March 14, 2018

Oklahoma is set to become the first state in the country to use nitrogen gas to carry out the death penalty, The Oklahoman reports. Executions in the state have been on hold since 2015 due to a series of problems with lethal injection drugs, including a particularly disturbing 2014 case in which an inmate "began to twitch and gasp" after the drug was administered, ultimately dying from a heart attack.

In 2015, Oklahoma passed a law allowing nitrogen to be used in executions if the lethal injection was ever ruled unconstitutional, or if the drugs became unavailable. In 2016, the state's grand jury recommended such a step be taken, as Oklahoma has had difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs. "I was calling all around the world, to the back streets of the Indian sub-continent," Oklahoma Corrections Department Director Joe Allbaugh claimed to The Associated Press.

Prior to the 2015 decision, the electric chair and firing squad would have been the backup options to the lethal injection in Oklahoma, The Washington Post reports. Allbaugh told reporters that "I'm not worried about anything" when asked about being the first state in the nation to use nitrogen for executions, BuzzFeed News reports. The state's attorney general, Mike Hunter, cited the use of nitrogen in assisted suicides as proof that it is humane.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, expressed doubts about the method in 2015, when the law was being changed to allow for nitrogen executions. "I think that Oklahoma has acted first and thought second in the manner it's gone about conducting executions," he told the Post at the time. "And the hasty manner in which this bill sped into law reflects the same lack of care with which Oklahoma has managed its execution process historically."

The Oklahoman writes that "executions could resume no earlier than the end of the year." Jeva Lange

January 9, 2018
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On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated that the Justice Department would be more aggressive in pursuing the death penalty under President Trump than under former President Barack Obama by authorizing federal prosecutors to seek capital punishment against Billy Arnold, who is accused of killing two rival gang members in Detroit, The Wall Street Journal reports. Michigan banned the death penalty at a state level in 1847, although it can still be sought at a federal level, the Detroit Free Press writes. Former Justice Department officials said the gang-on-gang violence case likely wouldn't have been authorized for capital punishment under Obama, who oversaw just two death-penalty gang cases while in office.

The decision regarding Arnold, who has pleaded not guilty, follows Sessions' first death-penalty authorization in December, in a case involving a Tennessee man who abducted and murdered his wife. The Justice Department is poised to potentially make three more authorizations soon, against the man accused of killing eight people in Manhattan by driving a truck into a bike lane and against two members of the MS-13 gang accused of killing two teenage girls on Long Island.

Just 2 percent of death-penalty cases end up being sentenced in federal court, The Wall Street Journal notes. The Obama administration ultimately sought the death penalty in an estimated four dozen cases, with former Attorney General Eric Holder personally opposing capital punishment and his successor, Loretta Lynch, deeming it an "effective penalty."

A recent federal review of execution drugs also slowed down the use of the death penalty. Since 1963, just three federal defendants have been executed. Across the country, support for capital punishment has fallen to a 45-year low of just 55 percent of Americans considering it a favored punishment for convicted murderers.

Read more about how the Trump administration is pursuing the death penalty at The Wall Street Journal. Jeva Lange

December 11, 2017

A synthetic opioid called fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine, is behind tens of thousands of the U.S. deaths last year in the opioid overdose and addiction crisis. Two states, Nevada and Nebraska, have plans to use fentanyl as the key ingredient in a lethal-injection cocktail as soon as January.

Doctors and opponents of capital punishment argue that the states are essentially performing medical experiments on death row inmates. Death penalty supporters blame the critics for the dearth of tested lethal-injection drugs, as pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell those drugs to the 31 states that have capital punishment. Either way, "there's cruel irony that at the same time these state governments are trying to figure out how to stop so many from dying from opioids, that they now want to turn and use them to deliberately kill someone," Austin Sarat, a law professor at Amherst College, tells The Washington Post.

Nevada would pair fentanyl with diazepam (Valium) and cisatracurium, a drug that paralyzes muscles, and Nebraska would use those three drugs plus potassium chloride to stop the heart. If the fentanyl and diazepam don't work or are administered incorrectly, "which has happened in many cases," the cisatracurium would leave the prisoner "awake and conscious, desperate to breathe and terrified but unable to move at all," said Mark Heath, an anesthesiology professor at Columbia. "It would be an agonizing way to die, but the people witnessing wouldn't know anything had gone wrong." And potassium chloride burns, he added, "so if you weren't properly sedated, a highly concentrated dose would feel like someone was taking a blowtorch to your arm and burning you alive." The doctors who came up with the cocktails say the drugs are meant to make the execution humane.

You can read more, plus a brief rundown of America's various tried and discarded execution methods, at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

November 15, 2017

A severely ill death row inmate's execution was called off Wednesday after a prison team in Ohio spent 25 unsuccessful minutes searching for a vein in which they could start an IV. The inmate, Alva Campbell, "was stuck two times on his left arm, two times on his right arm, and one time on his right leg below the knee," writes The Columbus Dispatch. The execution was called off just after it appeared the IV in his right leg was inserted, Fox News reports, noting that it is only the third time in U.S. history that an execution has been stayed after the process already began.

Campbell, 69, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and possibly lung cancer, and requires a walker, colostomy bag, and several daily breathing treatments, ABC News reports. On Tuesday, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction confirmed plans to provide Campbell with a special pillow to prop him up in a semi-recumbent position so he would be able to breathe during the execution. His lawyers argued he was too ill for the IV injection and that his death could become a "spectacle" if guards attempted unsuccessfully to find useable veins. Campbell earlier lost a bid to be executed by firing squad due to questions about the legal procedure.

Campbell was sentenced to death after killing an 18-year-old sheriff's deputy, Charles Dials, in a 1997 carjacking on the way to a hearing on armed robbery charges. Campbell will return to death row and "likely have another execution date scheduled," The Columbus Dispatch reports. Jeva Lange

July 26, 2017
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Ohio is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips, 43, on Wednesday after his final appeal attempt to the Supreme Court was rejected. Phillips was convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend's young daughter in 1993.

This will be the state's first use of capital punishment in three years after a 2014 execution by lethal injection took five times as long as anticipated and caused the inmate, Dennis McGuire, visible distress. "He started struggling for breath," said Father Lawrence Hummer, who witnessed the botched execution. "I was trying to calm his children down when all of a sudden I heard audible gagging. I thought it was another witness, but when I looked back to [McGuire], he was the one gagging."

Anti-death penalty protesters have assembled outside the prison where Phillips is held. The execution was originally set for 10 a.m. Eastern, but it was slightly delayed to give Phillips more time to visit with his family. Bonnie Kristian

April 28, 2017
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On Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a stay of execution for Arkansas death row inmate Kenneth Williams, 38, clearing the way for his execution before midnight. Williams is the fourth and apparently final inmate Arkansas will put to death before its supply of one of three lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of April. Originally, Gov. Asa Hutchinson had scheduled eight executions, two at a time, over 11 days; courts have stayed four of them. Williams had been scheduled for execution at 7 p.m., but Arkansas had postponed it pending word from the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Williams and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project had appealed his execution by arguing that the previous executions had been flawed and left the inmates suffering as they died, and also that Williams is developmentally disabled. Lawyers for the state told the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that while Williams has "low average" intelligence, he did not cooperate with the doctors testing his mental capacity. Williams was convicted of murdering two people and later confessed to a third murder, and when he escaped from prison, he killed a fourth person when his getaway car slammed into a water truck.

UPDATE: Williams was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m. local time, after the lethal injection regime was administered starting at 10:52 p.m., according to prison officials. Peter Weber

April 21, 2017
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Arkansas has been racing against a self-imposed clock to execute eight death row inmates before its supply of the sedative midazolam expires on April 30. Four of the eight inmates scheduled for execution have received court reprieves, but on Thursday night, Arkansas executed Ledell Lee, 51, who was convicted of murdering his neighbor with a blunt object. It was the state's first execution since 2005. Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., four minutes before his death warrant expired. His last meal, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction, was holy communion.

Earlier Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court had lifted a stay on using a second drug in the state's three-drug lethal-injection cocktail, vecuronium bromide, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stay the executions of Lee and other petitioners, 5-4, with new Justice Neil Gorsuch siding with the court's four other conservatives. In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer highlighted the rationale for rushing the executions. "Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the 'use by' date of the state's execution drug is about to expire," he wrote. "In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random. ... I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country. The cases now before us reinforce that point."

The next two executions are scheduled for Monday, and another on April 27. Peter Weber

April 20, 2017
AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said Wednesday night he is "both surprised and disappointed" that the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson, 47, one of two inmates scheduled to be executed Thursday night, part of the unprecedented eight executions Hutchinson had scheduled before the end of April. The first two executions, set for last Monday night, were blocked by court rulings, and if the Johnson stay isn't lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court, four of the eight inmates will have received temporary reprieves in court. Separately on Wednesday, a county judge blocked the state from using one of the three drugs in its lethal-injection cocktail, putting all of the planned executions in limbo.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Johnson should be allowed to try to prove his innocence in a 1993 rape-murder using post-conviction DNA testing. A Pulaski County judge rejected a similar request from the other inmate scheduled to be put to death on Thursday, Ledell Lee, whose lawyers also argue he has an intellectual disability.

In the other case Wednesday, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray sided with McKesson Corp., the country's largest drug distributor, which argued that the Alabama Department of Corrections had purchased its supply of vecuronium bromide under false pretenses, knowing that drugmaker Pfizer does not allow its products to be used for capital punishment. McKesson said that the Arkansas Department of Corrections had promised to return the drugs for a refund, but had pocketed the refund and kept the drugs. Another Pulaski County judge, Wendell Griffen, had also ruled in favor of McKesson over the weekend, but the Arkansas Supreme Court vacated his injunction on Monday because he had been photographed participating in an anti-death penalty protest.

Alabama had scheduled its four double executions in 11 days because its supply of a second lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of April. Peter Weber

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