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The death penalty in the U.S.

Developments during 2019 to 2021:

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2019-MAR: U.S. Executions during 2018:

Twenty-five prisoners were executed in the U.S. during 2018. This is two more than were executed during 2017. All were male. 14 were White, 6 Black, and 5 Hispanic.

23 executions happened in Texas; 3 in Tennessee; 2 each in Alabama, Florida and Georgia; and 1 each in Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota.

Twenty three were by lethal injection; two were by electrocution.

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2019-MAR-28: The U.S. Supreme Court postponed an execution in Texas:

In the case Murphy vs. Collier, the High Court ordered a stay in the execution of Patrick Murphy.

During the year 2000, he and some other inmates had escaped from prison, and engaged in multiple robberies. During one of these robberies, Murphy shot a police officer who later died. He was arrested, tried, sentenced to be executed, and is currently on death row.

In a 7 to 2 vote, all of the liberal Justices and most of the conservative Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of religious freedom and equality in their ruling. This is a rare display of unity by the High Court, where justices are often split 5 to 4 on religious cases. Voting against the ruling were Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch. Neither offered an explination for their view.

Murphy is a Buddhist, and wants his Buddhist advisor to be with him for support as he is executed. The State of Texas denied his wishes, although it is their policy to allow Christian or Muslim clergy to be present. They gave as their reason that they only allowed chaplains who had first been carefully vetted to be allowed in the execution chamber. They had Christian and Muslim chaplains available, but had not yet vetted a Buddhist chaplain.

The court ruled that prison authorities may not proceed with the execution unless:

"... the state permits Murphy's Buddhist spiritual advisor or another Buddhist reverend of the state's choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution."

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote:

"In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination. The state may choose to keep all clerics and religious advisors from entering the execution chamber. ... What the state may not do, in my view, is allow Christian or Muslim inmates but not Buddhist inmates to have a religious advisor of their religion in the execution room. ..."

"In the future, the state prison authorities have two options when carrying out an execution. ... [They may] allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room; or) allow inmates to have a religious adviser, including any state-employed chaplain, only in the viewing room, not the execution room. Things can go wrong and sometimes do go wrong in executions, as they can go wrong and sometimes do go wrong in medical procedures. States therefore have a strong interest in tightly controlling access to an execution room in order to ensure that the execution occurs without any complications, distractions, or disruptions."

Senior counsel Eric Rassbach, at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty issued a statement saying:

"Religious liberty won today. The Supreme Court made it clear that the 1st Amendment applies to every American, no matter their faith. As we said in our brief to the court, you can't give fewer rights to Buddhists than you give to Christians or Muslims. In his last moments, a condemned man can receive both comfort from a minister of his own faith, and equal treatment under the law."

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2019-JUL-14: U.S. Federal executions can resume:

In the early morning, the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5:4 that executions in federal facilities can resume. There have been none in almost 20 years.

The High Court overruled a lower court order that had temporarily blocked the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee in Indiana who had been convicted of multiple murders.

Ariane de Vogue, writing for CNN politics, said:

"Lee, a one-time white supremacist who killed a family of three, was scheduled to be executed Monday in what would have been the first federal execution in 17 years. On Monday, a federal judge blocked the planned execution of Lee, and three others, citing ongoing challenges to the federal government's lethal injection protocol."

Back in 2019, Attorney General William Barr had "... directed the Bureau of Prisons to move forward with executions of some death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society — children and the elderly." That triggered new challenges to whether the procedures used in executions are constitutional. Most executions in U.S. prisons involve a single injection of phenobarbital (also known as pentobarbitone and Nembutal.

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2021-FEB-11: Bills advanced in Virginia to abolish the death penalty in that state:

Over the past four centuries, Virginia has been conducting more executions than any other U.S. state! Between 1608 and the present time, 1,390 people have been executed.

Tim Kaine, writing for the Washington Post, said:

"In the 19th century, Virginia executed 513 Black people and only 41 Whites. Before the Civil War, the criminal code made certain crimes capital offenses for Black residents that were noncapital offenses for White people. And even after the Civil War, when crimes such as rape were technically capital offenses for everyone, the ultimate punishment was used only against Black people. Fifty-six people were executed for rape or attempted rape in Virginia between 1908 and 1965 — all were Black."

The last capital conviction in the state was in 2011; it was later overturned.

"Senate Bill 1165, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), passed the Senate on a 21-17 vote. A House Bill 2263, which is identical to the Senate bill was introduced by Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News), and passed the House on a 57-41 vote. Three Republicans supported the House measure." 3 Governor Ralph Northam said that he looks forward to signing the bill into law.

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2021-MAR-24: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) signed state law repealing the death penalty:

According to the Virgnia govrnment newsroom, Governor Norttham signed Senate Bill 1165, sponsored by Senator Scott Surovell, and House Bill 2263, sponsored by Delegate Mike Mullin. Together, they prohibit the use of capital punishment for any violation of Virginia law. Since 1991, when the Greensville Correctional Center's execution chamber was opened, 102 people have been executed there.

Governor Northam said:

"Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state. The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed—it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death. Abolishing this inhumane practice is the moral thing to do. This is a truly historic day for Virginia, and I am deeply grateful to those who have fought tirelessly and for generations to put an end to capital punishment in our Commonwealth. 4

Currently,  69% of people in the state are white; 20% are black. However:

"Studies have shown that a defendant is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death if the victim of a crime is White, than if the victim is Black. In the twentieth century, 296 of the 377 defendants (78.5) that Virginia executed were Black. Of the 113 individuals who have been executed in Virginia since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 52 were Black (46%)." 4

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "List of offenders executed in the United States in 2018," Wikipedia, as on 2019-MAR-01, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. David G. Savaage, "Supreme Court halts Texas execution over Buddhist spiritual adviser," Los Angeles Times, 2019-MAR-29, at:https://www.latimes.com/
  3. "Virginia House and Senate advance bills to abolish death penalty," Capital News Service, 2021-FEB-11, at: Virginia House and Senate advance bills to abolish death penalty
  4. "Governor Northam Signs Law Repealing Death Penalty in Virginia," Virginia Newsroom, 2021-MAR-24, at: https://www.governor.virginia.gov/

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Copyright © 2019 to 2021 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2019-APR-01
Most recent update: 2021-JUL-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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