The Need for Uniform Standards in Death Penalty Cases 1 - Tinkering with the Machinery of Death

Currently, not only the federal government but a majority of states provide for capital punishment (the death penalty) in certain crimes. There are those that argue that true fairness in this country would be an all-or-nothing approach: either every state in the union should impose capital punishment or no state should. Otherwise, two individuals convicted for the same crime may not face the same punishment - death -- depending upon which side of a state boundary they sit. From this perspective, imposition of a true uniform standard in death penalty cases would be to abolish capital punishment in this country.

However valid one may find this argument to be, federalism and the United States Supreme Court allow for this incongruity today.

Given this reality, perhaps the more critical question we can ask right now is what standards are being imposed within those jurisdictions that allow the government to kill people as punishment for crimes. Are there uniform standards in the imposition of the death penalty?

Arbitrary and Unguided Imposition of Death Forbidden by Furman v. Georgia

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court found both the capital punishment laws of Texas and Georgia (and indirectly, every other death penalty statute in the country) unconstitutional because they were allowing arbitrary, unguided imposition of death sentences. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) was a per curiam opinion with all nine justices writing either concurrences (Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall) or dissents (Burger, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist) --- and the case effectively halted capital punishment in this country for a significant period of time. Over thirty state legislatures were forced to enact new death penalty statutes -which then had to undergo judicial scrutiny (e.g., Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)).

What was the power of Furman? According to this decision, a death sentence in this country cannot be imposed unless the sentencing authority finds at least one statutory aggravating factor and then weighs that aggravating factor against mitigating factors provided by the defense. Before death can be the punishment, the penalty must be based upon a consideration of both the circumstances of the case and the character of the defendant - all shown in a "specific and detailed" way to those responsible for sentencing the individual.

Post-Furman Death Penalty Statutes

In Gregg, the High Court found the newly enacted Georgia death penalty statute constitutional. There, either a Georgia judge or a Georgia jury may act as the sentencing authority. There must be a bifurcated trial. In the sentencing portion of the trial, ten aggravating factors are listed in the statute and one of these must be found to exist beyond a reasonable doubt before death can be imposed. The sentencing authority must also consider mitigating factors presented by the defense, and the sentence (which is subject to automatic judicial review) must identify its basis in the statutorily defined aggravating factors.

That same year, both Texas' statute ( Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976)) and Florida's death penalty law (Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976)) were also found compliant with federal constitutional provisions. In Texas, death was limited to five specific situations of capital homicides where the murders were intentional and knowing with a jury as the sentencing authority in a two-phase trial being required to answer three statutorily defined questions "yes," in order to impose death.

In Florida, as in Texas and Georgia, a bifurcated trial was set by the new law. However, sentencing authority involved an advisory jury verdict with a sentencing judge to consider both aggravating factors and mitigating ones, with the findings upon which the death sentence is based to be provided in writing with expedited judicial review.

The Problem of Individualized Sentencing

In Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978), the Ohio death penalty statute was reviewed by the US Supreme Court post-Furman and found lacking. The Ohio death penalty statute provided that upon finding a defendant guilty of "aggravated murder" together with one of the seven (7) statutorily-specified aggravating circumstances, the death penalty must be imposed unless, considering "the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history, character, and condition of the offender," the sentencing judge determined that at least one of the three (3) statutorily defined mitigating circumstances was established by a preponderance of the evidence.

According to the High Court (in a plurality opinion), a capital sentencing scheme must treat each person convicted of a capital offense with that "degree of respect due the uniqueness of the individual." Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U. S. at 605.

And here lies the crux of the problem - how is the state to effectively balance the "uniqueness of the individual" against the consistent, uniform imposition of the death penalty in the various states as well as by the federal government? How can a systemic formula truly impose fairness in any particular circumstance, particularly when death is in the offing?

The Impossible Situation

As Justice Blackmun foresaw so well (dissenting in Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (1994)): "....[t]he basic question -- does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants "deserve" to die?-- cannot be answered in the affirmative....The problem is that the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution." Justice Blackmun drew his own line in the sand in that historic dissent, announcing that "...[f]rom this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," having considered the High Court's "experiment" with the death penalty to be a failure. Id.

Nevertheless, the courts still continue to "tinker with the machinery of death," using Blackmun's terms - and still, that attempt to balance the needs of the system for uniformity and the needs of the individual for unique consideration is sought unsuccessfully.

Do we need uniform standards in the imposition of the death penalty? Yes. Can they be achieved? Many respected legal minds aside from Justice Blackmun suggest not.

For example, Professor Linda Greenhouse recently opined in the New York Times that the U.S. Supreme Court applied "selective empathy" in its consideration of two death penalty cases this fall, where the two defendants shared histories of "similarly horrific" childhoods. The result? One man escaped the death penalty (Porter); the other did not (VanHorn).

Just last month, in considering the "guided discretion approach" originating in the Model Penal Code template, Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty President Don Vish eloquently pointed out in the Louisville Courier Journal that "... competing constitutional values get in the way of one another and, like Virgil's army, crowd the field so totally that none has room to do its work ... [and] justice in death penalty cases is becoming to the Constitution what absolute zero is to the laws of thermodynamics: a place one can progress toward but never reach."

Perhaps the best interests of both our system of justice and the interests of the individual would be best served by what many continue to avoid as this legal tinkering continues: abolishing the death penalty in its totality - not only would this be the most uniform of standards to be implemented, as we all are aware, it would definitely be the cheapest.

Ohio's Second Execution of Romell Broom Stayed for 30 Days by Federal Judge - How Do You Think He'll Rule?

Death Row inmate Romell Broom was setting in the courtroom this week as his attorneys stood ready for an evidentiary hearing that would take a couple of days in front of Federal District Judge Gregory Frost.  Romell Broom sat there, ready to testify. Think of it -- Broom left his small Death Row cell to set in that public courtroom, look out at all those faces and tell about the pain and suffering he experienced on that gurney as his executioners spent over two hours trying to find a vein in which a needle could be inserted.  We've posted about this earlier - including the media reports that Broom was "sobbing in pain" that day.  The hearing was based upon Broom's motion.  Romell Broom is seeking to stop his scheduled execution by Ohio by arguing that it is unconstitutional for the State of Ohio to try and kill him a second time after its horrific failure to execute him earlier this year by lethal injection.  Judge Frost doesn't hold a evidentiary hearing  Surprising some, Judge Frost took the bench and soon thereafter advised everyone that he wouldn't be hearing testimony in the Broom matter.  Nope.  According to Judge Frost, he's really able to decide only a narrow question of the law.  No fact-finding is needed, so no testimony would be taken.  Attorneys were asked to file their arguments addressing the issue, and the Judge would rule based upon the paper.  Judge Frost did give everyone a big hint -- he's stated that he doesn't see how Broom can circumvent the decision made by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and denied review by the United States Supreme Court earlier this week in the Biros case.  Ken Biros died as a guinea pig to the new Ohio single-drug injection method.  What is Judge Frost Going to Decide? All that Judge Frost is going to answer is the limited question of whether or not the State of Ohio, after it has failed to execute an inmate, has the right under law to try again.  And while it is critical to consider the pain and suffering that Romell Broom experienced on that gurney that day, Frost is saying that he's not hearing anything on pain because of the federal appellate court ruling Monday in Kenneth Biros's case. On Monday, Biros unsuccessfully argued that the method of execution Ohio would be using hadn't been vetted and Ohio couldn't show that the execution method couldn't cause severe pain.  Severe pain during an execution violates the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment of the U.S. Constitution.  The appellate court specifically stated that Biros had provided no evidence on pain.  Arguing about the pain that might occur during an untested method of execution seems easily distinguishable from an argument concerning the two bites at the apple situation facing Broom.  Yet Judge Frost is moving forward without any evidence on pain -- there was no evidence on pain in the Biros appellate record and he's prohibiting having Romell Broom take the stand in the present case.  Given this factual vacuum and the precedent of Louisiana v. Resweber, 329 US 459 (1946), where the failure of an electric chair during an initial execution did not prevent the second execution from proceeding, what Judge Frost is going to rule probably isn't that hard to predict regardless of whether your perspective is based upon double jeopardy, due process, or cruel and unusual punishment.

As These Words Are Being Typed, Ohio Is Killing Ken Biros in an Unvetted Execution Method, Unless You Count Euthanasia of Dogs as Vetting

All this morning, there have been almost minute by minute updates on the web regarding whether or not the appellate attorneys feverishly fighting to stop this morning's execution of Kenneth Biros by the State of Ohio will be successful. 

Biros' attorneys are literally banging on the doors of the United States Supreme Court, asking that the highest court in the land act immediately to stay the execution of Ken Biros -- who is set to die this morning  (the execution is scheduled for 11 am) unless something BIG happens. 

And this needs to be stopped.  We've already written here about all the reasons why.

The State of Ohio is about to execute a man in the same way that the vet down the street "executes" pets everyday - by a single, massive injection of a drug.  As we've posted about before, no one knows how a human being will react to this procedure.  It hasn't been scrunitized in the standard legal way -- Ohio is allowing Biros to be a guinea pig.  Will this be cruel and unusual?  We don't know.

The New York Times legal blog has periodic updates.  A local TV station in Ohio has a reporter at the prison.  The Tribune Chronicle in Lucasville is posting almost minute by minute events as they transpire.   

At 9:20 am, prison officials announced that the execution might be delayed - Ohio would wait until the United States Supreme Court ruled on the defense attorneys' last minute request. 

At 10:00 am, it was announced that the United States Supreme Court will not stop the killing of Kenneth Biros by an unvetted execution method. 

Ken Biros will die today. 

And the horror exists -- if this single injection method is later shown to be legally unacceptable as a method of executing humans, there will be no way to help Mr. Biros.  

May God have mercy on us all.

Ohio First State in the Nation to Change Lethal Injection Execution Method to Single Drug - What Are the Consequences?

Last week, the State of Ohio announced that it was changing its method of execution from a lethal injection involving three drugs (sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride) to a single injection of the drug sodium thiopental

Ohio changes to a single-drug form of execution after its failed execution of Romell Broom on September 15, 2009

You'll recall the travesty of Mr. Broom's attempted capital punishment -- as we described here, Romell Broom suffered for two and one-half hours on the gurney that day:

Romell Broom was sentenced to die for the rape and murder of Tryna Middleton by the State of Ohio and last Tuesday, Mr. Broom was strapped to a gurney and his execution by lethal injection began. 

The 2+ Hour Failed Execution

Except they couldn't find a vein in which to insert the needle.  They tried his arms.  They tried his legs.  Broom lay there, tied to the table by long leather straps covering the length of his body.  Imagine this being done to you.

Broom lay there for OVER TWO HOURS while lab techs tried to kill him.  They failed.  Broom went back to his Death Row cell, and his execution was "rescheduled."  The Governor of the State of Ohio was contacted about the problem and he ordered a one week "postponement."


According to the New York Times, Broom "sobbed with pain".  And afterwards, not only did Ohio Governor Strickland order that Romell Broom's execution be stopped, but the Ohio federal court issued a stay of his execution after hearing Broom's attorneys argue that a second try at executing Broom would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.  

The Consequences of Ohio's New Single Drug Execution Method

Proponents are arguing that this single, massive dose of sodium thiopental is merciful and that it's going to be the NextBigThing for death penalty proponents, since its success will hamper constitutional arguments against execution by lethal injection under the three-drug approach. 

And those are serious and substantive arguments, as we've outlined here in a three-part series of articles.  No one can truly say that a paralyzed person, laying on that gurney, isn't suffering because they are incapable of communicating what they are experiencing.  The "drug cocktail" is simply horrific.

Ohio is so confident in its new execution method -- the same type of killing method that vets use on dogs and cats -- that it's planning on having the new protocol in place by the end of this month, and there's talk that Ohio will want to try out its new One-Drug Injection procedure on Kenneth Biros, who is scheduled for execution on December 8, 2009, subject to a temporary stay. 

What has yet to be determined, however, is how this massive dose of this single drug will truly work on a human being.  What works on dogs and cats might not be as merciful, fast, and painfree on humans.  We simply don't know, and undoubtedly there will be medical testimony with the appropriate medical experts providing their opinions on this procedure before Ken Bios or anyone else is subject to Ohio's new killing option.  Or there should be.

And, what about if the Ohio one drug option doesn't work as swiftly and cleanly as its proponents suggest it will?  Well, they've got a backup -- two more drugs that would then be injected into the condemned, there on the gurney:  the executor will shoot in massive amounts of  hydromorphone and midalzolam.   

None of This Makes a Bit of Difference in the Broom Situation

With Ohio's big announcement, death penalty proponents are gleefully rubbing their hands together at the thought that the remaining 35 states using lethal injection as their primary execution method can now circumvent all number of death penalty appeals based upon the cruel and inhuman nature of the three-drug cocktail, just by adopting the Ohio One Drug method. 

Well, it's not as simple as that.  First, this method needs to be vetted by medical experts before a condemned person is used as a guinea pig here, nevermind those back-up syringes filled with hydromophone and midazolam. 

Second, has no one stopped to think that the answer is more complex than this?  Romell Broom suffered great agony on September 15th not because of the type of drug used upon him, or the number of drugs selected to be injected into his body, but because they could never find a way to successfully insert the needle.

Two Points to Ponder

So, point one, the Ohio One Drug "innovation" doesn't resolve the Romell Broom travesty and it's fascinating to watch Death Penalty proponents distract themselves from the cruelty of that day in their excitement over this new find. 

Point two:  is anyone out there thinking that executing men and women in the same way that that vets euthanize animals (even if they are beloved pets) is just plain wrong?  When did we forget about human dignity?

Read Gamso on Botched Executions ....

Given that today's news has a federal judge ordering the deposition of Romell (thx Jeff!) Broom to testify regarding the botched execution last week (for details, check our post here) ... a great read on all this mess can be found on Gamso - For the Defense, in an article entitled "Because It's Who We Are or Want to Be: The Botched Execution Edition."

Lethal injection should not be a method of execution in this country (see our series) and Jeff Gamso helps us understand why in very blunt terms. It's worth your time.

Ohio Set for Second Execution Attempt of Romell Broom Unless His Lawyers Work Fast

Romell Broom was sentenced to die for the rape and murder of Tryna Middleton by the State of Ohio and last Tuesday, Mr. Broom was strapped to a gurney and his execution by lethal injection began. 

The 2+ Hour Failed Execution

Except they couldn't find a vein in which to insert the needle.  They tried his arms.  They tried his legs.  Broom lay there, tied to the table by long leather straps covering the length of his body.  Imagine this being done to you.

Broom lay there for OVER TWO HOURS while lab techs tried to kill him.  They failed.  Broom went back to his Death Row cell, and his execution was "rescheduled."  The Governor of the State of Ohio was contacted about the problem and he ordered a one week "postponement."

Ohio Has Scheduled a Second Execution

Well, now Broom's execution -- again, by lethal injection -- has been put back on the calendar, and a national outcry is joining with the arguments of his lawyers that this amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.   According to his counsel, this event has traumatized inmate Broom.  That's probably an understatement. 

Legal Arguments Based Upon Cruel and Unusual Punishment are Being Advanced in the Face of Willie Francis Precedent

Broom's attorneys -- as well as organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union -- are advancing the argument that Governor Strickland should grant clemency to Broom and commute his sentence to one of life imprisonment because of this botched execution.  Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a second execution is not, in and of itself, cruel and unusual.  Those in the know with their legal death penalty history will remember the Louisiana case of 16 year old Willie Francis, where an electric chair execution failed and the issue of whether or not a second try at killing Francis would be cruel and unusual.  In Francis v. Resweber, the High Court held second executions were constitutional.

Florida's Contribution -- the Lesson of Angel Diaz

Here in Florida, we remember the case a couple of years back where the execution of Angel Diaz was excruciating, as the executioners pushed the needs through his veins and into muscle tissue -- which meant Mr. Diaz took over half an hour to die, laying there in front of everyone on that gurney.  After that botched business, the State of Florida stopped lethal injection executions for a period of time.  Florida resumed executing inmates in 2008, under purportedly new and better injection procedures. 

Maybe Ohio needs to look at its own procedures instead of cavalierly putting Broom's name back on its death calendar.  Or maybe they should just stop executing people, period....

 
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