In Brief: December 2016

In New Jersey, two legislators want to bring back the death penalty, while in Nevada an assemblyman wants to abolish it. And those are just two of the capital punishment debates raging across the country in the past month. Executions, death penalty cases, legal rulings, and capital cases were front and center in several states. We look at some of the more significant developments.

In Alabama, the only state that allows a non-unanimous jury to sentence a defendant to death, as well as being the only state that allows a judge to override a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and instead impose a death sentence, Ronald B. Smith was executed last night for the 1994 killing of a convenience store clerk in 1994, after two temporary stays were issued by the U.S. Supreme Court. His jury had recommended a life sentence, but the judge overrode them, and sentenced him to death. Witnesses said his execution lasted more than 30 minutes, and he appeared to show discomfort during the administration of the three-drug protocol. Many defense attorneys and legal scholars believe Alabama’s death penalty scheme violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s January ruling in Hurst v. Florida.

In South Carolina, jurors heard opening statements on Wednesday in the federal death penalty trial of Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old man charged with killing nine people in a Charleston church in June 2015. Roof’s mother suffered a heart attack during opening statements, but the defense’s request for a mistrial was denied.

In Florida, the Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out a death sentence because the jury’s recommendation was not unanimous. The ruling is significant because it isn’t clear if it will affect other condemned inmates who were sentenced by non-unanimous juries, and force the state to hold resentencing hearings for hundreds of others on death row.

In Delaware, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether it should commute the death sentences of the 12 men on death row in the wake of the court’s August ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it allowed judicial override. Observers reported that the court appeared to be leaning toward commutation.

In New Jersey, two state senators, one a Democrat the other a Republican, want to bring back the death penalty. The two say it would be used for “the most heinous acts of murder,” including terrorism, the killing of a police officer, the killing of a child during a sexual assault, the killing of multiple people, or if a defendant has been convicted of a previous murder. New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. The last execution in that state occurred in 1963.

In Nevada, Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, chairman of the Corrections, Probation and Parole Committee, plans to introduce a bill that would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole. The measure would have to pass the legislature in 2017 and again in 2019, before going to the voters in 2020. Ohrenschall will also propose legislation to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in the interim. Nevada’s last execution was in 2006 by lethal injection. The state says it can no longer obtain lethal injection drugs. It has 81 people on death row.

In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown announced that she would continue the moratorium on the death penalty that her predecessor, John Kitzhaber, imposed in 2011. A new study found that death penalty cases cost approximately three times what cases without death sentences cost. Her spokesman said among her reasons were the unavailability of lethal drugs, and “the constitutionality of . . . Oregon’s capital punishment law.” The state has 34 people on death row. Its last execution was in 1997.

In Kansas, four of the five Supreme Court justices up for retention, including the chief justice, who were targeted by a group calling itself Kansans for Justice, survived their recall campaign. KCUR radio says the justices “comfortably won retention.” Kansans for Justice formed after the court vacated the death sentences of two brothers, who were charged with killing five people in 2000. The court upheld three of each man’s four capital convictions, but vacated the death sentence each received for the remaining capital conviction, ruling that their sentencing hearings should have been held separately.

In Texas, Democrat Kim Ogg was elected district attorney in Harris County, defeating incumbent Republican Devon Anderson. Ogg campaigned on a platform of reforming the criminal justice system. Harris County is one of the “outlier counties” identified by Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project for the number of defendants it has sentenced to death. According to the FPP, in 2014, Anderson personally prosecuted a 21-year-old man despite the fact that the man’s IQ was in the 70s.

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