Matthew T. Mangino: The future of the death penalty in question?
The last 12 months may well mark the beginning of the end for the death penalty in America.
This has been an inauspicious year for state-sponsored death. For the first time in recent history, a state other than Texas executed more men than any other state. Missouri executed 10 men and Texas executed eight men. Not to be outdone, Texas also executed two women.
There were 35 executions carried out across the country, so to speak. Only eight states carried out executions in 2014, in fact three states — Texas, Missouri and Florida — were responsible for 28 of the 35 executions.
There are 32 states that have the death penalty on the books — so to speak. Governors in Oregon, Colorado and Washington have imposed moratoriums on executions. In Ohio, a federal judge has stopped all executions. In seven other states with the death penalty, there has not been an execution carried out in at least 10 years.
Eight executions scheduled for December were postponed by the court. Three of those postponed executions were to take place in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has executed three people since 1977, and all three volunteered to be executed. Pennsylvania has not involuntarily executed a condemned inmate since 1962.
Some of the executions in 2014 created quite a stir. In January, the Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire took much longer than anticipated. The execution lasted 25 minutes. According to NBC News, witnesses said McGuire appeared to be gasping for breath. Ohio did not carry out another execution after McGuire’s. Prior to that, going back to 2010, no state other than Texas had executed more inmates than Ohio.
Three months later, Clayton Lockett’s execution in Oklahoma went terribly awry. Lockett began to twitch and gasp after the lethal injection process began. He called out “man” and “something’s wrong,” according to The New York Times.
The administering doctor intervened and discovered that “the line had blown,” meaning that drugs were no longer flowing into Lockett’s veins. At 7:06 p.m., 43 minutes after the execution began, Lockett died of a heart attack.
Prior to Lockett’s execution, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin questioned the state Supreme Court’s authority to stay Lockett’s execution. Fallin rescheduled the execution in defiance of the Supreme Court. The near constitutional crisis focused national attention on the state just in time for the catastrophically failed execution.
Then came December. In Texas, Scott Panetti narrowly escaped execution. Panetti suffers from severe mental illness. He defended himself at trial, subpoenaing over 200 witnesses, including Jesus Christ, the pope and John F. Kennedy.
His mental health had not been evaluated by any court for more than seven years prior to his scheduled execution. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals intervened less than eight hours before his scheduled execution.
On Dec. 12, Paul Goodwin was not so lucky. Efforts to spare Goodwin’s life centered on his low IQ and claims that executing him would violate a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling which prohibits the execution of the mentally disabled.
Goodwin’s attorney, Jennifer Herndon, said Goodwin had an IQ of 73, and some tests suggested it was even lower. Goodwin received special education as a child. As an adult, he relied on relatives or his girlfriend to help with tasks such as buying groceries or paying bills.
According to Goodwin’s sister, when his girlfriend died, Goodwin wasn’t mentally capable of handling the grief and turned to alcohol, which was a factor in his crime.
There are no more executions scheduled for 2014. The 35 executions carried out this year are the fewest in 20 years. Things don’t look much better for the death penalty in 2015. The first three out of four executions for 2015 have already been postponed. The fourth is scheduled for Pennsylvania, and if history is a guide, there is little likelihood of that execution being carried out.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.