Law in the United States is controlled by nine people, six men and three women. It is the final recourse for injustices, and its decision determines legal edicts. That group of people is called the U.S. Supreme Court. They are not bound by any Code of Conduct or other rules.
The last court of appeals for innocent people in prison—even on death row—is the Supreme Court, now ruled by highly conservative justices. Last year, they heard a case about the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) that prevented prisoners from filing more than one “habeas corpus petition,” that sues the warden for release. After one year following the one direct appeal was lost, prisoners couldn’t even file this petition. The ruling in McQuiggin v. Perkins, however, allowed the petition at any time if new evidence could show innocence. The bar in filing the petition is high: the petitioner must show that “it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence.”
The good news is that a prisoner can appeal conviction based on new, solid evidence. The bad news is that four of the justices disagreed. Justice Antonin Scalia thinks that a man locked up for a murder that he did not commit should not be able to challenge his conviction. Three other justices think that most people in prison after unconstitutional convictions should have no recourse to federal courts. Scalia’s position is that federal courts should not overturn state convictions as long as there were minimal safeguards such as counsel and access to state appellate courts.
In 2009, Scalia wrote, “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” Troy Davis was executed two years after Scalia’s statement although seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him at trial had recanted.
Michelle Byrom, who was on Mississippi’s death row for killing her husband, gained a new trial in April after a ruling by the state’s supreme court. Her son had admitted to killing in Byrom’s husband in several documents, including jailhouse letters and an interview with a psychologist, but then recanted on the stand. She was in the hospital with double pneumonia when her husband was killed. The court also required a different judge for the woman’s new trial. Her case, however, is highly unusual.
A study released this week shows that at least 4.1 percent of all 8,000+ defendants sentenced to death in the U.S. during the past four decades are innocent. According to lead author Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan law school, this is a conservative estimate. Scalia misrepresented the percentage at .027 percent in 2007 when he was trying to justify killing people. Between 1973 and 2004, 7,482 people received death sentences; 1,320 were executed, and 117 were exonerated. About 2,675 people were taken off death row, but most of them were sentenced to life without parole.
In 1972, the Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia voided 40 death penalty statutes and suspended the death penalty. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, eight states joined the ten states that had already eliminated the death penalty, six of them in the past six years. Connecticut and Maryland stopped executing people since the map below was published. Click here to see the number of executions since 1976.
In 35 states, approximately 3,095 inmates are waiting to be executed. Although Connecticut, Maryland, and New Mexico have abolished the death penalty, the law is not retroactive. Prisoners on death row in those states will still be executed. Since 1976, 1,374 have been executed—if you count the botched killing in Oklahoma last night.
Because execution drugs are so hard to obtain, some states are increasingly reluctant to divulge the sources. After the U.S. confiscated the drug sodium thiopental because of questions about where it was obtained, Tennessee hides any information about execution drugs. Only six executions were carried out in Tennessee in over one-half century, but the state has now scheduled 11 of them. The last person executed in the state, Steve Henley, died in 2009 saying that he was innocent.
Oklahoma is now center stage in the death penalty business. Last night, Clayton Lockett struggled violently on the gurney for 13 minutes after the execution began. Doctors stopped the drug injection and tried to resuscitate him, only to have Lockett die of a massive coronary 30 minutes later. An execution scheduled two hours after that of Lockett’s was postponed for two weeks. That’s not the entire story, however.
The state’s supreme court had ordered a stay of execution because the composition and source of the execution drugs were kept secret. Despite this decision, Gov. Mary Fallin said that she would continue with the execution, and the supreme court backed off. The lethal drugs were untested; the United States has been unable to purchase execution drugs from its past source, Europe, for several years.
Oklahoma should have learned its lesson last January when Michael Wilson complained “I feel my whole body burning” as he was being executed in that state. The same month, Dennis McGuire made snorting and gasping sounds for ten minutes and then lived for another 14 minutes before he died in Ohio from an untested two-drug method, resulting in a delay of the next execution until November and a plan to use more drugs.
This failure to execute people without “cruel and unusual punishment” is more common that many people realize. Between 1890 and 2010, three percent of all executions were botched, and lethal injections had the highest error rate—about seven percent. In addition, electric chairs have caught on fire, and hangings have led to decapitations. Gov. Jeb Bush suspended the death penalty in Florida after Angel Diaz had to be given two injections and the killing took more than 30 minutes. The suspension was lifted 18 months later under a new governor.
According to Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, “the United States is the only country in NATO or North America that still executes its citizens, and Belarus and Suriname are the only exceptions in the Europe and South America…. One hundred forty-three countries have abolished the death penalty by law or in practice…; 90 percent of all executions are carried out in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.”
Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder and other violent crimes because of the prevalence of these in the United States. The homicide rate in this country is almost three times greater than in Canada or any Western European country. In the U.S., Southern states have the highest murder rate while they perform over 80 percent of the executions, 35 percent of them in just Texas.
Executions increase homicide rates before, during, and immediately following these tragedies as people become desensitized to killing. The line of thinking is that if the government can kill enemies for vengeance, so should everyone else. Many law enforcement officials have also become desensitized. Susan Green, editor of The Colorado Independent, said the shortage of drugs for execution in Texas led the assistant Oklahoma attorney general to joke with a Texas colleague that he might be able to help Texas get the drugs in exchange for 50-yard-line tickets for a top college football game between the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas. Emails revealed not only this exchange but also the fact that leftover lethal drugs were injected into the bodies of dead prisoners in what officials called “disposal purposes.”
Both prisoners to be executed last night are black, an example of the extreme bias against minorities, the poor, and those with diminished mental capacity. Scalia has said that it’s okay to execute mentally disabled people because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t rule against executing people with mental illness and diminishment except in severe cases. Homicide victims are six times more likely to be black than white, but 77 percent of death penalty cases involve white victims. Of death row inmates, 56 percent are black or Hispanic; 20 percent of the blacks were convicted by all-white juries.
The percentage of people in the United States who support the death penalty has gone from 80 percent in 1994 to 60 percent in 2013. Most older and white people support it, while young people are less enthusiastic, and ethnic minorities are solidly opposed. These are the people who hold the future in their voting records. The death of Clayton Lockett may also make a difference.