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Capital Punishment

California Governor Signs Executive Order Halting State Executions, Shuttering Death Chamber

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The 737 inmates on California’s largest-in-the-nation death row are getting a reprieve from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who plans to sign an executive order Wednesday placing a moratorium on executions.

Newsom also is withdrawing the lethal injection regulations that death penalty opponents already have tied up in courts and shuttering the new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison that has never been used.

“The intentional killing of another person is wrong and as governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual,” he said in prepared remarks.

Newsom called the death penalty “a failure” that “has discriminated against defendants who are mentally ill, black and brown, or can’t afford expensive legal representation.” He also said innocent people have been wrongly convicted and sometimes put to death.

California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. And though voters in 2016 narrowly approved a ballot measure to speed up the punishment, no condemned inmate faced imminent execution.

Since California’s last execution, its death row population has grown to house one of every four condemned inmates in the United States. They include Scott Peterson, whose trial for killing his wife Laci riveted the country, and Richard Davis, who kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas during a slumber party and strangled her.

Newsom “is usurping the express will of California voters and substituting his personal preferences via this hasty and ill-considered moratorium on the death penalty,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Deputy (Los Angeles County) District Attorneys.

While the governor’s move is certain to be challenged in court, aides say his power to grant reprieves is written into the state Constitution and that he is not altering any convictions or allowing any condemned inmate a chance at an early release.

A governor needs approval from the state Supreme Court to pardon or commute the sentence of anyone twice convicted of a felony, and the justices last year blocked several clemency requests by former Gov. Jerry Brown that did not involve condemned inmates.

Other governors also have enacted moratoriums. Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the first in 2000 and later was followed by Pennsylvania, Washington and Oregon. Illinois ultimately outlawed executions, as did Washington.

Newsom said the death penalty isn’t a deterrent, wastes taxpayer dollars and is flawed because it is “irreversible and irreparable in the event of human error.” It’s also costly — California has spent $5 billion since 1978 on its death row, he said.

More than six in 10 condemned California inmates are minorities, which his office cited as proof of racial disparities in who is sentenced to die. Since 1973, five California inmates who were sentenced to death were later exonerated, his office said.

Brown also opposed the death penalty, but his administration moved to restart executions after voters acted in 2016 to allow the use of a single lethal injection and speed up appeals. His administration’s regulations are stalled by challenges in both state and federal court, though those lawsuits may be halted now that Newsom is officially withdrawing the regulations.

Brown said he was satisfied with his record number of pardons and commutations, though he never attempted to commute a death sentence. He had focused on sweeping changes to criminal penalties and reducing the prison population.

“I’ve done what I want to do,” Brown said shortly before leaving office, defending his decision not to endorse death penalty repeal efforts in 2012 and 2016. “I’ve carved out my piece of all this.”

Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of Greenbrae plans to seek the two-thirds vote the Legislature requires to put another repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. Levine’s district includes San Quentin State Prison. A repeal question also was on the ballot in 2016 with the question to speed up executions. It lost by 7 points while the other question was approved by 2 points.

Newsom’s aides said it has not yet been decided what will become of the execution chamber, or whether corrections officials have been told to top preparing for executions, for instance by running drills.

Seventy-nine condemned California inmates have died of natural causes since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978. Another 26 committed suicide. California has executed 13 inmates, while two were executed in other states.

Newsom’s office said 25 condemned inmates have exhausted all of their appeals and could have faced execution if the courts approved the state’s new lethal injection method.

Read the signed executive order below:

Capital Punishment

US Supreme Court Will Not Consider Tennessee Death Row Inmate’s Appeal, Execution Will Occur Thursday Evening

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court won’t consider an appeal that could have delayed an upcoming Tennessee execution.


The appeal involves Tennessee’s midazolam-based lethal injection combination. Inmates claim in a lawsuit that the method causes excruciating pain.

The appeal doesn’t challenge lethal injection directly. Instead it challenges Tennessee secrecy laws surrounding the procurement of execution drugs. Inmates argue the laws prevented them from proving a more humane drug is available.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor agrees. In her dissent on Monday, she says the requirement that prisoners challenging one method of execution prove there is a better method available is “fundamentally wrong.” She adds that state secrecy laws compound the injustice.

Don Johnson is scheduled to be executed Thursday for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson.

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Capital Punishment

Texas State House OKs Death Penalty Ban For Severely Mentally Ill, Heads To Texas Senate

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Interior of the Texas death chamber. Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Republican-controlled Texas House has voted to ban the execution of inmates who are severely mentally ill in the nation’s busiest death-penalty state.


No lawmaker spoke in opposition of the bill Thursday. The legislation would amount to a rare weakening of Texas’ tough stance on capital punishment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled mentally disabled people are ineligible for execution, but that prohibition does not include those who are mentally ill.

Democratic state Rep. Toni Rose’s bill would take the death penalty off the table for people who had a severe mental illness, including schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder, at the time of the crime.

The bill passed 77-66 but could face tougher opposition in the Senate.

Rose urged her Republican colleagues before the vote to “be pro-life from womb to the tomb.”

For the second time in two weeks, the Texas House moved to change death penalty law.

On Wednesday, the chamber tentatively passed a measure that would prohibit handing down a death sentence to someone with a severe mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. House Bill 1936 by state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, would let capital murder defendants present evidence at trial that they were severely mentally ill at the time of the crime. If the jury agrees, the defendant would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if found guilty.

“When those offenders are under an active psychosis, that makes them unable to understand or be rational about the offense, so they should not be subjected to the death penalty,” Rose said on the House floor Thursday.

Rose’s bill would allow defendants with mental illness to be ineligible for the death penalty if they had schizophrenia, a schizoaffective disorder, or a bipolar disorder, and, at the time of the crime, had active psychotic symptoms that impaired the defendant’s rationality or understanding of the consequences of their actions. Rose brought a similar bill to the Legislature in 2017, but it never made it to the House floor for debate.

Last Monday, the House moved to create a pretrial process for determining if a capital murder defendant had an intellectual disability and, therefore, would be constitutionally ineligible for execution. Another bill was passed last month to clarify juror instructions in death penalty cases. Neither of those bills have made it out of Senate committees yet.

There is currently no law that restricts issuing a death sentence for mentally ill defendants, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held that inmates must be able to understand that they are about to be put to death — and why — to actually carry out executions.

The most well-known inmate with mental illness is Scott Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed his wife’s parents in 1992 and has lived on Texas’ death row for nearly a quarter century. At his trial, Panetti — who represented himself — dressed as a cowboy and tried to call witnesses such as the Pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ.

(Reporting by Associated Press and Texas Tribune)

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Capital Punishment

State of Arkansas Faces New Fight Over Sedative For Executions

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal lawsuit filed by death row inmates is renewing a court fight over a sedative Arkansas uses for lethal injections, two years after the state raced to put eight convicted killers to death before a batch of the drug expired.


The federal trial that begins Tuesday could impact Arkansas’ efforts to restart executions, which had been on hold due to a lack of lethal injection drugs. It’ll also be the latest in a series of legal battles over midazolam, a sedative that other states have moved away from amid claims it doesn’t render inmates fully unconscious during lethal injections.

Arkansas executed four inmates in 2017, after four others were halted by the courts. The trial is expected to revisit two of those executions that inmates’ attorneys say were problematic.

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