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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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  • crazytish

    Bullets are cheaper than drugs! Bring back the firing squads!

  • http://www.jerroldrichards.com/ Jerrold Richards

    I think long-term incarceration is a more effective deterrent than the death penalty.

  • Keith Barton

    Why does the state of Oregon not just administer the same drugs that doctor’s can now prescribe under the “Death With Dignity” drugs?

  • BillJ

    The whole idea of capital punishment is idiotic. This isn’t 1725. Why don’t we just burn people? Or let dogs eat them? Insane.

  • John

    I’ll never understand how a country that considers itself Christian (for the most part anyway) believes that death is a punishment. Christians believe that sins are forgivable so then, by that reasoning, the death penalty would be a path to heaven. Life in prison, on the other hand, would indeed be punishment.

    • Norman

      You need to read a Bible – Romans 12 & 13 and then tell me the death penally isn’t Christian.

  • shanna stowe

    What if the “live round” shot in a firing squad doesnt deliver a deathly shot? Or…misses? What about hanging? Seems that there is too much variance in death methodology and even the sentencing for crimes state to state and judge to judge.

  • Sharon

    I don’t know if I believe in the death penalty, but I don’t see what the problem is with a shortage of drugs. There’s plenty of heroin and other drugs on our streets that kill hundreds of people.

  • Tim Rohe

    Just because the people in Missouri were dumb enough to elect this guy doesn’t mean NPR has to give him a soapbox. Either he’s an idiot or he’s being hyberbolic to try to bring attention to the “problem.” His logic is that these criminals did the “ultimate crimes” and should pay the “ultimate punishment.” Eye for an eye, baby! Murderers should be killed, gang rapists should be gang raped, etc. Is Mr. Brattin going to volunteer to eat Jeffrey Dahmer? I forget who originally said it, but the gist of the quote is that the death penalty is essentially killing people to show society that killing is bad.

  • Jane

    America claims to be a Christian country. What would Jesus have to say about the death penalty? Also, considering that hundreds of people have been exonerated from death row since the advent of DNA, how likely is it that the system was perfect up until then? Or that the system would be perfect from now on? Some people will still tell lies. If someone is still alive in jail, mistakes can be corrected. Not after they are dead. How many people know that the death penalty is more expensive for taxpayers than a life term, due to the legal processes involved?

  • Molly

    The death penalty has too many flaws and is horribly expensive. It is embarrassing that other countries refuse to give us drugs to kill our people with. What does that say about America.

    • Norman

      It says that we are stupid. We should use the electric chair, hanging and firing squads. Very cheap, efficient and effective.

  • Mister Webb

    The idea that there is such a thing as the Death Penalty Information Center and Here and Now gives them authority just sort of scares me. The death penalty is sick and sad. People who make their living promoting it are even sicker and sadder.

  • jeff from randolph, vt

    Id just like to add a bit on the firing squad…and that is in Ecuador the firing squad is used when murdr or rape has occured and the families of the victims are the ones holding the guns…This seemingly serves as a deterant to the rest of society as their crimes rates plummeted soon afyer the firing squard was inacted.

  • jeff from randolph, vt

    Furthermore a bullet, or five would be unequivicably inexpensive compared to five, ten or fifteen years on death row all facillitated buy we the taxpayers..i certainly would not lose sleep over it.

    • Teddy Akeves

      You are being simplistic. That bullet cost quite a bit of money. It is in fact cheaper to put them away for life. Your false argument is so old. Come up with a better argument. God hold societies for innocent blood shed. Fact. Whether that innocent blood is shed by an individual or a city as whole.

      • Norman

        Teddy,

        Are you serious – a bullet is more expensive than a life term?

        You also need to get a Bible and read Romans 12 & 13 and see that the death penalty is scriptural.

        Why are you mentioning innocent blood? You really don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • Publius

    The anti-death penalty lobby know they cannot win this issue in the legislatures, as most Americans support capital punishment, so they resort to liberal elites in the courts using clever, dissembling arguments about the “safety” of lethal drugs to try and reach an Anti-democratic ban on the death penalty. The bottom line is simple: the ConstItution explicitly provides for the Death Penalty in several places (penalty for treason, 5th Amendment Grand Jury clause, 5th/14th Amendment Due Process clauses to name a few), and there is nothing in the Constitution (including the 8th Amendment) that would prohibit any method of execution that was extant at the time of the Constitution’s framing. Arguments to the contrary are motivated by the same results-oriented, anti-death penalty, animus. If you really believe in democracy, then let’s have a fair and honest LEGISLATIVE debate and then live with the results of majority will. If results are more important than democracy, we can let the “enlightened” minority simply tell us what is best for us and not let us decide. I choose democracy. Your can take your liberal totalitarianism elsewhere.

    • Teddy Akeves

      I say that you be allowed to have your death penalty. If however, an innocent is put to death, than ppl like you should be held responsible and put to death. That’s how it was done in the conservative old days of the bible. A person involved in the death of a wrongfully convicted person was put to death. (witnesses, jury, “police”, judges, etc)

    • Norman

      I salute you Sir. My sentiments exactly.

  • Teddy Akeves

    Let those who believe in the death penalty be the only participants in the Justice process. If a person is wrongly put to death than everyone, from jury to judge to police to district attorney to executioner, involved in the conviction shall be put to death as well, including prosecution witnesses. Lets go further. Lets apply this standard of an eye for an eye to all wrongful convictions. If a person serves 20 yrs and is found to be innocent than all persons involved in his conviction shall serve 20 yrs.

    • Norman Silva

      Get real.The majority of the people on death row are guilty. No one is saying that the innocent should be put to death but in those cases where there is no doubt – kill them. Hang them, shoot them, electrocute them, inject them with the same chemical that vets use for animals. We need to get these people out of society. When a society is reluctant to rid itself of these types of people, it will be destroyed. Look where the warm and fuzzy mentality has got California.

  • Publius

    Not Christian, barbaric, too expensive (which is ironic because it’s only expensive due to the dillatory and specious litigation brought consistently by the anti-death penalty lobby), allegedly executing innocent people.

    If the majority of American find these arguments compelling, you win and we ban the death penalty democratically. If not (and I suspect they won’t because they know that the death penalty is – if nothing else – 100% effective as a specific deterrent as executed murderers never commit more murders) then we continue to eliminate the greatest threats to civil society from our society. Or be honest that you don’t believe in democracy when you think you’re right about something.

  • JustThinkAboutIt

    I’m very much against
    the death penalty which is ultimately much more expensive than life in prison
    (appeals etc.) and is itself, an absurd act for any civilized society. The fact
    that we are having this discussion on how best to execute a human without causing
    pain or repulsive reactions simply illustrates the conflict we have with the
    act itself. “Let’s kill this man for what he has done, but let’s do it as painlessly
    and with as little mess as possible.” In an execution, there is no
    death with dignity. Deep down WE are probably much more concerned about the
    method than the person being executed. In this age of technological
    advancements, I find it absolutely laughable that we struggle with the methods
    of putting a man to death. What’s better, quicker, less painful, more reliable
    . . . . an injection of drugs via needle or a well-placed injection of metal
    via firearm? Whether you are for the death penalty or not, it is your
    hard-earned tax dollars that pay for it which means that we all own a piece of
    each successful death by execution. Make sure you share that with your kids.

  • Publius

    Your argument is a canard. The overwhelming majority of people who claim they concerned about method are those who actually oppose the death penalty altogether. Those of us who view captial punishment as effective and just are unconcerned about method. It need not – and in fact, should not – be painless and antiseptic. It should dispatch dangerous predators in a way that makes them pay for the harm they inflicted on their victims and on society at large, and provides a deterrent to others who might commit capital crimes. I am sure you view that as barbaric, and that is your right. I disagree, and the majority of Americans agree with me. You can try to convince them through the democratic process, or you can ram your views down their throats through the courts. As long as you are honest about your choice. And I have shared that with my kids, as I am trying to make sure they grow up in a just and safe society – not one that creates permissive incentives for criminals, and a democracy that does not permit elites to dictate policy through courts, no matter how well-intentioned.

    • Teddy Akeves

      You sound like a propagandist for North Korea.
      If capital punishment was in fact a deterrent; why are we still putting ppl to death? One wonders about your self admitted, ominous sounding, vengeance orientated mindset. Permissive incentives? Our society as a whole is one large Sodom sister city. That includes everyone who makes money in it. This is not a safe society to raise kids in.

  • Publius

    Typical, ad hominem attacks instead of answering the question. Put it to a vote Teddy.

  • Ezra

    I am a little disturbed by this conversation topic on the show today. While I am definitely in favor of capital punishment, it should be done as humanely as possible. Even though the perpetrator of some seriously heinous crimes did not take that into account with their victims. It might sound simple, but has carbon monoxide poisoning ever been thought of? No drug companies to get in the way, relatively painless. You go to sleep and he did not wake up.

    • Norman

      Why should it be painless? He/she won’t feel much pain if shot by firing squad or hanged.

  • Abey

    Death penalty should be abolished. Society and the way one is brought up influences his/her actions. Its not the convict acting alone.

  • Publius

    I find it fascinating that this website had re-ordered the comments so that anti-death penalty comments that were already posted when I put up my posts are at the top and bottom, sandwiching the pro-capital punishment comments toward the bottom. Also that my replys to a particular poster were buried. Amazing coincidence.

    • ICDogg

      Above the comment box, you can sort by newest, oldest, or “best” which seems pretty random and is controlled by Disqus, which is the commenting system. I tend to sort by newest.

  • ICDogg

    I prefer the death penalty be reserved for only the most extraordinary situations. So no, I wouldn’t abolish it, nor do I want to see more of it.

  • Jack Alvear

    The idea of going back to a less technologically advanced form of implementing capital punishment seems to be considered with a negative connotation. I believe that the death penalty should remain a form of punishment, but I believe that it needs to be executed through a more affordable means that does not take money out of the taxpayers pockets in order to develop ineffective drugs that are extremely costly

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