death penalty
July 16, 2020

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 early Thursday to clear the way for the execution of Wesley Ira Purkey, lifting two injunctions that had temporarily halted the second federal execution in 17 years. Purkey was convicted of the grisly rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1998, and his lawyers had argued his dementia was so advanced now he "no longer has a rational understanding of why the government plans to execute him." The same five conservative justices who had allowed the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on Tuesday did not find that argument persuasive.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that "proceeding with Purkey's execution now, despite the grave questions and factual findings regarding his mental competency, casts a shroud of constitutional doubt over the most irrevocable of injuries." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer joined her dissent. Lee had been strapped to the execution gurney for several hours while the high court weighed his appeal, and when the Supreme Court gave the green light, he was quickly injected with pentobarbital. Purkey's execution will likely take place in a similarly expedited fashion. Peter Weber

July 14, 2020

Ruth Friedman, the attorney for Daniel Lewis Lee, expressed outrage following the execution of her client Tuesday morning, which marked the first time the federal government has imposed capital punishment since 2003.

In a statement, Friedman provided a harrowing account of the hours leading up to Lee's execution as the Justice Department sought approval from the Supreme Court, which eventually dismissed an injunction from a federal judge who was concerned Lee and two other inmates weren't given enough time to argue their cases that the government's lethal injection violated their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. Before the final stay was lifted, Friedman said Lee "remained strapped to a gurney" for four hours. Within 31 minutes, the execution was carried out.

Friedman was not present at the execution and says she was never notified it was happening, meaning Lee had no counsel at his side while "multiple motions" on his case were still pending. Tim O'Donnell

July 14, 2020

The Supreme Court ruled early Tuesday that the Justice Department can go ahead with three executions this week, dismissing Monday's injunction from a federal judge concerned that the inmates weren't being given enough time to argue their case that the government's lethal injection drug violated their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-4 decision clears the way for the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

"The plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim," a claim that "faces an exceedingly high bar," the unsigned majority opinion from the court's five conservative justices read. The four more liberal justices issued multiple dissenting opinions.

Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that "significant questions" remain unanswered about the constitutionality of executing prisoners with barbiturate pentobarbital, which the plaintiffs said can cause the terror-inducing sensations of drowning or asphyxiation before an inmate dies. Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the high court is "allowing death-sentenced inmates to be executed before any court can properly consider whether their executions are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual." Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Kagan and Ginsburg, said the court was wrongly accepting "the governments' artificial claim of urgency to truncate ordinary procedures of judicial review."

The federal government has observed a moratorium on capital punishment since 2003. Peter Weber

July 14, 2020

UPDATE: Hours after publishing, the Supreme Court dismissed the injunction and cleared the way for this week's three executions.

A federal judge stepped in Monday to stop the first federal executions since 2003, ruling that the three inmates slated to be put to death this week have a right to argue their concerns about the constitutionality of lethal injection drugs in court. "The public is not served by short-circuiting legitimate judicial process," said U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, D.C. The Trump administration immediately appealed the decision, and when the federal appeals court in D.C. declined to overturn the stay, the administration petitioned the Supreme Court.

Attorney General William Barr lifted a hold on federal executions last year, and Daniel Lewis Lee was scheduled for execution at the federal person in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Monday evening. Lee was convicted of the murders of three people, including an 8-year-old girl, in Arkansas in 1996, as part of a white supremacist plot to set up a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.

Last month, Barr said "we owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system."

But family members of Lee's victims were among the biggest opponents of executing him, arguing he should be given a life sentence like the plot leader who participated in the murders. They also have an appeal at the Supreme Court. "For us it is a matter of being there and saying, 'This is not being done in our name; we do not want this,'" said relative Monica Veillette.

The federal government has executed just three people since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. But things have shifted "since the Justice Department last carried out an execution in 2003," The Washington Post notes. "Executions and death sentences have both declined significantly, public support for capital punishment has fallen, and more states have abolished the practice entirely. State have struggled to obtain drugs, with pharmaceutical firms opposing the use of their products to carry out death sentences, in some cases going to court to fight against it." Peter Weber

August 22, 2019

Texas executed Larry Ray Swearingen on Wednesday night for the 1998 murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter. The Supreme Court had denied his request for a stay just before 6 p.m. CDT, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had declined to commute his sentence, and state and federal courts had upheld his conviction. The prosecutor who got Swearingen's conviction, Kelly Blackburn, said he's sure Texas executed the right man, as did Trotter's mother. But Swearingen has maintained his innocence from the beginning, and his defense team has steadily poked holes in the forensic evidence, calling it "junk science."

"Today the state of Texas murdered an innocent man," Swearingen said in a statement released to The Washington Post on Wednesday, before his death. His last words were: "Lord forgive 'em. They don't know what they're doing."

Swearingen was convicted on strong circumstantial evidence, but earlier this month his lawyers presented new evidence suggesting that the key piece of physical evidence — half a pair of pantyhose that prosecutors said matched hose used to strangle Trotter — didn't match. The blood under Trotter's fingernails was from a man but not Swearingen — a state lab technician attested that the blood flakes were probably evidence contamination, though the state lab said earlier this month that the technician had no grounds for that testimony. And experts said Trotter was probably dead no longer than two weeks when hunters found her in the woods; Swearingen had been in jail for three weeks for unpaid parking tickets.

"Larry Swearingen needs to be removed from the annals of history as far as I'm concerned," Blackburn said. "A bad man got what he deserved tonight." Swearingen's attorney, James Rytting, disagreed. "They may put Larry Swearingen under," he said. "But his case is not going to die." Peter Weber

August 10, 2018

On Thursday night, Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick, 59, for the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer. He's the first death row inmate Tennessee executed since 2009 and the state's first one using a controversial lethal cocktail containing midazolam, a drug aimed at stopping pain before the inmate is injected with the paralytic drug vecuronium bromide and finally compounded potassium chloride, the lethal drug.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution, with Justice Elena Kagan's signature and Justice Sonia Sotomayor's scathing dissent. "Although the midazolam may temporarily render Irick unconscious, the onset of pain and suffocation will rouse him ... just as the paralysis sets in, too late for him to alert bystanders that his execution has gone horribly (if predictably) wrong," Sotomayor wrote. "In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody." Previously, the Supreme Court has compared potassium chloride to "chemically burning at the stake."

States have turned to midazolam in recent years as supplies of other lethal-injection drugs have dried up, in large part because drugmakers are refusing to sell states products to kill people. Midazolam has failed several times, and when Tennessee administered the drugs to Irick, The Tennessean reports, "he was coughing, choking, and gasping for air. His face turned dark purple as the lethal drugs took over." Another concern in the case is that Irick was mentally ill, according to Robert Durham at the Death Penalty Information Center. Tennessee is considering a bill barring the execution of people with serious mental illnesses, Durham said, and "it's unseemly that Irick would be executed and then the case ultimately gets resolved in his favor." Tennessee has two more executions scheduled this year. Peter Weber

August 24, 2017

A Florida inmate was put to death Thursday evening by lethal injection, with officials using a sedative that had never before been used in an execution in the United States.

Mark Asay, 53, was executed at 6:22 p.m., Florida corrections officials said. He was convicted in 1988 of murdering two men in Jacksonville in 1987; because he called one of the victims, a black man, a racial slur before shooting him, it was considered a racially motivated crime, WJAX reports.

Three drugs were used for the lethal injection, including the sedative etomidate. Asay's attorneys argued to the Florida Supreme Court earlier this month that the drug, never before used in a U.S. execution, would cause pain, but the court rejected this, saying they could not prove this. Etomidate was used in place of midazolam, which has been difficult for states to acquire because drug manufacturers do not want it used in executions. This was also the first time in 18 months that Florida carried out an execution; in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state had to temporarily stop putting inmates to death, as the sentencing process was unconstitutional. Florida has since passed a law that requires a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty. Catherine Garcia

August 22, 2017

Just hours before Marcellus Williams, 48, was scheduled to be put to death on Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) issued a stay of execution, in light of attorneys saying DNA evidence proves Williams did not stab to death Felicia Gayle, a 42-year-old former reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in her home nearly 20 years ago.

In a statement, Greitens said a "sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment. To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt." Greitens is going to appoint a five-person Board of Inquiry, which will review the case and offer a recommendation to him, CNN reports. Williams' attorneys said they did not have the DNA evidence during his 2001 trial, and a forensic DNA expert and biologist hired by the legal team found that hair samples found at the crime scene do not match Williams and none of his DNA is on the murder weapon.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office said there is still plenty of non-DNA evidence proving Williams' guilt; Williams sold Gayle's husband's laptop, and some of the victim's personal items were found inside the trunk of his car. From the beginning, Williams has maintained his innocence, saying he was convicted based on testimony from convicted felons. Catherine Garcia

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