2017-11-27 13:38:27 UTC
Houston: Ground zero for the death penalty----Study shows Harris County ismost
active in capital punishment, driven by district attorney choices
If Harris County were its own state, it would have a more active death chamber
than the entire country outside of Texas.
Of the 1,465 U.S. executions in the modern death penalty era, 125 have come
from Harris County, or roughly 8 %. The next-closest executioner is Dallas
County, with 55 death sentences carried out since the Supreme Court reinstated
the ultimate punishment in 1976.
Houston's reputation as ground zero for the death penalty, it seems, is
well-earned - even though prosecutors have been less apt to dole out capital
sentences in recent years.
While the numbers are stark, the reasons behind the Bayou City's apparent zeal
for capital punishment are less apparent. It's not driven by public support for
the practice. It's not driven by an unusually high crime rate, or by especially
So what is driving it? What sets apart jurisdictions that frequently turn to
That is one of the questions Frank Baumgartner and his co-authors explore in
"Deadly Justice," a numbers-heavy study of capital punishment released this
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political science professor took
some time this week to field questions from Chronicle reporter Keri Blakinger
about his new book and its implications in the Houston area. Here are excerpts
from the interview:
Q: Harris County is known as the capital of capital punishment - why is that?
Are Houstonians just more supportive of it?
A: Well, actually I would say two things. We got data from a Rice University
Houston-area poll, and it turns out the public opinion in Houston is less
supportive for the death penalty than in the rest of Texas. In general across
the country, we don't find any correlation between public opinion and
executions, and the reason for that is that if you don't support capital
punishment you're not allowed to sit on a jury.
The key driver in the system is the choices that district attorneys make,
because they start the process, and they get to pick and choose whether to seek
death. Looking at all 3,000 counties in the U.S., there are just a few counties
that have executed more than, say, 10 people - there's only 20 counties like
that - and it's really astounding that there would be so much concentration in
a few jurisdictions. There's really no rhyme or reason to it.
Q: It's not that Houston has more horrific crimes?
A: No, not at all. I think it's something about a local culture that develops
around the courthouse. Most counties never go there, but a few counties happen
to sucessfully carry through to the end a death sentence - and then when the
next really bad murder happens the prosecutors say, "Well this is just as bad
as that one where we sought death, so we kind of have to do it again this
Q: We hear a lot about botched executions; is this happening more than it used
to, and why aren't we seeing these botched executions in Texas? Or is it just a
matter of time?
A: Lethal injection is a medicalized procedure, but - in most states - no
doctors are allowed to participate, so I think it does lend itself to botches
in a way that other methods like firing squads or hangings did not.
But Texas has a lot more practice. So there have been fewer botches in Texas
because, I think, the teams in the corrections department are relatively in
practice. In carrying out 400 or 500 hundred executions, they've just done it a
Q: People always seem to express frustration over the length of the delays -
sometimes it's 20 years. Is Texas an outlier in this, or is this a pretty
normal time frame here?
A: The average as of 2015 is about 20 years delay from crime to execution, so
that's pretty shocking. There are three shockers. One is the extreme delay -
that's 20 years in solitary confinement. So it's 20 years of harsh punishment
followed by execution. The other shocker is that we only carry out 13 percent
of the death sentences. It's just astounding. And the third shocker is that
even when the governor signs a death warrant it's not usually carried out.
On average, those things are canceled.
Q: How are the questions and discussions around the use of the death penalty
A: The biggest change was in the 1990s: We started to pay serious attention to
the concept of innocence and whether there might be innocent people on death
row and whether we should celebrate it when we identify them and they're
exonerated, or if we should interpret that number as catastrophic.
The innocence argument has really shaken people's faith that you can count on
the government to get it right every single time.
Q: One of the topics that comes up a lot now - and has been written about a lot
- is one of your chapter titles: "Is the death penalty dying?" Is it?
A: I think it's in a stranglehold.
The system is so tied up in knots, partly because of the concern of executing
an innocent person. It's really hard to justify or have enthusiasm about a
system so dysfunctional as the current modern death penalty, even if you're a
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Ohio isn't rethinking lethal-injection protocol after failed execution
Despite 2 failed executions since 2009 and another that had severe problems,
Ohio officials say they do not plan to change the state's execution protocol,
and they're seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging it.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the condemned are examining whether to argue that the
latest failed execution adds to the evidence that Ohio can't legally carry out
capital punishment using its latest method.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a motion in federal court again last
week seeking the dismissal of a suit filed by scores of death-row inmates who
contend that the way the state conducts executions violates their
DeWine's move on Monday came 5 days after the execution of Alva Campbell was
called off about 30 minutes into the procedure because corrections officials
determined that they couldn't find 2 suitable veins for a lethal injection.
Corrections workers attempted to insert an IV 4 times before giving up.
Campbell, a twice-convicted killer, appeared to cry with relief.
It was only the 3rd time that a condemned man in the United States has left the
execution chamber alive. Another of the 3 times also was in Ohio - in 2009.
DeWine's request to dismiss the 13-year-old suit against the state also comes
after a 2014 execution resulted in Dennis McGuire struggling, choking and
gasping for more than 10 minutes before dying.
The lawsuit against the state on behalf of many of Ohio's death-row inmates
says that the way the state executes people violates a number of protections
under the U.S. Constitution, many of them tracking back to the Eighth
Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
"It's about whether we will, in essence, torture these men to death in the
process of killing them," said Allen Bohnert, the federal public defender who
is leading the litigation.
The suit doesn't seek to have the death penalty itself declared
unconstitutional; it seeks to have Ohio's method of carrying it out declared
A challenge for attorneys bringing the suit is that the Ohio Department of
Rehabilitation and Correction has changed its protocol and continued to carry
out executions while the suit is pending. That has forced the attorneys to
repeatedly amend their complaints, slowing the suit's progress.
In 2014, after manufacturers stopped selling some drugs in Ohio's three-drug
protocol, the state switched to an untested 2-drug cocktail for McGuire's
troubled execution. Executions that year in Oklahoma and Arizona that, like
Ohio, used the drug midazolam encountered similar problems.
Last year, Ohio again switched to a 3-drug protocol, but it continues to use
midazolam. Among the Ohio inmates' arguments in federal court is that
experimenting on them in that way with new execution drugs violates their
Such executions "constitute a human experiment without voluntary consent, using
unapproved investigational new drugs illegally compounded and dispensed by an
ethically compromised pharmacist, or unapproved, misbranded drugs manufactured
in substandard facilities and exported and illegally imported by ethically
compromised drug-source defendants, all in violation of the 14th Amendment,"
they say in their complaint.
In addition to the suit in U.S. District Court, attorneys have appealed the
cases of Campbell and Raymond Tibbetts, who is scheduled to die in February, to
the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, declined to comment
on ongoing litigation. But attorneys for the state, in their motion to dismiss,
cited an earlier ruling in the district-court case saying that just because a
"procedure has never before been used does not itself establish that the
procedure is cruel and unusual. ... Indeed, the development of increasingly
humane methods of execution is to be encouraged."
The Ohio execution statute requires "a lethal injection of a drug or
combination of drugs of sufficient dosage to quickly and painlessly cause
But in summing up the attempted execution of Romell Broom in 2009, the Ohio
Supreme Court acknowledged that he suffered pain as corrections workers stuck
needles into him 18 times over 2 hours. It describes a prison worker who
"struck bone" with one of the sticks, causing Broom to scream from the pain.
The account describes another member of the execution team "sweating profusely"
and rushing out of the death chamber saying "No."
However, the justices ruled that rescheduling Broom's execution would not
violate his rights, and the attorney general told the federal court last week
that the 11th Amendment prevents federal courts from telling their state
counterparts how to adjudicate state law. Citing case law, the state also
seemed to say that as long as it doesn't intentionally torture condemned
inmates in the death chamber, it can't violate their constitutional rights.
"The bottom line is this: (the state) cannot, as a matter of law, burden, much
less violate, Eighth Amendment rights by negligently deviating from required
execution procedures. 'Simply because an execution method may result in pain,
either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not
establish the sort of "objectively intolerable risk of harm" that qualifies as
cruel and unusual,'" the motion to dismiss says.
Bohnert said he and his team are assessing how Ohio's latest failed execution
fits into their case, the outcome of which is unclear.
"Sometimes it's really easy to see where things are going to go," he said.
"Sometimes, it's really hard. Right now, this is one of those times where it's
really hard to see."
(source: The Columbus Dispatch)
Layton lawmaker wants deeper look at Utah death penalty costs
A legislator is proposing an in-depth study of death penalty costs so the state
will have unambiguous answers at hand as Utah???s capital punishment debate
A bill filed by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, for the 2018 legislative session
would order research of all costs associated with the prosecution and execution
of a death penalty case and an expected 25 years of appeals. The data would be
compared with the costs of a capital murder convict serving life without
A legislative analyst in 2012 estimated a death penalty case cost $1.6 million
more. But Handy said the study was very limited and did not consider all costs.
Categories for the larger proposed study would include county and state
prosecution and defense costs, plus court, jail and prison expenses.
The new study "doesn't have to be pro or con death penalty," Handy said, "but
we hear in the Legislature that we should be making data-driven decisions.
Let's find out what it really costs, so when a (death penalty) bill comes up,
we will be informed."
Handy's proposal comes as Wasatch Front counties continue to wrestle with the
costs of death row appeals, such as Doug Lovell's ongoing battle against his
sentence in the 1985 murder of Joyce Yost of South Ogden.
Lovell's court-appointed attorney for his current death penalty appeal
squabbled with the Weber County Attorney's Office over his payments, leading
him to drop from the case last summer, according to previous coverage. Sam
Newton was paid $71,500 by the county to represent Lovell in 2016, according to
county financial records.
Newton's replacement, Colleen Coebergh, has a contract for $100,000 to maintain
Lovell's indigent defense.
As capital appeals continue, "There is a very high emotional cost to the
families and a cost to the taxpayers," said Dave Wilson, a Weber County deputy
attorney who helps coordinate public defender contracts.
The 2012 legislative study said more than 2/3 of a death penalty case's costs
are borne by the county government.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says 33 states and the federal Bureau of
Prisons held 2,881 inmates under death sentence at the end of 2015. Utah has 9
inmates on death row today, said Maria Peterson, Utah Department of Corrections
Handy said he realizes his request for a cost study may run against the grain
in the capital punishment-friendly Utah Legislature, which reinstated the
firing squad option for executions in 2015. Lawmakers also have rejected
periodic bills that aimed to drop the death penalty.
Most law enforcement officials support the death penalty, Handy said, recalling
an occasion when Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson "came at me like a house
afire" during a public discussion of capital punishment.
"People who are such ardent supporters, they don't care" about the costs, Handy
"But I look at it also as trying to adhere to mainstream conservatism," Handy
said. "This may not be the best use of hard-earned taxpayer dollars, with the
costs of education and social services growing exponentially."
The death penalty "is certainly no deterrent," Handy argued. He said he wonders
"what purpose it has, except for payback or from a vengeance standpoint now."
In an interview, Thompson challenged Handy's views.
"Nobody says, 'Gosh, I love the death penalty,'" Thompson said. "But it is
important for the most egregious offenses, when lives are taken, changed
forever, and people have to live without their loved ones."
Consider Charles Manson, the sheriff said.
California prosecutors secured a death sentence against Manson, but after the
California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty, the cult leader lived on
in prison for the murders he masterminded in 1969.
As a "moral, ethical" matter, "It would have been appropriate to have the death
penalty as part of the pending punishment," Thompson said.
"The costs associated with following through with the death penalty, in my
opinion, are irrelevant," the sheriff said.
Utah's abbreviated review in 2012 pegged the direct cost of an execution at the
Utah State Prison at $195,000. And, it said, "For every offender executed
before age 76, there is a projected $28,000 savings per year."
"There need to be some teeth in our laws for them to be effective," Thompson
said. "I truly believe the death penalty does deter, in many cases that we'll
Utah's death row
Michael Anthony Archuleta, 55, re-sentenced Dec. 21, 1989
Douglas Stewart Carter, 62, re-sentenced Jan. 27, 1992
Taberon Dave Honie, 42, sentenced May 20, 1999
Troy Michael Kell, 49, sentenced Aug. 8, 1996
Ronald Watson Lafferty, 76, re-sentenced April 23, 1996
Floyd Eugene Maestas, 60, sentenced Feb. 1, 2008
Ralph Leroy Menzies, 59, sentenced March 23, 1988
Von Lester Taylor, 53, sentenced May 24, 1991
Douglas Lovell, 59, re-sentenced May 4, 2015
[source: Utah Department of Corrections]
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