SCOTUS rules against Oklahoma inmates challenging executions with midazolam

June 29, 2015

The SCOTUS held today by a vote of 5-4 in Glossip v. Gross, that three Oklahoma inmates awaiting execution failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the use of midazolam as the first drug administered in a three-drug execution cocktail violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishmen because it “fails to render a person insensate to pain.”

Midazolam is a Schedule IV controlled substance, a benzodiazepine in the same class as diazepam, lorazepam, alprazolam and clonazepam. It has been approved for use in treating epileptic seizures, anxiety disorders and agitation. It is normally administered to patients to relax them before undergoing surgery or a medical procedure. It has never been approved by the manufacturer and the FDA for use in rendering people unconscious before administering a paralytic agent to inhibit all muscular-skeletal movements and potassium chloride to induce cardiac arrest.

Oklahoma and other states started using midazolam after the manufacturer of sodium thiopental, the barbiturate used to induce a state of unconsciousness before administering the other two drugs, objected to it being used to execute people and refused to sell it to any vendor who would sell or transfer it to states to use in executions.

The inmates based their argument on several botched executions where inmates appeared to be experiencing considerable distress before dying. They contended that midazolam failed to render those inmates unconscious while inducing a feeling described by one victim as burning up inside.

After a three-day evidentiary hearing, a United States District Court judge held that the inmates failed to identify an available alternative method that presented a substantially less severe risk of pain. The judge also held that the inmates failed to establish a likelihood that the use of midazolam created a risk of severe pain. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the decision.

Writing for the majority, Justice Alito affirmed the district court decision holding that the inmates failed to establish a likelihood of success on their Eighth Amendment claim.

Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan. Condemning the execution with midazolam as the equivalent of burning someone to death on a stake, she said,

The Court’s determination that the use of midazolam poses no objectively intolerable risk of severe pain is fac­tually wrong. The Court’s conclusion that petitioners’ challenge also fails because they identified no available alternative means by which the State may kill them is legally indefensible.


“By protecting even those convicted of heinous crimes,the Eighth Amendment reaffirms the duty of the govern­ment to respect the dignity of all persons.” Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551, 560 (2005). Today, however, the Court absolves the State of Oklahoma of this duty. It does so by misconstruing and ignoring the record evidence regarding the constitutional insufficiency of midazolam as a sedative in a three-drug lethal injection cocktail, and by imposing a wholly unprecedented obligation on the con­demned inmate to identify an available means for his orher own execution. The contortions necessary to save this particular lethal injection protocol are not worth the price.

I dissent.

Justice Breyer also wrote his own dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg. He wrote,

I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution….Today’s administration of the death penalty involves three fundamental constitutional defects: (1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose. Perhaps as a result, (4) most places within the United States have abandoned its use.

Breyer and Ginsburg with Sotomayor and Kagan close behind appear ready to stop tinkering with the machinery of death and decide that the death penalty violates the Eighth amendment, regardless of the underlying facts.

Read the slip opinion here: PDF

Explanation of the Jodi Arias sentencing hearing

May 9, 2013

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Good morning:

The jury convicted Jodi Arias of premeditated first degree murder yesterday. Next up is the sentencing. The same jury that convicted her of premeditated murder will decide whether to impose the death sentence.

The hearing is scheduled to start at 1 pm, PDT (4 pm EDT).

Jodi Arias has stated that she wants to be sentenced to death. She has a right to testify and may request that sentence. She may have changed her mind, however.

There is no premeditated murder, no matter how egregious, that automatically results in a death penalty.

Court will reconvene at 1:00 pm PDT for the Eligibility Phase of the trial. This phase is also called the aggravation hearing because the prosecution will have to prove an aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt. The aggravating circumstance alleged in the indictment is that the premeditated murder was “especially cruel.”

The prosecution will probably call the Medical Examiner who performed the autopsy to testify regarding how long the victim remained conscious after she initiated the assault and the extent to which he may have suffered pain and emotional distress before losing consciousness and dying.

The more extreme his suffering and emotional distress, the more likely the jury will decide that the murder was especially cruel.

The defense can call its own expert or rely on cross examining the State’s expert.

Both sides will have an opportunity to argue whether the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the premeditated murder was especially cruel.

The Court will instruct the jury as follows regarding the meaning of the term “especially cruel.”

The term “cruel” focuses on the victim’s pain and suffering. To find that the murder was
committed in an “especially cruel” manner you must find that the victim consciously suffered
physical or mental pain, distress or anguish prior to death. The defendant must know or should
have known that the victim would suffer.

Potential consequences:

If the State does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an aggravating circumstance
exists, the judge will sentence the defendant to either life imprisonment without the
possibility of release, or life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 25 [35] years.

If the jury unanimously decides beyond a reasonable doubt that an aggravating circumstance
does exist, each juror will decide if mitigating circumstances exist and then, as a jury, you will
decide whether to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment or death. If the sentence is
life imprisonment then the judge will sentence the defendant to either life imprisonment
without the possibility of release from prison, or life imprisonment with the possibility of
release from prison after 25 [35] years.

“Life without the possibility of release from prison” means exactly what it says. The
sentence of “life without possibility of release from prison” means the defendant will never
be eligible to be released from prison for any reason for the rest of the defendant’s life.

If the jury concludes that the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the premeditated murder was especially cruel, the sentencing will proceed to the Penalty Phase.

The judge will then read the following instruction to the jury:

While all twelve of you had to unanimously agree that the State proved beyond a
reasonable doubt the existence of a statutory aggravating circumstance, you do not need to
unanimously agree on a particular mitigating circumstance. Each one of you must decide
individually whether any mitigating circumstance exists.

You are not limited to the mitigating circumstances offered by the defendant. You must
also consider any other information that you find is relevant in determining whether to
impose a life sentence, so long as it relates to an aspect of the defendant’s background,
character, propensities, record, or circumstances of the offense.

The defendant bears the burden of proving the existence of any mitigating circumstance
that the defendant offers by a preponderance of the evidence. That is, although the
defendant need not prove its existence beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant must
convince you by the evidence presented that it is more probably true than not true that such
a mitigating circumstance exists. In proving a mitigating circumstance, the defendant may
rely on any evidence already presented and is not required to present additional evidence.
You individually determine whether mitigation exists. In light of the aggravating
circumstance[s] you have found, you must then individually determine if the total of the
mitigation is sufficiently substantial to call for leniency. “Sufficiently substantial to call for
leniency” means that mitigation must be of such quality or value that it is adequate, in the
opinion of an individual juror, to persuade that juror to vote for a sentence of life in prison.
Even if a juror believes that the aggravating and mitigating circumstances are of the same
quality or value, that juror is not required to vote for a sentence of death and may instead
vote for a sentence of life in prison. A juror may find mitigation and impose a life sentence
even if the defendant does not present any mitigation evidence.

A mitigating factor that motivates one juror to vote for a sentence of life in prison may
be evaluated by another juror as not having been proved or, if proved, as not significant to
the assessment of the appropriate penalty. In other words, each of you must determine
whether, in your individual assessment, the mitigation is of such quality or value that it
warrants leniency in this case.

The law does not presume what is the appropriate sentence. The defendant does not
have the burden of proving that life is the appropriate sentence. The State does not have the
burden of proving that death is the appropriate sentence. It is for you, as jurors, to decide
what you individually believe is the appropriate sentence.

In reaching a reasoned, moral judgment about which sentence is justified and
appropriate, you must decide how compelling or persuasive the totality of the mitigating
factors is when compared against the totality of the aggravating factors and the facts and
circumstances of the case. This assessment is not a mathematical one, but instead must be
made in light of each juror’s individual, qualitative evaluation of the facts of the case, the
severity of the aggravating factors, and the quality of the mitigating factors found by each

If you unanimously agree there is mitigation sufficiently substantial to call for leniency,
then you shall return a verdict of life. If you unanimously agree there is no mitigation, or the
mitigation is not sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, then you shall return a verdict of

Your decision is not a recommendation. Your decision is binding. If you unanimously
find that the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment, your foreperson shall sign
the verdict form indicating your decision. If you unanimously find that the defendant should
be sentenced to death, your foreperson shall sign the verdict form indicating your decision.
If you cannot unanimously agree on the appropriate sentence, your foreperson shall tell the

And there you have it.

Go here to read the full set of pattern jury intructions for the Eligibility and Penalty Phases.

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Why I Am Opposed To The Death Penalty

October 23, 2011

I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases. Period.

I have many reasons. Here are a few of them.

First and foremost, I oppose it because it is immoral. That it is imposed following a jury trial and appellate review, does not wash the defendant’s blood off the jury’s hands and, by extension, our hands because state sanctioned premeditated murder is still premeditated murder. No government ever should be in the business of killing its own people.

Second, death penalty cases typically cost more than three times the cost of incarcerating a defendant to life without possibility of parole.

Third, the death penalty has no deterrent effect. It does not reduce homicide rates. In fact, the opposite is true. Homicide rates are highest in the states that have a death penalty and lowest in the states that do not have a death penalty.

Fourth, our criminal justice system is so infected with racism, corrupt, and broken that it is impossible to know for certain if any given defendant committed the crime charged and, if he did, whether he deserves the death penalty, as opposed to life without parole.

Most people do not know that under our laws there is no murder, however heinous or depraved, that automatically results in a death sentence. When a jury convicts a defendant of a death eligible offense, the case proceeds to a sentencing phase in which the jury ultimately must decide whether the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating evidence (typically the murder and the defendant’s prior record, if any) so outweighs the mitigating evidence (evidence about the defendant and his role in committing the murder) that the defendant should forfeit his life. Assuring consistency that similarly situated defendants convicted of committing similar murders are consistently sentenced to life without possibility of parole instead of death, or vice versa, has proven to be impossible within states, let alone between states.

In Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141 (1994), Justice Harry Blackmun dissented from the United States Supreme Court’s denial of review in a death penalty case stating,

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored — indeed, I have struggled — along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question — does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants “deserve” to die? — cannot be answered in the affirmative. It is not simply that this Court has allowed vague aggravating circumstances to be employed, see, e. g., Arave v. Creech, 507 U. S. 463 (1993), relevant mitigating evidence to be disregarded, see, e. g., Johnson v. Texas, 509 U. S. 350 (1993), and vital judicial review to be blocked, see, e. g., Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722 (1991). The problem is that the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.

He concluded,

Perhaps one day this Court will develop procedural rules or verbal formulas that actually will provide consistency, fairness, and reliability in a capital sentencing scheme. I am not optimistic that such a day will come. I am more optimistic, though, that this Court eventually will conclude that the effort to eliminate arbitrariness while preserving fairness “in the infliction of [death] is so plainly doomed to failure that it—and the death penalty— must be abandoned altogether.” Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420, 442 (1980) (Marshall, J., concurring in judgment). I may not live to see that day, but I have faith that eventually it will arrive. The path the Court has chosen lessens us all. I dissent.

Justice Blackmun was a conservative Republican who believed strongly in the death penalty when he was appointed to the Supreme Court. As you can see, he finally reached the conclusion that it is impossible to fairly and equitably decide who lives and who dies. I reached the same conclusion, based on my 30 years of experience as a lawyer specializing in death penalty defense and forensics.

Justice Blackmun died in 1999.

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