Politics + Executions = Comedy Gold!

In emails that have come out during the appeal of New Hampshire’s one and only death sentence, we have learned that former New Hampshire Attorney General (and current U.S. Senator-elect) Kelly A Ayotte began plans to run for election just days after announcing she was seeking the death penalty in the case.  As the New Hampshire Union Leader reports (in a special “print-only” article):

In one e-mail exchange between Ayotte and Robert Varsalone, her friend and future political advisor, under the subject “Get ready to run….,” Varsalone discussed Republican campaign chances and possible candidates.

“Have you been following the last 2 week.  A police officer was killed and I announced that I would seek the death penalty,” Ayotte responded to Varsalone in the Oct 27, 2006 e-mail.

“I know, I read about it.  Where does AG Ayotte stand on the Death Penalty? BY THE SWITCH,” Varsalone wrote back.

Funny stuff.

Speaking of politics, as California officials were trying in October to engineer a pre-election execution (an effort that failed and cost the state’s taxpayers $4 million) it turns out they were madly searching the globe for sodium thiopental, since their supply of the execution drug had expired.  From Pakistan to the U.K. they looked, but, as Stephen Colbert (who is a real comedian) explains below, they eventually found what they were looking for in neighboring Arizona, leading one California official to quip, “You guys are life-savers.”

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tiny Triumphs – Lethal Drug Shortage
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog March to Keep Fear Alive

Arizona Ignores Trial Judge, Kills Prisoner

The death penalty in this case is not appropriate and never has been.”

That’s what former judge Cheryl Hendrix told Arizona’s Board of Executive Clemency in support of Jeffrey Landrigan’s effort to have his death sentence commuted.  What’s important about judge Hendrix is that she is the one who sentenced him to death.  New information that Landrigan’s lawyer failed to present at the trial convinced her that the death sentence she issued had been wrong.  

Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, had already ruled that this new information would NOT have made a difference.  That turned out to be flat wrong, but an erroneous Supreme Court ruling that still trumps everything else. The Arizona Board split 2-2 vote, but that, and Governor Jan Brewer, was enough to keep the execution process rolling. 

Landrigan’s attorneys also attempted to shine a light on the secretive practices of Arizona’s execution team (which now apparently includes an un-named British pharmaceutical company).  Had they been successful, this would have been a great public service.  Why should a public agency with the power to kill people be allowed to operate in the dark?

But that effort was not successful, thanks to another 5-4 US Supreme Court vote.  The non-FDA approved drugs acquired from Great Britain appeared to work as the executioners wanted, and, late last night, Arizona carried out a death sentence that “is not appropriate and never has been.

Arizona: Execution Drugs Came From Great Britain

Arizona’s Attorney General Terry Goddard has reportedly confirmed that his state’s stash of non-FDA approved sodium thiopental came from Great Britain.  The state continues to try to kill Jeffrey Landrigan with this drug, and continues to try to keep details of their supplier a secret, using a law that shields the Arizona’s execution team from public scrutiny.  So an as yet unnamed British pharmaceutical company is now a member of Arizona’s execution team. 

As our allies in Europe are dragged into this sordid execution mess, Arizona soldiers on with its attempt to carry out this execution (in defiance of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).  The full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court are likely to weigh in later today.

But whatever the outcome, two important points are worth mentioning.  First, many people are now ashamed to be associated with the death penalty, and that includes those charged with carrying it out.  Though ostensibly for the purpose of protecting execution team members from harassment by death penalty opponents (who rarely do anything more than deliver petitions and sternly worded letters), the real purpose of the Arizona law (and similar laws in others states, and an even more extreme effort in Texas), is to drive capital punishment into the shadows.  The death penalty is not as popular as it used to be, because people are realizing that it involves things like states acquiring non-approved pharmaceuticals in shady and secretive ways and then using those drugs to kill people.  Of course such efforts to hide these ugly realities only draw more attention to them.

It also bears mentioning that the judge who passed the death sentence on Jeffrey Landrigan now says she was wrong.  When the US Supreme Court rejected Landrigan’s bid for a hearing on his lawyer’s failure to present important mitigating evidence, Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, asserted that the mitigating evidence would have made no difference.  The judge who was actually there has said the exact opposite – that the mitigating evidence would have made all the difference. 

Even our highest courts don’t always get things right, especially when they try to predict the future.  All supporters of fairness in our justice system, whether opposing capital punishment or not, should be disturbed by the slipshod way this case has been handled, and by the ongoing collateral damage our death penalty continues to do.

Texas: Execution Drugs Should Be "State Secret"

Tired of taking a back seat to Arizona  in death penalty zeal, Texas today upped the ante in the high stakes game of keeping secrets from the public in whose name they are enthusiastically killing prisoners.  According to the Austin American-Statesman, a lawyer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has asked Texas’ Attorney General to declare information on lethal injection drugs to be a “state secret.” 

A letter requesting this designation says in part:

“We submit that the release of any of the information would be akin to a local DPS office providing a requestor (a potential terrorist) with how much ammunition was stored in the office.”

That’s right, death penalty opponents are “akin” to terrorists.  And if they were to get information on the drugs Texas uses in executions, this could somehow lead to all sorts of unspecified mayhem.  Or something.

The TDCJ’s letter was in response to efforts by the Austin paper to get information on Texas’ current supply of sodium thiopental (there is a national shortage).  I don’t need to tell you how dire the consequences would be if the paper succeeded in its nefarious efforts to provide the public with information on the functioning of a state agency.  TDCJ’s explanation says it all:

“If the (American-Statesman) published how much sodium thiopental we currently have and when it expires, this would operate to inflame an already volatile situation. People could get seriously injured or killed.”

It is true that ten years ago, during the execution of Gary Graham, there were protesters carrying AK-47s outside the Huntsville death house. But of course, that’s perfectly legal in Texas – and there were death penalty supporting Ku Klux Klan members there too.  No one was seriously injured or killed then, and nothing remotely like that has happened in over a decade. 

And how an increased knowledge ot sodium thiopental quantities would have inflamed that, or any other situation, is not exactly clear.

As is the case with all such “state secret” requests, the demands go beyond what could even dubiously be justified on security grounds.  TDCJ is also asking that information on the cost of execution drugs be concealed from the public (aka taxpayers). 

Meanwhile, in Arizona, a Federal court has ordered the state to reveal its source for sodium thiopental, or to at least explain why its source should remain a secret.

Court Allows Arizona to Kill Prisoner with Secret Drugs

Secretly trafficking and then openly using unapproved drugs is now A-OK.  That’s the message sent out yesterday by the Arizona Supreme Court, which allowed state officials to conceal their source for sodium thiopental  (we know only that it’s NOT Hospira, the one FDA-approved supplier), and to continue with plans to execute Jeffrey Landrigan on October 26.

It is already well known that the death penalty compromises the integrity of the medical profession.  Doctors, nurses, and EMTs are all bound by an oath to “do no harm” but all are involved, in a variety of ways, in the deliberate killing of prisoners.  Now, it appears that our zeal for capital punishment is undermining the integrity of efforts to control and regulate powerful drugs.

Normally, if you acquired a controlled substance from a non-FDA approved source and announced your intention to use it for a non-FDA approved purpose, you would expect some sort of legal trouble.  But, apparently, as long as that non-FDA approved purpose is putting someone to death, the normal rules don’t apply.  Instead, you get to keep the source of your drug supply a secret, and you get to use those drugs however you want.

As for Jeffrey Landrigan, some DNA testing litigation in his case continues, and there is a clemency hearing on Friday.  Landrigan’s case is sadly typical, in that his trial lawyer failed miserably to present mitigating evidence, and in that no federal appeals court has cared enough to hold a hearing on that issue.  It is a bit unusual in that the judge who sentenced him to death now says she would not have done so, had she been aware of information that lawyer failed to present. 

So while it appears the Arizona officials can kill Jeffrey Landrigan with a drug it got from God knows where, there is still a chance to convince them that they shouldn’t.

Arizona's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy for Executions

Arizona today admitted that it acquired the execution drug sodium thiopental from a non-FDA approved source, but continues to seek to execute Jeffrey Landrigan on October 26. The state refuses to say how they scored their new stash of the drug, citing a state law guaranteeing secrecy for executioners.  The state also continues to claim that they got the drug lawfully, though this is difficult to reconcile with the admission that it was obtained from a source other than Hospira Inc., its only FDA-sanctioned provider.

There are plenty of other problems with Arizona’s plans to kill Jeffrey Landrigan, including that his trial attorney, who had never handled a death penalty case before, failed to introduce important mitigating evidence.  Since the trial, much of that evidence has come to light, so much in fact that the judge who sentenced him to death now says that she would have “no choice” but to find that the mitigating circumstances were “sufficient to call for leniency”.

But no appeals court has ever held a hearing to examine Mr. Landrigan’s claim of inadequate counsel, and an execution has been scheduled anyway. 

So, to sum up: Don’t Ask about the failures of Jeffrey Landrigan’s lawyer, and Don’t Tell anyone about the secret drug purchases of Arizona’s executioners.

At least for now.  Litigation continues, as does an appeal for clemency.

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.

California Spent 4 Million Dollars Trying to Kill Prisoner

One would assume that a state facing a significant financial crisis would choose to spend its resources on practical policies and beneficial projects. Why, then, did California waste $4 million in order to accomplish… nothing? Perhaps that’s unfair; the state did have a goal in mind while spending this money – executing Albert Brown.  Not an admirable goal, and, thankfully, Albert Brown is still alive and in prison.

Why not save the time, funds, and pain associated with the death penalty? As James Clark of Southern California’s ACLU suggests, replacing  the death penalty with life without parole, and requiring people in prison to work and provide restitution to victims’ families, would be a much better use of the state’s time and resources. In California, the current system costs $137 million per year; it would cost $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty. Why is the state so hell-bent on sentencing offenders in the most fiscally irresponsible way possible?

It has been nearly five years since California has put anyone to death, and thanks to a lethal injection drug’s expiration date, it would be at least next year before executions could conceivably resume. Maybe in the upcoming months California officials can be persuaded to make better use of taxpayers’ money, and will stop wasting it on these pointless efforts to kill prisoners.

California Rushing to Kill Before Drug Expires

Now we know why California is in a rush to execute Albert Brown.  His lethal injection, now scheduled for 9 pm on Thursday, September 30, will take place just three hours before California’s supply of one of the drugs  expires.  The drug in question, of course, is sodium thiopental, the same drug that its manufacturer, Hospira, has called on states to stop using for executions.   Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that has very important medical uses, is currently in short supply; using it to kill rather than to heal should be unacceptable to all, regardless of their position on the death penalty.

Given this mess, the 9th Circuit federal appeals court has asked the judge who earlier denied a stay of execution to reconsider his decision.