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Friday, February 7, 2014

Is The Death Penalty Dying A Slow Death?

(California Department of Corrections/Wikimedia Commons)

A shortage of drugs used for capital punishment is leading some states to consider bringing back the electric chair or the firing squad. (California Department of Corrections/Wikimedia Commons)

This week, the state of Louisiana delayed the execution of Christopher Sepulvado, who was convicted of killing his 6-year-old stepson more than two decades ago.

Sepulvado’s lawyers argued that the two drugs that Louisiana officials wanted to use to put Sepulvado to death would violate his eighth amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

There’s a shortage of drugs used for capital punishment, and it’s leading some states to consider bringing back the electric chair or the firing squad.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discusses this with Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center and Rick Brattin, a Missouri state representative who is sponsoring a bill to make the firing squad an alternative to lethal injection.

Interview Highlights

Richard Dieter on executions in the U.S.

“There’s been a 75 percent drop in death sentences since the 1990s. Really extraordinary numbers, a 60 percent drop in executions. The number of states with the death penalty has declined, death row has declined and even public support is at a 40-year low, so we’re certainly at a crossroads here with the death penalty here compared to where we were 15 years ago.”

“States are finding these drugs from compounding pharmacies. A lot of the legal debate about this is that states don’t want to reveal where they’re getting them from. They don’t want to name the compounding pharmacy, or the pharmacist who put the drugs together, or what company is testing the purity of these. And so the suits have to do with not saying lethal injection is unconstitutional, but rather that this secrecy deprives the defendant of elementary due process, and deprives the people of knowing what the state is doing.”

Dieter on bringing back old execution methods

“I think certainly it’s possible for some of these laws to get passed, but as I say, I don’t think they’re going to become our method of execution. States voluntarily got rid of those things. Utah was the state that used the firing squad, and they want to get as far away from that. Every time they used it, even for people who volunteered, it was a spectacle. The inmate got all the attention, and of course, it was a bloody way of killing people, and for people who had to witness that, including the victim’s families, you know, that doesn’t serve well. So I don’t think that’s where we’re going. But if a system, if a program, a government program, is having problems, we either mend it or we end it. I think it would be refreshing to have a review of: why are we doing it? Why are we picking 39 people out of the 14,000 murders that occur in a year and carrying of those 39, 82 percent of which are in the south? The country isn’t using the death penalty. We don’t need it. The worst crimes aren’t being punished with the death penalty.”

Rick Brattin on his bill to bring back the firing squad

“The reason why I have introduced this is was to have an alternative plan, just in case this is held up in a court appeal for a long period of time. That way, we, the state, would still carry out sentencing for these victims and their families.”

“It would be a voluntary list of law enforcement officers, and out of a five-man squad, four of the five would have a live round and one would have a blank round, so they could, you know, go home believing they had that blank round, at least that’s the way it’s viewed. I know a lot of people who say that is, you know, warping back to 1850, but, you know, executions are not fun, and, you know, we don’t have medical doctors administering this lethal injection and putting the needles in and anything like that. These are orderlies and less than qualified people a lot of the time. So these people sit here and suffer and die.”

Brattin on critics of the firing squad

“I believe it is a viable means of punishment. You know, a lot of these people who are against it don’t really research how these victims die. These people are dying the most humane death possible compared to their victims. You know, the people who are on death row aren’t the guys who were just robbing a bank and happened to misfire and kill somebody. These people did, you know, I mean, the most extreme, heinous things to an innocent human being, or multiple innocent human beings. So that’s where I come from, is that I believe the victims and their families want the rest to be put to these cases, and in this case, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Guests

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. This week the state of Louisiana delayed the execution of a convicted killer in part because of a shortage of drugs that since 1977 have been used in lethal injections. Companies that make the drugs have been refusing to supply them. So states that still have the death penalty are considering other options, including the electric chair or even the firing squad.

In a minute we'll hear from a Missouri lawmaker who is in favor of that, but first let's get the big picture on the death penalty from Richard Dieter. He heads the Death Penalty Information Center, which collects statistics on capital punishment. He joins us from Washington. Richard, welcome.

RICHARD DIETER: Thank you.

HOBSON: Well, how widely used is the death penalty in the United States right now? I see that there were only 39 executions last year.

DIETER: Yes, there's been a 75 percent drop in death sentences since the 1990s, 60 percent drop in executions. The number of states with the death penalty has declined, death row has declined, and even public support is at a 40-year low. So we're certainly at a crossroads here with the death penalty here compared to where we were 15 years ago.

HOBSON: How many states are still using the death penalty, and of those, are they mostly using lethal injection?

DIETER: Well, there's 32 states that have the death penalty law on the books. But when you say using, I point out that, like, last year only nine states carried out an execution. Only 15 states had even one death sentence. All of the states and the federal government and the military, doesn't have any executions, but if it did, they would all be by lethal injection at this point.

HOBSON: But now it is getting much more difficult to get the drugs that are needed for lethal injection. What are the alternatives? Because I know that some states like Virginia are looking at using the electric chair.

DIETER: Well, states are carrying out these. We've had seven executions this year, which was far more than we had last year at this time. So states are finding these drugs from compounding pharmacies. A lot of the legal debate about this is that states don't want to reveal where they're getting them from.

They don't want to name the compounding pharmacy or the pharmacist who put the drugs together or what company is testing the purity of these. And so the suits have to do with not saying lethal injection is unconstitutional but rather that this secrecy deprives the defendant of elementary due process and deprives the people of knowing what the state is doing.

HOBSON: But what about the idea of using the electric chair? Is that a real possibility, that states are going to go back to that?

DIETER: Well, I doubt it. I mean, I think in America we don't go backwards. When, you know, cars are having problems, we don't go back to the horse and buggy. Even in Texas the electric chair is in a museum. The problem, as I say, with lethal injection is not that it's totally painful or something but that it's sometimes misapplied, or things go wrong, and certainly that would be true of the electric chair or any other of the older methods that used to have problems, as well.

HOBSON: Well, speaking of older methods, let's bring in Rick Brattin, who is a Missouri legislator. He is the vice chair of the Corrections Committee. And Rick, you want to bring back the firing squad in Missouri.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE RICK BRATTIN: Yes, and it's all due to the fact of what we just heard on the problems with the compounds and having to go behind closed doors and find ways to obtain these drugs and hide where we're getting them. And we just executed a man last week, you know, that was - went to the highest court in the land due to the fact of the drug. It wasn't for the, you know, the crime that was committed or anything like that.

And the reason why I have introduced this is was to have an alternative plan, just in case this is held up in a court appeal for a long period of time. That way, we, the state, would still carry out sentencing for these victims and their families.

HOBSON: But are people going to want to be the ones in the firing squad? I know that's one of the big problems with the firing squad is nobody wants to be the one whose bullet actually kills the prisoner.

DIETER: Right, and it would be a voluntary list of law enforcement officers, and out of a five-man squad, you know, four of the five would have a live round, and one would have a blank round, so they could, you know, go home believing they had that blank round, and at least that's the way it's viewed.

BRATTIN: I know a lot of people who say that is, you know, warping back to 1850, but, you know, executions are not fun, and, you know, we don't have medical doctors, you know, administering this lethal injection and putting the needles in and anything like that. These are orderlies and less than qualified people a lot of the time. So these people sit here and suffer and die.

And, you know, I have studied, you know, the methods which we have used and utilized. We also have in Missouri the gas chamber. Well, it's also a museum item here in the state, as well. So I'm just trying to come up with an alternative solution to - you know, I believe in the death penalty. I believe that's something that if you commit the ultimate crime that you pay the ultimate sacrifice for that crime. And, you know, we've just got to come up with a way.

HOBSON: Although there are a lot of people who, after hearing you go through that list, are wondering whether you just should give up on the death penalty altogether.

BRATTIN: Well, I disagree. You know, it's - a lot of these people that are against it really don't research how these victims died. These people are dying the most humane death possible compared to their victims. You know, the people who are on death row aren't the guys who just were robbing a bank and just happened to misfire and kill somebody. These people, you know, did the most extreme, heinous things to an innocent human being or multiple innocent human beings.

HOBSON: Although what about the argument that, you know, many times people who have been executed, we later find out they didn't commit the crime?

BRATTIN: Well, I think which today an appeals process and DNA and all these other forensic things that we now have at our disposal. They have 21 appeals that they're allowed to go through. I believe there's an extreme vetting process now. To say that we're not human, and we're perfect, no, absolutely not, but I guess it's no different than if somebody's guilty and is thrown in a cell and di naturally in a prison after sitting there for 60 years.

I mean, which is worse? They would be dead regardless.

HOBSON: Richard Dieter, back to you. After hearing that, do you see states - because it's not only Missouri. Wyoming is also considering going back to the firing squad. Do you see that happening around the country, or do you see the death penalty itself going away at any point?

DIETER: No, I think certainly it's possible for some of these laws to get passed, but as I say, I don't think they're going to become our method of execution. States voluntarily got rid of those things. Utah was the state that used the firing squad, and they want to get as far away from that. Every time they used it, even for people who volunteered, it was a spectacle.

If a system, if a program, a government program, is having problems, we either mend it, or we end it. I think it would be refreshing to have a review of why are we doing this. Why are we picking 39 people out of the 14,000 murders that occur in a year and carrying out an execution of those 39, 82 percent of which are in the South? The country isn't using the death penalty. We don't need it. The worst crimes aren't being punished with the death penalty.

You know, you could name all kinds of people who have avoided the death penalty. It needs a refreshing look. It doesn't need to, you know, go back 100 years.

HOBSON: Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. We've also been speaking with Missouri lawmaker Rick Brattin. Thanks to both of you.

DIETER: Thank you.

BRATTIN: Thank you very much.

HOBSON: And a lot to think about there. If you've got thoughts on the death penalty, should there be a death penalty in the United States? And if there is, should states like Missouri be considering going back to the firing squad? You can let us know your thoughts at hereandnow.org This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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