Sunday, May 8, 2022

Grid 360: The state of America's death penalty

South Carolina may soon carry out the United States’ first executions by firing squad in more than a decade. State officials have said that they plan to execute Richard Moore and Brad Sigmon using guns, the first such use of a firing squad since Ronnie Gardner was shot to death by the state of Utah on June 18, 2010, reported Grid.

Last week, nine days before Moore was to be executed, South Carolina’s Supreme Court put the execution on hold, but there’s no way of knowing how long that will last. Days later, the court also put Sigmon’s execution — scheduled for May — on hold. Although the court did not explain its reasoning, both men have an ongoing challenge to the state’s execution protocol, including its planned use of a firing squad.

How did we get here?

More than 45 years after the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in the United States after a four-year hiatus, America is in a monthlong period in which five states planned to carry out six executions — the most in several years.

The situation offers a window into changing attitudes toward the death penalty and the complex brew of factors that have made these executions harder to carry out but also harder to challenge in courts. And the individual stories behind some of these current cases serve as a reminder of the well-documented racial bias in the way death sentences are handed down.

The death penalty’s popularity with the public has diminished in recent decades, and the overall number of new death sentences and executions has dropped significantly,

That’s due in part to the increased difficulty of carrying out lethal injection executions after death penalty opponents made it substantially harder for states to obtain the necessary drugs. States responded in part by adopting untried drug combinations. A series of botched executions followed — including the longest execution in U.S. history, when Arizona spent nearly two hours trying to kill Joseph Wood by using 15 doses of its execution drugs on the man before he died.

During that same time, the Supreme Court has made it more difficult to challenge any method of execution, setting a high bar for a method to be disallowed and by requiring challengers to identify an alternative method of execution.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan organization that maintains a comprehensive database of U.S. executions, told Grid that part of the current influx of execution dates is a result of most states halting executions during the first year of the pandemic, before a covid vaccine was available.

This past week, Texas carried out its first execution of the year when it executed 78-year-old Carl Buntion. Tennessee also had planned an execution for last week, but it was called off with an announcement that highlighted two key elements of the modern death penalty: secrecy and errors. Hours before the state was slated to execute Oscar Franklin Smith by lethal injection, Gov. Bill Lee (R), citing “an oversight in preparation for lethal injection,” announced a reprieve. The execution will not happen before June, but state officials have not yet said anything more about what led to the last-minute reprieve.

Texas had a second execution scheduled for April, that of Melissa Lucio, but the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday announced a stay of execution as a trial court considers several claims Lucio has raised. These include that she is actually innocent in the 2007 death of her 2-year-old.

“While a whole bunch of states seem to want to restart … executions, they’ve been pretty bad at it,” Dunham said, describing the Tennessee developments and a series of moves by South Carolina that have led to repeated stays from the state’s Supreme Court. These include claiming, without providing evidence, that the state has been unable to obtain lethal injection drugs.

States that want to go forward with executions are returning to older methods due to the difficulty in obtaining lethal injection drugs.

Tennessee added the electric chair as a backup option to lethal injection in a 2014 bill. After a nearly 10-year break that coincided with that change and subsequent challenges to the changes, five of the seven people to have been executed in the state were electrocuted to death.

And now, South Carolina has added the firing squad into the mix.

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