If there is a silver lining to the rushed—and botched—execution of Clayton Lockett last week in Oklahoma, it is the national soul searching that it ignited over the place of the death penalty in our society. The public post-mortem has appropriately spotlighted the means by which the state attempted to kill Lockett—the injection of a secretly procured drug cocktail that failed to put him to death in the “humane” manner intended, but instead caused him to writhe in agony for over half an hour before he died of a traumatic heart attack. But hidden in plain sight was another troubling dimension to the double execution Oklahoma had planned for that night, with the second now on hold. Both condemned men were black.
The mug shots of Lockett and the other condemned prisoner, Charles Warner, splashed across the front pages and screens of news outlets across the nation. They stared out at the viewer, expressionless, but not lifeless, bound to the same fate, and bound by race.
It is no secret that race infects the death penalty. In the landmark case of McCleskey v. Kemp, which involved a challenge to capital punishment in Georgia as racially biased, the Supreme Court in 1987 acknowledged that capital sentencing “appears to correlate with race.” In fact, the correlations drawn by a seminal study of the death penalty in that southern state were stark: among them, a defendant was 4.3 times more likely to draw the death penalty if the crime involved a white victim rather than a black one, and the racial combination most likely to result in the death penalty was a black defendant and white victim. The Court rejected the challenge in a deeply divided 5-4 ruling, accepting that “apparent disparities in sentencing are an inevitable part of our criminal justice system,” but reasoning that “the Constitution does not place totally unrealistic conditions on its use.”
America is finally starting to take its first small steps on the path to curing its decades-long addiction to mass incarceration. Recently, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, testified before the United States Sentencing Commission and called for reductions to federal sentences for certain drug offenses. In doing so, Attorney General Holder declared that “over-reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” a statement many of us—who for years have been raising the alarm bell about America’s mass incarceration problem—have long known to be true.
Attorney General Holder’s comments strike at the heart of the problem: mass incarceration has devastated African-American communities, families, and lives all around the country. Sustained changes to the policies and attitudes that created this epidemic, however, are the real key. In order for that change to happen, our nation’s moral orientation with mass incarceration and criminal justice will have to adjust accordingly.
At bottom, criminal justice reforms need to be driven by the moral imperative of repairing all that is wrong with the current system. As advocates for change, we must make sure that the reform narrative includes the human costs of mass incarceration and a broken criminal justice system, not just the concern over dollars and cents. The Moral Monday movement—a multi-issue, grassroots, multiracial campaign active in the courtroom, streets, and the ballot box—offers a salient example of how ethics and the lived experiences of real people can drive change and incite action. The movement shifted North Carolina’s political discourse toward morality while focusing on individual stories and the damage done to real people by real, and unjust, policies.
Oklahoma lawmakers sparked debate over the death penalty and provoked a much-needed discussion about the importance of impartial courts last week when one of two planned executions went horribly awry.
State officials, including Gov. Mary Fallin, pushed for the execution of two death row inmates even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court had stayed the executions arguing that more information was needed to determine whether the state’s new combination of drugs for killing death row inmates passed constitutional muster. That pressure led to the state supreme court lifting its stay and resulting in the bungled execution of Clayton D. Lockett. (Lockett died of a massive heart attack more han 40 minutes after state executioners attempted to kill him.) The second execution was temporarily put on hold.
In a piece for the Tulsa World, Joseph Thai, the Presidential Professor of Law and Watson Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, blasted lawmakers for working to keep the methods of execution secret.
“Though I am both a law professor and a lawyer, I write as an Oklahoma citizen and taxpayer. Our state executes more of its citizens per capita than any other state. Because Oklahoma imposes capital punishment on behalf of its citizens, and because its taxpayers bear the costs, the state must not shroud its executions from public scrutiny.”
Thai added that as “Oklahomans, we may disagree with each other – and with the rest of the country – on the morality, efficacy and fairness of the death penalty. But in a civilized society, hopefully we can all agree that, as long as our state puts human beings to death, it should do so without unnecessary pain and suffering.”
Yesterday, the Supreme Court considered what the Fourth Amendment requires when the police want to search an arrestee’s cell phone. The outcome will depend on how the Court applies an old rule to new technology—a challenge that is likely to recur in the years to come as smartphones, cloud computing and tools like license plate readers change both the way we store information and the government’s ability to collect and analyze it.
Before the police can search your home or property, they need a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement. One well-established exception is the so-called “search incident to lawful arrest” doctrine. This rule says that the police can search an arrestee without a warrant, simply on the basis of the arrest. The rationale for this exception is that an arrestee might have a weapon on them or try to destroy evidence after they’re arrested. Plus, because an arrestee is being taken into custody, she has a reduced expectation of privacy.
Until recently, this exception was relatively uncontroversial. It meant that the police could look through an arrestee’s pockets, wallet or purse for weapons, drugs or other evidence—something they would be very likely to do anyway while booking the person back at the station.
But how should this rule apply now that we carry our “entire lives on cell phones,” as Justice Kagan put it during oral argument? Should the government be able to rummage through the cell phone of every single person they arrest for hours or days without a warrant? Or, should a different rule apply to phones?
A week after the Oklahoma Supreme Court buckled under political pressure, state officials pushed ahead with a controversial execution method to be used on two death row inmates; one of those inmates suffered a grisly death by heart attack after the lethal injection failed to work effectively. After the botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett, detailed in this piece by The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, state officials temporarily halted the second planned execution.
ACS President Caroline Fredrickson blasted Oklahoma state lawmakers for interfering with the judicial process. Fredrickson said:
One of the fundamental tenets of our democracy, an independent court system that provides checks and balances on the other branches of government, was the victim of a politically motivated execution leading directly to this tragedy tonight. Had the Oklahoma Supreme Court been allowed to render an impartial ruling absent the governor's coercion and political pressure, the state would not have botched today's execution because it never would have taken place. This is sad commentary on the state of fair courts in Oklahoma.
A week ago, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the execution of two convicts so that the justices could evaluate the legality of the state's injection secrecy law. Just two days later, after Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin claimed she would not recognize an issue ordered by the state Supreme Court and members of the legislature threatened to recall the justices supporting a stay of execution, the Oklahoma high court bowed to pressure and said the executions could proceed.
The nationwide trend of politicizing state courts has accelerated in recent months, as large-spending outside groups have poured huge sums into previously apolitical state Supreme Court races. Now that politicization has cost a life.