Day: July 14, 2015

Nevada pursues death chamber, controversial drug


Monday, July 13, 2015

Nevada has no executions on the immediate horizon but is pushing ahead to build a new death chamber at Ely State Prison and would use a drug at the heart of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case to carry out lethal injections.
Brian Connett, deputy director at the Nevada Department of Corrections, said department lawyers were reviewing the June 29 decision over the use of midazolam in Oklahoma executions “to determine what, if any, impact it may have on Nevada.”
“Nevada would use the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone to administer a lethal injection and has an adequate supply of these drugs to carry out an execution if ordered,” he said in an email.
But death penalty watchdogs said use of the drug almost assuredly would spawn lawsuits after highly publicized incidents of botched executions.
Three Oklahoma death row inmates sued after that state first used midazolam last year in the execution of Clayton Lockett. Witnesses reported Lockett writhed, gasped and moaned. Prison officials tried to halt the execution process, but Lockett died after 43 minutes.
Midazolam, an anti-anxiety drug, is intended to put inmates in a comalike state before other drugs to bring about death are administered. Critics argue it does not guarantee unconsciousness to avoid pain from the subsequent drugs.
Similar prolonged executions using midazolam occurred in Ohio and Arizona in 2014.
LETHAL DRUG RULING
In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said the use of midazolam does not violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The majority also noted that midazolam had been used in other executions about a dozen times without complications.
About 10 days later, Oklahoma set new execution dates in September and October for the 3 inmates who challenged the use of the drug.
A 2-drug injection of midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, the same combination planned for use by Nevada, was 1st used for lethal injection by Ohio in January 2014. Witnesses said that it took about 25 minutes for condemned killer Dennis McGuire to die and that during the process he made loud snorting or choking noises while his midsection convulsed.
Rob Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit group, said the court’s decision doesn’t settle the question over midazolam’s use.
“That doesn’t mean that there will not be challenges to midazolam elsewhere,” he said.
Dunham said that while justices found the Oklahoma inmates didn’t meet their burden of proof to halt the use of the drug, “it doesn’t mean that midazolam is constitutional.”
He said a state “that is concerned about the execution process would have serious doubts about using midazolam.”
The last execution in Nevada was April 26, 2006, at the now-shuttered Nevada State Prison in Carson City. Daryl Mack was executed for the 1988 rape and murder of Betty Jane May in Reno.
Starting at least 11 years ago and up through Mack’s execution, Nevada used a combination of pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in its execution protocol. But Nevada and other states have been pressed to find alternatives after death penalty opponents pressured manufacturers not to sell them for executions.
Nevada has executed 12 inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. About 80 men are on Nevada’s death row.
NEW DEATH CHAMBER
Besides the issue of lethal drugs, Nevada is building a new death chamber at Ely State Prison after Nevada State Prison, where executions were conducted, closed in 2012.
Less than a week after Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a capital improvement bill on June 15 that included $860,000 to remodel a prison administrative building into a new death chamber, the state Public Works Board published a notice seeking statements of qualifications from architectural and engineering firms to perform the work.
The deadline for submitting those statements was Thursday, and it is unclear how many were submitted. The prison project was one of dozens of maintenance projects approved by state lawmakers for the next 2 years.
State lawmakers, who rejected funding for a new execution chamber in 2013, approved the expenditure this year despite reservations about the cost and lingering uncertainty over the death penalty.
San Quentin's brand new, costly - and still unused - death chamber
San Quentin’s brand new, costly – and still unused – death chamber
Critics have called the new execution chamber “an outrageous boondoggle.”
“This proposed new facility may sit unused forever, or it could require further remodeling if lethal injection is rejected in court,” Nancy Hart, president of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, wrote in a May 27 opinion piece.
“Even if lethal injection is upheld, there are serious doubts about the availability of the lethal drugs needed for an execution,” they wrote.
Plans call for remodeling 1,900 square feet of visitation and courtroom areas of an administrative building at the Ely Prison to accommodate an execution chamber.
During legislative hearings, Chris Chimits, deputy administrator with the state Public Works Board, said the chamber would be modeled after California’s San Quentin State Prison execution facility, the construction of which was overseen by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Mary Woods, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Administration, said a design contract could be presented to the Board of Examiners for approval in November.
After that, the design, permitting and construction process is expected to take about a year.

 

BREAKING : Obama Frees Dozens Of Nonviolent Federal Inmates


July 13, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Monday that he has granted dozens of federal inmates their freedom, as part of an effort to counteract draconian penalties handed out to nonviolent drug offenders in the past.

The 46 inmates who had their sentences reduced represent a small fraction of the tens of thousands of inmates who have applied. The U.S. Justice Department prioritizes applications from inmates who are nonviolent, low-level offenders, have already served at least a decade in prison, and would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted today, among other factors.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote in a letter to the inmates. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances.”

The president has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to nonviolent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules.

Thanks to stringent mandatory minimums and other laws, a number of nonviolent drug offenders have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. One such applicant for clemency was Dicky Joe Jackson, who was caught selling meth in order to pay for a bone marrow transplant for his young son. He told The Huffington Post earlier this week that he had seen “child molesters come in and out of here, rapists come in and out of here, murderers come in and out here,” and yet he was still serving a life sentence without parole.

Another applicant was Alice Marie Johnson, a mother of five who was hoping for commutation of her life-without-parole sentence. After she divorced and lost her job, she got involved in the drug trade and was sentenced as a first-time nonviolent offender. “I did do something wrong,” she recently told HuffPost. “But this [was] a bad choice in my life that has cost me my life.”

The overwhelming majority of those who just received clemency had been sentenced for crimes involving crack and cocaine, while two were marijuana cases.

Neither Jackson nor Johnson was included in the list of individuals who had their sentences commuted.

A number of federal sentencing reforms have been implemented since the height of the drug war. In 2010, Congress passed a law narrowing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The Justice Department also announced in 2013 that it would no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders. The following year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission agreed to reduce drug trafficking sentences retroactively.

Both Republicans and Democrats recognize that the criminal justice system is in dire need of additional reform. But commutations have been slow-going. According to The New York Times, the White House has asked the Justice Department to speed up the process by which it sends over applicants.

In his letter to those who received clemency, the president continued, “Remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better.”