Archive for November, 2010
Yesterday the Tennessee Supreme Court halted the execution of Stephen West, who was scheduled to die tonight, as well as the scheduled executions of 3 other inmates: Billy Ray Irick, Edmund Zagorski, and E.J. Harbison. The court stopped the executions in order to further study the constitutionality of the new lethal injection protocol in Tennessee.
Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman recently ruled that Tennessee’s protocol “allows for death by suffocation while conscious.” In response to that ruling, the state added a procedure where the Warden brushes his hand over the inmate’s eyelashes and shakes him to ensure that he is unconscious before the second drug, a paralytic, is administered.
The Tennessee Supreme Court approved the new plan just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday without the state having to prove that this new procedure is constitutional. “The defendants (the state) waited until the eve of the Thanksgiving holidays to spring a new protocol on the court and Mr. West with nothing to demonstrate its constitutionality,” West’s attorneys said.
The Tennessee Supreme Court reconsidered its decision and is now allowing for the issue to be considered by a lower court. The court is expected to hear arguments and rule within 90 days. Until the issue is settled, the executions of Billy Ray Irick, Edmund Zagorski, and E.J. Harbison are also stayed.
This turn of events in the continuing saga of Tennessee’s death penalty demonstrates, yet again, that the system is broken and should be repealed. Now, the family and friends of Wands and Shelia Romines are subjected to more anguished waiting and legal wrangling. Had West received two life sentences as his co-defendant did, the state’s time, energy, and resources could have been focused on the Romines family and measures to prevent such violence from happening again, instead of its current focus–executing Stephen West.
When will we decide that enough is enough?
Read the full story.
Photo provided by TNJN
The Tennessee Supreme Court found the Department of Corrections’ newly-drafted lethal injection protocol constitutional Wednesday, clearing the way for the scheduled execution of Stephen West. Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman had ruled the previous procedures unconstitutional after medical professionals found that insufficient amounts of sodium thiopental caused inmates to suffocate. The new protocol requires the warden to shake the inmate after the first injection to ensure the inmate is unconscious. With the execution only a day away, Stephen West’s attorneys are now turning to the United States Supreme Court, where they plan to appeal the constitutionality of the new lethal injection protocol as well as improperly withheld information about West’s history of mental illness during his sentencing trial.
With the Department of Corrections placing Stephen West on death watch, TADP will hold vigils across the state to remember all those individuals whose lives have been lost to murder as well as the families who have been traumatized. And, as we remember, we also gather to resist the continued use of violence as a means to address these tragedies.
Because there is a new execution time, 10:00 p.m., plans have changed around the TADP vigil in Nashville. Because of the earlier time frame, Nashville TADP will hold only one event on the eve of the execution. We will gather on Tuesday, November 30th, in the field just past the entrance to Riverbend at 7:30 p.m and will hold an interfaith Service of Remembrance and Resistance at 8:00 p.m. in this location. Following the service, we will wait together until 9:30 when we will begin our candlelight vigil until the execution occurs or a stay is granted.
Photo provided by TNJN
On Friday, Davidson County Judge Claudia Bonnyman ruled in favor of Stephen West’s challenge to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s current lethal injection protocol, stating it “allows for death by suffocation while conscious.” Her ruling was supported by the testimony of two medical experts, one an anesthesiologist, who determined that the levels of sodium thiopental were too low to render the inmates unconscious. In his closing argument, defense attorney Stephen Kissinger summarized the experts’ analysis. “The only drug that was at lethal levels was the pancurium bromide, the drug that paralyzes the inmates, so that they can’t breathe, so that they can’t cry out, and it suffocates them.”
The state will have the opportunity to appeal the ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court. This appeal will likely occur immediately. The Tennessee Supreme Court has the option of affirming the lower court’s ruling, requiring the state to change the protocol to meet constitutional guidelines prior to West’s execution, or overturning the decision, thus clearing the way for West’s November 30th execution date.
As recently reported by the Tennessean, executed inmates in Tennessee may not be properly anesthetized during their executions, meaning there is a risk that they are conscious and experience a death similar to being buried alive.
Stephen West’s execution was stayed pending the outcome of a hearing to determine whether or not the current lethal injection protocol risks violating an inmate’s 8th Amendment right not to be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment.” West’s execution is currently scheduled for November 30 at 10:00 p.m.
At issue is the level of the anesthetic agent, sodium thiopental, in the bodies of Tennessee inmates who were executed under this protocol. Particularly, the autopsy results for Steve Henley, executed on February 4, 2009, showed that the level of sodium thiopental was not enough to ensure unconsciousness when he was executed. Furthermore, Henley turned blue, followed by deeper shades of purple, indicating that he was suffocating.
Sadly, the family and friends of Wanda and Shelia Romines are now forced to endure more waiting and more painful testimony as this hearing proceeds. The reality of the death penalty is that instead of bringing “closure” to these already traumatized families, the protracted process only drags families through more pain and more hurt as they wait for executions to be carried out. If Stephen West had received life without parole at his trial, the state would not have spent the millions of dollars in resources, energy, and time fighting over his sentence and now lethal injection. Stephen West’s name would not be in the news today, and the Romines’ family could have tried to moved forward as best they could, without having to relive this nightmare over and over again.
The other painful part of these hearings is that for the families of Robert Coe, Philip Workman, and Steve Henley, reading about the possibility of their loved ones suffering a horrific death by suffocation, retraumatizes them as well. But, unlike the victims’ family members who are given permission–as well they should be–to voice their pain, the families of the executed suffer in silence and often alone as there is no outpouring from the community about what they have been through.
Some will say that these men deserved their deaths and worse, but their families did not. And yet, it is their families who suffer now and not the perpetrators of these crimes.
I pray for a day in Tennessee when we no longer have to spend time and resources discussing how to kill people, if they suffer, how much they suffer, if some suffering is okay, etc., and instead, we can focus our attention and energy where it should be focused–on the surviving families of the murder victims who need emotional, spiritual, and financial help in the wake of a murder as well as on the root causes of violence and how to prevent more violence in the future.
Read more here.
Picture by hitthatswitch
Ten years after Texas executed Claude Jones for the the murder of Allen Hilzendager, forensics experts are saying the one piece of physical evidence linking Jones to the crime, a lone piece of hair, does not belong to Claude Jones. Using mitochondrial DNA testing, a process available prior to Jones’ execution, Mitotyping Technologies found that the hair used to sentence him to death, belonged not to Jones, but Allen Hilzendager. Jones and his attorneys filed a motion to test the hair prior to his 2000 execution. Jones’ appeal was turned down by both the district court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Innocence Project and the Observer, a Texas magazine, obtained the hair from the San Jacinto County courthouse in 2010 after a three-year legal battle with the district attorney’s office. While the lack of DNA evidence does not prove Claude Jones’ innocence, it certainly casts a shadow of suspicion on a system that consistently seems to place more emphasis on upholding convictions than ensuring it has convicted the right people.
More than 220 attendees gathered at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s University Center last night to hear the stories of two brothers, both deeply affected by mental illness and the criminal justice system. David Kacyznski, brother of Ted Kaczynski (the so-called Unabomber), spoke about how unimaginable it was that his older brother Ted, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, could be the most wanted man in America. While Ted Kaczynski would plead guilty and receive a life sentence, David reminded the audience that not all people who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness receive similar treatment.
Bill Babbitt reiterated this point when speaking about his brother Manny, who was executed in California on his 50th birthday. A decorated war veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, Manny Babbitt was sentenced to death after a woman he assaulted died of a heart attack. Bill Babbitt admitted during his presentation that he “was always a believer in the death penalty … until it came knocking on my door.”
Both speakers stressed the importance of a criminal justice system that recognizes people with severe and persistent mental illness as “more likely to make false confessions and more commonly fire their lawyers and represent themselves in court.” Following the presentation, representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness urged attendees to support legislation in Tennessee that would exclude people who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness from the death penalty just as people with intellectual disability are currently excluded.
On Saturday, the Tennessee Supreme Court gave Stephen West a temporary stay of execution, deciding that the Davidson County Chancery Court can hear evidence in a lawsuit that West’s attorneys filed claiming that inmates executed by lethal injection experience severe pain, violating their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit claims the first drug in Tennessee’s three-drug lethal injection protocol, sodium thiopental, does not properly anesthetize inmates, which is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In this latest appeal, West’s attorneys state that the autopsy results from Steve Henley’s execution in February 2009 indicate that Henley may not have been unconscious when he died. Henley’s autopsy, not released by the state for months after his execution, showed that the level of sodium thiopental in Henley’s body just after the execution was inadequate to cause unconsciousness. The appeal states that witnesses during the execution saw Henley’s face turn blue and purple and also said that the autopsy suggests he died from suffocation while also not adequately anesthetized.
And, though this latest news about Steve Henley’s execution is extremely painful to hear, particularly for his family and friends, TADP hopes that his ordeal might help other inmates facing execution.
TADP also wants to thank all of you who wrote letters, mailed clemency cards, made calls, or sent emails to Governor Bredesen requesting clemency.
TADP will get out information about the statewide vigils to be held on November 30, if Steve West does not get further relief from the courts.
Read the full story.
The state of Tennessee plans to execute Stephen West at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 9, at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
On March 18, 1986, Stephen West, 23, and Ronnie Martin, 17, were arrested for the murders of Wanda and Sheila Romines. West was ultimately sentenced to death in 1987 for the murders though his co-defendant confessed to being the actual killer. However, because Martin was a juvenile at the time, he was ineligible to receive the death penalty so he received two life sentences instead.
Read the case summary here and see a sample letter that you can use to email Governor Bredesen at Phil.Bredesen@tn.gov to ask for clemency for West. You can also call the Governor’s office at 615.741.2001 or fax at 615.532.9711.
If the execution moves forward, TADP will hold vigils across the state to remember all those individuals whose lives have been lost to murder as well as the families who have been traumatized. And, as we remember, we also gather to resist the continued use of violence as a means to address these tragedies.
Because there is a new execution time, 10:00 p.m., plans have changed around the TADP vigil in Nashville. Because of the earlier time frame, Nashville TADP will hold only one event on the eve of the execution. We will gather on Tuesday, November 9, in the field just past the entrance to Riverbend at 7:30 p.m and will hold an interfaith Service of Remembrance and Resistance at 8:00 p.m. in this location. Following the service, we will wait together until 9:30 when we will begin our candlelight vigil until the execution occurs or a stay is granted.
In Knoxville, there will be 2 services. The first is a candlelight vigil of Remembrance and Resistance on the UTK campus, outside the 2nd floor of Hodges Library, to be held on Sunday, November 7th from 6-8 pm. A second service in Knoxville will be on Monday, November 8th at 7 pm at the Church of the Savior off Weisgarber road.
In Memphis, a vigil will be held on November 9 at 7:00 at Immaculate Conception Cathedral.
There is still time to let the Governor know that you would like this execution to be stopped. Act now.
Whether they like it or not, Tennessee residents will pay a lot of tax dollars to have Jessie Dotson executed. An article in Sunday’s Commercial Appeal stated that the state has already spent nearly $450,000 trying and convicting Dotson, who was sentenced to six death sentences.
While these costs may seem outrageous to the public, they are certainly not extraordinary considering capital cases are more expensive than non-capital cases at every level. According to the Commercial Appeal, the state spent over $250,000 on the defense alone. Marty McAffee, who served as co-counsel for Jessie Dotson, is quoted as saying, “Because it’s so final, they’ve got to spend resources. We could save a lot of money by not having the death penalty in Tennessee. Life in prison is enough to break even the worst of the worst. That would be a better use of Tennessee’s resources.”
McAffee’s words become even more poignant when the cost of incarceration data provided by the 2004 Comptroller’s report fails to give the whole story. Given the Department of Corrections recent estimate that they spend $34,065.45 to house a death row inmate for a year, $23,699.45 to house an inmate serving life without parole, and the average 22 years spent on death row, executions only “save” taxpayers $435,532.60 incarceration costs rather than the $773,736 cited in the Comptroller’s report. And again, the “savings” referred to in the report only take into account incarceration costs.
When compared with the exorbitant costs spent on a capital trial as well as the costs of the numerous appeals available within our current judicial system, the state ultimately spends far more on the death penalty as a whole than life without parole. And given that a 2001 report in the Tennessean stated that of the 151 death sentences that had completed review in both state and federal court, 76 had been reversed, citizens often pay for expensive capital trials (the most costly part of the process) with almost half of the defendants ending up with life sentences anyway.
In 2007, the Tennessee Comptroller’s office testified before the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty that, though the office did a cost study in 2004, the fact is that because the data is not centralized, there is no way to really get at the true costs of the death penalty to Tennesseans. For all the talk among politicians about government spending and accountability, I have heard no one demanding that Tennesseans get a true accounting of how much we are spending on the death penalty system.
We can hold violent individuals like Mr. Dotson accountable for their crimes and keep society safe without spending precious resources on the death penalty and without putting the victims families through 20 years of waiting for the sentence to be carried out. There is another way.
To read the more click here.
Photo provided by velo_city