In Brief: March 2017

Across the country, states, legislatures, and the courts found themselves grappling with death penalty issues. We look at some of the more significant developments .

In Florida, the senate approved a measure yesterday that would require a unanimous jury to recommend a death sentence. The senate action was in response to a state Supreme Court finding last fall that the requirement of a majority recommendation during the sentencing phase was unconstitutional. The measure is expected to be passed by the Florida House of Representatives today. The governor has indicated he will sign it.

The American Nurses Association, which represents 3.6 million nurses around the country, has announced that it is “proud to stand in strong opposition to the death penalty.” The ANA statement said that while it has “long been opposed to nurse participation in executions either directly or indirectly,” it is taking this further step now because it believes that if Neil Gorsuch is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, it will “likely tip the court in favor of capital punishment.”

In Ohio, the state’s attorney asked the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals this week to overturn a preliminary injunction issued in January that prohibited the state from going ahead with three executions that had been scheduled for February, March and April. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Merz said the state’s three-drug protocol could cause a “substantial risk of serious harm.” Midazolam was the first drug used in the problematic execution of Dennis McGuire in January 2014, the last execution carried out in Ohio. The next execution is scheduled for May.

In Texas, Democratic state Representative Toni Rose introduced a bill on Tuesday that would prohibit a defendant who was mentally ill at the time of his crime from being sentenced to death. HB 3080 would require that defendants prove they had a medical diagnosis or documented symptoms of mental illness. The Texas Tribune says the bill “faces an uphill battle in the GOP-led Texas Legislature.”

Also in Texas, two Democratic lawmakers have each introduced a bill that would remove a provision in its death penalty scheme that allows prosecutors to seek a death sentence for a co-defendant in a murder even if he was not involved in the actual killing. A recent case involving Jeff Wood, who was sentenced to death after his friend robbed a convenience store and killed a clerk, while Wood was waiting in a parked truck outside, is the impetus for the bills. Another state legislator, a conservative Republican, says he is also working to eliminate the so-called “law of parties” provision. Any modification would leave intact the ability to file death penalty charges in contract murders.

In Mississippi, a bill that would allow execution by firing squad, gas chamber, and electrocution passed the House last month and now goes to the Senate. The Inquisitr reports that HB 638 “was introduced as a counterpunch to a federal lawsuit filed against the state that claims execution drugs are unconstitutional.” Utah and Oklahoma are the only other states that use firing squads in executions.

In Kansas, a bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole was debated, with legislators ultimately making no decision about its future. HB 2167, which was sponsored by eight Republicans and seven Democrats, would have gone into effect on
July 1, and would not have been retroactive. Kansas has 10 people on death row, but hasn’t executed anyone since 1965.

In Arizona, which has had trouble procuring lethal injection drugs, the state Department of Corrections suggested in a new execution protocol that attorneys for inmates scheduled to be executed should supply the lethal injection drugs, a proposal Federal Public Defender Dale Baich told the Arizona Republic was “a bizarre notion that calls for actions that are both illegal and impossible.” The state hasn’t executed anyone since 2014 after it botched the execution of Joseph Wood using a new drug cocktail

In New Mexico, a Democratic majority on the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted 3-2 to block a bill that would have reinstated the death penalty in cases involving the murder of a child or law enforcement officer. The state repealed its death penalty in 2009.

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