In brief: February 2017

Judicial override, mental illness, and lethal injection were just a few of the issues states were grappling with in the last few weeks in their death penalty debates.

In Alabama on Wednesday, a bill to remove judicial override in death sentencing was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It now goes to the full Senate. The bill would no longer allow judges to overrule a jury’s recommendation of life without parole, and impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state that allows a judge the final say in whether to sentence a defendant to death. According to, “Bill sponsor Sen. Dick Brewbaker told the committee that from 2005 to 2015, judges overrode juries and issued death sentences 23 times. Twelve of those came in election years, which Brewbaker said is a strong indication that politics was influencing the decisions.”

Seven states are expected to debate bills this year that would exempt defendants with mental illness from facing the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. DPIC says that Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia have either already introduced such legislation or plan to. In addition, “Six of the seven states have sponsorship from Republican legislators, indicating bipartisan support for the measures.”

In Ohio, A federal judge ruled that the state’s lethal injection protocol, which calls for a three-drug cocktail, including midazolam, which has been used in several problematic executions, will cause a “substantial risk of serious harm” or an “objectively intolerable risk of harm,” according to NPR. Both thresholds were set by the U.S. Supreme Court. The judge also barred the state from using the other two drugs, and suggested officials use compounded pentobarbital. After a three-year hiatus, Ohio was set to begin its first execution next week, with another scheduled for March, and a third in April. The judge’s ruling postpones all three.

In Missouri, Mark Christeson was executed last week in spite of the fact that, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune, his case was never fully reviewed in a federal court. The paper says Christeson’s attorneys missed a filing deadline. And even though the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his October 2014 execution and ordered the federal courts to appoint new attorneys, the courts did not allocate the money needed for the review. A federal judge then ruled that the missing deadline did not constitute abandonment, and the execution was allowed to proceed. Christeson and his cousin were found guilty of murdering a woman and her two children in 1998, when Christeson was 18 and his cousin, 17. His cousin, who testified against him, is serving a life sentence.

In Georgia, a group of Catholic bishops held a news conference in Augusta, where they displayed a petition with 7,000 signatures asking that the man accused of killing Fr. Rene Robert, a Catholic priest, not be sentenced to death if found guilty. According to the Washington Post, the bishops said Robert had signed a “Declaration of Life,” a document that detailed his wish that if he were killed, he didn’t want his killer sentenced to death. Robert counseled drug addicts and prison inmates in Florida. Prosecutors say Steven Murray, a former inmate whom Robert had worked with, abducted him last April, drove him to Georgia, and killed him. Prosecutors have not said whether they will honor Robert’s or the Catholic Church’s wishes when Murray goes to trial.

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