With less than eight hours to go before Scott Panetti was to be executed, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution. The question everyone is asking now is why did the super conservative court rule to halt the state’s action?
How do you get mercy for a dying man on death row—a man who is also, by almost every account, innocent? You go to the governor. And around noon today, that’s just what the attorneys for Max Soffar did. Soffar’s attorneys, Andrew Horne and Brian Stull, visited the governor’s office in the State Capitol, bringing a petition started by famous anti-capital punishment advocate Sister Helen Prejean. Soffar has been on death row since 1980 but he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer only last year. Sister Prejean worked with the ACLU and change.org to create a petition asking Governor Perry to grant clemency to Soffar. More than 115,000 people signed the document, which reads in part, “Grant Max Soffar clemency so he can die at home, in the arms of his loving wife Anita, and with the support of his friends and family.”
Yesterday, when we unveiled the cover of our July issue featuring Rick Perry, we also told you about “The Perry Report Card,” an upcoming magazine feature where, as the title suggests, we graded the tenure of the governor on eight areas of public policy. We invited you to weigh in with your own grades for Perry on the subject of transparency and ethics. Under consideration today is his work on criminal justice.
Perry is (in)famously tough on crime. He fully endorses the use of the ultimate punishment (when warranted), and to that end has signed off on more executions than any other governor in modern history. And his record on that is unlikely to be exceeded, because the number of death sentences issued in Texas has dropped sharply since 2005–when he signed a law giving juries the option of sentencing murderers to life without parole. And that’s just one of the ways in which his record is more nuanced than one might think. At the end of this past legislative session, he signed the Michael Morton Act (which is designed to prevent wrongful criminal convictions) into law, and earlier this year, he also came out in favor of letting states choose if marijuana should be decriminalized in their communities.
On April 29 a media frenzy erupted over a botched execution in Oklahoma. The story is now familiar: a doctor administered a three-drug cocktail to convicted murderer Clayton Lockett.
A majority of Americans favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. So too do a majority of Texans. Of note, though, is that this is an issue where Texans are markedly more conservative than Americans as a group, according to the polls, at least: as of 2013, according to the UT/Texas Tribune, 74% of Texans strongly or somewhat support capital punishment. By contrast, according to Gallup, 60% of Americans are in favor of it.
The disjunct may be partly due to the way the respective pollsters phrased their question–Gallup asked a binary question, whereas the UT/TT framework allows for a couple of shades of gray. Given that Texas famously leads the nation in executions, though, a more plausible explanation is that capital punishment is normalized in this state in a way that it may not be in others.
The questions surrounding Texas’ supply of Pentobarbital—the drug the state uses to carry out executions, of which it recently acquired a new supply of unknown provenance—have only deepened over the past couple weeks. Namely, the prisoners who face execution in Texas are seeking relief in the courts to learn exactly where the drug that will be injected into their veins came from. The state’s Department of Criminal Justice, meanwhile, seeks to protect the identity of the drug’s providers, citing “specific threats” against the previous compounding pharmacy it had contracted to make them a batch of the drug.
The last time we talked about Pentobarbital, it was because the state was on the verge of running out of the drug it uses to perform lethal injections on death row inmates. At the time, it looked like Texas would have some difficulty coming up with a new supply, because the “compounding pharmacy” from which the last batch had been ordered received a strong PR pushback from death penalty opponents.
The state, however, found a novel way to assuage the fears of the supplier of the new batch—it’s simply refusing to release the source of the drug. As the Associated Press reports:
As executions go, Michael Yowell’s was not destined to be particularly notable. Fifteen years earlier, in Lubbock, he had been convicted of shooting his father and strangling his mother while trying to steal drug money. He left a gas jet on, which set the house on fire, and his grandmother, who could not escape, died in the blaze.
I remember feeling a little nervous when the heavy door leading to Death Row clanged shut behind me. I didn’t really know what I would see. Having never walked the concrete corridors of a Texas prison, or any other for that matter, I didn’t know at the time that it was very much the same as any other cell block. Inmates stepped aside as we passed, eyes down, in their place behind a yellow line painted along the edge of the floor.
Carl Henry Blue was put to death Thursday evening, marking Texas’s first execution of 2013. Blue, 48, was convicted in 1995 for setting ex-girlfriend Carmen Richards-Sanders on fire, ultimately causing her death.