In brief: May 2019


In Virginia, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld a district court ruling that death row prisoners’ long-term detention in solitary confinement creates a “substantial risk” of psychological and emotional harm. The Fourth Circuit also agreed that the state was “deliberately indifferent” to the risk. This decision by the Fourth Circuit means the state cannot reinstitute solitary confinement and other conditions the district court found unconstitutional in 2018.

In Georgia, 52-year-old Scotty Morrow was executed last week. reports that Morrow was executed by lethal injection for the December 1994 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Ann Young, and her friend, Tonya Woods. Morrow’s death sentence had been overturned by a state court judge in 2011 on ineffective assistance of counsel, and a new trial was ordered, but the state Supreme Court reversed that decision and reinstated his death sentence. This was Georgia’s first execution this year.

In California, death row prisoner Miguel Magallon was found dead in his cell at San Quentin State Prison late last month. Prison officials say the cause of death is unknown. The 35-year-old Magallon was sentenced to death in 2009 for the murder of Los Angeles police office Capt. Michael Sparkes. And Brett Pensinger, a death row prisoner since 1982, died last week. Corrections officials say the 56-year-old Pensinger, who was convicted of killing five-month-old Michelle Melander in San Bernardino County, died of natural causes. Since 1978, 80 condemned prisoners have died from natural causes, 26 died by suicide, 13 were executed, 11 have died from other causes, and five deaths (including Magallon’s) are under investigation. There are 734 men and women on death row in California.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill abolishing the death penalty that was passed by the House and Senate last month. However, the bill passed with a veto-proof majority, and the legislature is expected to override the veto before the current session adjourns in the next few months. New Hampshire will be the 21st state to abolish capital punishment.

In Louisiana, a new report finds that the state’s death penalty has cost taxpayers a minimum of $15.6 million a year over the past ten years. The Advocate reports that the study’s authors, retired New Orleans district Judge Calvin Johnson and Loyola Law Prof. William Quigley, also estimated that a defendant sentenced to death this year would probably exhaust all appeals in 2037 at the earliest, and in that length of time, Louisiana taxpayers will have spent another $281 million. There are 65 men and one woman on death row. The state’s last excution was in 2010.

In Texas, the final statements of prisoners who have been executed will no longer be made public. The Los Angeles Times reports that a state senator was so disturbed by the final statement from John William King, who was executed late last month, that he demanded corrections officials stop releasing such statements. King, an avowed racist, was one of three men convicted of killing James Byrd, Jr., a black man, by dragging him from the back of a truck in 1998. King is the third prisoner to be executed in Texas this year, and the fourth in the U.S.

In Pennsylvania, two state legislators, a Democrat and a Republican, are asking representatives from both sides of the aisle to join them in sponsoring a bill that would abolish the death penalty. Rep. Christopher Rabb, a Democrat, and Rep. Francis Ryan, a Republican, offer several reasons to abolish, including the exorbitant cost and the lack of deterrence, but focus on the risk of executing an innocent person. “One innocent life taken at the hands of the state is one too many,” the memorandum states three separate times.

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