In brief: April 2019


Global executions fell by almost 31 percent last year, the lowest figure in at least a decade, according to Amnesty International’s annual report, also released this week. The report found that the world’s top five executing countries were China (in the 1000s), Iran (at least 253), Saudi Arabia (149), Viet Nam (at least 85, releasing its total for the first time) and Iraq (at least 52). The U.S. was in the top 10 even though it is not clear how many were executed in North Korea or Pakistan. This is the tenth consecutive year that the U.S. remained the only country in the Americas to carry out executions. 

In Florida, Clifford Williams, Jr. was freed late last month after serving 43 years in prison, four of them on death row. He is the 165th person to be exonerated since 1973. The Innocence Project of Florida reports that Williams, who was 33 when he was arrested, and is now 76, and his nephew, Nathan Myers, who was 18 when he was arrested, and is now 61, were convicted of the murder of Jeanette Williams in 1976, solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, and in spite of contradictory forensic evidence. What’s more, the trial judge overrode the jury recommendation of a life sentence, and sentenced Williams to death. That sentence was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court after Williams had served four years on death row. The order to vacate the two sentences was the result of a recommendation by Florida’s first-ever conviction integrity review unit set up by State Attorney Melissa Nelson last year, according to the Innocence Project of Florida.

Last year, 151 men and women were exonerated, “setting a record for the number of years lost to prison for crimes the exonerees did not commit,” the National Registry of Exonerations revealed in its annual report released this week. The Registry reports that those exonerees spent 1,639 years in prison, with an average of 10.9 years lost per exoneree. To date, there are now more than 2,400 innocent people who wrongfully served more than 21,000 years in the Registry.

In Texas last last month, Patrick Murphy was granted a stay by the U.S. Supreme Court hours after it was scheduled. The Texas Tribune reports that the Court found that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice violated Murphy’s religious rights when it refused his request to have his spiritual advisor, a Buddhist chaplain, in the execution chamber with him. In the opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, he suggested the state do one of two things: allow prisoners to have a spiritual advisor of any religion in the death chamber with them, or bar all spiritual advisors. In a similar situation in Alabama a month earlier, the Court overturned a federal appellate court ruling halting the execution of Domineque Ray because the state denied his request for a Muslim spiritual advisor to accompany him in the execution chamber. In that case, the Court said Ray had filed his request too late.

In Alabama, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a stay of execution for Christopher Price on Thursday, just hours before he was scheduled to be killed. The court affirmed a stay issued by federal Judge Kristi DuBose earlier in which she gave the state 60 days to provide evidence contradicting Price’s claim that the three-drug lethal injection protocol was likely to cause severe pain, and that executing him by nitrogen hypoxia, which was what Price wanted, would significantly reduce the risk of pain. Price was convicted of the 1991 murder of Bill Lynn and was sentenced to death by a jury’s vote of 10-2. In the middle of the night — 3 a.m., Friday morning, the U.S. Supreme lifted the stay in spite of the fact Price’s death warrant had expired and a new date will have to be set. The Court’s action infuriated Justice Stephen Breyer, who called it an example of how “death sentences in the United States can be carried out in an arbitrary way.”

In Arkansas, legislators approved a bill last week that will keep secret the identity of the manufacturers of lethal injection drugs that the state uses in executions. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that SB 464, “which proposes to shield nearly all records related to Arkansas’ supply of lethal injection drugs,” is opposed by the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock as well as death penalty opponents. The bill would make it a felony to disclose records that identify manufacturers. The paper quotes criminal defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig as saying the bill is “blatantly unconstitutional.” Two pharmaceutical companies, Hikma Pharmaceuticals and Fresenius Kabi USA, which prohibit their drugs from being used in executions, have both written letters opposing the bill. However, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is expected to sign it. The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2017 because its supply of lethal injection drugs expired, and officials have not been able to find a supplier.

In Colorado, a bill that would have repealed that state’s death penalty is in limbo until next year. The Daily Camera reports that one of the bill’s sponsors asked that it be held until after the current session ends next month because there simply weren’t enough votes in the Senate, where Democrats hold only a two-seat majority. The bill was expected to easily pass in the House and Gov. Jared Polis had indicated he would sign it. There are three men on Colorado’s death row. Only one person has been executed since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Gary Lee Davis was killed in 1997.

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