In Brief: April 2016

We look at some of the more significant developments in death penalty debates around the country last month.
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In Texas, Duane Buck, the defendant whose own attorney called an expert witness, a psychologist, to testify that there was an increased probability that Buck would exhibit violent behavior in the future because he was black, will either get a new sentencing trial or will have his death sentence commuted to a sentence of life without parole, thanks to a ruling this week by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, acting in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (6-2) earlier this year that Buck’s death sentence was unconstitutional because his trial lawyers were ineffective.

In Ohio last week, a federal appeals court rejected the state’s new three-drug lethal injection protocol in a 2-1 decision. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision makes it unclear whether the state will be able to carry out several executions it had planned beginning next month. Gov. John Kasich had delayed eight executions pending the appeals court decision.

In Texas, the execution of Paul Storey was stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who sent his case to a lower court to decide whether he should receive a new trial. Storey’s attorneys had argued that his jury would not have voted for a death sentence if they had been told that the victim’s parents were opposed to the death penalty. In addition, one of Storey’s jurors said he would have voted against death if he had known that a death sentence required a unanimous vote, insisting he would have held out if he had known it could have saved Storey.

In Alabama, judges can no longer override a jury’s decision and sentence a defendant to death. On Tuesday, newly-sworn in Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill that says juries have the final say on whether to impose the death penalty. Alabama was the last state to allow judicial override. However, the state remains the only one that still allows a non-unanimous jury to issue a death verdict, requiring a minimum of a 10-2 vote.

In Nevada, late last month, legislators began debating whether to abolish the death penalty. AB 237 is supported by lawmakers who argue that it’s much more expensive than a sentence of life without parole, and it’s rarely used because of a lack of access to lethal drugs. A study found that the state spends about $500 thousand more on each death penalty case than on non-death cases. Nevada’s last execution was in 2006.

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