2017-04-26 14:09:29 UTC
Missouri Supreme Court Denies Death Row Inmate's Appeal
The Missouri Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from a death row inmate
who claimed he was represented by ineffective lawyers during both his trial and
The court on Tuesday ruled 6-0 against Michael Tisius, who was convicted of
fatally shooting two Randolph County jailers in 2000 during a botched attempt
to free another inmate.
A lower court ruled that Tisius' trial counsel and appellate counsel were not
ineffective, as the inmate claimed. The Supreme Court agreed with the lower
court and ruled that Tisius failed to show a reasonable probability that he
would have avoided the death penalty if his lawyers had acted differently.
It wasn't clear if Tisius would appeal. A message left with his attorney was
not immediately returned.
(source: The Associated Press)
Keep executions on hold 'until significant reforms are accomplished,' Oklahoma
Death Penalty Review Commission says----Significant reforms are needed, study
A bipartisan private commission recommended on Tuesday that a court-ordered
stay on executions in Oklahoma remain in effect until "significant reforms" are
accomplished, citing concerns about resources available to those facing death
sentences and the faulty application of execution procedures.
The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission released its findings and nearly 4
dozen recommendations in a nearly 300-page report on a study of capital cases
from initial contact with police to the day defendants are put to death.
Former Gov. Brad Henry, who helped lead the effort, announced that the
commission unanimously recommended that the moratorium be extended due to what
he said were serious flaws in the way Oklahoma handles death-penalty cases. He
said the number of death-row exonerees from Oklahoma - 10, according to the
Death Penalty Information Center - was among his biggest worries, along with
the discovery of the limitations capital defendants have when presenting legal
"If you look at the various defense counsel organizations, whether it's (the
Oklahoma Indigent Defense System) or Oklahoma County or Tulsa County public
defenders, they are just overwhelmed with felony cases," Henry said. "They
don't have enough attorneys. They don't have the funding that they need,
especially in death-penalty cases, to hire investigators (or) to hire experts.
You have to decide whether you want to pay to do it right, and either you do or
Oklahoma has put more than 100 people to death in the modern era of capital
punishment, and according to commission member and trial lawyer Robert
Alexander, it's almost certain that at least 1 of them was innocent and
couldn't prove it because of financial reasons.
"Our report has found, 41 years (after the death penalty resumed), systemic
flaws in our death-penalty system," Alexander said. "Whenever there's a
systemic flaw in the system, any injustices that system could cause ... fall on
the people with the fewest resources to navigate that system."
The commission also noted that 2 forms of evidence - forensics and witness
identification - were determined to be among the most unreliable.
Henry said he came to the conclusion that the process as it stands needs to be
"overhauled" by policymakers, and he said there are good reasons for
conservatives to be concerned about the practice despite voters' November
decision to protect the death penalty in the state constitution with State
"What we all agreed on was that if you're going to have the death penalty, it
ought to be done right," Henry said of the commission. "It ought to be done in
a way that, as best we can, ensures no innocent person is ever put to death by
the state of Oklahoma."
Co-Chairman Andy Lester, a former federal magistrate, said the fact that an
execution is permanent makes it paramount that everyone involved be certain
that those on death row are in fact guilty and that they've received the best
possible legal aid.
"Nobody wants to execute an innocent person," he said. "If 1 of (the 10
exonerees) slipped through, just think how horrible that would be. It's bad
enough that somebody gets wrongfully convicted. It's possible to recreate a
life after a wrongful conviction, but it is not possible after a wrongful
Gov. Mary Fallin released a brief statement Tuesday evening after the report
was made public indicating that she's not yet well-versed on its contents.
"My office has not received a copy of the report, but my staff will obtain a
copy and review it," she said.
Issues with drugs highlighted
The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office requested a moratorium in October 2015
once it learned about issues with a lethal-injection drug used in the January
execution of Charles Warner and the scheduled execution of Richard Glossip.
Those mistakes occurred after Oklahoma received international attention for the
43-minute execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014.
A multicounty grand jury issued a highly critical report in May 2016 about the
handling of Glossip's and Warner's cases by multiple state agencies. The grand
jury recommended that the Department of Corrections overhaul its protocol yet
again but did not recommend any indictments.
An Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman told the Tulsa World on Friday
that it is still working on revising its protocol but declined to say what's
been done so far.
When asked about the drugs used by Oklahoma in the past, Henry said it appears
that the best practice is to use a 1-drug protocol with a barbiturate rather
than the 3-drug protocol featuring midazolam. The latter drug was the basis of
a federal lawsuit filed by death-row inmates over constitutionality concerns,
which resulted in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the inmates.
Nitrogen hypoxia, although approved as an alternate execution method last year,
wasn't detailed in the report because of the limited scientific literature on
Henry acknowledged the difficulty states have had finding a consistent supply
of lethal-injection drugs in recent years but said, "When you start compounding
drugs, there's just much more opportunity for serious issues to arise."
'When you start mixing multiple drugs in a so-called 'cocktail,' if you have a
3-drug protocol, that's 3 times the opportunity for something to go wrong," he
said. Of a 1-drug protocol, he said, "it's easier to acquire one controversial
drug than it is 3." He added that authorities should stay informed about
scientific advances in this area.
The report noted that Oklahoma has one of the most broad confidentiality
statutes, which keeps the supplier of its execution drugs a secret. Although
the commission said there are legitimate privacy concerns, it advocated for
improved transparency in the form of better documentation and reviews by DOC
"The commission did not recommend (naming the drug supplier) for fairly obvious
and straightforward reasons," Lester said. "We don't want to create a problem
for anyone legitimately operating a business and making that business have to
shut down, and that's what's happened in a number of situations."
(source: Tulsa World)
Oklahoma death penalty commission releases report
A bipartisan commission studying Oklahoma's death penalty released a study
Tuesday recommending the state continue its current moratorium on executions
"until significant reforms are made."
"As we studied this process, it became so clear to us that the death penalty
process has serious flaws," said former Gov. Brad Henry, a member of the
Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission.
"We were all disturbed by the volume and the seriousness of the flaws in
Oklahoma's capital punishment system," Henry said.
"This yearlong investigation led members to question whether the death penalty
can be administered in a way that insures that no innocent person is put to
Among the 46 recommendations was for the state to stop using a 3-drug method,
as it currently does, and go back to using a single barbiturate, such as
Pentobarbital has become increasingly hard to find for states administering the
death penalty, as the companies that manufacture the drug have moved in recent
years to block its use in executions. Midazolam, which was 1st used in Oklahoma
during the botched 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, has become controversial
but is widely used in execution states.
The commission proposed significant reforms to capital punishment trials,
including jury instruction and limits to certain types of testimony, changes to
the clemency process and new training for judges, attorneys and law officers
across the state.
Commission members expressed concern that innocent people could and likely have
faced execution in Oklahoma. Members urged state officials in all three
branches of the government to adopt their reforms before continuing with the
"Because, in the end, perfection is probably not attainable in this life, but
the difference with the death penalty is the finality," said University of
Oklahoma College of Law professor Maria Kolar, a commission member.
"And once an execution is imposed, it's over, and there's no sorries, and
there's no 'we made a mistake and we're sorry.'"
(source: The Oklahoman)
Death Penalty Review commission recommends extending current moratorium
The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission recommended extending the existing
moratorium on the death penalty Tuesday during a press conference held at the
Oklahoma State Capitol.
The group consisting of 11 members has worked for nearly a year-and-a-half to
study the Oklahoma Death Penalty system, before reaching this unanimous
"The commission did not come to this decision lightly, due to the volume and
seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma's capital punishment system, Commission
members recommend that the moratorium on executions be extended until
significant reforms are accomplished," said Commission Co-chair former Governor
According to reports, the Commission members say that those who are sentenced
to death should receive this sentence only after a fair process to ensure the
death penalty is deserved.
(source: Fox News)
Nebraska highlights the Catholic Church's struggle with the death penalty
Every few weeks, it seems, a news item about the death penalty appears in the
national media, often in the guise of tragic farce. A proposal is made in
Alabama to bring back firing squads. The state of Arizona wants to let the
condemned supply their own lethal injection drugs. Arkansas tries to execute 8
men in 10 days before its execution drugs expire. Nebraska upends political
expectations when its legislature bans the death penalty, but a year later
voters overwhelmingly choose to bring it back.
In the case of Nebraska, the Catholic Church put itself in the thick of the
debate. Its brief but robust campaign to maintain the ban on capital punishment
last year illuminated one of the church's most challenging tasks: promoting
Catholic social teaching in a way that actually changes society.
Trying to convince Catholics in Nebraska to oppose the death penalty involved
discussions around concepts like "prudential matter," "intrinsic evil" and
"non-negotiables." The campaign raised a question that comes up time and again
in Catholic circles: Can you "rank" moral principles, especially surrounding
the defense of life?
Can you "rank" moral principles, especially surrounding the defense of life?
It also raised questions about how the church advocates on a justice issue when
its teaching on that issue has evolved over time. Has the leadership of the
church failed over the years in educating the faithful on the entire swath of
its social doctrine? Is a Catholic obligated to adhere to every last teaching
of the church? Are there cases, in some places and at some times, where no
matter how ardently the church fights, the Catholic position has no chance?
In January 2015, State Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha filed a bill to abolish
the death penalty in Nebraska, the 21st time he had done so since 1976, when
the U.S. Supreme Court ended a moratorium on capital punishment.
Mr. Chambers is an iconic but controversial figure in Nebraska politics.
Usually clad in jeans and a black or gray sweatshirt cut off at the forearms,
the African-American legislator is seen by some as a heroic defender of the
poor and minorities, and by others as an anti-church, racially inflammatory
obstructionist. He may be both the most loathed and most admired politician in
the state. "He tells us the things we don't want to hear," said Father James
Novakowski of the Holy Spirit Church in North Platte, Neb. And over the past 40
years Mr. Chambers has been the state's unyielding voice in the wilderness for
ending the death penalty.
Last time around, on May 20, 2015, he finally succeeded in getting his repeal
measure through the state???s nonpartisan legislature, backed by a coalition of
conservative and liberal senators and assisted by the lobbying efforts of lay
Catholics and church officials. When Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, a
Catholic, vetoed the repeal, the legislature overrode him by 1 vote. The bill
became law, making national news, particularly because this was the 1st time
since 1973 that a "red state" had banned the death penalty.
But soon after, a group called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty ran a
successful petition drive to put the issue on the ballot for 2016. Governor
Ricketts put $300,000 of his own money into the effort to restore capital
punishment. Keeping the death penalty in Nebraska became one of his chief
The Church Goes All In
Catholics make up about 1/4 of Nebraska's population, and many death penalty
opponents felt they were key to defeating the referendum. The Nebraska church
put a wealth of resources into fighting to "retain the repeal," in the awkward
language of the campaign.
The state's Catholic Conference and the Catholic Mobilizing Network sent boxes
to all 237 parishes in the state; they included posters, pamphlets and
pre-recorded video messages from each bishop, along with guides for priests to
address the death penalty in homilies.
A social media campaign was launched. The bishops made radio spots and devoted
their personal columns in diocesan papers to the issue. The church sponsored a
group called Journey of Hope, led by the family members of murder victims. It
conducted a public education tour around the state discussing alternatives to
the death penalty.
Dave Zabolsky, a churchgoer at Omaha's Christ the King Parish, said he had
never seen such a single-minded mobilization of the church on any issue.
Alex Kelly, the Nebraska director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, said that
most parishes confirmed that they used the materials sent to them. "People were
responding well to it," he said, quoting priests who told him, "'The transition
to conversation about the death penalty was made easier for me. Can you send me
Yet one longtime activist against the death penalty, Marilyn Felion, said that
in more politically conservative parishes, lay Catholics had to push their
pastors to publicize the issue. "It was like pulling teeth," she said.
In more politically conservative parishes, lay Catholics had to push their
pastors to publicize the issue.
Father Tom Fangman, of St. Patrick's Church, in Elkhorn, Neb., reached out to
Governor Ricketts, with whom he had worked before on a program to fund
"I was really impressed that he called me [back] and said, 'Can we talk?',"
said Father Fangman. "And we ended up talking for an hour and 10 minutes. I
really appreciated that he wanted to hear what I said."
In the end, however, the governor was not swayed. Mr. Ricketts has cited the
teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, justice for families of
murder victims and the protection of corrections officers among his reasons for
wanting to maintain the death penalty. (When a request was made for an
interview in November the press office said the governor was too busy. The
governor's office did not respond to more recent requests for an interview.)
As pastor, Father Novakowski said he spoke about the issue nearly every week
during the campaign at his parish in North Platte, a farming, ranching and
railroad community in the middle of the state. "A few people would not be happy
when I would say things like, 'You can't leave your discipleship outside the
voting booth and pick it up on the way out,'" he said.
Though the use of the death penalty has declined in the United States, it still
retains majority support.
On Nov. 9, the campaign to bring back the death penalty won, 61 % to 39 %. In
some western counties, the referendum question won by a margin of 4 to 1. Death
penalty opponents carried only Lancaster County, which includes the state
capital of Lincoln.
Despite its flurry of activity in the months leading up to the election, Ms.
Felion and some other activists held the church partly accountable for the
result. Had the bishops made the issue more of a priority over the last several
years, they said, a stronger base of Catholics would have been developed to
resist the campaign to restore the death penalty.
One Omaha priest told me he felt as if the ministers of the church had "failed
Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, the
political advocacy arm of the church, said that over the years the conference
did "incredible work across the state to inform consciences."
The appeal of retribution
Why was the death penalty reinstated in such overwhelming fashion? Some cited a
lingering frontier justice, or the appeal of taking an eye for an eye; others
wondered whether the phrase "retain the repeal" was confusing for voters.
For Omaha resident Don Regan, who voted to restore the death penalty, the issue
was not only the death penalty's deterrence of crime, but what he learned from
his philosophy classes at Creighton University, a Jesuit school.
"The natural laws are pretty clear," he said, in their support of the ultimate
penalty. Additionally, the changing views of the church on the issue over the
years allows for differing opinions, he said.
Mr. Venzor, of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said that for many people, the
vote came down to "an intuitive natural sense of justice in its retributive
aspect." While most Nebraskans do not feel this way, he said, "Some folks have
an unhealthy sense of retributive justice, calling for blood."
For many people, the death penalty vote came down to "an intuitive natural
sense of justice in its retributive aspect."
Father Novakowski said one parishioner, after hearing his homilies against the
death penalty, did his own research on the internet and then told him, "I voted
against you." As a result of that, Father Novakowski said, he "preached that
when the internet becomes our bible, we're in trouble."
Recent prison riots, prison escapes and high-profile murders were also on
Nebraska voters' minds last November. One case, from 2014 involved a man named
Nikko Jenkins, who was let out on parole, committed a spree of murders and,
because of the temporary repeal, was spared the possibility of the death
Another factor was the extraordinary nature of the 2016 election. "The number
one cause or influence or failure was the fact that it was the presidential
cycle," said Mr. Kelly, of the Catholic Mobilizing Network. "There was so much
of the nation's attention going on politically at a national level."
The election was divided so clearly into 2 camps that all other causes were
swept up into one camp or the other. "With the issue like the death penalty, a
social justice issue," said Kelly, "if you're not for the death penalty you are
[seen as] a liberal social progressive."
There were no major polls indicating how the state's Catholics stood on the
issue, but given the lopsided result, it seems likely that a large number voted
to restore the death penalty. One reason may be that the church's approach to
teaching about an issue like capital punishment has been so complicated.
Pope Francis Doubles Down
In 1992 the Catholic church approved its 1st universal catechism in more than
four centuries. It included the traditional teaching that the death penalty was
allowed for the protection of public order. But by the time the final, official
edition in Latin came out in 1997, that teaching had been altered. The change
was influenced by John Paul II's 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae," which said
that, because of "steady improvements in the organization of the penal system,"
cases in which execution is an "absolute necessity" are "very rare, if not
Pope Benedict reaffirmed this church teaching, and Rome's stance against
capital punishment reached an apex with the papacy of Pope Francis. In the fall
of 2015, hestood in the well of the U.S. Congress and advocated for the
"abolition of the death penalty."
The church's stance against the death penalty covers all fronts. It is not a
deterrent, the argument goes, and public safety can be maintained without it.
In addition: our theologians' understanding of natural law has evolved over
time; mercy is the foundation of Christian life; the rehabilitation of
offenders should never be ruled out; and the default stance of all Christians
should be, quite simply, not to kill anyone. Furthermore, an execution may not
bring true closure to murder victims' families. (As Father Damian Zuerlein of
Omaha argues, what the family of a victim really wants is not "justice," but
their loved one back.)
Even the notion that the death penalty helps deter convicts from attacking
corrections officers has been challenged by researchers in an article in the
2107 edition of The Journal for the Study of Religion and Society. It declares
this is "essentially impossible to test, since a person who is deterred from a
crime remains undetectable. We have no way to know whether any inmates have
ever been deterred from killing in prison because they feared the death
Our theologians' understanding of natural law has evolved over time; the
default stance of all Christians should be, quite simply, not to kill anyone.
The journal goes on to point out how the death penalty can even be an incentive
for prison murders. Some inmates, faced with the prospects of thousands of days
in jail with no chance of parole, use the death penalty as incentive to murder,
receive the death penalty and end their misery. Death penalty opponents have
called this "suicide by governor."
Nevertheless, in spite of the church's sweeping opposition to capital
punishment, some officials in the church maintain there is still room for
debate on capital punishment. It can seem confounding.
A Prudential Matter
Omar F. A. Gutierrez, of the Office of Mission and Justice for the Archdiocese
of Omaha, said that an individual Catholic's discernment about the validity of
the death penalty "boils down to a hierarchy of issues." He said, "Benedict
talks of 'non-negotiables.' What are the intrinsic evils, to use the [U.S.
Catholic Conference of Bishops'] language, and what are more prudential
Whether people are even familiar with the term, "prudential matter" is what
makes space in the room for disagreement. Prudential matter, to put it
provocatively, is kind of like a way out for Catholics.
"When you're applying what the church teaches to a specific context," said Mr.
Gutierrez, "then it becomes a prudential matter, because when assessing the
specific context, the bishops may in fact have facts wrong.
"So, the principle isn't wrong, the teaching isn't wrong, but the application
in this specific context could be wrong."
The governor of Nebraska, for instance, may be aware of mitigating
circumstances, factors the church is not privy to, that make the death penalty
necessary in a given case. (For example, 1 mitigating circumstance may be
concern over the safety of corrections officers.) There is a crack of light,
according to discourse such as this, allowing the governor and other Catholics
to support capital punishment.
That does not mean Catholics can simply dismiss the church's teaching. "When
Catholics hear the word 'prudential,' left or right," said Gutierrez, "they
hear they don't have to pay attention to it. 'If it's a prudential issue, I can
ignore it.' And I get this on the left and right of the political spectrum.
'It's a personal decision.'"
But moral theologian Margaret Pfeil said it would be very difficult for a
Catholic to argue for the death penalty using prudential judgement as guided by
the formation of conscience: "Wouldn't a properly formed conscience have to
take seriously an encyclical ("Evangelium Vitae") and the revised catechism?"
She said it is difficult to imagine the arguments a Catholic could come up with
to oppose these 2 documents. "If the answer is "prudential judgement," she
said, "then the question is "Where is that judgement coming from," if not the
church's own teachings? 2What have people used to form their consciences?"
Deacon Al Aulner of Holy Family Church in Omaha grew up in the farming
community of Hastings, in central Nebraska. He was once a death penalty
supporter. For him, the death penalty went from becoming a prudential matter to
something that was not really up for debate. Mr. Aulner said that his
conversion on the issue took place over several years. "I fell in love with the
church and her teachings," he said. "She carries the teaching of Christ. If I
love Christ I have to follow the church's teachings."
The writing of John Paul II also influenced him: "With a lot of prayer, I came
to realize I needed to acquiesce whether I Iiked it or not.... I can't pick and
choose which teaching I am going to follow."
But few Catholics become deacons, not to mention deacons who engage in a
prayerful, reflective process of understanding church doctrine on thorny issues
like the death penalty.
According to some observers, the hierarchy of the American church has not made
it easy for Catholics to have the change of heart Mr. Aulner had. The ordinary
Catholic's failure to endorse the broad range of the church's social justice
positions is the result of a "self-inflicted wound" by the bishops, as one
priest put it.
In part, this is because of the very concept of "non-negotiables," those issues
on which a Catholic is obligated to follow the teachings of the church. The
phrase is repeatedly utilized by some Catholic leaders in relation to a few
issues - typically abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Naming only
these issues as "non-negotiable" becomes a clue for some Catholics that all
other issues are "negotiable," or far lesser social wrongs. They become matters
that the church has no real say in.
There is a similar case with another popular phrase in Catholic moral
discourse. Theologians such as Cathleen Kaveny argue that constantly employing
the term "intrinsic evil" - an act that by its very nature is always wrong -
also causes the marginalization of issues such as the death penalty. When a
moral offense does not attain the label "intrinsic evil," Catholics may assume
it has less weight and requires less moral discernment.
When a moral offense does not attain the label "intrinsic evil," Catholics may
assume it has less weight and requires less moral discernment.
This slicing up of moral questions and categories, so runs the critique, makes
it more difficult to convince pro-death-penalty Catholics that, as Mr.
Gutierrez puts it, the burden of proof is on them - that they need to explain
why they believe the death penalty is legitimate.
Arguing against the church for the necessity of the death penalty should be a
case that is difficult, if not impossible, for Catholics to make. But the very
language the church uses when talking about the death penalty can allow some
Catholics to feel they do not have to make that argument at all.
Priorities in the Dignity of Life
Embedded in this question of intrinsic evil and non-negotiables is a further
question about a "ranking" of pro-life issues.
In parts of Nebraska, for instance, the laser-like focus on the death penalty
was surprising for some people, said Mr.Kelly of the Catholic Mobilizing
Network. "We were hearing, 'Why are all of you focusing on the death penalty?
What about abortion?' It came off that all of a sudden we were backing off that
pro-life, anti-abortion identity."
In his homilies, Father Novakowski discussed the referendum in a way that tried
to reconcile both causes. "My parishes know that my stance on pro-life is to
know that God is the author of all life, from conception to natural death," he
said. "And that includes not having the right to take another life." In other
words, part and parcel of being pro-life means opposing the death penalty.
But this approach clashes with a ceaseless debate by activists in the Catholic
Church. There is a current in Catholic discourse that suggests the struggle to
end abortion gets diluted when people include other causes as part of the
"pro-life" stance. A priest at a Mass with a politically liberal congregation,
for instance, talks about protecting the unborn. Then he immediately reels off
a string of other "life" matters - securing health care, defending immigrants,
ending the death penalty. Is he trying to draw attention from the most heated
and divisive Catholic opinion of them all, one that might upset half the house?
Is he effectively burying the radioactive material of anti-abortion teaching?
On the other hand, identifying with the entire host of "life issues" is seen by
some as giving deeper credibility to the cause of those who fight on behalf of
"If you can't agree when life actually begins, then the substantial belief that
the death penalty is moral or unjust doesn't hold."
When working on the death penalty, said Mr. Kelly, it is important that the
church's position on "prime" life issues be made clear. "It's absolutely vital
to be able to begin with the understanding of when life begins," he said.
"That's why things like abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research...if you can't
agree when life actually begins, then the substantial belief that the death
penalty is moral or unjust doesn't hold."
Dave Zabolsky summed up the conventional Catholic approach to these moral
issues succinctly. "A life lost to the death penalty is tragic," he said. "A
life lost to abortion is evil, because they're innocent." He said he struggles
with the issue of whether the death penalty should be legal, but said that in
the end he agrees with the church's position.
Father Novakowski said he stresses Christian fundamentals. "It's not so much as
being against any [pro-life issues] or for them. It's about surrendering our
will to God's will and accepting that only God is the author of all life," he
said. Catholics cannot say they are pro-life, Novakowski said, if they are only
against abortion. In that case, he said, "You're partially pro-life. If
you???re pro-life you have to be all of the above."
But even if the universal church revamped its entire way of talking about
justice issues, and even if the Nebraska bishops had worked tirelessly for
years educating the faithful about capital punishment, little might have
changed with the Catholic vote last November. The days of the people in the
pews doing exactly what their priest tells them are long gone. With regard to
religious authority today, the exercise of free will is more alive than ever.
Then there is Ernie Chambers, who does not believe in God, has no use for
organized religion and declared that white people are the devil. ("Now, when I
say this, I don't mean all white people," he told me.)
But Mr. Chambers simply believes the death penalty is wrong. He admitted that
his position took root in the church he grew up in, "which I've outgrown," he
said. For him, the prudential matter boils down to 1 thing: "I've never
believed that the state should kill anybody."
On Jan. 17, Mr. Chambers introduced a new bill to the state legislature, his
23rd, to end capital punishment in Nebraska. A hearing took place on March 24.
It is not expected to come up for debate before June 2, when the session ends.
In the meantime, a bill was advanced out of committee that would allow the
Nebraska Department of Corrections to hide the identities of lethal injection
suppliers. It is supported by the governor.
(source: Joseph P. Hoover, S.J., americamagazine.com)
New issue in executions: Should the death chamber be silent?
The nation's 1st double execution in more than 16 years raised a new issue
involving transparency and the death penalty: Should witnesses be allowed to
hear what goes on in the death chamber?
A lawyer who watched Monday's executions in Arkansas said he saw an inmate open
his mouth several times when it should have been still, prompting another
lawyer to claim in a court filing that Jack Jones was gulping for air after
being given a sedative, the 1st component of a lethal injection. Other
witnesses did not see it the same way. An open microphone could have settled
When the 2 convicted murderers were put to death, the 20 or so witnesses heard
only what Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley wanted them to hear.
A spokesman for the Arkansas prison system, Solomon Graves, said he inherited a
policy that limits what can be heard from the death chamber. The standard
procedure has been to turn off a microphone inside the 18-by-12-foot chamber
after an inmate's last statement and turn it on again for the official
pronouncement of death. Several other states have similar policies.
"There is no legitimate reason to turn off the sound," said Robert Dunham,
executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes
capital punishment. "If you're going to have public oversight and the witnesses
are going to be able to do their jobs to determine whether the execution was
carried out in a competent manner, if there's something unanticipated that
happens, the way you tell is by what people say."
Because the microphone was off during Monday's 1st execution, witnesses
disagreed on whether Jack Jones was struggling for air after being given 500
milligrams of midazolam. A lawyer who believed he saw Jones moving his mouth
testified in a late-night court hearing Monday on whether a stay should be
given to Marcel Williams, the 2nd inmate killed Monday night, to avoid
inflicting a "tortuous" death. A judge rejected his plea.
Williams, who weighed 400 pounds, probably needed a 2nd 500 milligram dose of
midazolam. An attendant could be seen mouthing the words "I'm not sure" after
checking Williams" consciousness 5 minutes into the night's 2nd execution.
Arkansas' protocol requires that the inmate receive a 2nd dose of midazolam if
the 1st does not render him sufficiently unconscious.
Texas, which has executed the most prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court
reauthorized the death penalty in 1976, does not shut off the audio in the
At Huntsville, Texas, in the 1980s, there was no glass wall separating the
witnesses from the condemned, though at times it was difficult to hear if the
prisoner mumbled or spoke softly. Plexiglass was put up after an intravenous
line popped out and began to spurt toward witnesses during a December 1988
execution, but it's been a given that the witnesses should see and hear what is
Witnesses in the other states are often close enough to the chamber that they
can hear through the glass wall without any help from a microphone.
Kelly Gissendaner sang "Amazing Grace" from the gurney in Georgia in a voice
loud enough for witnesses to listen. Other prisoners have moved their lips as
if they were speaking or praying. In Florida's death chamber, an air
conditioner runs so loudly that it???s difficult to hear noises with the
microphone off. An inmate in Alabama could be heard coughing for 13 minutes in
his December execution, even without a microphone.
Associated Press witnesses in Arizona and Ohio said they could hear inmates
breathe heavily, snore or snort during lengthy executions, and a lawyer at
Joseph Wood's execution in Arizona in 2014 said the inmate could be heard
particularly when a microphone was on during periodic updates.
"The gasping and gulping sounded like a freight train," said Dale Baich, an
assistant federal public defender who witnessed the execution.
Oklahoma left its microphone open until the execution of Clayton Lockett, who
struggled against his restraints before dying. The state now turns off the mic
after an inmate's final statement.
Secrecy runs throughout Arkansas' capital punishment system, with strict rules
to protect the identity of prison staff members, drug suppliers and others.
Witnesses are not allowed to see workers place intravenous lines in the inmates
- a process that the prison log said took 8 minutes for Jones and 40 for
Williams Monday night - because that would expose members of the execution
Legislators adopted those rules out of fear that those who take part in lethal
injections could be subject to personal or financial risks. They also wanted to
safeguard the identity of drug suppliers to ease the state's ability to obtain
components of the lethal injection.
The Associated Press in 2015 was able to use packaging materials to identify
drug manufacturers whose products would be used, prompting them to complain.
One drug supplier stepped forward this month to say a Department of Correction
deputy had duped the company into supplying vecuronium bromide for executions
last year. This year, a company intervened in a federal lawsuit after learning
Arkansas intended to use potassium chloride it had produced.
The 1st drug shuts down a prisoner's lungs, the 2nd stops the heart.
The state has put 3 inmates to death since April 20 in its 1st executions since
2005. Another man is scheduled to be executed Thursday. The accelerated
execution schedule was prompted by the fact that Arkansas' current stock of
midazolam expires at the end of the month. The prison system has said it has no
(source: Associated Press)
Thomas Edison, the electric chair and a botched execution: A death penalty
To understand the gruesome history of the death penalty, it is essential to
comprehend how badly inventor Thomas Edison wanted to zap his nemesis George
Their rivalry was literally electric.
Westinghouse was a purveyor of alternating-current voltage - AC. Edison
developed direct-current voltage - DC. A very loud, very long-haired Australian
band would a century later insert a lightning bolt in the middle of those
letters, calling itself AC/DC.
But back to the 1890s.
Edison and Westinghouse, each trying to win lucrative electricity contracts,
were fighting over which current was safer. This was a crucial marketing detail
given that the general public's familiarity with electricity was limited to
What happened next makes the cage match between Apple and Google seem like a
game of gin rummy.
Just as the 2 inventors were battling, a dentist in Buffalo named Alfred
Southwick heard about a drunk man dying instantly after touching a generator,
according to "The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History," by Craig
A commission in New York had been contemplating replacing hangings with
electrocution. (A similar shift would take place a century later as states such
as Arkansas, which carried out back-to-back executions Monday, adopted lethal
injection as the preferred method of capital punishment.)
Southwick thought that executing prisoners with electricity would be more
humane than messy hangings. He tested his theory by electrocuting stray animals
On Nov. 8, 1887, Southwick sent Edison a letter about his findings, asking how
best to electrocute humans.
The Wizard of Menlo Park wrote back, saying he abhorred the idea and would
"join heartily in an effort to abolish capital punishment," according to
Southwick, apparently a very persistent dentist, wrote Edison again a month
later. This time, Edison had a different answer.
"The most suitable apparatus for this purpose is that class of dynamo-electric
machinery which employs intermittent currents," Edison wrote. "The most
effective of these are known as 'alternating machines' manufactured principally
in this country by Geo. Westinghouse."
Edison's logic was twisted, barbaric and possibly brilliant: If he could
convince the world that Westinghouse's alternating current was a swift and
efficient killer, his method would be seen as safer, increasing his market
"The electric chair's midwife was greed," Brandon wrote, "the kind of pure,
unadulterated greed for which the Gilded Age was famous."
This episode led to New York adopting the electric chair as its tool of death.
Edison made sure that Westinghouse's alternating current was chosen by secretly
funding another electricity engineer to quickly build the device.
The 1st victim: William Kemmler, a drunk who killed his common-law wife with a
hatchet. Westinghouse hired Kemmler the best attorney he could find, even
taking the case to the Supreme Court, which declined to overturn his death
On August 6, 1890, before the sun rose, Kemmler woke up in his cell, put on a
suit and laced up a pair of polished shoes. The warden led him to a crowded
room where an empty oak chair awaited him.
"Gentlemen, I wish everyone all the good luck in the world," Kemmler said,
according to newspaper accounts. "I believe I am going to a good place. The
papers have been saying a lot of stuff that ain't so. That's all I have to
The warden strapped Kemmler in, attaching electrodes to his head.
"Goodbye, William," he said.
Then he motioned for someone to flip the switch.
"His shoulders slowly drew up as they sometimes do in the case of a man who is
hanging," a coroner later wrote.
17 seconds later, 2 physicians determined that Kemmler was dead. The current
was turned off. The room was silent.
And then someone yelled, "Great God, he is alive!"
Kemmler was breathing. His heart was beating.
"Turn on the current!" someone else shouted.
4 minutes later, Kemmler was really dead. His body took several hours to cool
off. Newspapers called him the "poor wretch."
Westinghouse was horrified.
"They could have done a better job with an ax," he told reporters, according to
several books on the death penalty.
Edison was more optimistic.
The excitement, he said, caused "some bungling."
"I think when the next man is placed in the chair to suffer the death penalty,"
he said, "that death will be accomplished instantly."
Edison also offered some advice.
"The better way is to place the hands in jars of water," he said. "And let the
current be turned on there."
(source: Washington Post)
Death penalty cases said to have 'enormous complexity'
With death penalty cases making headlines in Arkansas, California and Alabama,
pastors in the affected states have expressed diverse views on capital
punishment while underscoring the "enormous complexity" of the issue.
In Arkansas, 3 convicted murderers -- Jack Jones, Marcel Williams and Ledell
Lee -- have been executed in the past week, according to media reports, with
Kenneth Williams scheduled to die April 27. Originally, the state sought to
execute 8 inmates before a sedative used in its lethal injection process
expired at the end of the month. 4 of the executions are on hold as inmates'
final appeals are considered.
California, which has not executed anyone in 11 years, "could come close to
resuming executions in the next year," according to an Associated Press report.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday (April 24) in an
Alabama death row case hinging on whether the state must provide defendants
with mental health experts to assist in their defenses.
Amid the flurry of capital punishment news, Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd issued
a blog post April 24 noting "10 biblical realities to consider about capital
punishment." Among his arguments:
-- "According to Scripture, capital punishment is permissible if the evidence
about the accused is more than clear, overwhelming, and just. (Genesis 9:6;
-- "The justice system must be equitable and just regardless of race, class,
or culture. (Deuteronomy 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17; Leviticus 19:14)";
-- "Every person should always be treated with the highest dignity, including
those who receive capital punishment, by administering it in the most
benevolent way possible. (Genesis 1:27)";
-- "Eternal salvation is possible for anyone awaiting capital punishment,
through their personal repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ and Him
alone. (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 10:9-13)"
The "simplicity and clarity" of a brief list of principles "does not diminish
the enormous complexity of this issue," wrote Floyd, immediate past SBC
president and pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas. "As we wrestle
through this issue, we do so with humility and honesty, not with arrogance or
judgment toward anyone."
Speculation that California could resume executions was prompted by the
approach of an April 26 court-ordered deadline for corrections officials to
submit revised lethal injection rules to state regulators. The deadline was
imposed in response to a request by families of murder victims angered at
California's 3-year delay in issuing revisions and the resultant delay in
executions, according to AP.
The proposed rules call for lethal drugs to be administered a maximum of 5
times in 10-minute intervals. If an inmate is still alive after 5 lethal doses,
his or her execution will be halted and medical assistance summoned, AP
In a related case, the California Supreme Court is scheduled to rule by August
on challenges to a 2016 ballot initiative in which voters called for speeding
up the death penalty process by a 51-percent majority.
Miguel Rodriguez, director of Gateway Seminary's North Bay School of Theology
for inmates at San Quentin State Prison, told Baptist Press the restart of
executions would be a "negative" development. San Quentin, located some 8 miles
north of Gateway's former main campus in Mill Valley, Calif., is the site of
California's death chamber.
"The biblical argument [for capital punishment] is based on the Old Testament
largely," said Rodriguez, pastor of Lincoln Hill Community Church in San
Rafael, Calif. Jesus "challenged" the "eye for eye" approach to justice and
urged His followers to respond "to violence in a nonviolent way."
While "the state is the instrument of God in carrying out justice," Rodriguez
said, referencing Romans 13:4, some calls for capital punishment seem to be
based on "vengeance rather than justice." Executing criminals will not yield
"restorative justice," he said.
At oral arguments in the Alabama case, the U.S. Supreme Court's nine justices
"appeared closely divided," according to NPR, with Justice Anthony Kennedy
appearing "likely to cast the deciding vote."
At issue is whether James McWilliams, a convicted murderer with alleged mental
health challenges, was entitled to his own psychiatric expert at sentencing or
whether a single court-appointed mental health expert could provide evidence
and conclusions for both sides.
Justice Stephen Breyer of the court's liberal bloc argued McWilliams "certainly
did not get" the legal help required by law while Justice Neil Gorsuch of the
court's conservative wing suggested requiring a separate state-appointed
defense expert could lead to a slippery slope of requirements for other types
of expert witnesses, NPR reported.
Since McWilliams' sentencing, Alabama has begun assisting defendants with
mental health experts, but the state argued his sentence need not be
overturned, according to NPR.
The SBC, speaking in a 2000 resolution, "urge[d] that capital punishment be
administered only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and
overwhelming evidence of guilt." The resolution said capital punishment is "a
legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts
that result in death" and called for "vigilance, justice, and equality in the
criminal justice system."
(source: David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the
Southern Baptist Convention's news service----bpnews.net)
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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