Death penalty

  • April 22, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Ellen M. Unterwald, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology, and Director, Center for Substance Abuse Research, Temple University School of Medicine

    Imagine a hospital administering a drug protocol devised without consideration of its scientific properties, selected by individuals without medical training. It’s unthinkable, but in the state of Oklahoma, prison officials without any pharmaceutical or medical training selected a combination of drugs to cause death. They elected to use midazolam as the first drug in the state’s three-drug lethal injection protocol despite the fact that there is overwhelming scientific consensus, including among pharmacologists like myself, that midazolam is incapable of inducing a deep, coma-like unconsciousness characteristic of general anesthesia and required for a humane and constitutional execution.

    The upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case, Glossip v. Gross, addresses the use of midazolam in lethal injection executions. As a pharmacologist who studies drugs, I strongly believe the Supreme Court should prevent Oklahoma from using midazolam in lethal injection executions, and encourage states to base lethal injection protocols on all available scientific knowledge and research.

    The function of the first drug in Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection protocol is to ensure a prisoner is in a deep, coma-like unconsciousness prior to the injection of a paralytic agent to stop respiration and a third drug to induce cardiac arrest. Yet Oklahoma’s choice to use midazolam runs counter to the way that pharmacologists recognize that the drug works and counter to the way midazolam is used in the clinical setting by doctors. Glossip v. Gross will examine the constitutionality of this practice.

  • March 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sarah Hunger and Meredith Kincaid, Associates at Jones Day.  Jones Day represents The National Association of Black Veterans, Swords to Plowshares, Veterans Defense Project, and The Constitution Project in an amicus brief that the authors filed in support of Mr. Lockhart.  Mr. Lockhart is represented by Equal Justice Initiative.

    In 2010, an Alabama jury voted unanimously to spare the life of Courtney Lockhart, an Iraq war veteran facing the death penalty for a murder he committed while suffering from combat-related mental health issues.  Several months later, and upon consideration of evidence never shown to the jury, the elected judge overseeing Mr. Lockhart’s case sentenced him to death.

    In Alabama, the jury’s role at capital sentencing is merely advisory, and the imposition of the death penalty hinges upon specific, written findings of fact made by elected judges.  Under this regime, Alabama courts are empowered to make these factual findings “based upon information known only to the trial court and not to the jury.”  Adhering to this doctrine, Mr. Lockhart’s sentencing judge overrode the jury’s unanimous recommendation of life based upon information never presented to the jury, including evidence deemed inadmissible in a suppression hearing.

    In January, Mr. Lockhart filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court arguing that his death sentence, as well as the Alabama regime that authorizes it, violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments.  The Supreme Court’s review of this important and recurring issue is long overdue.  In the past decade, at least 28% of death row inmates in Alabama were sentenced via judicial override, and more than 100 inmates now sit on death row because of its use.  Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has not reviewed Alabama’s death penalty regime since 1995, well before it announced in Apprendi that the Sixth Amendment precludes judges from making findings that authorize an increase in the maximum punishment.

    Most notably, as Mr. Lockhart and amici assert, judicial override as practiced in Alabama deprives defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury by making the heightened punishment of death dependent upon judicially found facts.  This means, in other words, that Alabama defendants are not eligible for the death penalty until the trial judge makes sufficient findings of fact to support it – a remarkably clear-cut Apprendi violation.  Alabama’s death penalty regime, which gives judges the unilateral power to impose death sentences on individuals that juries have voted to spare, should no longer go unchecked.  The Court should grant Mr. Lockhart’s pending petition.

  • March 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jamie Hoag, Co-President of the ACS Boston Lawyer Chapter

    Almost two years after the Boston Marathon bombings, the trial of the accused bomber, Dzhokhar  Tsarnaev, is underway in a federal courthouse about two miles from the scene of the horrific events of that April day. 

    Tsarnaev was charged with 30 federal crimes, 17 of which carry a possible death sentence.  A lengthy jury selection process delayed the start of the trial, with approximately 1,350 individuals completing juror questionnaires.  The defense filed four motions to change the venue, arguing that the widespread pre-trial media coverage and universal emotional impact of the bombings made a fair – and constitutionally sound – trial impossible.  Each of these motions failed, and rightfully so.  Once it began, the trial took an unexpected turn when Tsarnaev’s attorney admitted her client’s guilt during opening statements, surprising everyone – except, hopefully, her client.  While the prosecution still has to prove its case, this trial is largely now about whether Tsarnaev will live or die.

    The defense’s efforts to move the trial and its recent admission of their client’s guilt raise several questions.  Would the defense lawyers have admitted guilt so quickly if the trial had been held in a different venue?  Likely so.  While, as noted, the defense unsuccessfully tried four times to have the trial relocated, it is highly likely that the focus would still have been on saving their client’s life, rather than arguing his innocence.  The burden is on the prosecution, of course, but the evidence against Tsarnaev is overwhelming, from a video showing him set the backpack containing the bomb near a crowd of marathon spectators to his identification by a victim who lost both of his legs.  Moving the trial from Massachusetts would not have lessened this evidence’s weight.

    In deciding to admit guilt, the defense team also likely had in mind research suggesting that jurors selected for death penalty cases are more prone to find guilt because the attention given to the sentencing phase during the pre-trial voir dire process suggests that there will be one.  If that research is accurate – a topic beyond the focus of this short post – that bias would exist in Baltimore as well as in Boston.  (Interestingly, in 2005 the Massachusetts Governors Council on Capital Punishment – commissioned by then-Governor Mitt Romney to consider ways to make the imposition of a state death penalty “as infallible . . . as humanly possible” – proposed in its report that separate juries be empanelled for the guilt and sentencing phases of a capital trial to address this potential bias.)  Given the evidence against their client, it is likely that the defense strategy to admit guilt and focus on saving their client’s life would have been the same if the trial was held hundreds of miles from the scene of the marathon tragedy.

  • February 10, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether America is now a “post-racial” society.  The introduction of the first non-white family into the White House was accompanied by some enthusiastic declarations of victory over the scourge of racism.  Observers looked to the president and to other successful minorities and decided that yes, racism is indeed over.

    But focusing on the most successful elements of any demographic group proves little, for wealth has the ability to elevate and to insulate.  One area where this is most evident is in the American criminal justice system.  When navigating the justice system, the ability to hire top-notch legal counsel or to post a significant bond drastically affects the outcome of a case.  This is true for both white citizens and for citizens of color.

    Unfortunately, however, racial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color.  There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

    The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system.  From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white.

  • January 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Eric Berger, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law

    The U.S. Supreme Court last week granted certiorari in Glossip v. Gross, in which plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure.  Glossip raises important questions about how the Eighth Amendment standard announced by the Court in 2008 in Baze v. Rees applies to experimental drug combinations.  However, the questions presented in Glossip do not directly address the crucial, related question of whether states must disclose their lethal injection procedures to inmate plaintiffs.  To this extent, the Court is putting the cart before the horse.

    Indeed, many death row inmates lack important information about the procedures with which the state plans to execute them.  The problem appears to be worsening as states increasingly conceal more details of their execution procedures.  Courts, for their part, usually reject inmates’ requests to learn this information. 

    In a recent law review article, I argue that these state practices and judicial responses are wrong.  To be sure, some execution procedures, upon closer examination, may be safe and constitutional, but some certainly are not, and courts have no way of distinguishing the safe from the dangerous without inquiring into the details of the procedure.  To this extent, courts have repeatedly blessed execution procedures about which they know virtually nothing.