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Death Penalty

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  • Recent Arkansas Executions Demonstrate Need For Greater Media Access To Capital Punishment

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST

    Arkansas’ recent spate of executions of prisoners on death row, conducted with the use of nearly expired and improperly obtained drugs, was marred by reports that the drugs used were ineffective and caused the inmates to suffer. But uncertainty about what happened to inmates in the death chamber illustrates the need for greater reporter access to these events -- life and death stories for which they may be the only impartial witness.

    The Arkansas Department of Corrections executed four men in eight days, an abridged version of its initial, unprecedented plan to execute eight men in 11 days before one of its lethal injection drugs expired. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer called using the expiration date “as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die … close to random.” Four other planned executions were blocked by court orders for multiple reasons, including possible issues with the clemency process and concerns over use of the sedative midazolam. The four executions were the first in Arkansas since 2005, and at least two of them may have been botched. But because of Arkansas’ restrictions on media access to executions, the public may never know for certain. As The Associated Press’ (AP) Kelly Kissel noted:

    About two dozen people witness each execution in Arkansas, though the term "witness" is a misnomer. No one among the media or citizen witnesses can see as the inmate is secured to a gurney, watch as medical personnel place intravenous lines or hear what's happening as the actual execution takes place. If there's a dispute over what happened, resolution is difficult.

    Sure enough, events in two of four executions in Arkansas are already in dispute. Lawyers say that during Jack Jones’ execution, “infirmary workers had tried unsuccessfully to insert a central line in Mr. Jones’s neck for 45 minutes, before placing it elsewhere on his body” and that “Mr. Jones gulped for air during the execution ... ‘evidence of continued consciousness.’” The state of Arkansas contradicted these reports, and because of the witness restrictions Kissel described, neither claim is independently verifiable. Similarly, during the execution of Kenneth Williams, as NBC News reported, “Media witnesses reported [Williams] ‘coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking’ for a 10 to 20 second period.” Kissel, who was present at the execution, “explained that Williams ‘lurched’ 15 times in quick succession, followed by five slower lurches, three minutes after the sedative midazolam was introduced.” Witnesses stated that Williams could be heard even after the mic was shut off. State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, a citizen witness to the execution, described the movements in a federal court affidavit as "brief involuntary muscle spasms" and noted that he saw no evidence of "pain or suffering," such as a grimace. As a result of the conflicting witness accounts surrounding Williams' death, a federal judge has called for his execution to be investigated more closely.

    It is reportedly not unusual for states to record executions. Of the four states in which executions were held this year, taping was permitted at least in Texas (Media Matters was unable to ascertain whether Virginia or Missouri allow audio or video recording during executions). But the Arkansas Department of Corrections does not audio or video record its executions and, even in written next-day logs, the department does not typically document the specific times that the drugs are administered or that the inmate is deemed unconscious.

    And in the case of Ledell Lee, the first person Arkansas executed this year, the state told media witnesses that they would not be allowed to document his execution using pen and paper. Although the Department of Corrections reversed its decision just half an hour before Lee was set to be executed, it is unclear whether the reversal will remain.

    Over the last several years, a number of executions in various states have been both reported and confirmed to have been botched, as states use untested and potentially dangerous combinations of drugs, many of which were not created for the purpose of lethal injection. Drug companies are increasingly objecting to use of their drugs to kill people, making it harder for states to obtain those drugs. And the relationship between prisons and lethal injection drug manufacturers that do permit the use of their drugs in executions has become less transparent, with several states attempting to enact secrecy laws to protect their suppliers. Questionable execution practices make transparency and media access a needed check on the system, but reports suggest that some states are actually making the execution process less transparent.

    KUAR, an NPR affiliate in Little Rock, AR, reported that Texas, Missouri, and Virginia -- the only other states to have carried out executions this year -- allowed media witnesses to witness and document executions, at least once the inmate is secured to the gurney and his IV lines have been placed. Previously, for decades, the Virginia Department of Corrections allowed witnesses to observe the inmate being secured to the gurney and IV lines being inserted. But earlier this year, the department changed its policy to prevent witnesses from observing the inmate from beginning to end. And Oklahoma’s policies became so egregiously restrictive after the botched April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, despite promised reforms, that the ACLU filed a lawsuit arguing that “the press, and by extension the public, were deprived of the First Amendment right of access to observe the initiation and termination of the execution proceeding.” The Oklahoma governor also delayed executions until further notice, and in April 2017, a bipartisan commission unanimously recommended the state extend its moratorium on the death penalty “until significant reforms are accomplished,” but the attorney general just last week announced his plans to resume execution protocols planning regardless.

    During Lockett’s execution, which a prison warden described as “a bloody mess,” Lockett showed “clear signs of discomfort” after being administered the lethal injection drugs, and then officials “closed the blinds to the chamber and left witnesses unable to see his final moments.” Lockett “died 43 minutes after the first execution drug was administered”; there were initially concerns that he had died of a heart attack, but while the state autopsy found no evidence of that, an independent autopsy examination was also never able to confirm this because the examiner was not given access to his head and neck.

    Back in Arkansas, after the state tried to bar reporters from using pen and paper during the execution, Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told KUAR reporters that he couldn’t think of another state with the same rule. He used the execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona as an example of why it was important for reporters to be able to document the event, saying, “Reporters counted that [Wood] hacked more than 640 times. That was not something they could have done if they [didn't] have paper and pencil because they were making tick marks each time that he gasped.”

    Journalism is instrumental in bringing awareness to, and holding states accountable for, executions that have potentially violated prisoners’ 8th amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment. An estimated 3 percent of executions from 1890-2010 have been botched in some way, with lethal injection yielding the highest percentage of botched executions. The stakes are high for inmates, their families, and the country. Arkansas and other states that conduct executions should at least let the media fully bear witness.

    Image by Dayanita Ramesh.

  • Fox Complains About Right To Appeal Death Sentences: "Where's The Justice In That?"

    Blog ››› ››› EMILY ARROWOOD

    Fox host Elisabeth Hasselbeck suggested that the U.S. justice system was too lenient on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who received the death penalty for the Boston Marathon bombing, complaining that his right to appeal upends the "justice" of the jury's verdict.

    After a federal jury sentenced the Boston bomber to death last week, Fox & Friends hosted an attorney and death penalty advocate on May 18 to discuss Tsarnaev's right to appeal his sentence. Co-host Brian Kilmeade complained that the possibility of a lengthy process could mean "we're not going to get to kill this guy, are we?" Elisabeth Hasselbeck argued, "Where's the justice" if Tsarnaev can challenge the jury's verdict:

    HASSELBECK: That relief was felt in Boston. We've got friends and family there ourselves, and I think most Americans looked at this as justice is done. But now we hear about this appeals process, and we're wondering, well, where's the justice in that?

    An appeal is automatic in a federal death penalty case like this one. Tsarnaev will reportedly be moved to the U.S. penitentiary for federal death-row inmates while his attorneys challenge the verdict. 

  • CBS To Receive Award From Fringe Group At CPAC

    ››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL

    CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson is set to receive a journalism award at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference from Accuracy in Media, a right-wing group with a long history of promoting anti-gay views and conspiracy theories. Attkisson -- the first reporter from a mainstream news outlet to receive AIM's annual award -- has produced some notably bad journalism over the past year, particularly on the topics of clean energy and vaccines.

  • Troy Davis, And Fox News' Chance To Do Good

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    I'm going to do something that might be considered a waste of time: suggest a question for Fox News to ask at tonight's Republican debate.

    Yes, it's Fox News and they likely have little desire to take suggestions from Media Matters. But the roiling horror of the Troy Davis execution remains fresh in the American consciousness and perhaps that can help us to transcend differences to act in the interest of the common good.

    The controversy over Davis' execution makes it almost certain that there will be some discussion of capital punishment tonight, and it's my worry that the wrong questions will be asked that animates this long-shot request. So here goes:

    Since 1996, as DNA testing has improved, there have been nearly 80 death row exonerations. Just two months ago, Cory Maye of Mississippi walked out of jail a free man years after an error-riddled travesty of a trial left him condemned to death. Bret Baier or Megyn Kelly or Chris Wallace should ask each candidate whether they support the death penalty, yea or nay. For each person who answers yea (and I imagine that will be quite a few), they should be asked to reconcile their faith in capital punishment with this spate of exonerations: how can they maintain confidence in a system that, as we're learning, is frequently and intractably wrong?

    That cuts to the heart of the capital punishment debate. Can we support the state-sponsored execution of prisoners knowing that the judicial system operates with a margin of error?

    It's a question that should be asked of all our elected leaders and explored by the press in ways that go beyond the superficiality of political wrangling. At the last debate in which capital punishment arose as an issue, much of the coverage that followed focused on the theatrics and political effectiveness of the candidates' answers.

    By presenting a death penalty question in a way that makes clear the fallibility of the system that enforces a policy in which no room for error exists, perhaps Fox News can help foster a broader media discussion and forces us all to reexamine our moral calculus on the issue. Indeed, there's already momentum to build on: theWashington Post's humor blog, of all places, offered yesterday a nuanced take on death penalty morality in light of the Davis controversy.

    Like I said, it's a long shot, and I don't expect Fox News to take me up on my suggestion. But as the furor over Troy Davis and the stream of innocent men walking out of death row make clear, it's a discussion that's long overdue.

  • A Death Penalty Lesson From Illinois

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    It's a strange quirk of politics that, with the death penalty coming to the fore as an issue in the 2012 presidential race, the incumbent president is from Illinois while the frontrunner for the Republican nomination is a Texan.

    Texas, as we've all come to know of late, is America's capital punishment capital, with a record 234 inmates executed during the Rick Perry administration. Illinois, on the other hand, just recently abolished the death penalty. A spate of 13 overturned death sentences at the beginning of last decade succeeded in bending the conscience of then-governor George Ryan, also a Republican, who suspended all executions and commuted the sentences of the remaining 167 death row prisoners to life. The state passed a series of reforms, and Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed the ban into law in March.

    For the media reporting on last night's U.S. Supreme Court-mandated stay of execution for Texas inmate Duane Buck, Illinois' struggles with capital punishment should be instructive.

    The court is reviewing Buck's original sentencing hearing, during which an expert witness for the state, Walter Quijano, testified that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black. Texas has already retried six other death penalty cases in which Quijano testified. Despite a growing chorus of calls to reconsider Buck's case (including a plea from one of the prosecutors) the state of Texas repeatedly rejected Buck's attorneys' requests for a new sentencing hearing.

    If Buck's death sentence is overturned, his case will be just the latest indication that the Texas system for doling out death is plagued by prejudice and ineptitude. The Perry administration has already seen the exoneration of at least five death row inmates. The 13 overturned death sentences in Illinois sparked sweeping reforms to the state's death penalty system that led, ultimately, to its abolition. In Texas, how many more will it take?

    The prisoners freed from death row in these states had allies and advocates working doggedly on their behalf -- and they also had remarkable good fortune. It's inconceivable, with so many exonerations over the past decade, that there aren't more wrongly condemned prisoners whom the system has failed awaiting executions they don't deserve because they lack representation.

    Duane Buck's ultimate fate is still up in the air, but last night's Supreme Court action, the example of Illinois, and the slow stream of innocent men walking out of death row make clear that the system of capital punishment in Texas is a tragically corrupted enterprise in desperate need of reform. And it's time the media start taking note of that.

  • Life And Near-Death In Texas

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Last night's Republican presidential debate generated no shortage of headlines and much coverage of the record number of prisoner executions during the administration of Texas governor Rick Perry.

    Asked by NBC's Brian Williams if he struggles with the idea that any one of those executed prisoners might have been innocent, Perry answered: "No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all. ... In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."

    Much of the coverage thus far has focused on the theatrics of Perry's staunch defense of Texas' system for capital punishment, rather than the substance. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote this morning that Perry was one of the "losers" last night, but "salvaged the second half of the debate with a very strong answer on the death penalty." For those wondering what was so "strong" about it, tough luck: Cillizza didn't explain. In today's Politico "Playbook," Mike Allen counseled Perry to "give the same answer on executions in every debate."

    A few media outlets have noted Texas' controversial record on capital punishment, and some even spotlighted the case of Cameron Todd Willingham as a counterpoint to Perry's faith in the Texas criminal justice system. Willingham, convicted of murdering his three daughters by arson, was put to death in Texas in 2004. Perry denied a stay of execution to allow the state to review evidence that the fire science used to convict Willingham was spurious. In 2009 he abruptly replaced several members the state forensic science commission just before it was scheduled to hold hearings on the matter.

    Willingham's case is an important one, but we should also be talking about the many wrongly convicted prisoners freed from death row in Texas in the last ten years. They, more than the unresolved Willingham case, demonstrate conclusively not just that the Texas criminal justice system is capable of making catastrophic errors when meting out capital punishment, but also that such errors happen with appalling frequency.

  • Casey Anthony, Death Row Innocents, And Media Priorities

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    The years-long media frenzy over the trial of Casey Anthony is reaching its denouement. On Tuesday, the 25-year old Florida woman, arrested in 2008 and charged with killing her two-year-old daughter, was acquitted of murder charges and found guilty of lying to police. This morning she received her sentence and headed back to jail. Ever since the verdict was read, cable news has been saturated with overheated speculation as to whether the system of justice had failed by letting Casey Anthony, who was facing the death penalty, live.

    It is an important discussion to have, given that it deals with the authority our courts and juries have to impose the ultimate punishment of death. But it is being led by journalists who expected Anthony to be convicted and executed. Fox News' Geraldo Rivera marveled just after Anthony was acquitted that she was "a woman that we felt, just hours ago, just an hour ago, could have been walking down the green mile, down the last walk to the death chamber ... that she would be there, sitting some years from now with needles in her veins, forfeiting her life for that poor child."

    It's impossible to say with complete certainty whether the justice system failed with respect to Casey Anthony. What is known, however, is that the same justice system has absolutely failed catastrophically by sending people to death row for crimes they did not commit. We know this because several of those people have, by dint of good fortune and hard work by lawyers and journalists, been exonerated and set free. But those failures get just a fraction of the media attention paid to trials like that of Casey Anthony.

  • Print media fail to note that Saddam verdict released two days before U.S. elections despite unfinished judgment

    ››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

    In their coverage of Saddam Hussein's November 5 guilty verdict, several print news outlets reported U.S. officials' assertions that the announcement had not been timed to coincide with the midterm elections but ignored reporting that conflicts with these denials -- in particular, the fact that the full verdict in Saddam's trial is not set to be released until November 9.

  • O'Reilly claimed Hillary Clinton supports "things most Christians do not," then dismissed example of GOP support for death penalty

    ››› ››› ROB MORLINO

    Bill O'Reilly falsely claimed that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) supports "things most Christians do not, i.e., partial birth abortion." In fact, Clinton has consistently said she would support a ban on late-term abortions so long as there were exceptions to protect the health and life of the pregnant woman.