has taken a special interest in legal and constitutional issues concerning the death penalty, with an emphasis on historical aspects. From time to time, she guest blogs for DPF.

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DPF 24th Annual Awards Dinner draws Supporters, Activists and Exonerees

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The Death Penalty Focus 24th Annual Awards Dinner was a huge success. It was an evening filled with hope and inspiration and even a bit of comedy thanks to our fabulous host John Fugelsang. Each year, Death Penalty Focus honors those who have committed themselves to standing up for justice. This year, nearly 350 people joined us.

It was one of the most successful dinners in DPF history as a result of generous donations from guests and sponsors. We raised over $200,000. Of that, nearly $70,000 came in on the evening of the dinner, in part because of a $30,000 matching grant provided by co-chairs Sherry and Leo Frumkin, Sarah Timberman and Ed Redlich, and Eugenie Ross-Leming and Robert Singer. That’s more than double our most successful fund drive to date!

In all honesty, our awardees stole the show by providing us with a powerful reminder of why our fight must continue. We were thrilled to honor three exonerees from Ohio and the attorneys who fought for their freedom. Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson came to Beverly Hills to receive our Rose Elizabeth Bird Commitment to Justice Award. These three men spent over a century in prison after they were sentenced to die for a crime they did not commit. They were released last November, thanks to the Innocence Project and their attorneys Terry Gilbert, Mark Godsey, Brian Howe, and David Mills.

Our Abolition Award went to Assistant Federal Public Defender Dale Baich, who has spent nearly three decades defending the constitutional rights of death row inmates. He is currently representing three inmates scheduled for execution in Oklahoma, a case the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing and we are all closely watching.

We were also thrilled to present an award to Alex Gibney, Brad Hebert and Laura Michalchyshyn, executive producers of Death Row Stories, a CNN series exploring cases that address hard questions about capital punishment. And we had a touching tribute to Rabbi Leonard Beerman, a founding DPF board member who posthumously received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

President Jimmy Carter and Actor and Sundance Founder Robert Redford both sent messages congratulating the honorees.

All in all, a fabulous evening. DPF offers our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the following sponsors:


Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares
Sherry and Leo Frumkin
Ed Redlich and Sarah Timberman
Eugenie Ross-Leming and Robert Singer


Clark & Rice, A Professional Corporation
CNN, Jigsaw Productions & Sundance Productions
Larry Flynt Publications
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Kristin Zethren & Chic Wolk
Sue & Dick Wollack


All Saints Church
G.F. Bunting and Co
Robert Greenwald & Heidi Frey
Courtney Minick & Brandon Long


Dr. Joan Willens Beerman
Mary Broderick, Linda Fox & Virginia Van Zandt
Reed Smith, LLP & Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent
Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary
Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange

Individual Supporters:

The Aubuchon/Felton Families
Devra Breslow
Richard E. Carlburg
Eula Eikerenkoetter
Nancy Cotton & John Given
Susannah Grant & Christopher Henriksen
Carol Hopkins
Stacy Mallicoat
Manatt, Phelps and Phillips
The Moore-MacMillan Family
Thomas R. Parker & Karen Broumand
Rabbi Steven & Didi Carr Reuben
Terry Richards, Founder Veterans Against the Death Penalty
Jonathan B. Steiner
Nancy Stephens & Rick Rosenthal, The Rosenthal Foundation
Themis Fund
Colleen Tracy
Linda & Jay Walsh


Emanuel Forster
Mary Ellen Glaser
Hilary Naylor
Mark & Marjorie Sheinberg

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Support for Capital Punishment Continues to Drop

Posted by on April 16th, 2015

A report released today by the Pew Research Center shows that support for the death penalty is at a 40 year low. The number of people who support capital punishment dropped another six percent since 2011.

In addition, more Americans are becoming aware of the risk of executing the wrongfully convicted. A record 71 percent of Americans now believe there is a possibility that an innocent person will be put to death. This news comes days after Anthony Hinton was released from Death Row, becoming the 152nd person on the list of death row exonerees.

The study also showed that 61 percent of Americans believe the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes. And more than half say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death.

Read the full report here.

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LA Times says it was wrong about McVeigh, opposes death penalty

Posted by on April 9th, 2015

We applaud the LA Times Editorial Board for taking a difficult stand against the death penalty in the federal case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

This was a terrible crime that killed three and wounded hundreds, and it is understandable that Americans want vengeance. But we must remember that the death penalty is not a deterrent for would be terrorists and there is no benefit to society in avenging death with more death.

The Times Board admits regret in calling for the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001, saying “that editorial was written out of passion, not justice.”

In the years since McVeigh’s execution, support for the death penalty in this country has fallen. Since 1996, support has dropped by 23 percentage points, reaching its lowest level in almost two decades, according to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center. In just the past eight years, six states have abolished the death penalty and five have imposed moratoriums.

As the Times Board said, Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole because “killing another human being is immoral, whether by bomb or by lethal injection.”

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Three more San Quentin inmates die

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on March 27th, 2015

In just two weeks, three inmates on San Quentin’s Death Row have died. Though sentenced to death, they weren’t executed but join the overwhelming number who die while awaiting appellate review.

More than 1,000 people have been sentenced to death in California, and only 13 have been executed since 1967. At least 67 inmates have died from natural causes (two are still pending autopsies). Records show that all but one had a direct appeal or habeas petition still pending, and one third died before the state Supreme Court could even review their conviction or sentence on direct appeal.

This again proves the dysfunction of the California death penalty system. In July, Judge Cormac Carney ruled the decades-long delays are unconstitutional and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Death Penalty Focus supports that ruling and recently joined other groups in submitting an amicus brief on behalf of the inmate whose sentence was overturned. The brief demonstrates that many Death Row inmates are denied their right to due process by the mistakes that characterize the state’s death penalty.

Not only does capital punishment waste taxpayer dollars but the delays often preclude inmates who are innocent or denied a fair trial from obtaining relief because they die before the judicial review is complete. It’s time to get rid of this expensive, ineffective and broken system.

Pictured is Teofilo Medina Jr., who died March 22 at the age of 70.

Read the amicus brief filed by Death Penalty Focus.

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Arizona Woman Exonerated after 22 Years

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An Arizona judge recently dismissed all charges against Debra Milke, but only after she spent half her life in a cell on Death Row.

Her conviction was based on evidence from Armando Saldate, a corrupt police detective who is now retired. He was known to lie under oath and violate suspects’ rights during interrogations. Prosecutors failed to mention this at trial and Milke was convicted based on his testimony.

She spent 22 years in prison.

“The constitution requires a fair trial,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “This never happened in Milke’s case.”

Milke brings to 151 the number of people freed from Death Row. We wonder how many others there are.

As long as we have the death penalty, executing innocent people remains a possibility.

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Pope Francis Condemns the Death Penalty

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Pope Francis has again condemned the death penalty, saying it is unacceptable, unjust, and inhumane.

During a visit from the delegation of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, the Pope reaffirmed his abolitionist stance and said that no crime warrants killing and the suffering that comes with it.

Capital punishment "is cruel, inhuman and degrading, as is the anxiety that precedes the moment of execution and the terrible wait between the sentence and the application of the punishment, a 'torture' which, in the name of a just process, usually lasts many years and, in awaiting death, leads to sickness and insanity."

The pope said the death penalty brings no justice to victims of crime and encourages revenge. Quoting Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot”, the pontiff said “murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands."

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DPF files brief on behalf of Ernest Jones

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on March 9th, 2015

On Friday, a number of groups filed legal briefs on behalf of Ernest Jones, the Death Row inmate whose sentence was overturned by Judge Cormac Carney in July. In that ruling, the judge declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional saying the delays caused by the dysfunctional system amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed that case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying the process provides protections to defendants. The Death Penalty Focus amicus brief rebuts the Attorney General’s argument by demonstrating that many Death Row inmates are denied their right to due process by the delays, dysfunction and mistakes that characterize California’s death penalty system.

And their families suffer with them. During decades-long delays, inmates are more likely to die than have their arguments heard. If they do live long enough for a new trial, their mental health has often deteriorated or the evidence is lost or stale.

It is estimated that for every death sentence, eight family members are profoundly affected. Families of inmates on Death Row deal with guilt, stigma and social isolation that can lead to depression, hopelessness, even suicide. These hidden victims often aren’t able to ever find out if their loved ones are actually innocent.

And as California’s Death Row population rises, the delays grow longer. The current average of 30 years will soon reach 40 and 500 more inmates will die before the courts rule on their cases.

The DPF brief outlines three cases:

Ralph International Thomas. He was granted a new trial due to ineffective counsel 30 years after his death sentence but was unable to benefit because his health deteriorated. He died in custody and his mother had to deal with the guilt of not being able to afford private counsel.

Dennis Lawly. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic who represented himself when he was sentenced to death. Another man later confessed and the murder weapon was found but Mr. Lawly was awaiting a hearing when he died in his cell in San Quentin. His mother blames herself for his deluded defense. She said he wouldn’t have gone to death row if he had a lawyer. She’ll never know if he would have been exonerated.

Jarvis Masters. He was 19 when he was sentenced to 23 years. Although he completed his sentence, he was not released because he received a death sentence in connection with the murder of correctional officer. Another man confessed but Mr. Masters’ appeal is still pending.

Read the amicus brief filed by Death Penalty Focus.

Death Penalty Talk in LA

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Death Penalty Focus President Mike Farrell will participate in a panel discussion before the Dead Man Walking opera in Santa Monica on March 7 and 8.

The opera is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s seminal nonfiction book.

The panel will be moderated by DPF Board Member and past president of ACLU of Southern California Stephen Rohde.

For more information and tickets, visit the Broad Stage website.

DPF In the News!

Posted by on February 20th, 2015

Twenty years ago, DPF President Mike Farrell appealed for clemency for Anthony Apanovitch. Last week, a judge threw out the murder conviction of the man who spent three decades on Death Row.

"His case is yet another lesson in why the death penalty makes no sense -- for the accused, for taxpayers, or for the families of victims."

Read Mike Farrell's guest column in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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Attorney General Calls for Moratorium

Posted by on February 18th, 2015

The states of Florida and Alabama have delayed pending executions until the Supreme Court rules on whether the lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional.

This comes after the high court decided last month to review an Oklahoma case after botched executions led to concerns about the effectiveness of the drug midazolam as a sedative.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he believes there should be a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment until a decision is made by the Supreme Court on whether the procedure violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

A decision is expected in June. Until then, all states with similar protocols should join Florida and Alabama and halt executions.

But the complicated questions about whether it’s possible to humanely execute people are just another indication that the system is irreparable. In addition to the issue of constitutionality, a majority of Americans prefer a sentence of life in prison because of the high cost of the death penalty and proven risk of executing innocent people.

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Pennsylvania Governor Halts Executions

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on February 13th, 2015

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on the death penalty today, saying the system is flawed, ineffective, unjust, and expensive.

The state houses the fifth largest Death Row in the nation with 186 prisoners. In nearly 40 years, there have been 434 signed death warrants but only three inmates have been executed.

“This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system,” Wolf wrote in a statement explaining his decision. “It is drawn out, expensive and painful for all involved.”

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated including six men in Pennsylvania. Wolf said the system is “riddled with flaws making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.”

In noting further defects of the capital punishment system, Wolf pointed to strong evidence that a person is more likely to be charged with a capital offense and sentenced to death if he is poor, a minority, and particularly where the victim of the crime was white.

The governor’s action is part of a growing movement to abandon the practice. Pennsylvania becomes the fourth state to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, in addition to six states that have abolished capital punishment since 2007.

Wolf will await a report from a task force on capital punishment and until then will grant reprieves each time an execution is scheduled. The first temporary reprieve was given to Terrence Williams who was set to be executed on March 4.

"I think Governor Wolf realizes that when you have more exonerated prisoners than executed prisoners in 30 years, the system handed to you was obviously broken," said Nick Yarris, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 21 years on Pennsylvania’s Death Row.

Like Pennsylvania, California has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on a system that serves no useful purpose, risks executing an innocent person, and is increasingly losing support. According to the California Legislative Analyst Office, replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole would save the state $130 million each year. Yet California continues to house the largest death row population in the country.

The only option is to end this costly charade and replace it with a system that is fair and consistent for everyone.

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Abolitionist Dean Smith Dies

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on February 9th, 2015

Dean Smith, who died Saturday at the age of 83, was a legendary basketball coach best known for his 36 years coaching at the University of North Carolina where he oversaw a record number of victories.

He was also adamant about ending capital punishment in this country.

He visited prisons, counseled inmates on Death Row, and even confronted the North Carolina governor on the issue.

"You're a murderer,” Smith said to Gov. Jim Hunt during a meeting in Raleigh. He then pointed at an aide and others in the room. “And you’re a murderer, and you’re a murderer, and I'm a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers."

It’s not often that a famous sports figure addresses such a political topic, but Smith made his lifelong opposition to the death penalty known. He said numerous times that state sponsored killing is immoral, unfair, and ineffective.

"I do not condone any violence against any of God's children, and that is why I am opposed to the death penalty," he wrote in his autobiography.

Smith often invoked his religious beliefs to explain his opposition, but he also spoke about his fears of killing the innocent and the racial injustice of the court system.

Support for capital punishment is dropping nationwide, and we hope to see more public figures take a stand like Coach Smith.

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Supreme Court Justice Calls for End to Death Penalty

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on January 29th, 2015

At a recent lecture at the University of Florida, Justice John Paul Stevens said there is evidence “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that Texas executed an innocent man in 1989.

Justice Stevens referenced the book “The Wrong Carlos” which tells the story of Carlos DeLuna, a 27-year-old man who was executed for a murder in 1983. The book, by Columbia Law School professor James Liebman and a team of his students, provides compelling evidence that DeLuna was innocent and the actual killer remained free.

“The person they executed did not in fact commit the crime for which he was punished,” Justice Stevens said. “Society should not take the risk that that might happen again.”

We know that innocent people end up on Death Row, even though Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has insisted that no innocent man has ever been executed. Scalia wrote in 2006 during Kansas v. Marsh:

“It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case – not one – in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”


Midazolam Still Being Used in Executions

Posted by Joe Steinberger on January 26th, 2015

The state of Oklahoma killed Charles Warner on January 15. He was the first inmate executed by lethal injection in the state since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett last April that Prison Warden Anita Trammell described as a “bloody mess.”

After Lockett’s mishandled execution, Oklahoma put a moratorium on the death penalty in order to review what went wrong. The state spent over $70,000 renovating its death chamber and another $34,000 to purchase new equipment.

However, the state still included the controversial sedative midazolam in its three drug formula. The use of midazolam came under fire following the bungled executions of Lockett, Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Joseph Wood in Arizona last year. McGuire gasped for air and loudly snorted during his 15 minute long execution, while Wood was injected 15 times and took nearly two hours to die.

Attorneys for Warner sent an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting they stay the execution until the new protocol could be evaluated. But the court denied the appeal with a 5-4 vote.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that she was, “deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol.” She went on to add, “I believe that we should have granted petitioners’ application for stay. The questions before us are especially important now, given States’ increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution.”

In Lockett’s execution, the state administered 100 milligrams of midazolam. This dosage was increased to 500 milligrams for Warner, but serious doubt still remains that upping the dosage fixes the problem.

According to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, “(Oklahoma) has not shown that this drug will produce the necessary level of unconsciousness to allow the execution to proceed humanely.”

During Warner’s appeal, scientific evidence was presented which showed that midazolam is subject to a “ceiling effect” meaning that once it reaches a saturation point, regardless of the dosage amount, it is no longer able to keep someone unconscious. It is likely for this reason that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved it for use as an anesthetic.

One of the main issues that states have faced in recent years, as was made evident in the four botched executions in 2014, is the increased difficulty in finding pharmaceutical companies that are willing to have their drugs used in the death penalty process. Until 2010, states used a drug formula that included the anesthetic sodium thiopental. However, this drug is no longer manufactured in the United States and European companies refuse to sell it for use in executions.

As a result, states are resorting to using new formulas and untested doses. Some states are even obtaining drugs from compounding pharmacies. These companies do not go through the same approval process for their products that large manufacturers face, leading to concerns about the safety and effectiveness of their products.

Unfortunately, these difficulties have not resulted in states re-thinking capital punishment, but have led them to finding alternative ways to carry out executions.

In Oklahoma, the state legislature is expected to consider legislation that would make the use of nitrogen gas, a legal execution method. Tennessee passed a law in 2014 to reinstate the electric chair if the state is unable to secure lethal injection drugs. While in Utah, the state is considering bringing back the firing squad.

It is deeply troubling that while support for capital punishment continues to fall, states are resorting to extreme measures to keep this egregious practice alive. It is becoming more and more difficult for states to find “humane” ways to carry out capital punishment, which is just a further illustration that the death penalty system in our country is not working and is getting worse.

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Rabbi Leonard Beerman

April 9,1921 - Dec. 24, 2014

Posted by Mike Farrell on January 23rd, 2015

A Great Man

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, a founding board member of Death Penalty Focus who remained an active, supportive and inspiring member of our organization over many years, passed away on Christmas Eve. His loss leaves a hole in the universe.

A man always willing to challenge himself, Leonard joined the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and then the Haganah in 1947, during the founding of the State of Israel. He did so, he once said, to determine whether he was truly a pacifist or a simply a coward. He was, it is abundantly clear, a pacifist; he remained committed to his principles for the rest of his long and extraordinary life.

The founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, Leonard was a leader in the ecumenical movement, a founder of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and every one since, a courageous supporter of civil and human rights, workers’ rights, gay rights and a champion of all those society overlooks or leaves behind.

Those of us fortunate enough to know Leonard saw in him an example of what it is possible to be in our world: a person of conscience and courage, one who not only had principles but lived by them, one who, if he had fears, refused to allow them to dictate his choices.

Leonard’s love of life, his brilliance, his clarity of vision, his generosity of spirit, his subtle wit, his utter honesty, his candor and his incredible courage combined to make this simple, unassuming man the moral compass for everyone he encountered. Agree with him or not, like him or not – and few could not – the vitality of his naked love for the unquenchable, indomitable human spirit left everyone touched, moved, and, even if secretly, awash in admiration.

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said, "There's a place in the soul that neither time nor flesh nor no created thing can ever touch." That place was well known to Leonard. It is what he spoke to when saying, “An awakened conscience is what makes a human being, what makes a woman or a man more nearly a companion of God.”

Leonard saw that as we struggle to ensure that the value of every human person is recognized and honored, we move toward the light. As we insist that the least among us, even the violent, who because of the horror they inflict on others are spat upon, defiled, stripped of human status and condemned as “monsters,” still deserve to have the divine spark of humanity that is buried – no matter how deeply - within them recognized, embraced, cherished and nurtured.

He knew that “this life, this world, for all of its cynicism and stupidity and anguish, is also a place where change is possible…” As he saw it, “the most deeply human and courageous men and women are those who in life and death dare to submit themselves to the ordeal of walking through the fire of selfhood, of loneliness and tragedy.” And this led him to understand that “to be most deeply human is to be among the resisters, to resist whatever demeans life.”
Leonard Beerman will remain the moral compass for those of us lucky enough to have known him. To work with him in pursuit of peace, justice and human rights is to have been blessed.

Let me only add that one of the greatest achievements of my life is to have been embraced by him as his friend.

Unconstitutional execution set for Jan. 27 in Georgia

Posted by on January 21st, 2015

Warren Hill, who has a lifelong well-documented intellectual disability, is scheduled to be executed Jan. 27 in Georgia.

“Every single expert who has examined him, including those retained by the state, agrees that Mr. Hill has intellectual disability,” said Hill's attorney Brian Kammer. “The only reason he is in grave danger of an unconstitutional execution is that the Georgia standard is unscientific and, as Mr. Hill’s case painfully shows, impossible to satisfy.”

Because of the Georgia standard, Hill has been denied the constitutional protection from execution under Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which prohibits the execution of persons with intellectual disability.

A clemency hearing is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 26. Attorneys are gathering letters of support. Please show your support and sign a letter asking for clemency for Warren Hill.

Learn more here:

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MLK Opposed Capital Punishment

Posted by Leslie Fulbright on January 16th, 2015

As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., let’s recognize his denunciation of capital punishment.

Share this card and show your support for an end to the death penalty.

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UN Calls Death Penalty “Torture”

Posted by on January 8th, 2015

The United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned the United States death penalty in a newly-released report, saying it is troubled by recent executions and prolonged delays that amount to torture. In a series of recent votes, the UN has shown that the majority of the world’s states condemn any use of the death penalty. However, the new report goes further, in detailing how the practice of capital punishment in the US violates this nation’s obligations under international law—specifically the UN Convention against Torture, to which the US is a signatory.

“The UN has confirmed what many observers said after the series of botched executions last year: America’s use of the death penalty is a form of torture that violates international law,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. “As the UN recommends, the US should stop all executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty, in order to honor the international treaties it has signed.”

On a more positive note, the report welcomed the abolition of the death penalty in six US states since the committee last reported on the US in 2006.

Read the text of the report on capital punishment in the United States:

Death Penalty
25. While welcoming that six states have abolished capital punishment during the period under review, the Committee expresses its concern at the State party’s admission that it is not currently considering abolishing the death penalty at the federal level. It also expresses its concern at reported cases of excruciating pain and prolonged suffering that procedural irregularities have caused to condemned prisoners in the course of their execution. The Committee is specially troubled by the recent cases of botched executions in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Ohio. The Committee is equally concerned at the continued delays in recourse procedures which keep prisoners sentenced to death in a situation of anguish and incertitude for many years. The Committee notes that in certain cases such situation amounts to torture in so far as it corresponds to one of the forms of torture (i.e. the threat of imminent death) contained in the interpretative understanding made by the State party at the time of ratification of the Convention (arts. 1, 2 and 16).

The State party should review its execution methods in order to prevent pain and prolonged suffering. The Committee recalls that according to the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty (approved by Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 of 25 May 1984), where capital punishment occurs, it shall be carried out so as to inflict the minimum suffering. The State party should reduce the procedural delays that keep prisoners sentenced to capital punishment in the death row for prolonged periods. The State party is encouraged to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolish the death penalty, to commute the sentences of individuals currently on death row and to accede to the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

The UN Committee Against Torture is a body of 10 independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The United States signed the Convention in 1988 and ratified it in 1994.

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