In brief: May 2023


(This post was updated on June 1, 2023.)

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis withdrew a hold on the June 15 death warrant for Duane Owen, reported. On May 22, DeSantis issued a temporary stay of execution and appointed three psychiatrists to assess Owen’s mental competence. According to Flaglerlive, DeSantis said the psychiatrists found that Owen ” has the mental capacity to understand the nature of the death penalty and the reasons why it is to be imposed upon him.” Owen’s lawyers filed a brief earlier this week arguing that the Supreme Court should call off the execution and send the case back to a lower court for a competency determination. If it goes ahead, this would be the state’s fourth execution this year and the fourth in four months. Owen was convicted of two separate sexual assaults and murder in 1984, the Washington Post reported. Fourteen-year-old Karen Slattery and 38-year-old Georgianna Worden were killed in separate attacks two months apart in Palm Beach County.

Also in Florida, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell announced she will seek the death penalty in the case of 19-year-old Keith Moses. He is accused of fatally shooting 38-year-old Natacha Augustin, 9-year-old T’Yonna Major, and 24-year-old Dylan Lyons and injuring two others in February. Worrell, who stressed that she is “unequivocally opposed to the death penalty,” indicated that her office’s capital case review panel recommended the death penalty in the case, the Orlando Sentinel reported. She denied that political pressure from Republican officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott, was a factor in her decision, according to the paper. 

In Ohio, a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty was introduced this month with bipartisan support. SB 101, introduced by Senate Democratic Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) and Sen. Stephen Huffman (R-Tipp City), would abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. WHIOTV reported that the two sponsors said abolition would save taxpayers millions of dollars, noting that “The cost of the average death penalty, including execution, is $3 million per inmate compared with the average cost of a life without parole sentence for an Ohio inmate is about $1 million.” Ohio has 124 people on its death row. Its last execution was in 2018.

In Tennessee, the 1983 death sentence for a man convicted of a double murder was vacated because of his intellectual disability, WREG reported. Michael Sample, convicted with another man of the shooting deaths of store clerks Benjamin Cooke and Steve Jones during a robbery in 1981, was resentenced to life in prison. The state revised its death penalty law in 2020, clarifying that a person with an intellectual disability could not be executed. 

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill that will allow the state to hide the identities of pharmaceutical companies and drug manufacturers who provide the lethal injection drugs used in executions, the Greenville News reported. The bill, which passed by a 32-6 vote, provides confidentiality to any “person or entity that participates in the planning or administration of an execution,” according to the paper. It also prohibits disclosure of information about any former or current member of the execution team or their families, and subjects violators to imprisonment for up to three years. The legislators hope the bill will allow them to restart state killing after a 12-year pause caused by an inability to obtain lethal drugs. 

In Alabama, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Joseph Clifton Smith’s death sentence on the basis of his intellectual disability, affirming a lower court’s 2021 decision, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. Smith was sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of Durk Van Dam in a robbery. The Advertiser reports that “Of the known IQ tests Smith has taken in his life, his scores have ranged from 72-78.”

In California last week, a Contra Costa County judge dismissed gang charges against four men under the California Racial Justice Act, the East Bay Times reported. Judge David Goldstein ruled that county prosecutors have targeted Black defendants with enhancements that make it possible to sentence them to life without parole, according to the paper. The judge based his ruling on a “decade of data” showing that gang charges are filed more frequently — by six to eight percent –against Black people, according to the East Bay Times.

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