What Utah and Virginia Are Trying to Do to Keep The Death Penalty Will Shock You

A protester holds a sign up during an anti-death penalty protest on June 18,2001 in Santa Ana, CA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A protester holds a sign up during an anti-death penalty protest on June 18,2001 in Santa Ana, CA. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

As the death penalty declines across the US, a small number of states are taking drastic measures to keep their death chambers active.

In light of last year’s three gruesomely botched executions, Ohio and Oklahoma (responsible for two of them) are taking the precaution of putting executions on hold. But that’s a little too cautious for Utah and Virginia, two states that appear willing to do just about anything to continue executions.


Abused In Childhood Then Sentenced To Die: 5 Stories


Late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun

The late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun regretted the Court's 1976 Gregg vs. Georgia decision allowing executions to resume, saying in his dissent: "The path the Court has chosen lessens us all."

Daniel Cook, abused since infancy and now facing execution on August 8 in Arizona, is just the most current example of someone who endured severe childhood abuse only to later face execution. (Cook has a clemency hearing on Aug. 3; the prosecutor opposes his execution and it can still be stopped.)

There have been plenty of others.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In its 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, the US Supreme Court allowed executions to resume but required that juries be guided to restrict death sentences to the worst crimes committed by the worst offenders (aka “the worst of the worst”). The Court also endorsed laws “permitting the jury to dispense mercy on the basis of factors too intangible to write into a statute.” Defendants with mitigating circumstances (like youth, diminished mental capacity, or a history of childhood abuse) were supposed to receive lesser sentences.

So why do people with severe child abuse in their backgrounds keep ending up on death row?  Are they really among the worst? SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

The Execution of Michael Selsor

Michael Selsor

Michael Selsor

Oklahoma carries out more executions per capita than any other state in the USA (though things might slow down as the state is currently down to its last dose of pentobarbital, the anesthetic in its lethal injection cocktail).

In September 2010, Al Jazeera reporter Josh Rushing put together a video piece on the Oklahoma and U.S. death penalties. Now, he has supplemented that with his interview of Michael Selsor, who was first sent to Oklahoma’s death row in 1976, and a blow-by-blow description of Selsor’s execution on May 1, 2012 for the 1975 killing of convenience store clerk Clayton Chandler in Tulsa.

The interview with Selsor (which took place back in 2010 and was the only one he ever gave) is particularly interesting and reveals a man who was remorseful, reflective, somewhat resigned but also prideful.  He was sorry for his crime, but never reached out to the victim’s daughter:

“And really if I could say look I’m sorry for what I’ve done, I’m sorry I killed your dad, what the hell would that mean to her?”


Shine A Light On Worker's Rights

On April 4, 1968, shortly before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood with sanitation workers in Memphis to demand human rights, basic respect and collective bargaining to gain a better life. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are taking the same stand—together.

On April 4th people across the country will come together in support of worker’s rights and against the current assault on worker’s rights playing out in various US states.

All workers have a right to organize and to bargain collectively. Amnesty International stands in solidarity with all those seeking to defend collective bargaining rights anywhere these rights are threatened, and on April 4 we urge governors and legislators to protect workers’ rights by rejecting any attempt to limit collective bargaining.

We encourage Amnesty members to join the April 4th events and honor Dr. King’s vision for human rights. To find an event in your area and for more information visit the  We Are One website.  RSVP on Facebook here.

Denmark Company Supplies Major U.S. Executioners

“It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” – Hamlet

The European nation of Denmark is about to embark on executions in a big way.  Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck has sold pentobarbital to four of the most prolific executing states in the U.S.: Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.  These states already have, and will continue to use Lundbeck’s product for executions.  Pentobarbital is emerging as the replacement for sodium thiopental, which was once the drug used in all lethal injections in the U.S., but now has become increasingly hard to get.

Campaigners in Europe have attempted to convince Lundbeck to prevent the drug from winding up in U.S. execution facilities.  Lundbeck has objected, verbally, to the use of its product in executions, telling the New York TimesThis is fully against what we stand for.  We are in the business of improving people’s lives.” But so far Lundbeck has not taken any effective action.

Campaigns to limit exports of sodium thiopental, the drug pentobarbital is replacing, have been successful, albeit after several states already acquired a supply (one state, Georgia, has had its supply confiscated by the DEA).   The UK has banned the drug’s export to the U.S. for executions, and an Italian factory ceased production of the drug entirely.  Governments in Austria and Germany have preemptively warned pharmaceutical companies in their respective countries not to allow sodium thiopental to be exported to the U.S. for executions.

It remains to be seen if Denmark and Lundbeck will ultimately restrict the export of pentobarbital.

Sodium thiopental is a general anesthetic  used in surgical procedures.  Pentobarbital is used for controlling epilepsy.  Life-saving, life-improving drugs, in both cases.  Restricting their availability will do harm to the quality of legitimate health care in the U.S.

I’ve written before about the degrading nature of the death penalty; about how deliberately killing human beings violates our most basic values and thus degrades and damages everyone involved.  That ordinary Americans in need of medical care might suffer because some states insist on killing prisoners is yet more evidence of that.

The Attack On US Workers' Rights

Protesters join forces to kill Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill during a rally at the Capital Building on February 18, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mark Hirsch/Getty Images)

Legislation currently working it’s way through several US states would drastically restrict workers’ rights and violate numerous laws.

States including Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee–following Wisconsin’s lead–have recently proposed bills severely limiting the collective bargaining rights of trade union members.

Shane Enright, Amnesty International’s trade union adviser said that, if adopted, these measures would violate international law:

“The US has an obligation to uphold the rights of American workers – including the specific right to organize and bargain collectively.”

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed a bill on Friday that undermines the ability of unions in the public sector to protect workers. The legislation also takes away nearly all collective bargaining rights for most public employees, limiting their negotiation rights only to wages.


Posted in USA

Are States Breaking the Law to Get Execution Drugs?

As discussed previously here, the lethal injection drug sodium thiopental has been in short supply, and states have been running out.  Its manufacturer, Hospira, won’t be able to make more until at least early next year. Yet some states have mysteriously been able to get new supplies.  Oklahoma carried out an execution last night with drugs they may have obtained illegally from Arkansas.  The sudden appearance of a new batch of sodium thiopental in California has raised questions about whether they may have acquired it from overseas, and, like California, Arizona is refusing to reveal where it got its recent supply of the drug.

All this so states can continue to kill prisoners.

Hospira’s plea for states to stop using their product in executions may have fallen on deaf ears, but there could legal ramifications if states are acquiring FDA regulated drugs illegally.  According to the Daily Beast, citing the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, “Oklahoma did not consult a DEA registrant in obtaining the drug from Arkansas and filed no paperwork recording the transaction,” as is required by Federal law.

California’s new batch of sodium thiopental expires in 2014.  Hospira’s spokesman Dainel Rosenberg to the Arizona Republic, “The expiration dates for lots last manufactured by Hospira are for 2011. Therefore, product with an expiration date of 2014 cannot be Hospira product.”  Since Hospira is the only FDA approved manufacturer of this drug, what is it that California has?

Arizona is scheduled to execute Jeffrey Landrigan on October 26, but is also concealing where or how it acquired the sodium thiopental it plans to us, telling the Arizona paper only “The Department has lawfully obtained the necessary chemicals under its current written protocol ( . . . ) in sufficient quantity for an execution.”

We have a right to know how our states are carrying out this most extreme act of punishment.  Treating the acquisition of lethal injection drugs as if it were some big national security secret is not only suspicious.  It is an insult to the public in whose name these states are zealously trying to kill people.

Maybe Oklahoma Should Stop Trying to Execute Jeffrey David Matthews

There is a worldwide shortage of sodium thiopental, the first drug in the three drug series most states use to put prisoners to death.  It is an anesthetic, reportedly manufactured by only one company – Hospira – and has legitimate medical uses, so one hopes that during this period of scarcity execution chambers are at the bottom of the waiting list.  This shortage probably accounts for the attempt by Oklahoma last night to substitute a different drug – Brevital, a form of methohexital sodium – for its scheduled execution of Jeffrey David Matthews.  The sodium thiopental that the Oklahoma Corrections Department had in stock was apparently past its expiration date.

Of course, the courts did not go for this, and Matthews’ execution was stayed for two months.  This is the third time Matthews’ execution has been postponed (the first two by 30-day reprieves from the Governor), and there are many compelling reasons that this stay should be made permanent.  As documented here, the case against Matthews is shaky, with no physical evidence and an investigation that involved what one investigator called “suspicious” evidence.  That same investigator has concluded that “there is a reasonable likelihood that Matthews is innocent.”  The star witness against Matthews alleges he was coerced into cooperating by a combination of beatings and threats, and has since recanted his testimony.  He now says Matthews was not involved in the crime.

Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-2 to deny clemency, and recently refused to reconsider.  The Governor is only allowed two reprieves, so there is little more he can do, officially at least.  But there has to be a way out of this mess.  Oklahoma officials should use this 60 days wisely, and find a way to once and for all stop the execution of Jeffrey David Matthews.

Can/Will Oklahoma Stop this Execution?

Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry has granted two month-long reprieves  for Jeffrey David Matthews.  Matthews’ case is deeply troubling,  but the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 3-2 against commuting the death sentence, leaving the Governor with limited options.  Today, the Board refused to reconsider its vote, and Matthews is still set for execution next Tuesday, August 17.

Of the many disturbing aspects of Matthews’ case, the fact that he might be innocent certainly stands out.  Matthews was convicted largely on the statements of a star witness who has since recanted his trial testimony.  That witness, Tracy Dyer, alleged that he was beaten and threatened with death by prison guards if he didn’t cooperate in the case against Matthews.  A former Deputy Sheriff who took part in that investigation has stated that it was “sloppy” and that some of the evidence obtained was “suspicious”, and that he has seen another deputy “physically and verbally abuse prisoners many times.”

Governor Henry cannot grant clemency without a change in the Board’s vote, but he can use his power and influence, as chief executive of the state, to strongly urge the Board to reconsider.  And we can strongly urge the Governor to do just that.

Exiled from Oklahoma

Sometimes the best defense is no defense.  That may be the moral of the story by Dan Barry in yesterday’s New York Times about James Fisher, who accepted a plea deal that freed him from death row after almost three decades behind bars, on the condition that he leave Oklahoma and never return.

This doesn’t mean he was guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced to die; after two grotesquely unfair trials, he had simply lost faith in the system’s ability to defend his rights.  And no wonder. 

The victim of the 1982 murder was a man who had allegedly solicited sex with Fisher, but Fisher’s trial attorney, E. Melvin Porter, has admitted that at the time “he considered homosexuals to be ‘among the worst people in the world.’”  He did nothing but undermine his client.

Fisher’s conviction and death sentence were overturned due to ineffective assistance of counsel (after 19 years), but his new lawyer at retrial, Johnny Albert, drank, abused cocaine and threatened Fisher (his own client) with physical violence.  Fisher stopped coming to the trial and was again convicted.

That conviction was also overturned for the same obvious reason, but rather than go through a third trial, Fisher accepted the deal and is now headed to greener pastures in Alabama, with the support of the Equal Justice Initiative

To get to something close to the truth, our adversarial system of justice requires a reasonably level playing field between prosecution and defense.  In reality, this almost never happens.  Particularly for poor defendants, the deck is almost always stacked against them, as court appointed lawyers are often overworked, underpaid and under-resourced, and, for complex capital cases, lacking in experience. 

Obviously not all residents of our nation’s death rows had legal representation as appalling as Fisher’s, but the vast majority of those sentenced to death could not afford their own lawyer at trial.  The failure to provide adequate defense for those the state is trying to kill is a national scandal, and yet one more reason the irreversible punishment of death should be stricken from the books.