Several states are in a kind of death penalty limbo

May 8, 2014

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has ordered a review of the state’s death penalty protocols. (Alonzo Adams/AP)

Oklahoma officially put death penalty executions on hold Thursday for six months following last week’s bungled execution.

The decision adds it to a growing list of states in a kind of death penalty limbo. Eighteen states have abolished the punishment altogether, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but it’s been put on hold — for now, at least — in at least nine more.

Court rulings that the use of lethal injection procedures need to be changed or reviewed have created de facto moratoriums on the death penalty in California, North Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky. As in Oklahoma, the state of Louisiana stayed an execution to buy time to review the intended lethal drug. And governors in three more states — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have instituted formal moratoriums citing an imperfect system.

In issuing those moratoriums, each governor went to great lengths to explain their thinking, citing flawed procedures and unequal application of the law. Those statements reflect the reasoning and facts behind many of the holds. Here’s what they had to say:

Washington

On Feb. 11, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced that he was suspending the death penalty as long as he’s in office.

Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served.

The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred.

Let me say clearly that this policy decision is not about the nine men currently on death row in Walla Walla.

I don’t question their guilt or the gravity of their crimes. They get no mercy from me.

This action today does not commute their sentences or issue any pardons to any offender.

But I do not believe their horrific offenses override the problems that exist in our capital punishment system.

Colorado

On May 22, 2013, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) issued a temporary reprieve for Nathan J. Dunlap. “[T]he question is about the use of the death penalty itself, and not about [Dunlap],” he said in his executive order.

If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless. A recent study co-authored by several law professors showed that under Colorado’s capital sentencing system, death is not handed down fairly. Many defendants are eligible for capital punishment but almost none are actually sentenced to death. The inmates currently on death row have committed heinous crimes, but so have many others who are serving mandatory life sentences.

The fact that those defendants were sentenced to life in prison instead of death underscores the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in this State, and demonstrates that it has not been fairly or equitably imposed.

My decision to grant a reprieve to Offender No. 89148 is not out of compassion or sympathy for him or any other inmate sentenced to death. The crimes are horrendous and the pain and suffering inflicted are indescribable.

Oregon

On Nov. 22, 2011, Gov. John Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, announced that he would no longer allow the death penalty on his watch.

Oregonians have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice – in swift and certain justice. The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all. It is a perversion of justice that the single best indicator of who will and will not be executed has nothing to do with the circumstances of a crime or the findings of a jury. The only factor that determines whether someone sentenced to death in Oregon is actually executed is that they volunteer. The hard truth is that in the 27 years since Oregonians reinstated the death penalty, it has only been carried out on two volunteers who waived their rights to appeal.

It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach. I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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