The Death Penalty Blog

Actual death penalty abolition would be a lot cheaper than de facto moratorium

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on May 4th, 2011

After Governor Brown called off the construction of a new $356 million death row facility earlier this week, the Warden of San Quentin suggested that, at the earliest, it might be another year before the state beings executing inmates again. There have been no executions in California since 2006, when Judge Jeremy Fogel declared the moratorium. Fogel felt there was enough merit to concerns that the state’s lethal injection procedures might cause inmates unnecessary pain, and would thus be in violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Since that time the state has changed its procedure to better comport with Fogel’s demands. The Warden, however, wants time to train a new team of 20 executioners – a task that will likely take over a year. This move will extend the state’s de facto moratorium into its sixth year.

The move will also raise some questions about California’s fiscal priorities. For at least six years, California’s taxpayers will have been footing the bill for a death row that doesn’t execute anyone. It would be far cheaper for the state to simply make things official and become a death penalty free state. Since 1978, only 13 inmates on California’s death row have been executed, compared with the 78 deaths from other causes. Taking the program’s budget over the past 33 years into account, some simple arithmetic shows that California taxpayers have spent approximately $250m on each execution. When state universities are doubling tuition, teachers are being laid off, and police departments being downsized to the point where they can only respond to certain 911 calls, does it really make sense to drop this much money on a system that might, without hyperbole, actually be the most inefficient government-run program in the country?

States Engage in Lethal Injection Drug Trade

Posted by Zac Stone on April 22nd, 2011

States around the country that retain the death penalty have for months been struggling to procure the most commonly used anesthetic in lethal injections, sodium thiopental. Following a shortage in raw materials by the sole U.S. manufacturer and the company's subsequent departure from the thiopental market, corrections officials in a number of states have scrambled to find an appropriate replacement for the drug, with many states turning to pentobarbital and still others engaging in a bona fide barbiturate black market among various state corrections departments.

Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas have already adopted pentobarbital and used it, either in the place of thiopental in a three-drug lethal injection protocol, or in one large dose, as the drug has long been used to euthanize animals. In humans, pentobarbital is most often used to induce coma, generally in brain-damaged patients, and occasionally to stop seizures when other drugs are ineffective. Thus far it has been easier for states to acquire pentobarbital than thiopental, as it is still produced in the U.S., specifically at a plant in Kansas. The plant is owned by Denmark's Lundbeck A/S, however, which has gotten Denmark's foreign minister Lene Espersen involved.

Espersen said she has "no possibility to take direct action at American states' use of the product for executions," as it is not exported from within the country, but she has promised to contact those states using pentobarbital from Lundbeck's plant in Kansas through the Danish embassy in Washington, to urge them against using the company's products in lethal injections. Realistically, and regrettably, the chances of that making a difference are slim.

Among those states that have not switched to pentobarbital, many have created what the New York Times recently described as a "legally questionable swap club" around the existing American thiopental stocks. At least four states - Arkansas, Georgia, Arizona, and California - purchased thiopental from a sketchy British pharmaceutical supplier before the country banned its export for use in lethal injections. Now the states that beat the new British law have been supplying those whose stores are depleted. Wendy Kelley, a deputy director of Arkansas's corrections department, acknowledged in a deposition that her state had provided free thiopental to Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, saying, "As best as I'm aware, the agreement my director had with other directors, any time there was an exchange, was that there would be a payback when needed."

The Obama Administration has reacted to the situation in somewhat contradictory ways; the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Georgia's thiopental, which was imported from the U.K. without DEA oversight, while the Justice Department on Wednesday urged a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges states' abilities to purchase lethal injection drugs from overseas without FDA approval. The justice department's motion suggests that it is within the FDA's discretion to allow lethal injection drugs into the country without first inspecting them.

Surely that does not tell the whole story, though, as the DEA also appropriated Kentucky's and Tennessee's thiopental stocks earlier this month. California's thiopental reserves, also imported from the U.K., were lab tested after they arrived and were certified sufficiently potent, but unrelated lawsuits have kept inmates from being executed in California for the past five years, and will likely continue to do so for some time, though the state continues to spend millions prosecuting capital cases and sentencing inmates to death. Arizona used its thiopental in two recent executions in which both inmates kept their eyes open long after they should with an effective sedative, indicating they were not properly anesthetized before cardiac arrest was induced. Still, the state has scheduled the execution of Donald Edward Beaty for May 25th without making a single change to the lethal injection protocol, all but ensuring that yet another inmate will suffer extreme pain at the hands of the state, and corrections officials will again unwittingly be made into torturers. Changes must be made to avoid this lamentable outcome, and every legal channel ought to remain open to ensure states do not circumvent federal drug laws in a misguided rush to kill inmates.

Georgia Department of Corrections Illegally Imports Lethal Injection Drug

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 16th, 2011

Earlier this week we noted the mounting difficulty states are having procuring lethal injection drugs after pharmaceutical companies began deliberately pulling their products off the market to ensure they wouldn’t be used in executions. For Georgia this crisis escalated today when their cache of lethal injection drugs was raided by the DEA after allegations came to light that the Department of Corrections was possibly not in compliance with regulatory laws when it imported its shipment of the sedative thiopental.

Given the dwindling supply of the drug in response to the de facto drug company boycott, the Department of Corrections had to take extraordinary measures to procure it – contacting a foreign company directly to cut a deal. The Department wired the company $340.41 in exchange for 50 vials of the sedative, but neither party declared the shipment to the DEA, possibly violating the Federal Controlled Substance Act.

In a macabre way, it is almost comical how far out of our way we are willing to go to kill our inmates. Should we pause to reconsider the death penalty when nearly every drug company – the only entities that could stand to profit from an execution – cease producing thiopental in protest of capital punishment? Should we reconsider the death penalty after innocent inmates are exonerated? Or perhaps when the alternative punishment of life without parole achieves the same goals at a fraction the cost? On a certain level it is curious that, to some, the illegal importation of a schedule III drug from another country makes more sense than abolition.

Inmate Executed with Animal Drug

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on March 14th, 2011

Yesterday Ohio became the first state in history to execute a man using a drug normally reserved for animal euthanasia. Before this execution, states had traditionally employed a three injection cocktail that would anesthetize the inmate, stop his breathing, and then stop his heart. In January, however, the company that produced one of those crucial drugs announced it would cease distribution. Hospira, the drug manufacturer, publicly stated that it did not condone capital punishment, and that since it was impossible to ensure that its drugs would not be used in executions, it was pulling its product off the market entirely.

Ohio then sought alternatives, eventually deciding to abandon the three drug approach in favor of a single lethal dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital. This move, however, created a row with that drug’s manufacturer, H. Lundbeck: “It’s against everything we stand for,” a company spokesman said, “we invest and develop medicine with the aim of alleviating people’s burden. This is the direct opposite of that.”

The opposition to Baston’s execution didn’t stop there. Peter Mah, the son of Baston’s victim, publicly voiced his family’s opposition to the execution and capital punishment in general. Mah said that Baston’s execution will not bring back his father and will not alleviate his family’s suffering. The Mah family went even further, backing up their words with a formal request to the Ohio Parole Board that Baston’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. Their request was unanimously denied.

In death penalty cases at least someone is supposed to benefit from the execution. Here, however, it appears as though not a single individual came out ahead. The drug companies vehemently opposed the use of their products, the victim’s family actively tried to stop the execution, and the Bastons eventually lost a family member. Society would have been equally shielded from any future dangerousness if Baston had instead been sentenced to life without parole. From what I can tell, Ohio just spent millions of dollars to go out of its way to do something with no marginal benefit that no one wanted to do in the first place.

Oklahoma: State-sponsored murder-suicide repeats itself

Posted by Margo Schulter, Guest Blogger on February 24th, 2011

For the mass media, Oklahoma's December 16 execution of John David Duty was mainly notable for marking the first use of sodium pentobarbital, a drug often used in animal euthanasia, for the judicial homicide of a human being. The scarcity of the traditional execution drug sodium thiopental that led to this substitution is indeed newsworthy as it reflects the growing unwillingness of pharmaceutical firms and medical professionals to participate in executions, as well as the determination of abolitionist countries such as the United Kingdom and Italy to prevent the export or manufacture of such drugs for the purpose of state-sponsored killing.

However, the case of John David Duty is even more noteworthy because, like the case of Oklahoma prisoner James D. French who was executed in 1966, it is a textbook example of "suicide by execution," where a person commits murder in order to be executed. Far from "deterring" such murders, the prospect of suicide through state execution provides the main motive for the crime.

James French, the only prisoner executed in the US in 1966, had been convicted in 1958 of murdering a motorist, a crime motivated by a desire for suicide through execution, but received a life sentence instead. Then, on October 17, 1961, he strangled his cellmate Eddie Lee Shelton in order to secure his own death via Oklahoma's electric chair.

An interesting aspect of the case was the involvement of Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a psychiatrist at the University of Oklahoma Medical School who testified for the defense on the issue of French's possible insanity. This experience and others led West to become an eloquent opponent of the death penalty, pointing especially to the
murder-suicide syndrome and other brutalizing effects of state killing which actually serve to incite rather than deter murders.

Professor Katherine van Wormer at the University of Northern Iowa, like the late Dr. West, has found murder-suicide through execution to be a powerful argument against the death penalty. Indeed, there may be no sharp line between the indifference of many serial killers toward their own lives and those of their victims.
In fact, Dr. van Wormer's research indicates that the quest for suicide-by-execution which motivates killers such as French and Duty is often a solution to their own, failed attempts at suicide.

Like French, John David Duty was serving a life sentence, though his crime was not murder, but instead was a brutal combination of armed robbery, kidnapping, first degree rape, and shooting with intent to kill. Seeking an escape from serving his full sentence, Duty strangled his cellmate, Curtis Wise on December 13, 2001. He subsequently pled guilty to first degree murder, and requested the death penalty, waiving any presentation by his attorney of mitigating factors which might call for a sentence of life without parole.

While the prosecutor and courts of Oklahoma seemed quite ready to grant Duty his death wish, a powerful voice for life was the victim's mother, Mary Wise, who testified in the penalty phase for permanent imprisonment. Ms. Wise, like many families of murder victims, showed great courage in opposing the death penalty while seeking a higher justice for her son through Duty's proper punishment:

"I don't believe he ought to have a choice. I think he ought to sit in that cell and face those four walls and think about what he did for the rest of his natural-born life. And I hope and pray to God that you live to be 110 years old, because that's how long I want you to think about what you did."

Even the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in affirming what the trial judge termed a "textbook case for the death penalty," recognized that the official machinery of death was evidently being used as a tool for murder-suicide:

"Duty is a long time prison resident who sees death as a better alternative to life without parole. The killing of his cellmate was a tool for his desire to die. Although it seems that Duty is using the state to assist him in suicide, the death penalty is clearly indicated in this case despite Duty's personal wishes."

In fact, by becoming a partner to Duty's murder-suicide pact, the State of Oklahoma not only granted this killer his wish and provided an ongoing incentive to kill for prisoners or others who may wish to follow in the footsteps of French and Duty, but has also disregarded the wisdom of the victim's mother.
In doing so, Oklahoma has brought itself down to Duty's murderous level, providing us with a brutalizing demonstration of how violence begets violence.

The Duty case demonstrates the necessity of adopting permanent imprisonment as society's ultimate sanction. This would at once render suicide-through-execution obsolete as a motive for murder, while at the same time it would allow us to spend our resources making our streets and prisons more safe and secure, as well as offering more adequate assistance to families of murder victims like the courageous Mary Wise.

No more sodium thiopental from the United Kingdom

Posted by Sheila Michell, Guest Blogger from the UK on December 1st, 2010

As a British citizen I was relieved to read that our government plans to restrict the export of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic drug used in the three-drug lethal injection procedure commonly adopted in the US. Of course, I would have thought this action was a foregone conclusion, taking into account the EU guidelines and our own government's Death Penalty Strategy published in October 2010, which clearly states:

The United Kingdom opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle because we believe it undermines human dignity; there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value; and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.

It was also heartening to read that Archimedes Pharma, the only company manufacturing the drug in this country, welcomed the ruling that a license must be attained by any person or company attempting to export sodium thiopental.

Since the whole of Europe condemns the death penalty in principal, as laid out in EU Regulation 1236/2005, none of the European countries are in a position to ethically allow the exportation of sodium thiopental.

Unfortunately the drug had already been exported from the UK to Arizona, where it was used in the execution of Jeffrey Landrigan. Tennessee has also obtained supplies and apparently California is set to receive a consignment this week, enough to kill 86 inmates which is a horrendous thought. It is not known whether the newly adopted export ban will prevent this delivery.

This story has raised awareness over the issue of the death penalty, and may help the United States to realize that the world "out there" does care, and is prepared to take a stand.

The death penalty is outdated and I believe that individuals are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, not only through the execution process itself, but also as a result of the endless prevarication by the courts. Death row prisoners are given execution dates, taken through the preparatory procedures, only to have the execution delayed and rescheduled over and over again. The wait for death is agonizing.

Surely it is time for each state to consider abolishing the death penalty in favor of life without parole.

Execution will not go forward! Was the state's rush worth it?

Posted by California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty on September 29th, 2010

Following developments in federal and state court, the Attorney General conceded today that the execution scheduled to occur at 9:00 pm on September 30 will not go forward. The concession came just 30 hours before the scheduled execution. Yet legal experts had predicted for weeks that the execution would not occur due to the many remaining legal challenges and uncertainties regarding the state’s method of execution, lethal injection.

Unfortunately, in their rush to schedule an execution that was unlikely to take place, the state completely disregarded the harm to the victims.  Our sympathies go out to the family of Susan Jordan who was killed by Albert Brown nearly 30 years ago. They have been on a cruel legal rollercoaster for decades. We cannot imagine what the events of the last few weeks have been like for them.

For more on how the death penalty affects victims' families, read this brand new op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Rush to resume executions while a ban is in place hurts victims

Posted by Jessica Lewis, Guest Blogger on September 10th, 2010

Despite the fact that executions have been on hold in California for almost five years, it seems as though some government officials are still in denial or just a little too eager for the ban to be lifted and are prematurely trying to schedule execution dates.

On Tuesday, August 31, one day after death row prisoner Albert Greenwood Brown was given an execution date of September 29th, Marin County Superior Court Judge Verna Adams clarified that she had not lifted the current stay on executions, and that it would remain in effect "unless and until" she says otherwise.

Although new lethal injection procedures were created by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and submitted for public comment, the Judge has yet to determine if CDCR appropriately complied with the Administrative Procedures Act, meaning the ban on executions is still in full force. This hasn't stopped the Governor or the Attorney General from pushing to set more execution dates.

Although prison officials are preparing for Brown's execution at the end of the month as if it were to happen, they have states that if the judge's order is still in effect on the execution date, they will cancel the execution. Considering the long-standing stay on executions and the number of lawsuits that are still pending, it is unlikely that all legal issues will be resolved and the ban will be lifted in time for the execution - so why  rush to set execution dates before determining whether executions can legally be carried out?

Planning and then canceling an execution puts the victim's family on an emotional roller-coaster that makes the whole process significantly more difficult. It reopens the wounds and causes even more pain. The Governor and the Attorney General know that they can't legally carry out executions, so why are they making promises that they can't keep? By ignoring the negative impact of setting an unrealistic execution date, the needs of the victim's families are also ignored. Whether a date is set or not, the prisoners will remain on death row, so rushing to set a date that will probably not be carried out is not only pointless, but irresponsible and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Take action now: sign the petition.


Sign me up!
Optional Member Code
Get email alerts from DPF

E-Mail This Page
Printer Safe Version
Site Map