Day: August 5, 2013

Another war on drugs needed to stop executions

Aug. 03, 2013

It is welcome news that the Texas prison system’s supply of the drug used for execution is about to expire and the state may have trouble replenishing its stash of pentobarbital.

Even if this problem for the state isn’t long-lasting, it gives me a ray of hope that one day lethal injection may go the way of “Old Sparky,” the electric chair used in Texas for 40 years.

When the state took charge of executions (previously relegated to the counties) in 1923, it decided that electrocution, rather than hanging, would be the method used to kill inmates sentenced to death.

Between 1924 and 1964, Texas electrocuted 361 people in that chair before the Supreme Court halted capital punishment for a while.

After reinstatement of the death penalty by the high court, Texas decided to adopt lethal injection for execution, retiring Old Sparky — now housed at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville — and replacing it with a gurney.

Charlie Brooks of Fort Worth became the first person executed in the country by injection. He was given a three-drug cocktail of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, a combination the state used until two years ago.

Since Brooks died, Texas has put to death 502 other prisoners (11 this year), far more than any other state in the country. Virginia has the second-highest number of executions with 110.

Although the state doesn’t divulge who supplies its drugs for execution, The Guardian newspaper reported in 2010 that British companies were secretly supplying some American prisons with drugs used for lethal injections.

Pressure was put on those companies and on government officials to stop exporting the drugs for capital punishment purposes.

In 2011, the maker of sodium thiopental stopped producing the drug under pressure from anti-death penalty supporters, and in 2012 the state could not get access to pancuronium bromide, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle.

Since that time Texas’ lethal injections have been of a single drug, pentobarbital, which is commonly used for euthanizing animals.

The state’s supply of the drug expires in September, when it has two more executions scheduled. Prison officials have not said if those executions, or three others set for this year, will be delayed.

The question is, what will the state do if the pentobarbital becomes permanently unavailable?

Michael Graczyk of The Associated Press reported that some states are “turning to compounding pharmacies, which make customized drugs that are not scrutinized by the Federal Drug Administration, to obtain a lethal drug for execution use.”

At least one state is considering returning to the gas chamber, but I can’t imagine Texas considering another method besides lethal injection.

We can’t go back to the electric chair or hanging, and the public certainly wouldn’t stand for instituting firing squads or gas as a means killing people.

So it seems we are stuck with the needle and some drug.

The fact that pressure on drug manufacturers has had some impact on holding up executions means death penalty opponents now have another weapon in their fight against capital punishment.

While they’ll still fight legislatively and through the courts, it would be a rewarding victory if they can continue to convince drug companies not to supply these death chambers with doses of lethal pharmaceuticals.

It would be a different kind of “war on drugs,” but it would be one worth waging.

Tubing and straps used in the execution of Brooks in 1982 are now in the museum with Old Sparky.

Perhaps it won’t be too long before we can retire the gurney for exhibit purposes only and close Texas’ death chamber for good.

The killer around the corner: the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists

The Pentobarbital Experiment

The International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists (IACP) must undertake some serious ethical work and engage its members to stop supplying departments of corrections with the killing drugs.

Sign, promote and share the petition NOW!

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When I Was on Death Row, I Saw a Bunch of Dead Men Walking. Solitary Confinement Killed Everything Inside Them.

By Anthony Graves, Death Row Exonoree #138

When I was on death row, I saw guys come to prison sane and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution gurney.

I am death row exoneree #138.

There are 12 more people like me from Texas. Twelve people who spent years of their lives locked alone in concrete cages waiting to die before they were set free, exonerated for their innocence.

Eleven people have committed suicide on Texas’ death row. All because of the conditions.

When I was sentenced to death, I did not know that this sentence would also mean that I would have 12 years without any human contact, i.e. my mother, my son, my friends. All those people were stripped from my life because of this injustice. I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. All for a crime I did not commit. The injustice.

For me and the 400 other prisoners on Texas’ death row while I was there, a death sentence meant a double punishment. We spent years locked alone in a tiny, concrete cage in solitary confinement, with guys going insane, dropping their appeals, doing everything they could to check out of this place before we were ever strapped to an execution gurney. All because of the conditions.

I am writing today because the ACLU has put out an important new paper about what it does to people to lock them alone in cages on death row. They found that over 93% of states lock away their death row prisoners for over 22 hours a day. Nearly a third of death row prisoners live in cages where their toilet is an arm’s length away from their bed. Sixty-percent of people on death row have no windows or natural light.

Solitary confinement is like living in a dark hole. People walk over the hole and you shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. You start to play tricks with your mind just to survive. This is no way to live.

I saw the people living on death row fall apart. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions. To sum it up, I saw a bunch of dead men walking because of the conditions that killed everything inside of them. And they were just waiting to lie down.

After I got out, I have tried to use my time to raise awareness about these conditions. I am currently working on a book and traveling the globe trying to share my message and educate people about the effects of solitary confinement. I have created, which is my consulting firm that I use to help attorneys, nonprofit organizations, etc. I am asking for your support in my endeavors to bring attention to such inhumane issues by going to my website and ordering anything from my store to help offset my travel expenses. There’s also a petition on my webpage that I am asking 10 million people around the world to sign in solidarity with me as I stand up for justice.

Please help me and the ACLU get the word out about these conditions. Our death penalty system is broken in this country – it is applied unfairly against people. When you have a broken system, innocent people like me can end up on trial for their life. And subjecting anyone in prison to solitary confinement is torture. I am speaking on experience. Many of these same people are returning to our society, and when they do they come with all the baggage we put on them in the system. This keeps the rate of recidivism high.

In this country, we should be doing better than that. We should not have a criminal justice system turned into a criminal by the way we treat our citizens. Even when we do not like people or believe they have done something wrong, our emotions should not govern our society. We should be making laws from a rational perspective. We have to be above the criminal by keeping our system humane. Everyone should be treated like a human being. This is America.

Please share the new video I recorded for the ACLU to help get the word out about the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row. And make sure to read the ACLU’s new report. Also please check out and give me your support while I cross the county and try to educate people about the inhumane treatment in our criminal justice system.

Thank you and best wishes.

For more on the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row, read the ACLU’s report A Death Before Dying.

Wrongly imprisoned Tulsa man declared innocent, eligible to seek compensation from state

A man who spent some 16 years behind bars on now-nullified burglary and robbery convictions has made a sufficient showing of “actual innocence” that he can seek to recover financially from the state of Oklahoma, a Tulsa County judge determined Tuesday.

Tulsa County District Judge William Kellough found that Sedrick Courtney “has made a prima facie showing of actual innocence for the purpose of initiating a claim pursuant to the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claim Act.”

The most Courtney could recover through the state’s compensation process for wrongfully convicted people is $175,000, lawyers say.

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court ruled that Kellough had erred previously in denying Courtney a “threshold determination of actual innocence” in a post-conviction relief proceeding.

Sedrick Courtney: He served 16 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

Kellough also erred in ruling that Courtney did not present “clear and convincing evidence of his actual innocence in the face of the exonerating scientific evidence that supported the vacation of the criminal conviction,” according to the high court’s order.

Courtney, now 41, had been found guilty in a 1995 case in which two masked intruders robbed a woman at her Tulsa apartment. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The victim identified Courtney – who denied being one of the intruders, denied any involvement and had alibi witnesses.

Results from DNA testing available at the time were inconclusive, but more recent DNA tests of numerous hairs found in ski masks excluded Courtney as a possible donor of the hairs, court filings show.

The Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence in an effort to get wrongfully convicted people exonerated, took on the case while Courtney was in prison.

Courtney, now 41, was released from prison on parole in 2011.

In July 2012, Kellough granted post-conviction relief based on the newly discovered evidence – the new DNA testing results. The judge vacated Courtney’s convictions for robbery and burglary, with the agreement of District Attorney Tim Harris.

Kellough declined then to make any finding of actual innocence and indicated that Courtney did not establish by “clear and convincing” evidence that he did not commit the crime.

In September, Kellough ordered the dismissal of the robbery-burglary charges.

An appeal challenging Kellough’s ruling on the actual innocence issue was initiated in the state Supreme Court in October.

According to the Supreme Court, a finding of actual innocence is necessary under Oklahoma law for Courtney to recover money damages based on a wrongful conviction.

Individuals who are convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit can apply for as much as $175,000 in compensation from the state under legislation that was signed into law by then-Gov. Brad Henry in 2003.

A year earlier, Arvin McGee was exonerated by DNA evidence in an unrelated Tulsa County kidnapping and rape case.

A Tulsa federal jury awarded McGee $14 million from the city of Tulsa in 2006 – $1 million for each year he served in prison – but a settlement was reached after the verdict for the city to pay a total of $12.5 million.

Courtney’s compensation could be resolved through the state’s risk-management claims process, but it could be taken to trial, one of Courtney’s attorneys, Richard O’Carroll, has said previously.

Death row suicides more common than you’d think

CLEVELAND, Ohio — It seems hard to fathom, how locked away, under close watch, death row inmates can commit suicides.

Today convicted murderer Billy Slagle, who was scheduled to be executed in three days for killing a Cleveland woman in 1987, was found hanged in his cell this morning.

A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said Slagle, 44, was found just after 5 a.m. and was pronounced dead about an hour later. The department is conducting a review of the apparent suicide and no further details are available, she said.

Across the country, at least three prisoners have killed themselves this year.

  • In April, San Quentin, Calif., death row inmate Justin Alan Helzer committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell, using a sheet attached to bars, according to CBS station KPIX. Helzer, 41, who was convicted of five murders in 2004, had tried to kill himself three years earlier by jabbing pens and pencils into his eye sockets. A prison official said Helzer had been watched intensively, but showed no signs that he was at risk of another suicide. 
  • In May, death row inmate Kenneth Justice killed himself at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, SC, accordingo to The Post-Courier. Justus, 47, who received the death penalty for stabbing another inmate 11 times with a homemade shank, was discovered covered in blood, with a wound in the crease of his elbow and a razor blade in his hand.
Death row suicide isn’t unheard of in Ohio, either.
Three years ago, Lawrence Reynolds Jr. of Cuyahoga Falls overdosed on pills in an attempt to escape execution. Reynolds stockpiled about 30 pills, investigators said.
Reynolds, who strangled his neighbor in 1994, said he did not want to give the state the satisfaction of killing him. He was executed 10 days later.


LIVINGSTON, Texas – A Mexican national on Texas death row has lost an appeal in which he claims he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for execution.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s opinion that Ramiro Hernandez is not retarded, despite expert testimony that he suffers from mood and thought disorders and has received IQ scores ranging from the 50s to the 80s.

In its ruling Friday, the panel also rejected Hernandez’s request to expand his appeal to include claims that his lawyer was both ineffective and biased and that the trial court wrongly admitted evidence of previous convictions in Mexico.

Hernandez was sentenced to death in the 1997 slaying in Kerrville of a rancher who employed him as a hired hand. He is being held in the Polunsky Unit, home of the Texas death row for men.

The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit is one of 12 regional U.S. appeals courts that hear cases that have run out of state-level appeals. It hears cases out of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Ohio killer Billy Slagle commits suicide in cell days before he was set to be executed

A KILLER facing execution on Wednesday has been found dead in his cell Sunday on Ohio’s death row in an apparent suicide.

Prison spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said Billy Slagle, 44, was found dead in his cell about 5am local time Sunday at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution south of Columbus, Ohio. He was declared dead within the hour.

No other details were immediately provided.

Slagle was sentenced to die for fatally stabling neighbour Mari Anne Pope in 1987 during a Cleveland burglary while two young children were present.

In a rare move, the prosecutor in Cleveland asked the Ohio Parole Board to spare Slagle. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty said jurors today, with the option of life without parole, would be unlikely to sentence Slagle to death.

The parole board and Governor John Kasich both rejected mercy for Slagle.

Last week, Slagle’s attorney argued that a jury never got the chance to hear the full details of his troubled childhood.

The attorneys, arguing for a new trial and to delay his execution, said that information met requirements for asking for a new trial, which normally must happen within four months of a conviction.

Slagle was “unavoidably prevented” from filing his request because his original attorneys didn’t develop and present the evidence, the filing said.

Mr McGinty and Slagle’s attorneys had cited his age – at 18, he was barely old enough for execution in Ohio – and his history of alcohol and drug addiction. (Associated Press)