Sunday, April 29, 2007

Easy like Sunday morning: news roundup

Amnesty International is reporting that executions are down dramatically globally:

The number of executions worldwide fell from 2,148 in 2005 to 1,591 in 2006, a drop of more than 25 percent, Amnesty International (AI) revealed today in its annual report on global death penalty statistics.

In 2006, 91 percent of all known executions took place in China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and the United States. AI recorded more than 1,000 executions in China in 2006, but figures on the use of the death penalty are a state secret in China and the true number is believed to be as high as 8,000. Iran executed at least 177 people, Pakistan at least 82, Iraq and Sudan each at least 65, and the United States 53.

In 1977, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. In 2006, the Philippines became the latest country to join the 99 that have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Many more, including South Korea, stand on the brink of abolition.

In Africa, only six countries carried out executions in 2006. Belarus is the only country that continues to use the death penalty in Europe. The United States is the only country in the Americas to have carried out any executions since 2003.

"2006 gave us cause to be optimistic about the prospect ultimately of global abolition," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Around the world and here at home, there have been increasingly vocal calls to end the death penalty, and lawmakers are finally listening.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down three death sentences from Texas with as many as 42 more to follow. From Associated Content:

The ruling 5-4 stated that the courts reviewing the cases failed to follow the guidance of the high court. Both the New Orleans based 5th circuit court and the Texas Court of Appeals incorrectly analyzed "whether faulty jury instructions prevented Texas jurors from considering migrating evidence that might have persuaded them to spare the men from execution," as reported by the Houston Chronicle, Washington Bureau. The three men involved were Jalil-Abdul-Kabir, Brent Brewer, and LaRoyce Smith.

Evidently instructions to the jurors to weigh migrating evidence about the defendant, such as low intelligence, mental illness, or childhood abuse, had not been used in Texas courts since 1991, but had been used in many current death row trials. It is estimated that between 50-70 death row cases will be affected by this ruling. Each case will be handled and reviewed, and some cases could eventually be thrown out and new sentencing trials ordered.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Washington Bureau, both The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and the 5th Circuit had been warned by The Supreme Court to follow guidelines especially in death row cases challenging jury instructions. Texas judges had begun using their own instructions such as telling jurors "if they thought there was any migrating evidence that warranted sparing the killers life, they could simply change one of their 'yes" answers to "no," meaning the defendant would receive the death sentence.

Texas is the leading state in executions, and has been know to be called "the killing state" by death row advocates. Twelve inmates have been executed so far this year and some of those cases are from the time era involved in this issue. Texas has passed their own version of "Jessica's Law" which includes the posable death sentence for sex predators who rape children under the age of 14 more than once.

The Tennessean this morning calls for Gov. Phil Bresden to continue the time out on executions:

As Gov. Phil Bredesen's moratorium on executions nears an end, there are indications that the state of Tennessee is not prepared to carry out the death penalty according to legal guidelines or constitutional guarantees.

Bredesen imposed a 90-day suspension in February, just as four inmates' executions were coming due. The governor pointed to a number of problems with the state's guidelines for putting people to death; among them, procedures that did not detail standard dosages for the three chemicals used during a lethal injection.

An analysis of executions in California and North Carolina released last week found that two of the three drugs used in lethal injection were not administered in those states in a way that reliably results in painless death. Some of the inmates died of suffocation and were conscious enough to realize it, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Such errors run afoul of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The problems found in California and North Carolina are remarkably similar to the concerns that led to a moratorium in Tennessee.

But that is only the beginning of Tennessee's problems, according to the American Bar Association. The organization issued a report on the state's death-penalty system last week, authored by seven Tennessee lawyers, which cited poor legal representation for the accused, crushing caseloads for the handful of good defense lawyers, and the likelihood that some death-penalty cases have been tainted by racial discrimination.

The ABA urged Bredesen to extend his moratorium and issued a set of recommendations with the report, including an independent commission to review innocence claims; an agency to train death-row defense lawyers; new instructions for juries to avoid confusion; and barring the death penalty for the mentally ill.

In Nebraska, the state is preparing to use -- perhaps for the last time in America -- the electric chair. AP reports:

The state's new method of electrocution _ a single, sustained jolt instead of several shorter ones _ could leave the condemned's heart beating well after the shock, backers and foes of the protocol say.

The macabre image of a strapped-down inmate, possibly brain dead but with a pulsating heart, could sharpen an already tense debate as Nebraska, the only state with the electric chair as its sole means of execution, prepares to put to death its first prisoner in a decade.

No one's sure the inmate's heart would continue to beat after the current stopped, but the possibility has caused a furor among capital punishment opponents since it was broached by the doctor who almost single-handedly revised Nebraska's execution protocol.

Carey Dean Moore is to die May 8 through an untested system of sending 2,450 volts through his body for 20 seconds.

Death penalty opponents are stepping up legal challenges to the execution, mainly on the grounds that the chair is cruel and unusual punishment. And the Legislature narrowly defeated a bill last month that would have repealed the death penalty.

Nebraska adopted the new protocol after a judge rejected the old one, which involved four jolts of current. The new rules call for a 15-minute wait after the jolt before checking inmates to see whether they are dead.

That wait is 'crucial to the determination of death if Nebraska is intent upon using heart sounds as the criteria of death,' Dr. Ronald Wright, who helped design the new policy, wrote in a 2002 report to state officials.

'The heart has a high probability of restarting following cessation of current' using the new method, he wrote.

In court depositions, Wright has said that a high-voltage shock would almost immediately cause brain death and has said the state's reluctance to use that as the standard for pronouncing death is unfortunate.

But there is 'absolutely no proof' that an initial high-voltage shock causes brain death, according to John Wikswo, a biomedical engineer who has studied executions by electrocution.

The uncertainty means an inmate could experience incredible pain while corrections officials wait to check if he is dead, opponents of the protocol say.

'What they're assuming is that if the initial shock doesn't kill the person immediately, the 15-minute wait will,' said Wikswo, of Vanderbilt University.

Meanwhile, problems with lethal injection persist. The California Aggie notes:

Cruel and unusual punishment may be the cause of death for those who are subject to lethal injections, as a recent study on prisoner execution showed that the current drug protocol could cause suffocation. On Apr. 24, researchers at the University of Miami Miller School Of Medicine reported their findings that lethal injections in the United States may lead to death by chemical asphyxiation.

According to researchers, the chemicals that are currently used to execute prisoners on death row subject offenders to a death that can be ruled as inhumane - as opposed to quick and painless. The three chemicals used in lethal injections include substances that induce anesthesia, paralysis and respiratory arrest, or stopping of the heart.

Teresa Zimmers, research assistant professor of surgery at the University of Miami and head author of the report, said in a press release that the drug combination in lethal injection executions does not hold any clinical precedence, was not sufficiently tested on lab animals before official use and has led to delayed executions - making it a possibly insufficient means for implementing the death penalty.

"We concluded that the original design of the lethal injection drug protocol itself is flawed," Zimmers said. "The drug protocol is based on little clinical and scientific data and contradicts clinical veterinary practice."

The study also indicates a problem with the delivery of the injections, citing that doctors and nurses do not perform the procedures, but rather volunteers with unreleased qualifications.

Similarly, the Boston Globe notes this morning:

Indeed, a new analysis of executions in California and North Carolina suggests the opposite. Published in PLoS Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal from the Public Library of Science, it indicates that the three-drug combination generally used in lethal injections can result in a painful process of asphyxiation, during which a prisoner may be conscious. That possibility is heightened when technicians bungle the procedure. The study strips away the medical veneer and offers strong evidence that lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Real medical procedures are developed over time, through extensive experimentation and human testing, and are carried out by skilled medical personnel. But doctors and nurses are prohibited from taking part in executions by the ethical norms of their professions. Under American Medical Association policy, a doctor cannot even be the first person to assess whether a prisoner is dead, because finding a heartbeat would lead to further injections of lethal agents.

Methods capable of causing near-instantaneous deaths, such as guillotines and firing squads, have been rejected as stomach-turning. The electric chair, a method conceived as a quick, mechanical alternative, has proved repulsive in practice, and the brutality of lethal injection is becoming ever clearer, too.

Tim Goodwin of Asia Death Penalty reports Japan hanged three people on Friday:
Japan hanged three men on Friday, bringing to seven the number of prisoners it has executed in the past four months.

The latest executions were reportedly carried out now to keep the country's death row population below 100.

Kosaku Nata , Yoshikatsu Oda and Masahiro Tanaka were hanged on 27 April in detention centres in Osaka, Fukuoka and Tokyo.

In an unusual step, the men were executed while Japan's parliament, the Diet, was in session. Executions in Japan are usually timed to avoid parliamentary debate or scrutiny.
Finally, a letter to the editor in New Jersey by James Abbott, Chief of Police West Orange, New Jersey, and also a member of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission.
I am writing to reinforce some important points made by me and three of my fellow members of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Forum on capital punishment on April 25.

The 13-member commission, which recommended replacing the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole, based its recommendation upon facts, careful study and much deliberation. Sitting around me -- a pro-death penalty police chief -- was a retired Supreme Court justice who had upheld capital punishment, two current county prosecutors who had sought it, the father of a murder victim, a victims' advocate and other dedicated citizens.

Many victims' family members testified over the course of five public hearings. While most who testified opposed the death penalty, it is clear that victims' families have a variety of opinions about it. Their testimony helped change my mind. I had no idea how much they suffer facing years of capital appeals and reversals. Even in states that carry out executions, the process takes years and reversals are many.

I didn't go into the study thinking I would vote to end the death penalty. But with each hearing, it became clearer that New Jersey's death penalty isn't working, and is actually doing far more harm than good. A fair, accurate and effective capital punishment system doesn't exist. It doesn't make sense to keep reaching for the impossible when the alternative of life in prison without parole both ensures public safety and puts victims' families first.

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