In brief: July 2019


New Mexico closed its death row late last month. The last two condemned prisoners, Timothy Allen and Robert Fry, had their sentences vacated by the NM Supreme Court on June 28, and will be resentenced to life in prison. New Mexico actually abolished its death penalty in 2009 — 10 years ago — but because Fry and Allen’s convictions and sentencing occurred prior to 2009, they remained on death row.

In Oregon late last month, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to restrict the state’s use of the death penalty. The Oregonian reports that the new law restricts capital crimes to terrorist acts that kill two or more people; killing a police officer; or killing a child under the age of 14. Legislators cannot abolish the death penalty because it was added to the state Constitution by voters and can only be abolished by voters. There are 30 people on Oregon’s death row. Its last execution was in 1997. The state has had a moratorium since 2011.

In Missouri, the Supreme Court set the execution date for Russell Bucklew for October 1, Missourinet reported.  In April, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, denied Bucklew’s appeal to be executed by lethal gas (nitrogen) instead of lethal injection. Bucklew had argued that because he suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a rare medical condition that causes blood-filled tumors in his head, throat and lips, lethal injection would cause him to choke to death on his own blood, thereby violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The opinion by the high Court shocked and outraged many with its cruelty. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, “The Eighth Amendment forbids ‘cruel and unusual’ methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”

In South Dakota,
 the state announced that Charles Rhines will be executed in early November for the 1992 murder of 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer, according to the Argus Leader. Rhines had appealed his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the jury was biased against him because he is gay. Many of the questions the jury asked the judge during deliberations indicated a gay bias. But in April, the Court declined to hear his appeal, freeing the state to set an execution date.

In Texas, the Houston Chronicle reports that the state “in a surprise move” is refusing to compensate Alfred Dewayne Brown for the 12 years he spent on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. Brown was convicted of the 2003 murder of Houston police Officer Charles Clark, but was released after phone records were discovered in 2013 that proved he wasn’t at the scene of the crime. He was released in 2017, declared actually innocent by both the Harris County district attorney, and a circuit court judge earlier this year, and was considered entitled to almost $2 million in compensation. The Chronicle says the state comptroller’s office is not explaining the reason for its denial. Brown’s lawyers plan to appeal.

In Indiana, the Washington Post reports, a federal judge vacated Bruce Carneil Webster’s death sentence last month based on new evidence showing that medical professionals had found he was intellectually disabled before he went on trial. The 46-year-old Webster had been convicted of joining four other men in the abduction, rape, and murder of 16-year-old Lisa Rene in Arlington, Texas in 1994. Federal Judge William Lawrence heard the appeal in Indiana because Webster is a prisoner at the federal prison in Terre Haute. According to the Post, Lawrence reviewed Webster’s IQ scores from the last 26 years, and found they “consistently demonstrate that Webster has an IQ that falls within the range of someone with intellectual deficits.” The Post says Webster’s scores are as low as 51 and 53. An IQ of 70 is considered the benchmark to determine intellectual disability. Webster will be sent back to federal court in Dallas to be resentenced.

In Oklahoma, the Oklahoman reports that a jury sentenced Derek Don Posey to death earlier this month for the 2013 murder of Amy Gibbins and her five-year-old son, Bryor. The paper reports that it was the first death sentence in over a year in Oklahoma, where executions have been on hold since 2015 while state officials devise a protocol for nitrogen gas.

You might also be interested in...

Federal judge finds Scott Panetti unfit to be executed by Texas

Scott Panetti, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia 35 years ago, was convicted of killing his wife’s parents in 1992 and sentenced...
Read More

Death penalty states may have difficulty finding lethal injection medical equipment

The Intercept reports that four companies that manufacture medical equipment, including Baxter International Inc., B. Braun Medical Inc., Fresenius Kabi,...
Read More

While we’re on the subject . . .

“Under the Eighth Amendment, execution by nitrogen is surely unusual because it has never been used as a method of...
Read More