Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled in favor of death row inmates in Tennessee, Arizona, and California who fought to keep sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that has long been used as part of the three-drug cocktail in lethal injections, from entering the country.
Last year the U.S. manufacturer of the drug announced that they would no longer produce it. While some states switched to pentobarbital, other states have still been trying to obtain sodium thiopental from overseas manufacturers. Judge Leon agreed with the plaintiffs in this case, insisting that the Food and Drug Administration is breaking the law by allowing the importation of this unapproved drug. Though the FDA has declined to comment on the ruling, the Obama administration had argued that it had discretion to allow unapproved drugs into the U.S. and contended that the death row inmates lacked standing.
Leon, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, went even further than blocking the FDA from allowing the drug into the country and scolding them for “stubbornly clinging to every last ounce of [their] discretionary authority.” He also ordered them to immediately notify state correctional departments who have foreign-manufactured sodium thiopental and inform them that it is illegal to use it and that they must return the drug to the FDA.
Brad Berenson, a lawyer for the death row inmates, said that “it was especially gratifying that the court recognized that even the most despised members of our society are entitled to the protections Congress gave to all Americans in the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.”
Judge Leon wrote “Here, the threatened injury–that unapproved foreign thiopental will fail to anesthetize plaintiffs properly during execution, causing conscious suffocation, pain, and cardiac arrest– is, to say the least, severe. Indeed, few in our society are more vulnerable than a death row inmate facing lethal injection.”
(photo credit: darrenjsylvester)
The defendant has already been found guilty, and now the jurors must decide his fate: life or death. On Sunday, March 18, the more than 100 people who gathered at St. Henry’s Church in Nashville were charged with making such a decision in the sentencing trial of Jesus, set in a modern day courtroom.
Illinois public defender Jeanne Bishop and former federal prosecutor and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota, Mark Osler, served as the attorneys in the trial, along with their co-counsel who are both students of Mark’s. Mark and Jeanne have enacted the trial in several states and just a few weeks ago, enacted it before a packed house at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee.
Mark had the idea for this trial about a decade ago and began researching the parallels between Jesus sentencing and death and modern death penalty laws. This research led to his book, Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment. Mark then met Jeanne at a People of Faith Against the Death Penalty Conference in Atlanta a few years ago, and the collaboration began.
Jeanne is an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a long time death penalty opponent, and is a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). Her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, was murdered in 1990, along with Nancy’s husband and their unborn child. Jeanne is clear that the death penalty would have done nothing to honor her sister’s memory. Instead, Jeanne left her work in corporate law to begin a career as a public defender, serving those who often have little voice or resources.
As a public defender, Jeanne represents many indigent people in her work and sees parallels between Jesus’ trial and the issues involved in defending those charged with with capital crimes today, including paid informants and questionable witnesses.
The trial itself includes testimony from several witnesses, including Simon Peter, a Roman centurion, the rich young ruler, and Malchus–the high priest’s slave whose ear Peter severs when Malchus comes with the crowd to arrest Jesus. After the closing arguments, the audience is divided into groups to serve as the jury in order to determine sentencing. On Sunday, all gave Jesus a sentence of less than death after deliberating for 20 minutes as to whether or not he met the aggravators for a death sentence.
No matter what the audience’s feelings about the death penalty are, Mark and Jeanne hope that this experience helps them to think about Jesus’ trial in a different way, providing a new perspective on the issue of the death penalty and the way it is currently applied and administered.
Particularly at this time of the year, as Christians experience the season of Lent through which Jesus’ followers prepare for his execution, the trial provides yet another way of living that experience anew and reflecting on its implications for the death penalty today, a penalty primarily affecting the poor, people of color, and those with mental illness or disability.
Thanks to Jeanne and Mark and St. Henry’s for a powerful Lenten lesson.
Today marks the one year anniversary of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signing legislation to repeal that state’s death penalty. With the stroke of a pen, Illinois became the fourth state to end its use of the death penalty in just four years, joining New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico.
In a recent opinion editorial, Illinois assistant public defender Charles W. Hoffman wrote, “The rightness of that decision is more clear than ever. Violent crime rates have not climbed. The public is no less safe. And the pursuit of justice has been served, not undermined.”
Between 1977 –when Illinois reinstated capital punishment– and 1999, 20 innocent men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated when evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged. In 2000, former Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in an effort to avoid having his state execute an innocent person and to allow time for study commissions to investigate the state’s capital punishment system. Over a decade later, it was finally concluded that the death penalty is broken beyond repair and Governor Quinn eradicated it.
The movement toward repeal continues as more and more people realize the unfairness, risk of innocence, and high costs of the death penalty. New death sentences and executions are at 40 year lows, public support for the death penalty has waned, and states like Maryland and Connecticut are close to repeal. Oregon’s governor has also halted all executions.
As we reflect on the victory in Illinois, let us recommit our efforts to ensuring that the remaining death penalty states will also realize a more efficient and effective justice system.
(Photo: Abolitionists watch IL Governor Pat Quinn sign the bill to repeal the death penalty in Illinois. Courtesy of Equal Justice USA)
An article that appeared in today’s Bristol Herald Courier details the case of Nickolus Johnson, a Tennessee death row inmate who was sentenced to death in 2007 for the 2004 killing of Bristol Police Officer Mark Vance. According to his attorney, Johnson is only in the beginning of his appeals process. The victim’s mother, Karen Vance, says that the process has been far too long already. Unfortunately, the reality is that the appeals process in death cases goes on for many years -even decades- putting victims families through further court dates, uncertainty, and pain.
Often those who support the death penalty argue that the lengthy process should be expedited and that it is ridiculous that it takes decades for an execution to take place after a defendant is convicted and sentenced. In Tennessee, inmates serve an average length of 22 years on death row. Such a lengthy process serves no one. However, given our fallible and convoluted system, it often takes decades to determine if someone has been wrongfully convicted.
Since 1973, 140 people have been released from death rows nationwide when evidence of their wrongful convictions emerged, three of which have been in Tennessee. In two of these Tennessee cases, it took over 20 years each for DNA evidence, demonstrating the wrongful convictions of these men, to be considered by a court. Given the multitude of problems in these cases- inadequate counsel, mistaken eyewitness testimony, etc.- these 140 exonerees’ lives literally depended on this appeals process. In a 2007 American Bar Association (ABA) report that outlined 93 guidelines for a fair and accurate system, Tennessee fully complied with only seven. Such results hardly give us confidence that the system is working properly.
The current system drags families like the Vances through an agonizing process, and change is desperately needed. But, because the system is not able to always get it right, the only effective solution is to repeal the death penalty, making life without parole the maximum punishment in Tennessee. Doing so would provide swifter justice for victims’ families, eliminate the risk of executing innocent people, save taxpayers millions of dollars, and still ensure public safety.
The Baltimore Sun recently reported that a group of legal scholars and attorneys, including two former Maryland attorney generals and former Maryland governor, were sending letters and preparing a report for Maryland legislature advocating the repeal of the death penalty.
The group is focused on clearing up misconceptions about the new death penalty law passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2009. The new law primarily reformed evidentiary standards and trial procedures in death penalty cases. For example, the death penalty can only be sought when there is biological or video evidence connecting the defendant to the crime. Also, the new law added a “second phase to the sentencing trials,” which substantially adds to the cost of death penalty trials, according to Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.
The letters and report argue that the new law does not limit the death penalty, but simply adds to its arbitrariness. Henderson commented that the evidentiary limits obscure the focus of prosecutors away from “the nature of the crime and remorse of the criminal” towards the more arbitrary fact of what kind of evidence is available. The only way to effectively eliminate these problems of arbitrariness and costs is to repeal the death penalty in Maryland.