Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sunday news round-up

Leading off the news are developments this week in Connecticut. The issue of the geographic arbitrariness in the use of the death penalty threatens to shut down that state's death penalty regime. As the Courant notes:

Five of the state's top prosecutors - who usually ask the questions in court - were forced to answer them on the witness stand Friday as defense lawyers for a convicted murderer mounted a challenge to the constitutionality of the state's death penalty.

Compelled to testify by the state Supreme Court, the prosecutors appeared in Superior Court in Hartford to answer questions about how they decide whether to seek the death penalty. Seven more top prosecutors are scheduled to testify next month.. . .

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane and state's attorneys from four judicial districts all said they rely on the death penalty law - which spells out crimes for which the death penalty can be sought and factors that must be considered - plus the code of prosecutors' ethics.

Questioned by Ronald Gold, one of Campbell's lawyers, all five said their offices had no written standards or guidelines.

Campbell was convicted by a Superior Court jury in Hartford in 2004 of capital felony, murder and other charges in the killings of LaTaysha Logan and Desiree Privette and the wounding of Privette's aunt, Carolyn Privette, in Hartford.

Capital felony carries only two penalties - death or life in prison. The jury deadlocked when considering whether Campbell should be executed, and Judge Edward J. Mullarkey declared a mistrial in the penalty phase. A new jury will decide Campbell's penalty.

The only state's attorney not subpoenaed to testify was Hartford's James Thomas, whose office is prosecuting Campbell.

In Georgia the issue for some lawmakers is the death penalty on the cheap. Since a real defense costs real money, some state legislators appear to want to short-change indigent defense to solve a short-term budgetary problem. From the Savannah Morning News:

A Senate committee on Friday approved a package of bills that would change how the state's public defender system operates. Legislative leaders are frustrated about the program's money problems.The vote comes a day after the Fulton County judge overseeing the death-penalty trial for accused courthouse murderer Brian Nichols suspended the proceedings for a month because of the funding shortfall facing the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which administers the statewide indigent defense system.

The council's officials have asked lawmakers for $9.5 million in the state's midyear budget adjustment, saying they were promised the money to keep from running dry before the new budget year kicks in July 1.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Preston Smith, R-Rome, has been highly critical of the council's request - and what some lawmakers consider lax control over how the money is spent - and sponsored some of the bills that cleared his committee Friday.. . .

Smith also criticized the $1.2 million price tag so far for Nichols' defense that includes 4,000 hours of billed legal work and four attorneys working on the case.

The committee approved six bills dealing with the public defender council, which was set up three years ago to address concerns that Georgia was not providing enough funding to meet the U.S. Constitution guarantee of legal assistance for every defendant.. . .

Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, questioned [some of the proposed bills' attempt to[ politicize the process since public defenders can represent offenders in heinous crimes that local voters would prefer not to see defended - especially with their tax money.

"My concern is you put an elected official in a position to publicly attack a public defender, who's already doing a job that's already disdained by the community," he said.

In Florida the preliminary results of the lethal injection review committee have been released. From the NYT:

Death row inmates' consciousness should be monitored throughout executions and those administering lethal injections need additional training, according to a panel's preliminary recommendations released Saturday.The 11-member panel was assembled to review the state's death penalty procedures after a botched execution in December took twice as long as normal and required a rare second dose of deadly chemicals. Some witnesses said convicted killer Angel Nieves Diaz appeared to be in pain, and then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions.

Diaz's executioner testified that he hadn't received training in seven years, which most panelists acknowledged wasn't adequate.

But not all members of the commission agreed with the preliminary recommendations.

Dr. David Varlotta, an anesthesiologist, said executioners require advanced medical training, but an individual with such qualifications would be breaching their own profession's ethical code.

''The state doesn't require teachers and lawyers to perform tasks that are unethical,'' he said.

But Rodney Doss, director of victim services for the state Attorney General's Office, countered: ''Individuals who served as executioners when Florida had the electric chair as a means of executions didn't necessarily have to be electricians.''

From the St. Petersburg Times:

Perhaps most significantly, the panel will recommend that an execution team member check inmates to ensure they are unconscious from the first drug, a powerful sedative. The execution can continue only if the inmate is unconscious.

The team also must assure that the IV in the inmate's arm has not been compromised.

Experts told the panel over the last few weeks that needles in Diaz's arms likely tore through the veins.. . .

Other recommendations made by the panel include:

- That the execution team train and rehearse more with all members present. Testimony revealed that the executioner did not rehearse with the rest of the team and hadn't received any training in seven years.

- That two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents witness the execution, one from where the executioners are hidden and one from the witness room. The agents also should take notes.

- That the warden be in charge of the execution. Testimony revealed that though the warden said he was in charge, he deferred to medical staff and was not told of steps taken when Diaz's execution started to go wrong.

- That if one vein breaks, the execution team should start on another vein but return to the beginning of the drug cycle. During the Diaz execution, the team went to a second vein, but skipped the sedative, leaving Diaz potentially vulnerable to the suffocating effects of the second drug and an excruciating burning sensation from the third drug.

- At least one member of the execution team should speak the inmate's first language. None of the team members spoke Spanish, Diaz's native language.

Also in the news

  • Bucking national trends, the Utah state legislature has sent to that state's governor a bill that anyone convicted of murder in the death of a child younger than 14 would be eligible for the death penalty. [more here]
  • In Kentucky a Fayette County Circuit judge has granted a request by Thomas Clyde Bowling to do DNA test on a jacket, hat and thermos that were gathered after a 1990 homicide. This is the second time this year a Kentucky death row inmate has won the right to conduct DNA testing. [more here]*
  • The Houston Chronicle is looking at the case of Joseph Nichols and the question of whether it is fair for a nontriggerman to be executed, or, in the words of the story "2 shouldn't die over one bullet."
  • Human Rights Watch notes that earlier this week Saudi Arabia purportedly violated international law when it ordered the beheadings earlier this week of four Sri Lankan robbers -- none of whom had lawyers at their trial or sentencing -- and then left their headless bodies on public display in the capital of Riyadh.
  • Finally, and off topic, Cass Sunstein has an interesting piece in the Washington Post on wikis and how they "demonstrate society's unstoppable movement toward shared production of information, as diverse groups of people in multiple fields pool their knowledge and draw from each other's resources."

*Note that I have previously represented this individual.

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