U.S. government plans to end week with third execution after 17-year hiatus

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – A week that marked the return of capital punishment by the U.S. government after a 17-year hiatus was due to end on Friday with a third planned execution of a federal prisoner.

If President Donald Trump’s administration faces no legal obstacle in putting Dustin Lee Honken, a convicted murderer, to death by lethal injection at 4 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT), it will have completed as many executions in a few days as happened in the preceding 57 years.

Lawyers for the condemned men have amassed legal challenges, which include arguments that the U.S. Department of Justice’s new one-drug lethal-injection protocol breaches a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

These arguments have been rejected twice this week in overnight rulings by a 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court.

Dustin Honken was a dealer in illegal methamphetamine when he and his girlfriend murdered five people in Iowa in 1993, including two girls aged 10 and 6. He was convicted in 2004.

He is one of several inmates on federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, who have said the new one-drug protocol, which replaces a three-drug protocol the government last used in 2003, would cause an unnecessarily painful death.

The litigation will continue in the U.S. District Court in Washington with the surviving inmates. Since last year, Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the cases, has ordered injunctions on three occasions delaying the scheduled executions to allow the legal challenges to play out. All three were overruled by the Supreme Court.

Two other men convicted of murdering children were executed in Terre Haute earlier this week: Daniel Lee on Tuesday, and Wesley Purkey on Thursday.

Families of the killers’ victims have been divided, reflecting broader public disagreement over capital punishment, which has been abolished by most other countries. Relatives of Lee’s victims pleaded for Trump to scrap Lee’s execution. The father of the 16-year-old girl murdered by Purkey told reporters that Purkey’s death brought some resolution to his grief.

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, called it “a truly dark period for our country.” She joined the condemned men’s lawyers in criticizing higher courts in what they called a rush to short-circuit their legal rights.

While the Supreme Court’s conservative majority wrote that it had established that lethal injection was a constitutional method, some of the liberal justices complained new problems raised by the changed protocol were being dismissed too hastily.

“I remain convinced of the importance of reconsidering the constitutionality of the death penalty itself,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissenting opinion on Thursday.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Oklahoma to resume lethal injections after plan to use gas for executions stalls

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – Oklahoma intends to resume executions of condemned inmates using lethal injections after suspending capital punishment in 2015 following a series of botched executions, state officials said on Thursday.

The state had been developing a new execution protocol in which it would instead asphyxiate inmates using nitrogen gas, a plan Attorney General Mike Hunter unveiled in 2018.

But development of the new gassing protocol was taking too long and the state has since found a new supply of lethal drugs, Hunter said at a news conference in Oklahoma City alongside Governor Kevin Stitt.

“It is important that the state is implementing our death penalty law with a procedure that is humane and swift for those convicted of the most heinous of crimes,” said Stitt, a Republican.

Lawyers for death-row inmates said the announcement would revive their ongoing challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, which they say lacks transparency and breaches the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment in its current form.

“Oklahoma’s history of mistakes and malfeasance reveals a culture of carelessness around executions that should give everyone pause,” Dale Baich, a federal defender representing some of the inmates, said in a statement.

Until 2015, Oklahoma had one of the busiest execution chambers in a country where a majority of states and the federal government allow capital punishment, a practice most countries have abolished.

The state’s executions stopped after serious errors. In 2014, an inmate convulsed and took more than 40 minutes to die after the state used an untested combination of three lethal drugs. In 2015, another inmate was executed using the wrong drug.

Oklahoma is returning to the same three-drug combination used in the botched 2014 execution, Hunter said, but has updated its protocol to include better training and oversight. The drugs are midazolam, a sedative; vecuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Hunter declined to say how the drugs were being obtained, citing state secrecy laws. He said development of the gassing method would continue in case lethal injection drugs again become unavailable.

The European Union bans the sale of drugs for use in executions, and pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell such drugs to U.S. prison systems. Several states have complained that they are no longer able to obtain the drugs.

There are 47 inmates on Oklahoma’s death row, Hunter said. A federal court ordered the state to give those inmates at least 150 days notice of a new protocol, and no execution dates have been set.

Death-penalty experts criticized the state for not changing the drugs it planned to use.

“No improvement in the protocol will address the fact that midazolam is an inappropriate drug to use in executions,” said Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit watchdog group. “Midazolam is not capable of knocking somebody out and keeping them insensate during the period in which other drugs are administered.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler)

Number of U.S. executions and support for capital punishment decline in 2019: report finds

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – The number of executions carried out in the United States dropped in 2019 and public support for the death penalty fell to nearly a five-decade low, according to a report released on Tuesday.

Twenty-two executions were carried out during the year, down from 25 in 2018. Texas conducted nine executions, while Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia conducted three apiece in 2019.

It was the fifth straight year with fewer than 30 executions, marking a sharp decline from 52 in 2009, the Death Penalty Information Center said in its annual report.

It was also the fifth year in a row with fewer than 50 death sentences handed down, a steep decrease from the 118 imposed in 2009, said the non-profit organization that collects data on the death penalty in the United States.

Support for capital punishment dropped to a 47-year low as 60% of Americans told a Gallup poll they preferred life imprisonment over the death penalty. In 2014, the last time the poll asked the question, 45% of Americans said they preferred life over the death penalty, the report said.

Public support for the death penalty was driven down as the guilt of several condemned inmates in high-profile cases came into question in 2019, said Robert Dunham, the center’s executive director.

“2019 came close to being the year of executing the innocent,” he said in the report. “Our courts and public officials too frequently flat out ignore potentially deadly mistakes, and often take steps to obstruct the truth.”

One such case was that of Rodney Reed, who was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 20, two decades after he was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas for the killing of his 19-year-old lover. After questions arose about evidence in the case and calls for Reed’s exoneration grew more intense, a Texas appeals court halted his execution.

The final execution in the United States this year took place last Wednesday when Texas put to death Travis Runnels, who was convicted of killing a prison supervisor.

The year also saw two states taking action against the death penalty. California imposed a moratorium on executions and New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty.

In announcing reprieves to all 737 inmates on death row and closing California’s execution chamber, Governor Gavin Newsom said the death penalty discriminated against poor and minority defendants and those who suffer from mental illness.

“Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure,” said the Democratic governor of the most-populous U.S. state.

Plans by President Donald Trump’s administration to resume federal executions in December after a 16-year hiatus were dashed by a U.S. judge who halted the scheduled executions of four inmates on death row. In early December, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. Justice Department resumes use of the death penalty, schedules five executions

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr at the "2019 Prison Reform Summit" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department announced on Thursday it was reinstating a two-decades long-dormant policy to resume the federal government’s use of capital punishment and immediately scheduled the executions for five death row federal inmates.

“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.”

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law – and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has called for increasing use of the death penalty for drug traffickers and mass shooters.

The Justice Department said it has scheduled executions for five federal inmates who have been convicted of horrific murders and sex crimes.

Those inmates include Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist who was convicted in Arkansas for murdering a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl.

Another one of the five is Lezmond Mitchell, who was found guilty by a jury in Arizona of stabbing a 63-year-old grandmother and forcing her young granddaughter to sit next to her lifeless body on a car journey before slitting the girl’s throat.

“Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies,” the department said, adding that all five executions will take place at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute in Indiana.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Sonya Hepinstall)

Father who forgave son for family’s murder asks Texas to spare his life

Thomas Whitaker appears in a booking photo by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, Texas, U.S., obtained by Reuters on February 16, 2018. Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – A Texas man who survived a deadly domestic attack hatched by his son is pushing the state to grant clemency to the condemned man, although it has never spared a death row inmate solely at the formal request of the victim’s family.

Thomas “Bart” Whitaker is set to be put to death by lethal injection on Feb. 22 for masterminding a 2003 plot near Houston that left his mother Tricia, 51, and brother Keith, 19, dead and his father Kent with a bullet wound near his heart.

In the 31 states with capital punishment, district attorneys make the decision whether to seek death, balancing the punishment that they consider best serves society with the wishes of the victim’s family. In this case, the local Texas prosecutors pursued death and jurors decided Bart Whitaker, 38, deserved to be executed.

His father, a 69-year-old devout Christian and retired executive, says if that penalty is implemented, it will only intensify his pain.

“I am going to be thrown into a deeper grief at the hands of the state of Texas, in the name of justice,” Kent Whitaker said last week, after a 30-minute meeting with the chairman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in Austin.

Whitaker says his son has been a model inmate and has provided letters from death row prison guards to back him up. According to the clemency petition, Kent Whitaker, his relatives and his wife’s family do not want Texas to execute Bart.

The panel’s decision is due on Tuesday, two days before the execution. If it recommends commuting the death sentence to life in prison, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, would make the final decision.

Tim Cole, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law and a former Texas district attorney, said the case points to a major flaw in the U.S. capital punishment system.

With no consistent criteria for prosecutors on whether they should seek execution, he said, the system is arbitrary.

“It is completely up to that one person, the district attorney, to seek death or not,” he said.

The Whitaker case is an outlier, however. In many cases, family members want the district attorney to seek the maximum punishment, Cole said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, clemency at the request of a forgiving victim’s family has been almost unheard of, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, which monitors U.S. capital punishment. It did happen in Georgia in 1990, the group said.

It is far more common for courts to halt executions for reasons ranging from doubts over guilt to procedural problems with prosecutions than it is for a governor to grant clemency.

Money may have motivated Bart Whitaker to plan to murder his family with the help of two other men, court documents showed. One of those men, his roommate Chris Brashear, shot the father, mother and brother after the family returned from a dinner out.

He shot Bart in the bicep to make it look he had also been attacked, court documents said. The two other men helped prosecutors pin the crime on Whitaker and were not sentenced to death.

Local prosecutors said they considered the family’s views but stood by Whitaker’s sentence as appropriate for such a brutal crime.

“We represent all of the community. It is not just one person we represent,” said Fred Felcman, first assistant district attorney for the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office. “Legally, justice says that he should be executed.”

Felcman believes Bart Whitaker is a sociopath and a master manipulator.

In the clemency petition, Kent Whitaker recalled lying in his hospital bed and facing the choice of slipping into despair or offering his son forgiveness. He said his faith led him to the latter option, which he hopes will sway Texas officials.

“We are not asking them to forgive him, or to let him go,” he added. “We just want them to let him live.”

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Rosalba O’Brien)

Good atmosphere but nothing new in EU talks with Erdogan, sources say

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a graduation ceremony at an Imam Hatip religious school association in Istanbul, Turkey, May 26, 2017.

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Talks last week between the heads of European Union institutions and Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, were held in a “good atmosphere” but produced no new agreements, officials in Brussels said, playing down comments by the Turkish leader.

Tensions between Turkey and the EU run high over rights and security issues, but the bloc depends on the help of NATO ally Ankara on migration and the conflict in Syria.

After meeting European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week in Brussels, Erdogan was quoted as saying he had been presented with a new 12-month timetable for renewing ties.

But senior EU officials voiced caution and some scepticism, saying no formal deadlines were set. The EU has a list of mid- and high-level meetings it hopes to hold with Turkey this year, they said, but any improvement in bilateral ties would depend on Erdogan’s resolving at least some of many points of contention.

They include the EU’s worry that Turkey’s anti-terror laws are too broad and used to persecute Erdogan critics, as demonstrated in Ankara’s sweeping security crackdown following a botched coup almost a year ago.

Other concerns relate to the treatment of the Kurds, the media and academics, as well as Erdogan moving to assume even more powers following an April referendum.

The pre-referendum campaign produced new spats with EU members Germany and the Netherlands, whose authorities Erdogan likened to Nazis when they had prevented Turkish politicians from campaigning in their countries.

Despite the often harsh rhetoric, senior EU officials said the atmosphere of the meeting was “good” and “constructive”.

“It was definitely not hostile, but both sides pretty much restated their well-known positions,” one of the sources said.

Turkey complains about slow progress in its stalled EU accession talks, discussions on visa-free travel for Turks to the EU and disbursement of EU funds to Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

The bloc says Erdogan must first address concerns over human rights and rule of law, and should work with the Council of Europe – a European rights watchdog of which Turkey is a member – on that..

The EU says progress in talks over reuniting the ethnically split Cyprus is also key to unlocking other area, including ideas to beef up an existing customs union between Turkey and the EU.

Erdogan has suggested Turkey could hold a referendum on continuing EU accession talks, and possibly another on reinstating the death penalty. Restoring capital punishment would end Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

EU leaders will discuss their ties and especially their cooperation with Turkey on migration when in Brussels on June 22-23. Calls from the European Parliament to formally halt Turkey’s accession talks have so far not reached critical mass.

“We have no choice,” one of the sources said when asked if the EU was looking to working more with Turkey after the top-level talks with Erdogan.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Larry King)

Turkey rebuffs EU on death penalty, as Erdogan calls for ‘new blood’ in army

Turkish President

By Ece Toksabay, Samia Nakhoul and Nick Tattersall

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey rebuffed the European Union on Friday over the death penalty, while President Tayyip Erdogan vowed to restructure the military and give it “fresh blood”, signaling the scope of a shake-up yet to come under a state of emergency.

There is growing worry in the West about Turkey’s widening crackdown against thousands of members of the security forces, judiciary, civil service and academia after last week’s failed military coup. On Wednesday Erdogan announced a state of emergency, a move he said would allow the government to take swift action against coup plotters.

The possibility of Turkey bringing back capital punishment for the plotters of the attempted coup that killed more than 246 people and wounded more than 2,100 has put further strain on Ankara’s relationship with the EU, which it seeks to join.

Turkey outlawed capital punishment in 2004 as part of its bid to join the bloc and European officials have said backtracking on the death penalty would effectively put an end to the EU accession process. Erdogan says the death penalty may need to be brought back, citing the calls for it from crowds of supporters at rallies.

“People demand the death penalty and that demand will surely be assessed. We have to assess that demand from the standpoint on law, and not according to what the EU says,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told broadcaster CNN Turk.

His comments are likely to spark further unease in the West, where there is growing worry about instability and human rights in the country of 80 million, which plays an important part in the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State and in the European Union’s efforts to stem the flow of refugees from Syria.

Erdogan accuses Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic U.S.-based cleric, of masterminding the plot against him, which crumbled early on Saturday. In a crackdown on Gulen’s suspected followers, more than 60,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants and teachers have been suspended, detained or placed under investigation.

Bozdag said that armed Gulen supporters had infiltrated the judiciary, universities and the media, as well as the armed forces.

Erdogan told Reuters late on Thursday he would restructure the military and give it “fresh blood”, citing the threat of the Gulen movement, which he likened to a cancer.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States for years, has denied any role in the attempted putsch, and accused Erdogan of orchestrating the coup himself. Turkey wants the U.S. to extradite the cleric. Washington says Turkey must give clear evidence first.

SUPREME COUNCIL

Erdogan said the government’s Supreme Military Council, which is chaired by the prime minister, and includes the defense minister and the chief of staff, would oversee the restructuring of the armed forces.

“They are all working together as to what might be done, and … within a very short amount of time a new structure will be emerging. With this new structure, I believe the armed forces will get fresh blood,” Erdogan said.

Speaking at his palace in Ankara, which was targeted during the coup attempt, he said a new putsch was possible but would not be easy because authorities were now more vigilant.

“It is very clear that there were significant gaps and deficiencies in our intelligence, there is no point trying to hide it or deny it,” Erdogan told Reuters.

Erdogan also said there was no obstacle to extending the state of emergency beyond the initial three months – a comment likely to spark concern among critics already fearful about the pace of his crackdown. Emergency powers allow the government to take swift measures against supporters of the coup, in which more than 246 people were killed and over 2,000 wounded.

Emergency rule will also permit the president and cabinet to bypass parliament in enacting new laws and to limit or suspend rights and freedoms as they deem necessary.

Germany called for the measure to end as quickly as possible. An international lawyers’ group warned Turkey against using it to subvert the rule of law and human rights, pointing to allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people held in the mass roundup.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the reaction to the coup must not undermine fundamental rights.

“What we’re seeing especially in the fields of universities, media, the judiciary, is unacceptable,” she said of detentions and dismissals of judges, academics and journalists.

For some Turks, the state of emergency raised fears of a return to the days of martial law after a 1980 military coup, or the height of a Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s when much of the largely Kurdish southeast was under a state of emergency.

Opposition parties which stood with the authorities against the coup expressed concern that the state of emergency could concentrate too much power in the hands of Erdogan, whose rivals have long accused him of suppressing free speech.

Erdogan, an Islamist, has led Turkey as prime minister or president since 2003.

“We will continue the fight … wherever they might be. These people have infiltrated the state organization in this country and they rebelled against the state,” he said, calling the actions of Friday night “inhuman” and “immoral”.

Around a third of Turkey’s roughly 360 serving generals have been detained since the coup attempt, a senior official said, with 99 charged pending trial and 14 more being held.

The Defence Ministry is investigating all military judges and prosecutors, and has suspended 262 of them, broadcaster NTV reported, while 900 police officers in the capital, Ankara, were also suspended on Wednesday. The purge also extended to civil servants in the environment and sports ministries.

The state of emergency went into effect after parliament formally approved the measure on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Humeyra Pamuk, Seda Sezer and Gareth Jones; Writing by David Dolan)