WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider a Kansas death penalty case that could have implications for mentally ill defendants across the nation.
The case involves James Kahler. He was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2009 fatal shootings of his estranged wife, her grandmother and his two teenage daughters. His attorneys argue that he was suffering from depression so severe that he experienced extreme emotional disturbance, dissociating him from reality.
In Kansas, defendants can cite “mental disease or defect” as a partial defense but must prove that they didn’t intend to commit the crime. Other states with similar laws are Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
Under a traditional insanity defense in the U.S., people must understand the difference between right and wrong to be found guilty.
U.S. Supreme Court Allows For Federal Executions To Resume After Seventeen Years
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday paved the way for President Donald Trump’s administration to carry out the first federal executions since 2003, turning away an appeal by four inmates challenging the lethal injection protocols due to be used.
The justices left in place a lower court ruling that had let the executions proceed. The condemned men, convicted in federal courts of murder, had appealed after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on April 7 threw out a judge’s injunction that had blocked the executions.
The inmates – Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Alfred Bourgeois and Dustin Honken – are scheduled for execution in July and August at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The brief court order noted that two of the four liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, favored hearing the appeal.
Lee, a white supremacist, is due to be the first executed, on July 13. He was convicted in Arkansas in the suffocation deaths carried out with an accomplice of a gun dealer, the man’s wife and her 8-year-old daughter in 1996.
While some individual states have continued to carry out executions of inmates convicted in their courts, the U.S. government has not conducted an execution since 2003 during the administration of President George W. Bush amid protracted litigation over the practice.
But Attorney General William Barr last year announced that Trump’s administration would resume executions, citing the need to uphold “the rule of law” and saying that “we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
At issue in the legal battle is whether a U.S. law called the Federal Death Penalty Act requires the federal government to follow all execution protocols in the state where the sentence was imposed as opposed to where the execution will take place.
The law requires that the execution be implemented “in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed,” which the federal government has interpreted loosely as the general method of execution, which in all four cases would be lethal injection.
But lawyers for the inmates have argued that under this law the government must follow the detailed execution protocols in the states where the inmates were convicted.
Lee was convicted in Arkansas, Purkey in Missouri, Bourgeois in Texas and Honken in Iowa. Iowa is among the states that does not have the death penalty, but Honken was sentenced to death, as federal law allows, subject to Indiana’s method of execution.
Read the US Supreme Court’s order here or below.
DOJ Will Take Suspended Federal Executions To US Supreme Court
WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press on Thursday that he would take the Trump administration’s bid to restart federal executions after a 16-year hiatus to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Barr’s comments came hours after a district court judge temporarily blocked the administration’s plans to start executions next month. The administration is appealing the decision, and Barr said he would take the case to the high court if Thursday’s ruling stands.
He said the five inmates set to be executed are a small portion of 62 death row inmates.
“There are people who would say these kinds of delays are not fair to the victims, so we can move forward with our first group,” Barr said aboard a government plane to Montana, after he met with local and federal law enforcement officials in Cleveland.
The attorney general unexpectedly announced in July that the government would resume executions next month, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain.
Some of the chosen inmates challenged the new procedures in court, arguing that the government was circumventing proper methods in order to wrongly execute inmates quickly.
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan put the cases on ice while the challenge plays out. She said in a Wednesday evening ruling that the public is not served by “short-circuiting” legitimate judicial process.
“It is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully,” she wrote.
Her ruling temporarily postpones four of the five scheduled executions beginning next month; the fifth had already been halted. It’s possible the government could win an appeal in time to begin executions Dec. 9, but that would be an unusually fast turnaround.
“This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress,” said the inmates’ attorney, Shawn Nolan. “The court has made clear that no execution should go forward while there are still so many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution method.”
Most Democrats oppose the death penalty. Republican President Donald Trump has spoken often about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.
Still, executions on the federal level have been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
Barr said in July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.
He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.
Chutkan said in her opinion that the inmates’ legal challenge to the procedure was likely to succeed because the Federal Death Penalty Act requires that federal executions employ procedures used by the states in which they are carried out.
On Thursday, Barr defended the protocols, saying the Bureau of Prisons has been testing and conducting practice drills ahead of the first execution. He would not say where the cocktail of drugs would come from.
“I was kept advised and reports were given to me, scientific tests, the drills they are running through,” Barr said.
Those chosen were among inmates who had exhausted their appeals, and the cases were forwarded to senior Justice Department officials who reviewed the cases and made recommendations to him, Barr said.
Danny Lee of Yukon, Oklahoma, was the first person scheduled to be executed. Lee was convicted in the 1996 deaths of an Arkansas family as part of a plot to set up a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.
Though there hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions, and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.
Federal Judge Stays All Pending Scheduled Federal Executions
A judge has blocked the scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates, effectively stopping the Trump administration’s effort to continue inflicting the death penalty in a national system that saw its last execution more than a decade and a half ago.
The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials intended to carry out starting next month.
The only other execution that officials had put on the calendar, also for December, was blocked last month by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
In July, Attorney General William Barr announced plans to resume executions at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. He implied the practice had been allowed to languish for too long and said it would deliver justice in cases involving what he called the “worst criminals.”
Barr announced a new federal death penalty protocol that would use a single drug, pentobarbital, instead of a three-drug “cocktail” employed in the most recent federal executions.
In the wake of Barr’s announcement, a series of death row inmates enteredered a long-dormant legal challenge to that previous method. They asked Chutkan to block their executions under the new protocol until their legal challenges to it were fully adjudicated.
In her ruling Wednesday, Chutkan stated the death row inmates appeared likely to prevail on their arguments that the new protocol violates longstanding federal law because the procedures to be used vary from state law. A 1994 federal statute says federal executions shall be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.”
Justice Department attorneys contended that the use of lethal injection was sufficiently similar despite the drugs used or other details of the execution protocol. Still, Chutkan ruled that the law likely requires federal authorities to utilize the same drugs or drugs and a similar process.
“Requiring the federal government to follow more than just the state’s method of execution is consistent with other sections of the statute and with historical practices. For all these reasons, this court finds that the FDPA [Federal Death Penalty Act] does not authorize the creation of a single implementation procedure for federal executions,” wrote the judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
“There is no statute that gives the [Bureau of Prisons] or DOJ the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions,” Chutkan added.
In imparting the injunction, Chutkan noted the apparent fact that allowing the executions would deny the inmates of their ability to continue their legal challenges. She also fled from the Justice Department’s claim that time was of the essence, noting that revisions to the federal death penalty protocol failed for years after shortages developed of at least one drug used in the earlier three-drug cocktail.
The earliest of the five executions that federal officials planned to carry out in the coming weeks was scheduled for Dec. 9.
“While the government does have a legitimate interest in the finality of criminal proceedings, the eight years that it waited to establish a new protocol undermines its arguments regarding the urgency and weight of that interest,” the judge wrote.