In brief: March 2022

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In Kentucky, a bill prohibiting the execution of people with serious mental illness passed last week. HB 269 adds mental illness to the list of disabilities preventing the state from executing those convicted of capital murder.

In Tennessee, officials announced plans to execute five people this year, with the first killing scheduled for next month, the Tennessean reports. Seventy-one-year-old Oscar Franklin Smith’s execution has been set for April 21. He was convicted in 1989 of the murder of his estranged wife and her two teenage sons. His will be the state’s first execution in two years. There are 47 people on Tennessee’s death row. 

In Oklahoma, a two-week trial to determine the legality of the state’s lethal injection protocol ended earlier this month. KFOR News reports that presiding Judge Stephen P. Friot said he took 103 pages of notes during the six-week proceeding, noting that more data and expert testimony had been introduced from both sides than in any other similar trial nationwide. Twenty-six death row prisoners had filed the lawsuit, saying the state’s three-drug cocktail has caused extreme pain and suffering, violating the Eighth Amendment. Oklahoma has a history of botched executions, including one of its most recent, that of John Grant, who died vomiting and convulsing at his execution in October.

The U.S. Supreme Court reimposed the death sentence of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who set off one of the bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon,, CNN reports. The ruling reverses a 2020 federal appeals court decision nullifying the sentence and ordering a new penalty phase trial. The justices’ 6-3 ruling was in response to a Biden administration request to reinstate Tsarnaev’s original sentence, calling Tsarnaev a “terrorist” who caused “carnage at the finish line.” The administration’s efforts to have the death penalty reimposed surprised many since President Biden has publicly stated his opposition to capital punishment, and the Justice Department has imposed a moratorium on federal executions.

In California, Assemblymember Mark Stone, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, has introduced AB 2657, which would allow courts to remove the men and women who have intellectual disabilities from death row and resentence them to life. The bill authorizes those sentenced to death to file petitions raising their incompetence at any time after their conviction becomes final if a licensed mental health practitioner provides a declaration attesting to their disability. Currently, ten people on death row have asked the courts to determine that they are permanently incompetent, but it’s believed that there are many more with intellectual disabilities, especially dementia. 

Also in California, the district attorneys of San Bernardino, San Mateo, and Riverside counties lost another round in their efforts to participate in choosing California’s lethal injection method. 

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge had requested a rehearing on a lower court decision in 2018. That decision disqualified the district attorneys from intervening in a lawsuit filed by prisoners on death row, who were challenging the regulations, arguing that the protocol constituted cruel and unusual punishment. When Gov. Newsom put executions on hold, the plaintiffs and the state attorney general agreed to dismiss the litigation without prejudice since the question of the method was now moot. The district attorneys then attempted to intervene, and after a federal judge denied their motion, they appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which found that they had no standing in the litigation. A panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling earlier this month. “Hopefully, this means the end of the death penalty in California,” lead plaintiff Kevin Cooper said after the decision was announced. 

In Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay of execution for Michael Dean Gonzales four days before he was scheduled to be killed. Your Basin reports that the court issued the stay on the grounds of newly discovered evidence and intellectual disability. The paper reports that Gonzales’s attorney, Richard H. Burr, obtained the stay after notifying the court that the Odessa Police Department provided new evidence that “could prove his innocence.” Gonzales was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the murder of Merced and Manuel Aguirre in 1994, despite the lack of any physical evidence linking him to the murders. 

In Utah, a bill to end the death penalty was defeated last month. The vote came after a nearly three-hour hearing, in which almost a dozen family members recounted the details of the murders of their loved ones, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. With “each taking their turn to tell legislators of the horrific ways their sisters, daughters and children had died — and how executing the men who killed them would be the just punishment,” the bill failed by a 5-6 vote. And the paper noted that although it “appeared to have more momentum than in years past,” this was the earliest in the process that an abolition bill — this was the third in the last few years — has failed.

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