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Supreme Courts Examines Recusals in Death-Penalty Trials

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments earlier this week on whether former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille violated constitutional law when he ruled on a death penalty case in which he had been involved as a prosecutor,'s Jeremy Roebuck and Jonathan Tamari reports.

Castille, when he was the Philadelphia district attorney, authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Terrance Williams. Later, Castille, as a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, participated in the ruling rejecting Williams' appeal.

During oral argument, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. worried that requiring recusal in such circumstances "could lead to unintended ramifications such as requiring all prosecutors-turned-judges to step aside from cases for any prior involvement, no matter how small," Roebuck and Tamari report.

Death Penalty in Connecticut Ruled Unconstitutional

The Connecticut Supreme Court, 4-3, has ruled that the state's death penalty is unconstitutional for inmates who were already sentenced to death, The Huffington Post's Kim Bellware reports. Legislators already repealed the death penalty for future crimes.

The majority ruled that execution of inmates who committed capital felonies prior to April 2012 would violate the state's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Supreme Court, 5-4, Upholds Lethal Injection Drug

The U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4, has upheld the use of a drug in Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol that has been criticized as likely to cause inmates cruel and unusual punishment, The Huffington Post's Kim Bellware reports. Lawyers for the inmates on Oklahoma's death row aruged that midazolam "can't reliably render an inmate unconscious and free of pain while the second and third drugs paralyze him and stop his heart, thus making the execution cruel and unusual punishment."

Little Public Awareness with Major Supreme Court Rulings Pending

Even though the Supreme Court is going to issue rulings that could affect health care, capital punishment and same-sex marriage in the next few weeks, Pew Research Center's Meredith Dost reports that polling shows many Americans know very little about the highest court in the country. For example, only one-third knew that there are three women on the court and only 28 percent correctly identified Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote.

Lethal Injection in Oklahoma Faces Test in Supreme Court Today

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today on whether a drug used in Oklahoma's lethal-injection executions violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Christian Science Monitor's Warren Richey reports. At issue is whether midazolam, the first drug used in a three-drug cocktail, is "reliably effective in preventing condemned prisoners from suffering an intolerable level of pain during the execution process." The drug is supposed to make prisoners unconscious, but there have been three botched executions in which prisoners awoke and struggled during the administration of the later drugs.

Eighth Circuit: No First Amendment Right to Source of Execution Drugs

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Mon, 03/09/2015 - 11:40

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has ruled that death-row inmates in Missouri don’t have a First Amendment right to learn the identities of the pharmacies that compound the drug used in executions.

The Eighth Circuit, sitting en banc, noted that there has not been a history of public access to the identities of the pharmacies that supply the drugs used in lethal injections.

Second, the court said the inmates’ complaint “provides no basis to conclude that public access to detailed information about execution protocols plays a significant positive role in the functioning of the process in question, given that the practical effect of public disclosure would likely be frustration of the state’s ability to carry out lawful sentences.” 

In a per curiam opinion, the Eighth Circuit also ruled that death-row inmates must show in their complaints that execution methods are unconstitutional by alleging, one, that the method of execution is very likely to cause unconstitutionally painful deaths and, two, that there is an alternative method of execution that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of serious pain.” 

Several death-row prisoners in Missouri are challenging the use of compounded pentobarbital in executions as cruel and unusual punishment. Among other arguments, the defendants allege that super-potent pentobarbital could result in their suffocation and difficulty breathing before they lose consciousness.

In dissent, Circuit Judge Kermit E. Bye said that the majority’s ruling would impose heightened pleading standards when death-row inmates challenge their method of execution.

“The majority opinion establishes heightened pleading requirements for death-row inmates challenging a state’s method of execution under the Eighth Amendment,” Bye said. “This imposition is in opposition to governing Supreme Court precedent and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In other words, the Eighth Circuit now prevents death-row inmates from truly accessing the federal courts: a death-row inmate cannot benefit from discovery and is prohibited from challenging even a truly unconscionable method of execution if no other methods are readily available and obvious at the pleading stage.”

The majority disagreed that they imposed a heightened pleading requirement, ruling “the prisoners fail to satisfy their burden under the Eighth Amendment because they rely entirely on hypothetical and speculative harms that, if they were to occur, would only result from isolated mishaps,” according to the per curiam opinion.

The court’s ruling was 7-3 on most issues.

Judge Steven M. Colloton joined the majority except for the section of the opinion finding that the death-row inmates inadequately plead in their complaint that they face a substantial risk of severe pain by the use of pentobarbital. Judge Bobby E. Shepherd joined the majority except for the ruling that prisoners must identify an alternative method of execution in their complaints.

While the court rejected the facial challenge in this case, the court did allow an as-applied challenge to proceed in the case of Bucklew v. Lombardi. The inmate in that case alleges that his execution could result in excruciating pain because of a serious medical condition. 

Florida Supreme Court Halts Execution Over Lethal Drug Cocktail

The Florida Supreme Court stopped an execution scheduled this week because of questions over whether the state's lethal drug cocktail constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, Huffington Post's Kim Bellware reports. The execution has been halted pending the outcome in a U.S. Supreme Court case over whether a similar cocktail used in Oklahoma is unconstitutional.

10th Circuit Rejects Stay in Oklahoma Death Penalty Cases

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1oth Circuit rejected the requests for stays in four executions in Oklahoma, the Washington Post's Mark Berman reports. The executions are the first since Clayton Lockett's lethal injection was botched: "Lockett grimaced, clenched his jaw and writhed on the gurney before dying inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester on April 29. A state investigation released later found that the execution team failed to properly insert the needle to deliver the lethal injection drugs, a problem that was exacerbated when no one monitored the IV and compounded when no one involved knew what to do as the situation unfolded."

Oklahoma has a new protocol that the four death-penalty inmates are objecting to; they argue that the planned use of sedative midazolam would make them suffer a burning, intense pain as they are executed.

Ohio Changes Drug Cocktail for Executions

The Associated Press reports that Ohio is changing the two-drug cocktail it uses in executions after it was administered to an "inmate who repeatedly gasped and snorted during a troubling 26-minute execution."  The inmate's children are suing the state, arguing their father endured needless pain and suffering.

Instead, the state is going to use thiopental sodium, but that drug is no longer readily available in the United States.

Investigators Downplayed Details of Botched Execution

Clayton Lockett took 43 minutes to die when he was executed by the state of Oklahoma earlier this year. But investigators "downplayed and omitted disturbing details" about the botched execution, including that lawyers from the Attorney General's Office helped select the drug combination used for Lockett's execution, the Tulsa World reports.

Attorneys for death-row inmates said in a motion that a witness said "the scene 'was like a horror movie' as Lockett was bucking and attempting to raise himself off the gurney when he was supposed to be unconscious and dying," the newspaper further reports. A paramedic who struggled to start numerous IVs on the night of the execution told investigators that the process was a "'a cluster.'" The lawyers are challenging the state's execution procedures as cruel and unusual punishment.


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