Just when you thought the legal morass that is lethal injection in the U.S. couldn’t get more complicated, it has. Hospira, Inc. of Lake Forest, Illinois, the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, announced last week that it is ending production of this key lethal injection drug. The company is moving the manufacture of the drug from its North Carolina plant to a more modern facility in Italy. But, because Italy, as well as the European Union, opposes the death penalty, Italian authorities demanded a guarantee from Hospira that the drug would not be used to put inmates to death—an assurance that the company said it could not give.
During the past several months, a shortage of sodium thiopental has forced some states to halt scheduled executions. Though Tennessee was moving forward with four scheduled executions last year, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled in November that Tennessee’s use of a three-drug cocktail to execute inmates, a cocktail which includes sodium thiopental, “allows for death by suffocation while conscious.”
Following this ruling, the state then quickly revised its protocol requiring that the prison warden check to see if the prisoner is unconscious after the first drug is administered and before the inmate gets a lethal dose of the other drugs. The warden checks for consciousness by brushing his hand over the inmate’s eyes, shaking the prisoner gently, and calling out his name. Defense attorneys argue that this added step won’t remove the risk, particularly since the warden is not medically trained. A ruling on this issue is expected in February.
The problems with lethal injection are just the tip of the iceberg when examining the death penalty system and will not be settled anytime soon. How much more time and money will we throw at this system before we realize that it can’t be fixed? With states slashing their budgets right and left, wouldn’t we all be better served trying to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place while supporting these surviving families of victims who have suffered rather than by continuing to spend millions on the death penalty?
Picture by hitthatswitch
Public records obtained by the ACLU now show that the Food and Drug Administration, which has publicly stated they have nothing to do with drugs used for executions, helped at least one state acquire sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used during executions. Email correspondence between Arizona and California prison officials indicates the FDA suggested that a supply of the drug, “be processed expeditiously to us as it was for the purpose of executions and not for use by the general public.” The release of this information, coupled with the FDA’s insistence they have no authority to test the drug for quality, has led to a federal lawsuit challenging the use of untested, oversees drugs.
Sodium thiopental has been in short supply since the sole U.S. manufacturer, Hospira Inc., stopped making the drug last year, citing “supplier issues.” Records confirm that Tennessee scrambled to find more sodium thiopental after lending small amounts to Georgia and Arkansas. These records also show that Tennessee eventually imported the drug from a British supplier and that the shipment came in only two days prior to a pending execution.
Last Thursday an article in the Chattanooga Free Times Press focused on someone who has received little attention in the days following Governor Bredesen’s decision to commute E.J. Harbison’s sentence. That person is Edith Russell. Edith Russell was the victim of the botched robbery that helped send E.J. Harbison to death row. In the article, written by Joan Garrett, Barbara McCorkle describes Edith Russell as a “perfectionist” who liked to “dress-up, collect antique jewelry, and do other people’s hair.” McCorkle, Edith’s cousin, recalls becoming obsessed with understanding the murder after researching her family genealogy
While learning about her cousin’s murder, McCorkle found out that no one from Russell’s family had requested to receive updates of Harbison’s appeals and that Russell’s burial plot did not have a tombstone. After learning this news, McCorkle admitted to feeling like her cousin “had just been forgotten.” McCorkle has since placed a tombstone on her cousin’s grave and even gone so far as to send Harbison a letter, asking about what happened the night Edith Russell was murdered. Although McCorkle has yet to hear back from Harbison, she understands that Harbison “had not wanted to end Russell’s life” and that “he has spent 26 years on death row, dying every day a very slow death, waiting for the day. … a very high price.”
Like the fond memories of so many other victims, those of Edith Russell would not have come to light without the dedication and caring displayed by those closest to her. Edith’s love of people and fixing their hair would have been drowned out by the graphic details of her murder and news from the courtroom. Far too often in capital trials and the necessary appeals that follow, we lose sight of a group deeply impacted by our death penalty system, victims and their families. In a system with life without parole as the maximum punishment, convicted criminals would be off the street and people could begin the process of healing without having the wounds continually ripped open by headlines featuring the person responsible for their loved one’s death. Victims and their families deserve better. Edith deserves better.
Yesterday, on the same day that the Illinois legislature voted to repeal that state’s death penalty, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen granted clemency to death row inmate Edward Jerome (E.J.) Harbison. Harbison has been scheduled to for execution multiple times in the past few years, most recently February 15, 2011.
In granting clemency in this case, Governor Bredesen stated, “It’s obviously a heinous crime, but when I compare it to others I don’t think it rose to the level of a death penalty crime. So I knocked it down one notch to life without parole. And that’s enough said, I guess.”
In 1983, Harbison, who had never been in trouble with the law before, was convicted in the Chattanooga murder of Edith Russell – an elderly, white woman – during a botched burglary. Although the state claimed the murder was premeditated, Harbison did not carry a weapon. Russell was killed with a vase from her house. While Harbison was sentenced to death, co-defendant David Schreane, whose criminal history included armed robbery and multiple burglaries, accepted a plea and served only six years. Worse still, Harbison’s lawyer never told the jury about Harbison’s background of horrific child abuse nor was the jury told that in adulthood, he assisted his father on handy-man jobs and was caretaker to his mentally disabled sister and girlfriend’s children. Until a few years ago, no one was aware that Harbison’s attorney also represented another man who admitted involvement in the same crime but was never charged– a clear and egregious conflict of interest.
Thankfully, Governor Bredesen recognized that Harbison’s death sentence was not appropriate and that a lesser sentence was warranted. Again, I cannot help but think of the money spent over the last 28 years in attempting to get and maintain this death sentence, when, had Haribson received a life sentence in the beginning, those resources could have been spent supporting the victim’s family and on effective crime prevention measures. What a waste.
TADP applauds Governor Bredesen for his action and for attempting to address the flawed process that led to Harbison’s death sentence. I hope that 2011 brings more attention by citizens and lawmakers alike to the fatal flaws in our death penalty system and empowers us to finally end a policy that serves no one.
Photo by Kate O’Neill
Illinois’ 96th General Assembly passed S.B. 3539 today when the state senate voted 32-25 in favor of the bill, which “will repeal the death penalty and place the funds remaining in the Capital Litigation Trust Fund into a fund to be used for murder victims’ families services and law enforcement.” The vote came after a very tense debate on the floor with both sides offering passionate arguments that included many personal stories. Many of the arguments focused on Illinois’ record of wrongful convictions. To date, Illinois has released 20 people from death row when evidence of their innocence emerged. One such exoneree, Randy Steidl, spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to the bill reaching the floor and was a constant presence throughout the legislative session. Murder victim family members Gail Rice and Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, who shared their stories and lobbied on behalf of the bill, were also in attendance.
This vote follows the bill’s passage in the House by a vote of 60-54 on January 6. The victory in the Illinois legislature comes eleven years after a moratorium on executions was put in place by then Governor George Ryan. In 2000, Ryan ordered the moratorium after it was discovered that a dozen innocent people had been sentenced to death in Illinois. Then, in 2003, as one of his final acts as Governor, Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 167 inmates to life. Illinois State Representative Elaine Nekritz, who voted for the repeal, commented, “I believe the history of the death penalty in Illinois demonstrates that we are not in a position to get it right 100 percent of the time.”
The bill now goes to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn for his signature. Should Governor Quinn sign the bill, Illinois will become the 3rd state in the modern era to legislatively repeal the death penalty following New Jersey in 2007 and New Mexico in 2009 and the 16th state in the country without the death penalty.
Congratulations to our colleagues in Illinois whose hard work and commitment resulted in this huge legislative victory.
Photo provided by jshyun
In its 2010 Year End Report, the Death Penalty Information Center reported 46 executions occurred in the United States, a 12% drop from the previous year and a 50% drop from 1999. Legal issues surrounding lethal injection protocols and a lack of sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs used in executions, contributed to the decline, with Arkansas, California, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kentucky all postponing or canceling executions. DPIC also reported that 61% of U.S. voters preferred sentences other than death for people convicted of capital crimes. Concerns over exorbitant costs, arbitrary sentencing, and fear of executing innocent individuals have all played a role in shifting public opinion on this issue. Further evidence of this shift away from the death penalty can be found in the same study, where 65% of U.S. voters supported “replacing the death penalty and using money saved for crime prevention.”