Nevada Stays Execution of Robert Lee McConnell for 2d Time

Robert Lee McConnell was set to die on February 1st at the hand of executioners for the state of Nevada, until yesterday when a federal court intervened, granting his motion to stay.  It's the second time that Mr. McConnell has faced that last walk -- he was previously set to be executed back in 2005.  Then, the execution was less than half-hour away when a stay was granted.  In 2005, McConnell had announced to everyone that he was ready to die. 

One wonders what that's like -- sitting on Death Row, being moved to the Carson City prison where Nevada kills its prisoners, setting your affairs in order and spending what you think are your last days on earth, only to find that they're not your last days.  Especially when it's happened to you twice.

Robert Lee McConnell took responsibility for a terrible mistake that he made when he murdered his ex-girlfriend's fiance back in 2002.  He pled guilty to the crime. 

Robert Lee McConnell also represented himself, both at trial and in this latest motion for stay.  In a request that exceeded 160 pages, McConnell asked Federal District Court Judge Robert Jones to halt the execution arguing in part that the death sentence was fundementally unfair.  (McConnell seems to be somewhat a jailhouse lawyer, having had his appeals to the Nevada Supreme Court heard - and rejected - last July, where he challenged the constitutionality of the lethal injection method of execution. )

Judge Jones has granted the stay, and ordered that McConnell have one month to file the appropriate petitions as well as having legal counsel appointed to assist him in that task. 

Of some note, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was litigating the constitutionality of Nevada's lethal injection method of execution in 2007, and Nevada took the challenge seriously enough to stay the execution of William Castillo, a man who had asked for the death penalty. Nevada was planning on upping the drug cocktail to double the standard amount, as well as giving Castillo a mandatory sedative.  It was only when the ACLU dropped its suit that Nevada started back with capital punishment.  Castillo's case remains on appeal. (By the way, they call these folk "volunteers" when they want to die rather than live any longer in state imprisonment.  Chilling, isn't it?)

What McConnell will argue on his latest appeal will be interesting to follow. 

Not only does he (and his newly appointed counsel) have the recent ACLU challenge to reference, as well as whatever additional appellate points they will address, they also proceed in an environment where more and more people are recognizing that powerful, powerful reality: it is simply cheaper to allow prisoners like Mr. McConnell to remain behind bars than it is to continue with capital punishment.  

Today John Marek Appeals to US Supreme Court, Scheduled to Die in 12 Days

John Marek's attorneys are fighting hard to stop the State of Florida  from killing their client.

Today, they filed an appeal with the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court, to try and stop the execution of John Richard Marek.  With the Florida Supreme Court ruling that it will not hear anything further in this case, Marek is left with only the U.S. Supreme Court and the Governor of Florida between him and an otherwise certain execution.  (Read docket notice of Marek's Motion to Stay Execution here -- Justice Thomas is assigned to this request. )

What arguments can Marek possibly make to the U.S. Supreme Court now -- over 25 years after the crime occurred for which he was convicted, and within two weeks of his scheduled execution?  Lots of people don't understand the importance of the appellate process in death penalty matters, but Marek's case gives us some idea of how vital appeals can be.  When the government is about to kill one of its own citizens, then the courts must insure that the government is not violating any legal rights in doing so. 

And it appears that Marek has some valid legal arguments to make, such as:   

Evidence that Marek Was Not the Killer

It is not contested at this point that Marek was present at the scene where Adella Simmons was murdered one night on Dania Beach, back in 1983.  However, there is evidence that Marek did not kill the woman that he and his buddy, Ray Wigley, picked up on the Turnpike where her car had broken down. 

The evidence comes from Wigley himself.  Seems he admitted to killing the woman to several folk while he was incarcerated.  Those inmates have come forward with testimony that Ray Wigley -- who was not sentenced to death, as Marek was -- told people on several occasions that he murdered Ms. Simmons, not his pal Marek.  Wigley himself cannot testify.  Wigley is dead.

Past Appellate Arguments Regarding Recusal of Trial Court Judge 

Part of Marek's earlier arguments have been based upon the issue of when a judge should recuse himself.  (For those interested, the Reply Brief filed by Marek's counsel before the Florida Supreme Court is online for viewing.)  This is an issue recently addressed by the US Supreme Court. 

In a far-reaching decision released this past March,  Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. [08-22] (5-4 opinion),  the high court recognizes that due process is violated when someone is before a trial court judge has "...had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge's election campaign when the case was pending or imminent...." and that judge does not recuse himself (withdraw from presiding over the matter).  Caperton has been criticized for not giving enough direction on when a trial judge should and should not recuse himself (as the dissents themselves discuss), therefore judicial recusal is a topic in Marek's appeal which may be of interest to the Justices. 

What is Before the US Supreme Court Right Now Regarding John Marek

First things first.  Justice Thomas is overseeing the Motion to Stay Execution.  Of course, halting the killing scheduled in 12 days is the first priority.  Afterwards, the Petition for Writ of Certiorari and Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis will be heard.  The deadline for the State of Florida to respond is September 7, 2009.   As of this posting, briefing was not available for review.

Innocent Man May Be Executed in Georgia - The Troy Davis Case

Around twenty years ago, a cop was gunned down in Savannah and Troy Davis was caught and convicted for the crime. Nineteen years old at the time, he was sentenced to die, and he has watched all this time pass - 1989 to today - from a small, bleak Death Row cell over in Georgia.

Teen Sent to Die Without Any Physical Evidence

Davis has consistently maintained he is innocent of this crime. Over the years, the evidence used against him has slipped away: 7 of the 9 witnesses who testified Davis did it have changed their minds and recanted their testimony. Oh, and there never was any physical evidence linking Troy Davis to the crime. It's all eyewitness testimony.

No gun. No bullets. No blood or bone or anything else to use DNA testing on - like they seem to always have in CSI or NCIS.

One of Two Remaining Un-recanting Witnesses Is Rumored to be the Real Killer

Meanwhile, there has been some witness identification of another man as being the shooter - a man who is still free, and has been free all the while that Troy Davis has lived his life behind bars. And, rumors have it that this shooter just happens to be one of the two remaining witnesses that pointed their fingers at Troy Davis and didn't recant later. Wow.

Why the Troy Davis Case?

We're visiting the Troy Davis case this week, because the U.S. Supreme Court isn't. The high court has just taken off on its summer vacation, and before they hung up their "gone fishing" sign, a clerk took the time to notify Davis's attorney that they'll get around to deciding his case when they come back to work in September.

Which means that Troy Davis, who has been through the wringer more than once already (he was two hours away from being executed in September 2008 when the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the killing), must wait some more.

The U.S. Supreme Court has Waffled

Last September, the U.S. Supreme Court halted Troy's execution. Then - less than two weeks later - the Supremes decided they wouldn't intervene, and released the hounds as it were for Georgia to proceed with the execution. The cavalry appeared in the form of a federal appeals court in Georgia, which granted a temporary stay of execution and let Davis have the chance to continue his appellate fight.

By its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court last fall was telling Georgia that it would not consider the legal issue of whether or not it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty when new evidence has been brought forth that shows the inmate's innocence. (This doesn't seem like a hard question to answer, but they refused it anyway.)

With Troy Davis back before them, Georgia considered the possibility that there might be evidence that proved Davis to be innocent, and then denied his request for a new trial - but was nice enough to hold off on capital punishment to let Troy Davis return to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Oh. The Georgia Pardons and Parole Board held hearings, too, and even interviewed Davis and the witnesses all over again ...and then denied clemency. Don't know much about this Board, and apparently no one else does either. No records are made; their hearings aren't open to the public.

Davis is black, the cop was white - and Davis is asking for a new trial, not a free pass

Did I fail to mention before this that Davis is black, the cop was white? Well, some folk think this fact is important.

Did I fail to point out that all Troy Davis is asking for is just the chance to have a trial where this exculpatory evidence can be brought before a factfinder? He's not asking for mercy, he's asking for justice.

Troy Davis has some very big supporters in his corner. Like the Pope.

And lots of people think that Troy Davis deserves another trial, to have a chance to bring forth this new evidence. Over 60,000 U.S. citizens have signed a petition asking for just that ... and there's been a lot of public outcry as well, from some people that you may recognize, like:

1. The Pope. Yes, Pope Benedict XVI knows about Troy Davis's case.
2. The European Union. Yes, all 27 countries have cohesively offered their support.
3. Desmond Tutu of South Africa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
4. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Laura Moye of Amnesty International has been quoted as saying that this "gone fishing" delay of the U.S. Supreme Court is good, because it gives Troy Davis and his supporters more time to get publicity for his plight: to let people know that an innocent man is facing execution over in Georgia if nothing happens to stop it.

So, here's my little bit of publicity for Troy Davis. Please, spread the word.

For more information, please visit: Take Action for Troy

In-Depth Look at the Law: Does the Florida Death Penalty by Lethal Injection Violate the Constitution?

I have real concerns about the constitutionality of the current means of capital punishment here in Florida - and really, in most of the country today. And it's not just me - many Death Penalty Qualified Defense attorneys here in Florida share the same concern regarding execution by lethal injection.


There is a strong argument that execution by lethal injection violates both the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. In the next series of scholarly posts that appear here on the blog every Friday, we'll be looking at this issue.

The State and Federal Constitutions forbid foreseeable and unnecessary pain in the execution of an individual.

Much of the language that you will be seeing here is language that commonly appears in motions filed by counsel representing defendants who have been sentenced to death by the State of Florida. It's a solid and sturdy argument against the use of lethal injection, and there are many attorneys, legal scholars, professors, sociologists, and other professionals, who stand on this position:

Both the Florida and the U.S. Constitutions forbid the infliction of unnecessary pain -- that is, any pain that could reasonably be avoided -- in the execution of a sentence of death. The courts have ruled that the infliction of a severe punishment by the state cannot comport with human dignity when it is unnecessary and nothing more than the pointless infliction of suffering. Furthermore, [p]unishments are held to be cruel when they involve . . . a lingering death. In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 447 (1890); see also Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637, 125 S.Ct. 2117, 2122,158 L.Ed. 2d 924 (2004).

A punishment is particularly constitutionally offensive - and therefore, illegal -- if it involves the foreseeable infliction of suffering. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 273 (1973). Such things as (1) the probable length of time the condemned remains conscious of the process; (2) the physical or psychological pain he or she suffers during this period; and (3) the time it takes for death to occur must all be taken into consideration in determining whether a means of execution violates the constitution. See Fierro v. Gomez, 865 F. Supp. 1387, 1413 (N.D. Cal. 1994), aff'd, 77 F.3d 301, 308 (9th Cir. 1996), vacated on other grounds, 519 U.S. 918 (1996).

The Analogy of Death by Inhalation of Lethal Gas

In the Fierro case, execution by the inhaling of poisonous gas in a gas chamber was being considered. The court explained what it found to be a lingering death and foreseeable suffering:

[D]eath by this method [lethal gas] is not instantaneous. Death is not extremely rapid or within a matter of seconds. Rather . . . inmates are likely to be conscious for anywhere from fifteen seconds to one minute from the time that the gas strikes their face and during this period of consciousness, the condemned inmate is likely to suffer intense physical pain from air hunger; symptoms of air hunger include intense chest pains . . . acute anxiety, and struggling to breathe.

The" Three Drug Cocktail" Used in Florida Executions by Lethal Injection -it's really three injections, not just one.

While much of the lethal injection process is shrouded in secrecy in this state, it has been determined that the Florida execution process involves the injection of numerous chemical substances:

1. The first substance administered is an anesthetic -- sodium Pentothal, an ultrashort-acting barbiturate that causes the inmate to go to sleep for a very short time in ordinary doses.

2. Next, the person being executed is administered a neuromuscular blocking agent, pancuronium bromide, (brand name Pavulon), a curare-derived agent which paralyzes all skeletal or voluntary muscles, but which has no effect whatsoever on awareness, cognition or sensation.

3. Finally, the condemned is administered the agent actually designed to cause death -- potassium chloride, a chemical which causes death by cardiac arrest, an extremely painful process that activates nerve fibers in the veins as the drug proceeds through the prisoner's system and ultimately interferes with the rhythmic contractions of the heart and stops its beating.

See generally Deborah W. Denno, When Legislatures Delegate Death: The Troubling Paradox Behind State Uses of Electrocution and Lethal Injection and What it Says about Us, 63 Ohio St. L.J.63, 95-99 (2002) (discussing the chemicals used in lethal injection and their medical effects).

Therefore, far from producing rapid loss of consciousness and a humane death, this particular combination of chemicals chosen by the State of Florida causes the inmate to suffer an excruciatingly painful, protracted death.

The sequence of the administration of the chemicals, and failure to provide professional medical monitoring of the effects of the drugs, virtually assure that the actual pain and fear being suffered by the execution victim -- the very things by which a court can judge whether a method of execution transgresses the constitutional standards -- will go undetected. (See, Denno, 63 Ohio St. L.J. at 100.)

Next week, in part two of the series, the three drugs that make up the Florida execution cocktail are discussed in detail.

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