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“Still Remains Popular Within The State”: South Carolina’s Complicated Relationship With The Death Penalty

If prosecutors convict Dylann Storm Roof and then seek the death penalty—and despite calls from Governor Nikki Haley, it’s not clear they will—the Charleston shooting suspect could be sitting on death row for a long time. The last execution in South Carolina was in 2011, despite a list of 44 people awaiting execution. The pace of executions has slowed to a crawl, in a state that has put 282 people to death over approximately the last century. And the reasons that this slowdown has happened may also give prosecutors pause in this case.

In its earliest days, South Carolina was notoriously expansive in its definition of what qualified for the death penalty; a slave could be put to death for destroying grain, for instance. It is still one of the top 10 states for per capita executions, following the Supreme Court suspension of the dealth penalty in 1976 and its subsequent reinstatement. But South Carolina’s relationship with capital punishment has gotten complicated, some for reasons that align with national trends and some specific to the state. On one hand, it’s a place where, just last year, a judge posthumously exonerated a black boy executed in 1944—the kind of case that has led some states to move away from the death penalty. On the other hand, months later, a state legislator sought the reintroduction of firing squads to make it easier to execute criminals.

One cause of the statewide drop in executions helps explain why there would even be a doubt about whether Roof will face the death penalty: It’s expensive. In 2012, one South Carolina prosecutor who had intended to seek the death penalty changed his mind because of the cost. “Once you file for the death penalty, the clock gets moving and the money, the taxpayers start paying for that trial,” he said, reflecting broader angst in the state about the price of death penalty trials, appeals, and retrials, compared to a life sentence. Mathematically, if fewer prosecutors seek the death penalty, the result is fewer executions. Roof’s case would seem a likely candidate to set aside the question of cost, and some predict the death penalty will indeed be sought. But then, it would surely be one of the costlier death penalty trials, because there’s a link between a case’s prominence and its price. (The prosecutor leading the Roof case is controversial with the black community.)

But there are other reasons for the decline in the execution rate, according to South Carolina government officials, namely the difficulty in acquiring drugs needed for lethal injections. “Right now, what we’re doing is we are looking and reaching out to pharmacies and suppliers et cetera to try to find pentobarbital,” S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said, explaining how the shortage contributed to the slowdown. “We have thus far not been successful at that.” The availability of drugs is an issue other states are confronting, too. Overall, the drop in executions in South Carolina and the reasons for that are “consistent with across the country,” says Emily Paavola, executive director of the state’s Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center.

But the death penalty still remains popular within the state. Nationwide, public support for capital punishment has fallen, partly stemming from the number of exonerations of death row inmates and partly stemming from declining crime rates; that has, in turn, driven politicians in many states to oppose capital punishment. But even death penalty opponents admit that the same shift has yet to happen in South Carolina, except, Paavola says, with regard to the use of the death penalty for the mentally ill, the subject of a poll by her group in 2009.

Opponents of the death penalty have tried to seize on the case of South Carolina’s George Stinney to shift public attitudes. Even among historical exonerations, Stinney’s case stands out: The 14-year-old was electrocuted more than 70 years ago after a two-hour trial that convicted him of beating two white girls to death; in 2014, he was posthumuously exonerated by a judge who cited the all-white jury and a compromised confession. “The case has haunted the town since it happened,” the Washington Post wrote, and “Stinney’s case has tormented civil rights advocates for years.” One of the defense attorneys working the case said the state needed to correct the record. “South Carolina still recognizes George Stinney as a murderer,” Matt Burgess told CNN. “We felt that something needed to be done about that.”

But the Stinney case hasn’t put a halt to a steady stream of bills introduced in the Statehouse that meant to make capital punishment easier, like the legislation introduced by State Representative Joshua A. Putnam to allow firing squads to be used when lethal injection drugs aren’t available. Overall, Paavola’s group has watched the list of factors that makes a case qualify as death-eligible grow since 1976. “The Legislature has, over the years since the death penalty was reinstated, expanded that,” she said, but she noted that individual prosecutors have used their discretion differently. ”From our perspective, the result is, often, very arbitrary selection.”

The Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center isn’t commenting on the Roof case, at least not yet. But on the day of the Charleston shooting, the group called it a “sad day for all in SC.” And the group noted that it had just recently started working with State Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was among the murdered. He had been helping them fight a bill that would hide information about how lethal injections are carried out from the general public.

 

By: Tim Starks, The New Republic, June 19, 2015

June 22, 2015 Posted by | Capital Punishment, Death Penalty, South Carolina | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Relic Of Frontier Barbarism:” The Case Of Scott Panetti — And The True Meaning Of ‘Cruel And Unusual’

So what does “cruel and unusual” mean?

I once asked that of a law professor. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, but I figured there had to be some technical definition I, as a layperson, was missing. I mean, from where I sit, it’s pretty “cruel and unusual” to execute someone, but to judge from the 1,392 executions of the last 38 years, that isn’t the case.

Scott Panetti almost became number 1,393 last week, but within hours of his scheduled lethal injection, he was reprieved by a federal judge. The court said it needs more time to consider the issues his case raises.

In a rational place, it would not be news that Panetti was not killed. In a rational place, they would understand that state-sanctioned execution is a relic of frontier barbarism that leaves us all wet with the blood of the damned. In a rational place, they would say there’s something especially repugnant about applying that grisly sanction to the mentally ill, like Panetti.

But Panetti doesn’t live in a rational place. He lives in America. Worse, he lives in Texas.

They love their executions in Rick Perry’s kingdom. Since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group, that state has killed almost 520 people. That’s nearly five times more than the next bloodiest state, Oklahoma, with 111.

There is no question Panetti deserves punishment. In 1992, he shot his estranged wife’s parents to death as she and the couple’s daughter looked on. He held them both hostage before releasing them unharmed.

But there is also no question that Panetti, 56, suffers from severe mental illness. At his trial, in which he was somehow, bizarrely, allowed to represent himself, he wore a purple cowboy suit with a 10-gallon hat and summoned a personality he called “Sarge” to explain what happened on the fateful day. His witness list included 200 people. Among them: John F. Kennedy, the pope, Anne Bancroft and Jesus Christ.

The state contends that Panetti, who was off his meds at the time of the killing, is faking it. During a 2004 hearing, the county sheriff called him “the best actor there is.” In its most recent filings, Texas accuses him of “grossly exaggerating” his symptoms.

If it’s an act, it’s been going on a long time. His attorneys say Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia 14 years before the shootings and was hospitalized 13 times between 1978 and 1991. Now a court decides on his life or death.

It’s a pregnant decision in a country where, apparently, it isn’t “cruel and unusual” to preside, as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did, over the execution of a man so profoundly impaired that he saved the pie from his last meal to eat later. Or to let a man gasp and snort for almost two hours as a lethal injection very slowly killed him, as happened in Arizona. Or to set a man on fire, as has happened at least twice in Florida’s electric chair. Or to execute people for crimes committed when they were children. Or to send innocent people to death row. Or to choose whom to execute based on color of killer, color of victim, gender, geography and class.

So what, exactly, might be too cruel and unusual for us to allow? The professor could not answer. Which, of course, is an answer.

As flawed and broken as our system of death is, we continue to embrace the puritanical morality of eye for eye and blood for blood. Most of the western world has left this savagery behind, but we insist on it, leaving us isolated from our national peers, those nations whose values are most like ours, but looming large among the outlaw likes of Somalia and Iran.

Now we are debating whether to kill a man so addled he tried to subpoena Jesus. And that leads to a conclusion as painful as it is unavoidable:

What’s “cruel and unusual” is us.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, December 8, 2014

December 10, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Death Penalty, Mental Illness | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Heart Of American Exceptionalism”: When The U.N. Committee Against Torture Says You Have A Police Brutality Problem…

As everyone waits to see if the actual torture report will ever be released, the uptick in American police shootings hasn’t gone unnoticed by the international community, either:

The U.N. Committee against Torture urged the United States on Friday to fully investigate and prosecute police brutality and shootings of unarmed black youth and ensure that taser weapons are used sparingly.

The panel’s first review of the U.S. record on preventing torture since 2006 followed racially-tinged unrest in cities across the country this week sparked by a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury’s decision not to charge a white police officer for the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager.

The committee decried “excruciating pain and prolonged suffering” for prisoners during “botched executions” as well as frequent rapes of inmates, shackling of pregnant women in some prisons and extensive use of solitary confinement.

Its findings cited deep concern about “numerous reports” of police brutality and excessive use of force against people from minority groups, immigrants, homosexuals and racial profiling. The panel referred to the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.”

Conservatives will accuse the U.N. of hypocrisy in tut-tutting America while doing little about major human rights abusers like Iran or China. But that’s hardly the point. America shouldn’t be in the position of saying, “Oh yeah? Well that dictatorship is worse!” The United States holds itself up as a beacon of justice and freedom. And when it comes to police shootings, America stands out from other industrialized countries as nearly barbaric.

A cursory and incomplete tally shows United States police officers kill at least 400 people a year in shootings, and the real figure is probably much higher. About a quarter of those involve white officers killing black people.

By contrast, police killings in European countries tend to fall into the single or low double digits.

Something is seriously wrong there, and either way you look at it, it cuts to the heart of American exceptionalism. Either our police forces are far too ready to use violence, or the American people are somehow far more dangerous and violent than those in other countries, or some combination of both. Or there are simply far too many guns and too many people who are too eager to use them.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, November 29, 2014

December 1, 2014 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Ferguson Missouri, Torture | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Oklahoma Is Like Turning It Up To 11”: If Oklahoma Gets Any Redder It’s Going To Start Blistering And Peeling

Rachel recently told viewers, “What we are actually seeing now in terms of the options for governance is not just blue states and red states, but rather blue states and then red states – and then Oklahoma. Oklahoma is like turning it up to 11…. If Oklahoma gets any redder it’s going to start blistering and peeling.”

That was 11 days ago, before this week’s gut-wrenching, botched execution.

And the public official whose leadership has made Oklahoma’s shift to the hard right possible is Gov. Mary Fallin (R). Her administration’s approach to lethal injections has suddenly generated international attention, but as Irin Carmon noted, the Republican governor has cultivated a striking reputation on a variety of fronts.

An execution this week that went terribly wrong has catapulted Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, to the national stage. But there’s more to Fallin than her zeal for capital punishment. The first female governor of Oklahoma has also quashed broader criminal justice reform, refused Medicaid expansion that would cover 150,000 Oklahoma residents, signed 10 new restrictions on abortion and contraception, blocked local minimum wage increases, and slashed education funding.

Chris Hayes joked the other day, “I used to say [Pennsylvania’s] Tom Corbett was my dark horse candidate for worst governor in the country, but Mary Fallin has now taken the lead.”

Carmon’s piece reads like an indictment of sorts: Fallin has pushed a regressive economic agenda, waging a “war against income taxes” while blocking minimum- wage increases; she’s cut investments in education; she’s blocked health care coverage for 150,000 low-income Oklahomans; and she’s waged a far-right culture war, imposing new restrictions on reproductive rights and making it tougher for National Guard in Oklahoma to receive equal benefits if they’re in same-sex marriages.

But it’s Fallin’s approach to the death penalty that appears to have made her famous. Remember, it was her administration that said it was prepared to defy a state Supreme Court ruling in order to execute two Oklahomans, using a combination of chemicals state officials did not want to disclose, from a drug manufacturer the state did not want to identify.

The governor has called for a review of this week’s fiasco, but David Firestone reported yesterday that Fallin’s order is itself dubious.

Did anyone really believe that Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma would allow a truly independent review of the “execution” –  death by torture is more like it – that shocked the conscience of the nation and the world on Tuesday night? […]

Any serious investigation of the fiasco would have to closely examine the governor’s conduct leading up to it. But she doesn’t have to worry. To lead the “independent” review, she appointed her own employee, the state commissioner of public safety, Michael Thompson. And he won’t be considering her actions. The review, she said, would be limited to three items: the cause of Mr. Lockett’s death, whether the Corrections Department followed the correct protocol and how that department can improve its procedures in the future.

In other words, she asked one of her commissioners to investigate another one, which doesn’t exactly instill confidence that the review will be “deliberate and thorough,” as she described it.

With a record like this, can scuttlebutt about Fallin’s prospects as a national candidate be far behind?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 2, 2014

May 4, 2014 Posted by | Death Penalty, Mary Fallin | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Not About Them, It’s About Us”: Guillotine Revival Movement Gains Momentum

When things began to go terribly wrong with Clayton Lockett’s execution in Oklahoma the other day—when instead of drifting gently off into unconsciousness and death, Lockett began to moan and buck on the gurney—one of the first things the officials did was lower the blinds over the window through which observers peered into the death chamber. Because after all, people shouldn’t have to witness a man suffer as the state is killing him, right?

Lockett’s execution was hardly the first botched one we’ve had, particularly with lethal injection, a process prison officials seem extraordinarily incompetent at implementing properly. But for whatever reason, it has brought about a more substantial debate about the death penalty than we’ve had in some time. And as part of that, it looks like my semi-serious advocacy for the return of the guillotine is finally gaining momentum. It already has endorsements from Conor Friedersdorf and Sonny Bunch, with more sure to follow.

Frankly, I’ve never bought the argument that the death penalty violates the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Unusual, maybe—it has become not just unusual but unheard of in democratic countries (the nations with the highest number of executions last year were, in order, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. of A.). But cruel? It seems that spending your life in prison is far worse than being executed. Though Lockett was in obvious pain for three-quarters of an hour before he finally expired, that pain couldn’t possibly match the extended agony endured by the tens of thousands of people we put in solitary confinement, where the lack of human contact literally drives them insane.

But back to our execution methods. It does seem that as the killing techniques have evolved, what we’ve called more “humane” methods are not about minimizing the suffering of the condemned, but about minimizing the gruesomeness of the spectacle, so that we can perform the execution without feeling like barbarians. It’s not about them, it’s about us. We did away with the firing squad in favor of the electric chair, even though the latter involves a lot more suffering, and why? Well, it involves just pulling a switch instead of actually pulling a trigger and sending a bullet hurtling toward a man’s heart. And there’s no blood splatter on the walls.

But the electric chair is pretty awful to watch—the body convulsing in obvious torment and all that—so we went to lethal injection. And despite the fact that we’re perfectly capable of knocking people out before surgery and gently putting a beloved pet to sleep, the geniuses who run our prisons can’t seem to do it without putting the condemned through substantial pain.

So if you recoil from the idea of the guillotine, ask yourself why. It’s fast, foolproof, and essentially painless. If you were going to be executed, wouldn’t it be near the top of your list for ways to go? You can’t argue that Clayton Lockett would have met a crueler end had his head been lopped off than what he actually went through. We could even come up with a more contemporary version, like a fast-moving saw blade that separates your brain from your body in a fraction of a second.

The visceral objection you have to that thought is not about the suffering of the one being executed, it’s about how you’d feel watching it. The guillotine, with its blood and severed head, would make us feel uncomfortable about what we’re doing when the state executes someone in our name. It would make us feel barbaric. As well it should.

If we’re going to keep the death penalty, we should be honest about what it’s for. It isn’t for deterrence, and it isn’t for justice. It’s for vengeance. We can try to make it “humane,” and we can draw the blinds when the truth of it comes uncomfortably close the surface. But that won’t change what it is.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 2, 2014

May 4, 2014 Posted by | Capital Punishment, Death Penalty | , , , , | Leave a comment

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