Death penalty

  • July 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, and Lee KovarskyProfessor of Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

    *This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

    Monday, the Supreme Court Justices delivered their oral opinion summaries in the Term's high-profile death penalty decision, Glossip v. Gross. Rather than reading from his concurring opinion or from a prepared statement, Justice Antonin Scalia -- still frazzled from release of the same-sex marriage cases -- appeared to be improvising. He accused Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of expressing personal "policy preferences," and added that the "two justices are willing to kill the death penalty outright rather than just pecking it to death." Why the defensiveness and outrage?

    Glossip was a 5-4 victory for death penalty states, which retained leeway to use new and untested lethal-injection "cocktails." Scalia was part of the majority but he sounded strangely like he was uttering last words. Justice Samuel Alito's presentation of the majority opinion was also unusually defensive and hostile to the dissenters. Justice Alito insists it is "settled that the death penalty is constitutional." In a career-defining dissent, Justice Breyer showed just how unsettled the American death penalty remains.

    The precise legal question in Glossip was whether states could use midazolam as the anesthetic in a three-drug legal-injection cocktail. For years, states used sodium thiopental, until suppliers stopped selling it for use in executions. Many states turned to pentobarbital, which also became difficult to obtain. Oklahoma turned to midazolam, considered more of an anti-anxiety medication than an anesthetic. After several "botched" executions, the Supreme Court agreed to hear whether improvements to Oklahoma's cocktail -- including a 400 percent increase the midazolam dosage -- satisfied the Eighth Amendment. Holding that it did, the Court seemed to announce a rule that an execution could not be Cruel and Unusual under the Eighth Amendment unless there is a "known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain." Justice Sotomayor dissented, calling this a "surreal" endorsement of inhumane "human experimentation."

    Justice Breyer did more. Joined by Justice Ginsburg, he wrote a dissent arguing that the death penalty is flat out unconstitutional, and he characteristically loaded his opinion with empirical data. In doing so, Breyer and Ginsburg joined the ranks of predecessors such as John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun who, in their later years on the Court, declared they no longer believed that there exists a constitutional way to administer capital sentences. In 1994, an 85 year-old Blackmun penned a memorable single-Justice dissent swearing off his participation in capital process: "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." For Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, the death penalty cannot escape a dilemma's horns -- the procedural protections necessary to make the penalty reliable mean that the process takes so long that it no longer serves its retributive or deterrent purposes.

  • May 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by M. Gregg Bloche, M.D., professor of law at Georgetown and author of The Hippocratic Myth.

    Credit the State of Utah for bringing back the firing squad.

    Two months ago, the state made the rifleman its method of killing when lethal drugs aren’t available. Health professionals and drug companies are saying “no” to participation in executions, and this spring, the trade association representing America’s pharmacists said it would “discourage” them from purveying their own lethal drug mixes on death row.

    So-called “compounding pharmacies” became death-row suppliers of last resort after Big Pharma got out of the execution business.  Not anymore, unless some pharmacists go rogue by defying their trade body.  Executioners around the country are now scrambling to secure drugs that kill, and they’re experimenting with unproven alternatives to the classic, three-drug fatal sequence.

    Death by chemistry emerged almost 40 years ago as a response to our contradictory expectations of capital punishment. As crime rates soared in the late seventies and early eighties, so did our retributive ire. America re-embraced the death penalty, ending a ten-year moratorium, when a Utah firing squad shot Gary Gilmore in January 1977.

    But we wanted to make the killing “humane.” Less than four months later, Oklahoma enacted the first lethal injection law, based on a protocol developed by a doctor. In the 1980s, as executions again became commonplace, the Oklahoma protocol became the prevailing method.

    Medical associations took stands against their members’ participation, but states readily found health professionals willing to flout Hippocratic prohibitions. Some corrections departments kept doctors’ names secret, paid them in cash, and otherwise hid their involvement. State-sanctioned medical killing on the down-low thus became routine.

  • 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.