Capital Punishment News & Update

The Boston Globe last week reported that the Department of Justice has decided that it will seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber, citing the “heinous, cruel and depraved manner” of the attack that killed three people, injured more than 260, and sent a wave of shock and fear into the region.

“Noting that Tsarnaev has shown no remorse,” the Globe’s article continued, “federal prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty because of his ‘betrayal of the United States’’ and his decision to target the Boston Marathon, ‘an iconic event that draws large crowds of men, women, and children to its final stretch, making it especially susceptible to the act and effects of terrorism.’”

Wikpedia’article on the death penalty notes that “lethal injection is currently the method used or allowed in all of the 32 states which allow the death penalty; some states also still allowing electrocution, firing squad, hanging, and/or  lethal gas. From 1976 to January 16, 2014, there were 1,362 executions, of which 1,187 were by lethal injection, 158 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging, and 3 by firing squad… The method of execution of federal prisoners for offenses under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 is that of the state in which the conviction took place.”

Here's the nuance -- Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty.

Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act the method of execution of federal prisoners is that of the state in which the conviction took place. If the state has no death penalty, the judge must choose a state with the death penalty for carrying out the execution.

Into the capital punishment maelstrom once again….   The trend in the United States has long been to move toward less painful, or more humane, executions as opposed to outright abolition. The electric chair and gas chamber were introduced as more humane alternatives to hanging, but have been almost entirely superseded by lethal injection, which, in turn, are now being criticized as still being too painful.

The Washington Post, also last week,  observed, “many states moved away from methods of execution like the electric chair and gas chambers in the 1980s, toward what death penalty supporters said was a more humane way of taking a life. Lethal injections typically followed a three-step process using drugs that would render a recipient unconscious, cause paralysis and finally stop the heart… (but now) a shortage of the lethal chemicals needed to execute prisoners has some states with pending executions considering new methods of killing condemned prisoners — including ones that haven’t been used for more than half a century."

Being unable to procure pentobarbital, specified in the one-drug protocol currently employed by many of the states still having the death penalty, CNN last Tuesday reported , the Louisiana Department of Corrections’ having switched to the same controversial two-drug combination used earlier this month  in Ohio in the execution of Dennis McGuire, whose family, then reported, was going to be  pursuing a lawsuit “to assure that other death row inmates do not experience the same unusual execution circumstances he did” --- this coming ahead of next week's scheduled execution of convicted killer Christopher Sepulvado.

Sepulvado's legal team said an appeal has been filed, Gary Clements, part that team saying, "We're not challenging capital punishment in his case ...just how it's going to be done.” Jon Paul Rion, McGuire’s family lawyer, following that execution had  toldNBC News he plans to file a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections “to make sure that this procedure is not utilized on anyone else ever.” at that point said of Rion’s appeal that “It was unclear what the nature of the lawsuit would be, but it would be different from current challenges to Ohio’s previously untried lethal injection method now in federal court.

Citing the McGuire execution in Ohio around this same time as evidence that alternative methods were needed after manufacturers of pentobarbitol, the drug most commonly used in lethal injections, began withdrawing it from use in executions on ethical grounds, NBCNews also reported lawmakers in at least two other states already having begun to call for returns to older methods such as firing squads to carry out death penalty executions.

Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin,  introduced legislation that would add five-person firing squads as a third alternative to that state's current methods of capital punishment – currently either gas and lethal injection -- and Wyoming State Sen. Bruce Burns filed a similar bill providing that same alternative, saying the state would have to do something soon before it runs out of approved drugs for lethal injections.

“Firing squads have all but disappeared from in the United States,” NBCNews reported., “(and) while Oklahoma law provides for them if lethal injection is ever ruled unconstitutional, only Utah actually continues to use them, and then only for inmates convicted before 2004 as it seeks to phase them out.”

Ohio’s followed the essential “humanitarian trend” described above, having had capital punishment since its early history. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections chronicles“from 1803, when Ohio became a state, until 1885, executions were carried out by public hanging in the county where the crime was committed. In 1885, the legislature enacted a law that required executions to be carried out at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus… In 1897, the electric chair, considered to be a more technologically advanced and humane form of execution, replaced the gallows…. Following the reinstatement of the death penalty, a bill, in 1993, granting prisoners the option to choose between death by electrocution or lethal injection was passed wherein the inmate would be asked to choose between the two methods seven days before the scheduled execution, and not choosing, the default method of execution would be death by electrocution. On November 15, 2001, Governor Bob Taft signedHouse Bill 362 eliminating the electric chair as a form of execution and leaving lethal injection as the only method of execution.”

The stance remains today as a Supreme Court task force studies the issue. House Bill 385 was introduced by Nickie Antonio & Dan Ramos on 12/10/2013  to abolish the death penalty entirely, while Senate Bill 183 is introduced by Charleta Tavares on 09/03/2013  - To provide that a defendant cannot be executed if the defendant's race was the basis of the decision to seek or impose the death penalty, to permit a defendant to file a motion alleging that the defendant's race was the basis of the decision to seek or impose the death penalty.

HB 244, meanwhile, introduced by John Becker on 8/15/2013  would extend the death penalty to include rape, sexual battery, and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor when the offense is committed by an offender who previously has been convicted of, pleaded guilty to, or been adjudicated a delinquent child for committing any of those offenses or the former offense of felonious sexual penetration.