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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

“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

   

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