During his visit to the United States last week, Pope Francis used an address before Congress — one of the most high-profile platforms from which the pope could speak to this country and its leaders — to call for an end to the death penalty. In the two weeks following the pope’s remarks, five states plan to execute six death-row inmates, a burst of lethal activity the country has not seen in more than two years.
The executions scheduled over the next nine days seem to offer a microcosm of the death penalty as it currently exists in the United States. These cases touch on a wide range of the issues that surround capital punishment, including lethal injection drugs, mental health and possible racial biases. They are also a reminder that while executions are occurring less frequently than they have in two decades and do not take place in much of the country, a handful of states remain bastions of the death penalty.
One execution was delayed due to concerns about the lethal-injection drugs, questions raised amid an ongoing shortage of execution drugs. Two others were delayed so that the U.S. Supreme Court could debate lethal-injection drugs and the death penalty itself. One state intended to execute a female inmate, a rare occurrence in this country. In another state, activists and lawmakers are questioning whether racial bias played a role in a death sentence. Three of the people are on death row not for personally killing someone, but for having someone else carry out that crime.
These inmates have filed petition after petition over the years, come within hours of possibly being executed, had their cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and — so far — they still remain among the small number of those sentenced to death who could see the inside of an execution chamber this year. (There are about 3,000 people on death row, while an average of 41 inmates are executed each year.)
If all of the executions are carried out as scheduled, it will mark the most active period of capital punishment in the United States since June 2013. Over a two-week span that month, Texas, Florida and Oklahoma combined to execute five inmates.
The United States executes so few inmates these days that it is rare for the dates to pile up like this. There are exceptions, of course: Last year, after nearly two months without any executions, three lethal injections were carried out in three states during a single 24-hour span.
But most states have, through choice or circumstance, not been active participants in the country’s capital punishment system. While 19 states have abolished the death penalty (a number that includes Nebraska, though that repeal may be on hold until it appears on a ballot next year), several more retain the death penalty without ever using it.
California has the country’s largest death row and has not executed an inmate in nearly a decade. Pennsylvania is also home to one of the country’s biggest death row populations, and its governor suspended the death penalty this year. Similar moratoriums are in place in Oregon and Washington state. Some states have contemplated repeals that did not go through, like New Hampshire, where such a bill failed by a single vote last year; the state has one death row inmate and has not executed an inmate since World War II.
All told, executions remain clustered in a small number of states, a dwindling number of locations accounting for an overwhelming majority of lethal injections. In its annual report last year, the Death Penalty Information Center found that the number of executions, the states executing inmates and the number of death sentences all fell significantly from what the country saw during the mid-to-late 1990s.
So far this year, five states have carried out executions, a number that will rise to six if Virginia executes an inmate Thursday as planned. Last year, it was seven states.
The states planning the executions this week and next — Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Missouri — are among the country’s most active death-penalty states since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. Since that time, Texas has executed more inmates than any other six states combined. Oklahoma, meanwhile, has found itself at the center of debate over the death penalty after a bungled execution and a Supreme Court case, which involved the two inmates scheduled for lethal injection there this month.
Three inmates are set to be executed this week and three are set to be executed next week. Here are glimpses of each case:
Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia
UPDATE: Gissendaner was executed early Wednesday morning following a flurry of last-minute legal appeals. Head here for more.
Gissendaner is the only woman on Georgia’s death row. Her lethal injection, scheduled for Tuesday night, marks the third attempt by Georgia to execute her this year.
Georgia had postponed her first execution date this year due to a winter storm, while officials called off her second scheduled lethal injection because they said the lethal injection drugs appeared “cloudy.” The state indefinitely postponed its executions while it examined the drugs, eventually saying that the drugs were likely too cold. Earlier this month, they set another execution date, saying that she would be put to death Tuesday at 7 p.m.
She was convicted of murdering her husband nearly two decades ago. Gissendaner was sentenced to death for convincing her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, to kill Douglas Gissendaner, her husband, in February 1997, according to the office of Sam Olens, Georgia’s attorney general.
Theologians and religious leaders have asked the state to halt her execution, pointing to Gissendaner’s work completing a theology studies program while in prison. A letter signed by Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta asked authorities to commute her death sentence and change her punishment to life in prison without parole. The letter argued that Gissendaner has “experienced a profound spiritual transformation” during her time behind bars.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — the only entity in the state that can commute a death sentence or change it to life in prison or life without parole — had rejected her clemency request earlier this year. The board met Tuesday, just hours before her scheduled execution, to reconsider her case and, despite an appeal from Pope Francis, declined her request Tuesday.
On Tuesday night, Gissendaner’s execution was delayed as multiple courts weighed in on her appeals; a federal appeals court, the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court all declined her requests for a stay. The U.S. Supreme Court denied three stays on Tuesday night, and she was executed early Wednesday.
Richard Glossip in Oklahoma
Glossip is another inmate whose execution has been delayed multiple times. So far this year, Glossip has had his execution called off twice, both times because a court stepped in. An execution date in January was delayed when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a case from Glossip and other Oklahoma inmates challenging that state’s lethal injection protocol.
The case focused on the use of the drug midazolam in executions, a sedative that was used in three problematic executions last year. The most high-profile of these was the botched lethal injection of Clayton Lockett last year in Oklahoma. Lockett, a convicted murderer, grimaced and kicked during his prolonged execution, which drew criticism from President Obama and the United Nations.
In a case that bore Glossip’s name, the Supreme Court ultimately upheld Oklahoma’s procedure (which now uses a higher dose of midazolam than it did last year) as constitutional. The justices also debated the death penalty’s constitutionality, arguing about whether the issues facing the death penalty — a shortage of drugs, a seemingly arbitrary application, lengthy delays — were inherent flaws in the system or, as Justice Antonin Scalia wrote at the time, problems brought about due to lengthy challenges by death-row inmates and death-penalty opponents.
After the Supreme Court ruling on midazolam, Oklahoma said it planned to resume executions. Glossip’s execution was scheduled for Sept. 16, but hours before his lethal injection, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals halted his execution for two weeks so it could consider his appeals.
Glossip, 52, was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of Barry Van Treese, a motel owner. In 1997, Van Treese was beaten to death with a baseball bat, and Glossip, who worked for him, was found guilty of paying another motel worker to kill the motel owner. Justin Sneed, who confessed to killing Van Treese and testified against Glossip, was sentenced to life in prison without parole while Glossip received a death sentence.
After his first sentence was overturned due to what a state court deemed ineffective legal counsel, Glossip was sentenced again in 2004. But Glossip’s attorneys have argued that executing him based on Sneed’s testimony “risks a wrongful execution.” They also submitted an affidavit from a man who said that while in an Oklahoma state prison, he heard Sneed say that Glossip hadn’t done anything.
On Monday, the Oklahoma appeals court that delayed Glossip’s execution rejected his latest appeals, saying it would allow the execution to go forward.
The divided court decided 3-2 to reject Glossip’s claims and arguments, finding that his conviction was “not based solely on the testimony of a codefendant” and adding that the same court believed Sneed’s testimony “was sufficiently corroborated for a conviction,” according to an opinion from Judge David Lewis. In a dissent, Presiding Judge Clancy Smith said “the tenuous evidence in this case is questionable at best” if Sneed had changed his earlier remarks, and she wrote that she would have allowed a 60-day stay to allow for an evidentiary hearing.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) has previously said she was not swayed by the evidence Glossip’s attorneys recently presented and denied requests for a stay. His execution is scheduled for Wednesday at 3 p.m. local time.
On Tuesday, his attorneys filed a request with the U.S. Supreme Court asking them to stay his execution, but the justices rejected the request shortly before his execution was scheduled to begin. The governor later issued a last-minute stay due to questions about the drugs that would have been used.
Alfredo Prieto in Virginia
UPDATE: Prieto was executed after a late debate over the drugs involved. Head here for more.
Prieto was given two death sentences in December 2010 for the slayings of Rachael A. Raver and Warren H. Fulton III, both of whom were shot and killed two decades earlier in Virginia. In 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld Prieto’s death sentences for killing them.
When Prieto was sentenced to death in 2010, the jurors in Virginia were told that he had been sentenced for a rape and murder in California in 1990 and had been linked to another killing in Virginia in 1998. He had been imprisoned in California since being arrested in 1990, and he had been on death row there since 1992 for raping and murdering 15-year-old Yvette Woodruff.
Jurors who sentenced him to death in Virginia were told about his California sentence, but not about the ballistics test that linked him to a homicide in a different part of Virginia in 1989 or about the four other killings in California that occurred the following year and that authorities say they have tied to Prieto. My colleague Tom Jackman, who has covered this case for years, has much more on Prieto’s history here.
Eventually, Prieto was extradited to Virginia rather than left on California’s death row, which rarely sends people to an execution chamber. After a mistrial, a conviction and a resentencing, Prieto faced lethal injection.
During his trials, Prieto’s attorneys have argued that his IQ was too low for him to be executed, but juries were not swayed and he was convicted and sentenced. Prieto has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and his attorneys have argued that he is intellectually disabled, which Virginia officials have disputed.
On Monday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said he would not stop Prieto’s execution. Like all of the states on this list, Virginia is among the most active places for the modern death penalty, but unlike the other states, it has not been as involved in the process recently. Virginia has executed only one inmate since 2012, while the other five states have executed at least one inmate during the three years that followed. Prieto was executed by the state of Virginia.
Kimber Edwards in Missouri
UPDATE: Edwards’s sentence was commuted by Gov. Jay Nixon, who changed it to a sentence of life in prison without parole. Head here for more.
Edwards was convicted of hiring a man to execute Kimberly Cantrell, his ex-wife. As with two other cases on this list, he was sentenced to death while the person authorities said carried out the crime was given a sentence of life in prison.
Earlier this year, a group of religious leaders and elected officials wrote in a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon (D) asking him to assign a group to study whether racial bias played a role in Edwards’s sentence. The letter said that during Edwards’s trial, the prosecutor in the case removed three African-Americans from the jury pool, and the group asked Nixon to stay the execution until the group could investigate.
Missouri has recently become a much more active death-penalty state; since the beginning of 2013, only Texas has executed more inmates. His execution would have been the seventh in Missouri this year. His execution was scheduled for Oct. 6, but Nixon called it off and commuted his sentence to one of life in prison.
Juan Garcia in Texas
Garcia, 35, was sentenced to death in 2000 for a killing two years earlier. Garcia approached a man in a parking lot and shot him in the head before taking $8 from the man, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
His lawyers have argued that he had poor legal assistance during his trial and say he’s mentally impaired, which would make him ineligible for the death penalty.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from Garcia’s attorneys to appeal a lower court’s decision, rejecting it without comment. His execution is scheduled for Oct. 6.
Benjamin Cole in Oklahoma
UPDATE: Cole’s execution has been stayed indefinitely due to questions about the lethal injection drugs Oklahoma had gotten for Glossip’s execution. Head here for more.
Cole, who is scheduled to die on Oct. 7, was one of the inmates who challenged Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure earlier this year in the case that carried Glossip’s name and made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The other inmates who had joined Glossip and Cole in that challenge were Charles Warner, who was executed in January, and John Grant, who is scheduled to die on Oct. 28.
Cole was sentenced to death for killing his nine-month-old daughter by breaking her spine. His attorneys argue that he is insane and should not be executed, writing in an appeal this month to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals that Cole’s “mental health issues have ravaged” his mind.
“He is a mentally ill man who suffers from schizophrenia and observable brain damage in the form of a lesion in the basal ganglia region of his brain,” his attorneys wrote.
Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, wrote in a response last week that based on observations from prison officials, “there is no good reason to believe [Cole] is not competent to be executed.”
Cole’s execution has been delayed indefinitely by the appeals court.
This post was first published on Tuesday, Sept, 29, at 9 a.m. It will be regularly updated.