MA Officer’s Killing Prompts Calls for Death Penalty

The killing of Yarmouth, Ma., officer Sean Gannon has some Republicans calling for the reinstatement of the state’s death penalty for the murder of law enforcement officers.

The killing of a Massachusetts police officer has some Republicans calling for the reinstatement of the state’s death penalty for the murder of law enforcement officers, the Associated Press reports. Recent attempts to restore capital punishment in the state have faltered, most recently after the killing of another police officer two years ago and in 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing. The death of Sean Gannon, a Yarmouth K-9 officer who was fatally shot in the head while serving an arrest warrant last Thursday, has again raised the issue. Gannon’s funeral is scheduled for Wednesday. The Massachusetts Republican Party sent out a message on Twitter reaffirming the party’s backing of capital punishment for criminals who kill police officers.

An aide to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said he also “supports the death penalty for the offense of killing a police officer.” Baker on Friday signed an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system that imposed a new mandatory minimum for assault and battery on a police officer causing serious injury. There seems little appetite in the Legislature — controlled overwhelmingly by Democrats — to debate the death penalty again. “I am personally opposed to the death penalty and I do not foresee Massachusetts reinstating capital punishment,” said Senate President Harriette Chandler. “That being said, the death of Officer Sean Gannon is a heartbreaking tragedy and I hope that the justice system enacts swift punishment to those responsible.” Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said his “knee-jerk” reaction would be to support the death penalty as a potential deterrent to acts such as the killing of Gannon.


News Media Challenge New CA Execution Rules

California wants to hide the most gruesome aspects of inmate executions under unconstitutional rules, three news media outlets argue. The state has not conducted an execution since 2006,

The state of California wants to use unconstitutional rules to hide the most gruesome aspects of inmate executions from the public, three news outlets arue in a new lawsuit. The Los Angeles Times, KQED and San Francisco Progressive Media Center sued the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Wednesday, challenging newly approved lethal injection policies at San Quentin State Prison, the only state facility that conducts executions, reports Courthouse News. “The courts have ruled that executions are public proceedings,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Ajay Krishnan. “This means that California may not administer its executions from a back room, outside of the view of the press and the public.”

Under new rules finalized March 1, lethal drugs must be prepared and administered outside of public view in an “infusion control room” while the inmate is in a separate “lethal injection room,” which the public can see. The rules require curtains be closed on the viewing room if an inmate has not died after receiving a third dose of lethal drugs. The plaintiffs say shielding parts of the execution process from public view harms the integrity of the process and prevents independent observers from scrutinizing “whether executions are fairly and humanely administered.” The state completed finished a new lethal injection room at San Quentin in 2008 for $853,000. In January, the state changed its policies so death row inmates are executed with an injection of a single chemical, pentobarbital or thiopental. Previously, executions were carried out via three separate injections. Only 13 men have been put to death in California since capital punishment was restored in 1978. The last execution took place in 2006.


‘Suitcase Killer’ Executed After Assailing Prosecutor

Before he was executed, Texas “Suitcase Killer” Rosendo Rodriguez called for the FBI to investigate the Lubbock County District Attorney and medical examiner. It was Texas’ fourth execution this year.

Before he was executed, Texas “Suitcase Killer” Rosendo Rodriguez called for the FBI to investigate the Lubbock County District Attorney and medical examiner, the Houston Chronicle reports. After a seven-minute final statement urging onlookers to write other men on death row, calling for a boycott of Texas businesses and referencing his Catholic faith, the condemned San Antonio man died by lethal injection. Rodriguez was the fourth man executed this year in the Lone Star State. The 38-year-old lost a final appeal – which stemmed from claims prosecutors withheld information regarding a lawsuit against the medical examiner – less than half an hour before he was scheduled to die at 6 p.m.

Rodriguez decried the “thousands” he alleged were wrongfully convicted by Lubbock County District Attorney Matt Powell. Powell declined to address the condemned man’s final words against him. Rodriguez was sent to death row nearly a decade ago for the 2005 slaying of Summer Baldwin, a pregnant sex worker whose body was found in a suitcase at the Lubbock city dump. She’d been beaten and strangled, and her body was covered in cuts and bruises and roughly 50 blunt force wounds. Rodriguez also admitted to the 2004 slaying of 16-year-old Joanna Rogers – who was also found in a suitcase in the Lubbock city landfill.


Majority Favors Life Without Parole Over Executions

For the first time, a Quinnipiac University Poll finds that a majority of voters back the option of life without parole over the death penalty, when they are given the option. A solid majority opposes the death penalty for drug dealers who cause a lethal overdose.

U.S. voters support the death penalty for murderers by a 58 to 33 percent margin, but they choose the option of life in prison with no chance of parole, 51 to 37 percent, reports the Quinnipiac University Poll. Quinnipiac says that was the first time a majority backed the life without parole option since the poll first asked the question in 2004.

Democrats back the “life” option by 73 to 19 percent. Women back “life” 56 to 33 percent; among men, 45 percent back the “life” option and 42 percent support the death penalty. Imposing the death penalty for people convicted of selling drugs that cause a lethal overdose was opposed, 71 to 21 percent. “It’s a mixed message on a question that has moral and religious implications. Voters are perhaps saying, ‘Keep the death penalty, but just don’t use it,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the survey.


U.S. Could Seek to Execute Big Pot Business Owners

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for large-scale drug traffickers. That could apply to state-licensed marijuana businesses, although the drug industry doubts that it would happen.

To the litany of challenges facing Colorado’s state-licensed marijuana business owners, add this: The federal government could — though probably won’t — try to execute them. This week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo urging federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases involving large-scale drug traffickers. The memo points to an existing but little-known federal law that already allows for such a punishment, the Denver Post reports. Sessions talks mostly about opioids, but federal law contains no drug-specific limitation on prosecutors’ power. Anyone convicted of cultivating more than 60,000 marijuana plants or possessing more than 60,000 kilograms of a substance that contains marijuana could face death as a punishment.

Did Sessions greenlight using the death penalty against the nation’s largest marijuana business owners? “I think it’s still very theoretical,” said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who specializes in both marijuana law and in the death penalty. “I don’t think anyone thinks the federal government is going to seek the death penalty against a state-licensed business. But what it highlights is this enormous disconnect with federal and state law.” Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association dismissed the possibility of executions for marijuana business moguls, saying, “I really think that’s just bluster.” The key to the law is the quantity of plants an operation cultivates — 60,000, double what is needed for federal prosecutors to seek a lifetime prison sentence. Colorado’s biggest marijuana businesses are secretive when it comes to how many plants they are growing at any one time. In June 2017, there were nearly one million marijuana plants under cultivation by Colorado’s state-licensed cannabis businesses.


Justices Give TX Man Chance to Try Avoiding Death Penalty

Lower courts had denied Carlos Ayestas’ request for $20,000 to seek evidence that could overturn his death penalty for killing a woman in a home invasion. A unanimous court said Ayestas had the legal right to seek the funds.

The Supreme Court said a Texas death-row inmate deserves another chance at securing funds for evidence that might lead to a reconsideration of his sentence, the Washington Post reports. The justices were unanimous in ruling on Wednesday that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit was too restrictive in reading a federal law that allows indigent defendants to secure money for “investigative, expert or other services.” The federal Criminal Justice Act allows lawyers to receive such funds when it is “reasonably necessary” to assemble the kind of mitigating evidence that might persuade the jury to forego a sentence of death.

A judge denied the funds to attorneys for Carlos Manuel Ayestas, who was convicted of the killing of Santiaga Paneque, 67, during an invasion of her Houston home in 1995. In the 5th Circuit, the law has been interpreted to mean a defendant must show that there is a “substantial need” for such services. Ayestas’s attorneys said that created a Catch-22: The defendant would have to demonstrate that there is some relevant evidence he could discover without first having the funding to pursue that evidence. Justice Samuel Alito said the appeals court was wrong to impose the “substantial need” standard. Ayestas “contends that this interpretation is more demanding than the standard — “reasonably necessary” — set out in the statute,” Alito wrote. “And although the difference between the two formulations may not be great, petitioner has a point.” Courts deciding whether to grant the funds must consider the potential merit of the claims a petitioner wants to pursue, the likelihood that something beneficial might be obtained and whether the petitioner would be able to clear any procedural hurdles to presenting the mitigating evidence. Ayestas asked for $20,000.


Executions in Drug Cases Authorized in 1994 Crime Law

President Trump is advocating the possible execution of drug dealers, but that is already possible under a 1994 federal anticrime law. Prosecutors never have invoked the provision, which some legal scholars say may be unconstitutional.

The execution of drug smugglers that President Trump advocates as part of his plan to combat the opioid crisis is already legal under a 1994 law passed at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, Politico reports. Federal prosecutors have never used it. The 1994 death penalty statute was part of a clampdown on drug dealers in response to the crack epidemic, linked to a surge of crime and violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Many prosecutors believed it would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, said criminologist Ojmarrh Mitchell of the University of South Florida. “In the absence of a direct link to a death, the constitutionality of death penalty prosecution is shaky at best,” said Ohio State law Prof. Douglas Berman.

The 1994 statute authorizes capital punishment against people who direct a continuing criminal enterprise involving either large quantities of drugs or generate $20 million a year from the enterprise. It includes 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for drug sales that result in overdose deaths. At least 20 states have “drug-induced homicide” laws, which increasingly are used to prosecute opioid dealers whose drug sales result in accidental deaths. In as many as half of the state homicide-by-drugs cases, the accused dealer is also the wife, husband, parent or friend of the victim, and also an addict. Often,  user and dealer are one and the same, and neither knows the specific drug substances in play. “The evil villain in this story is very hard to find,” said John Roman of NORC at the University of Chicago. “The people who are convenient for arrest for the most part aren’t that evil villain.” In a 2008 case, the Supreme Court effectively removed drug smuggling as a capital crime, said Berman. “It has never been pursued, and if it were pursued with Trump’s urging, there would be extensive litigation that would go to the Supreme Court.”


High Court Halts MO Execution On 5-4 Vote

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for the second time in four years to Russell Bucklew, a Missouri inmate who has a rare medical condition that he says could cause blood-filled tumors to burst inside his head during the lethal injection.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for the second time in four years to a Missouri inmate who has a rare medical condition that he says could cause blood-filled tumors to burst inside his head during the lethal injection, the Associated Press reports.
Russell Bucklew was scheduled to die by injection Tuesday evening for killing a former girlfriend’s new boyfriend during a violent rampage in 1996. He would have been the first Missouri prisoner put to death since January 2017. The high court voted 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting.

Bucklew, 49, was also within an hour of execution in 2014 when the Supreme Court halted it over concerns about Bucklew’s rare medical condition, cavernous hemangioma. The ailment causes weakened and malformed blood vessels, tumors in his head and throat and on his lip, and vein problems. His attorney, Cheryl Pilate, said Bucklew’s condition has only gotten worse since then. She believes that internal tumors would likely rupture and bleed during the execution, potentially causing Bucklew “to choke and cough on his own blood during the lethal injection process.” Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley disagreed, telling the high court that a growth in Bucklew’s mouth shrunk 10 percent between 2010 and 2016.


Justices Won’t Use Arizona Case to Review Death Penalty

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a broad challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty. The court will not hear an Arizona contract killer’s argument that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and has become a “freakish” penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed a direct challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty on Monday. It refused to hear an Arizona contract killer’s argument that it amounts to impermissible cruel and unusual punishment and that American society has reached a consensus on the need to strike it down, Reuters reports. The justices rejected inmate Abel Daniel Hidalgo’s bid to strike down Arizona’s death penalty law, which he argued makes too many defendants in the state eligible for capital punishment. Hidalgo fatally shot two men at a body shop in 2001 after being paid $1,000 by a gang member. Under Arizona law, the death penalty can be meted out when the crime involved at least one of a list of 14 “aggravating circumstances,” such as committing prior serious offenses or murdering for monetary gain. The number of aggravating factors has risen steadily, and 99 percent of first-degree murder defendants are eligible for capital punishment, Hidalgo said.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who has criticized the way the death penalty is used in the U.S., said that Arizona’s highest court wrongly applied U.S. Supreme Court precedent and that the state’s system “points to a possible constitutional problem.” He was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hidalgo said that in Arizona as elsewhere, racial minorities are disproportionately affected and some counties impose the death penalty at much higher rates than others, showing that the punishment is arbitrary. Since the high court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the number of executions carried out in the U.S. States has generally been declining since 2000. A majority of states have either outlawed capital punishment or no longer carry out executions. Opinion polls have showed dropping public support for the death penalty, and several botched executions in recent years have added to societal concern over the practice. “In short,” Hidalgo’s lawyers wrote, “the death penalty has become a rare and ‘freakish’ punishment.”


Oklahoma Plans to Use Nitrogen for Executions

With drugs for lethal injections difficult to obtain, Oklahoma would be the first state to use nitrogen. An attorney for inmates protests that the state is planning a “learn-on-the-job” execution method.

Oklahoma intends to use nitrogen gas to execute condemned inmates and could become the first state in the nation to do so, reports the Tulsa World. Officials on Wednesday announced plans to use inert gas inhalation after three years without an Oklahoma execution because of a controversy over lethal injection. “We have selected this method because of the well-documented fact that states … are struggling to find the proper drugs to perform executions by lethal injection,” Attorney General Mike Hunter said. “Oklahoma is no exception.” If the state opts for another inert gas, such as argon or helium, it might require a change in the law, he said. The last person executed in Oklahoma was Charles Warner, who died by lethal injection in January 2015. An autopsy showed that one of the drugs used was not part of the Department of Corrections’ lethal injection protocol.

Many states have slowed executions as the drugs for lethal injection have become difficult to obtain after some drug companies said their products should not be used to kill inmates. Under former Attorney General Scott Pruitt, the AG’s Office said the state will wait at least 150 days after new protocol are in place before scheduling an execution. Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh hopes to have a preliminary protocol in the next 90 to 120 days. “This method has never been used before and is experimental,” said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who an attorneys for 20 Oklahoma death-row prisoners challenging the state’s method of execution protocol. “Oklahoma is once again asking us to trust it as officials ‘learn-on-the-job’ through a new execution procedure and method. How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state’s recent history reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes in executions?”