On Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a stay of execution for Arkansas death row inmate Kenneth Williams, 38, clearing the way for his execution before midnight. Williams is the fourth and apparently final inmate Arkansas will put to death before its supply of one of three lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of April. Originally, Gov. Asa Hutchinson had scheduled eight executions, two at a time, over 11 days; courts have stayed four of them. Williams had been scheduled for execution at 7 p.m., but Arkansas had postponed it pending word from the Supreme Court.
Lawyers for Williams and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project had appealed his execution by arguing that the previous executions had been flawed and left the inmates suffering as they died, and also that Williams is developmentally disabled. Lawyers for the state told the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that while Williams has "low average" intelligence, he did not cooperate with the doctors testing his mental capacity. Williams was convicted of murdering two people and later confessed to a third murder, and when he escaped from prison, he killed a fourth person when his getaway car slammed into a water truck.
Arkansas has been racing against a self-imposed clock to execute eight death row inmates before its supply of the sedative midazolam expires on April 30. Four of the eight inmates scheduled for execution have received court reprieves, but on Thursday night, Arkansas executed Ledell Lee, 51, who was convicted of murdering his neighbor with a blunt object. It was the state's first execution since 2005. Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., four minutes before his death warrant expired. His last meal, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction, was holy communion.
Earlier Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court had lifted a stay on using a second drug in the state's three-drug lethal-injection cocktail, vecuronium bromide, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stay the executions of Lee and other petitioners, 5-4, with new Justice Neil Gorsuch siding with the court's four other conservatives. In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer highlighted the rationale for rushing the executions. "Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the 'use by' date of the state's execution drug is about to expire," he wrote. "In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random. ... I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country. The cases now before us reinforce that point."
The next two executions are scheduled for Monday, and another on April 27. Peter Weber
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said Wednesday night he is "both surprised and disappointed" that the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson, 47, one of two inmates scheduled to be executed Thursday night, part of the unprecedented eight executions Hutchinson had scheduled before the end of April. The first two executions, set for last Monday night, were blocked by court rulings, and if the Johnson stay isn't lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court, four of the eight inmates will have received temporary reprieves in court. Separately on Wednesday, a county judge blocked the state from using one of the three drugs in its lethal-injection cocktail, putting all of the planned executions in limbo.
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Johnson should be allowed to try to prove his innocence in a 1993 rape-murder using post-conviction DNA testing. A Pulaski County judge rejected a similar request from the other inmate scheduled to be put to death on Thursday, Ledell Lee, whose lawyers also argue he has an intellectual disability.
In the other case Wednesday, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray sided with McKesson Corp., the country's largest drug distributor, which argued that the Alabama Department of Corrections had purchased its supply of vecuronium bromide under false pretenses, knowing that drugmaker Pfizer does not allow its products to be used for capital punishment. McKesson said that the Arkansas Department of Corrections had promised to return the drugs for a refund, but had pocketed the refund and kept the drugs. Another Pulaski County judge, Wendell Griffen, had also ruled in favor of McKesson over the weekend, but the Arkansas Supreme Court vacated his injunction on Monday because he had been photographed participating in an anti-death penalty protest.
Alabama had scheduled its four double executions in 11 days because its supply of a second lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of April. Peter Weber
An Arkansas judge on Friday issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state from carrying out a planned eight executions before the end of April. One of the eight was previously stayed by a federal judge. The executions were scheduled to begin Monday and would have been the state's first in 12 years.
Judge Wendell Griffen's ruling specifically prohibits the state from using its supply of vecuronium bromide, a drug used for lethal injection which the manufacturer says was purchased by Arkansas under false pretenses. The state allegedly said it wanted the drug for medical use, not capital punishment.
A new hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. Arkansas intends to appeal the stay. Bonnie Kristian
In 2016, 30 people were sentenced to death in the United States, the lowest number since the early 1970s and a sharp decline from the 49 people handed the death penalty in 2015 and the 315 sentenced to death in 1996, the peak year, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The 20 executions carried out also marked a 25-year low — 14 people were put to death in 1991 — and a drop from last year's 28 executions and the 1999 apex, 98.
"I think we are watching a major political climate change concerning capital punishment and it's reflected among reduced death sentences across the country," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, which opposes capital punishment. The decline in executions is also attributable to a shortage of drugs used in lethal-injection cocktails and more aggressive legal challenges by defendants. Still, only 49 percent of Americans now support the death penalty, according to a recent Pew poll, the lowest number since the mid-1960s and a big drop from the 80 percent who favored capital punishment in 1994.
At the same time, voters in California and Nebraska rejected measures to ban capital punishment in the November election, leaving it legal in 31 states. California — which hasn't carried out an execution since 2006 due to legal challenges — still sentenced the most people to death this year, nine, followed by Ohio (five), Texas (four), Alabama (three), and Florida (two). Georgia executed the most people, nine, followed by Texas (seven), Alabama (two), and Missouri and Florida (one). Peter Weber
Brandon Astor Jones, 72, was executed by lethal injection at 12:46 a.m. on Wednesday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification prison in Jackson, The Guardian reports. Jones was the oldest inmate on Georgia's death row, having faced 35 years of living with the death sentence after being accused of killing the manager of a convenience store in 1979 with an accomplice, Van Roosevelt Solomon.
Solomon was executed in 1985; Jones' sentence was overturned in 1989 because a trial judge had used a Bible to possibly influence the jury. Jones was sentenced again in 1977, although he continued to appeal for years saying he had a history of mental illness and childhood sexual abuse.
— New Internationalist (@newint) January 19, 2016
"We have this very strange situation now in which these people sentenced to death a long time ago — and who managed to get through all the stages of review — are now being executed. They almost certainly would not be sentenced to death today," President Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights told The Intercept. Bright called situations like Jones' "zombie cases" that "remind us of just how unfair" the justice system used to be.
On Tuesday night, Texas executed its 11th inmate this year, killing 35-year-old Juan Garcia through lethal injection. Garcia admitted to killing Mexican immigrant Hugh Solano in Houston during a botched robbery in 1998, when Garcia was 18, but insisted it was an accident during a fight for the gun. Prosecutors say Garcia got just $8 from Solano. Despite Garcia's long rap sheet, Solano's widow asked the judge not to sentence him to death, saying she forgave him for the murder. She and her daughter were at the execution, weeping, NBC News reports, and Garcia apologized to them in Spanish before he died, saying: "The harm that I did to your dad and husband — I hope this brings you closure.... I never wanted to hurt any of you all."
— BBC Mundo (@bbcmundo) October 7, 2015
Update 1:26 p.m.: The court has halted Glossip's execution after his lawyers said they had new evidence. Our original article appears below.
The state of Oklahoma is expected to proceed today with the controversial execution of Richard Glossip, a man convicted of hiring a contract killer to commit a murder in 1997.
Glossip was sentenced to death after he refused to confess to the killing he says he did not order. His case has attracted considerable attention because of the lack of physical evidence against him and contradictory statements from the confessed killer, who pointed to Glossip as the mastermind to escape being placed on death row himself.
"The Glossip case bears many of the hallmarks of the wrongful convictions that plague the death penalty system — inept defense attorneys, zero physical evidence, and the reliance on the testimony of a single person," said Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.
Further complicating Glossip's sentence is Oklahoma's intention to execute him using the sedative midazolam, which in previous executions resulted in agonizing deaths that were dragged out for as long as two hours. In June, the Supreme Court ruled against Glossip's appeal arguing that death by midazolam constituted cruel and unusual punishment.