death penalty
August 22, 2019

Texas executed Larry Ray Swearingen on Wednesday night for the 1998 murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter. The Supreme Court had denied his request for a stay just before 6 p.m. CDT, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had declined to commute his sentence, and state and federal courts had upheld his conviction. The prosecutor who got Swearingen's conviction, Kelly Blackburn, said he's sure Texas executed the right man, as did Trotter's mother. But Swearingen has maintained his innocence from the beginning, and his defense team has steadily poked holes in the forensic evidence, calling it "junk science."

"Today the state of Texas murdered an innocent man," Swearingen said in a statement released to The Washington Post on Wednesday, before his death. His last words were: "Lord forgive 'em. They don't know what they're doing."

Swearingen was convicted on strong circumstantial evidence, but earlier this month his lawyers presented new evidence suggesting that the key piece of physical evidence — half a pair of pantyhose that prosecutors said matched hose used to strangle Trotter — didn't match. The blood under Trotter's fingernails was from a man but not Swearingen — a state lab technician attested that the blood flakes were probably evidence contamination, though the state lab said earlier this month that the technician had no grounds for that testimony. And experts said Trotter was probably dead no longer than two weeks when hunters found her in the woods; Swearingen had been in jail for three weeks for unpaid parking tickets.

"Larry Swearingen needs to be removed from the annals of history as far as I'm concerned," Blackburn said. "A bad man got what he deserved tonight." Swearingen's attorney, James Rytting, disagreed. "They may put Larry Swearingen under," he said. "But his case is not going to die." Peter Weber

August 10, 2018

On Thursday night, Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick, 59, for the 1985 rape and murder of 7-year-old Paula Dyer. He's the first death row inmate Tennessee executed since 2009 and the state's first one using a controversial lethal cocktail containing midazolam, a drug aimed at stopping pain before the inmate is injected with the paralytic drug vecuronium bromide and finally compounded potassium chloride, the lethal drug.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution, with Justice Elena Kagan's signature and Justice Sonia Sotomayor's scathing dissent. "Although the midazolam may temporarily render Irick unconscious, the onset of pain and suffocation will rouse him ... just as the paralysis sets in, too late for him to alert bystanders that his execution has gone horribly (if predictably) wrong," Sotomayor wrote. "In refusing to grant Irick a stay, the court today turns a blind eye to a proven likelihood that the State of Tennessee is on the verge of inflicting several minutes of torturous pain on an inmate in its custody." Previously, the Supreme Court has compared potassium chloride to "chemically burning at the stake."

States have turned to midazolam in recent years as supplies of other lethal-injection drugs have dried up, in large part because drugmakers are refusing to sell states products to kill people. Midazolam has failed several times, and when Tennessee administered the drugs to Irick, The Tennessean reports, "he was coughing, choking, and gasping for air. His face turned dark purple as the lethal drugs took over." Another concern in the case is that Irick was mentally ill, according to Robert Durham at the Death Penalty Information Center. Tennessee is considering a bill barring the execution of people with serious mental illnesses, Durham said, and "it's unseemly that Irick would be executed and then the case ultimately gets resolved in his favor." Tennessee has two more executions scheduled this year. Peter Weber

August 24, 2017

A Florida inmate was put to death Thursday evening by lethal injection, with officials using a sedative that had never before been used in an execution in the United States.

Mark Asay, 53, was executed at 6:22 p.m., Florida corrections officials said. He was convicted in 1988 of murdering two men in Jacksonville in 1987; because he called one of the victims, a black man, a racial slur before shooting him, it was considered a racially motivated crime, WJAX reports.

Three drugs were used for the lethal injection, including the sedative etomidate. Asay's attorneys argued to the Florida Supreme Court earlier this month that the drug, never before used in a U.S. execution, would cause pain, but the court rejected this, saying they could not prove this. Etomidate was used in place of midazolam, which has been difficult for states to acquire because drug manufacturers do not want it used in executions. This was also the first time in 18 months that Florida carried out an execution; in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state had to temporarily stop putting inmates to death, as the sentencing process was unconstitutional. Florida has since passed a law that requires a jury to unanimously recommend the death penalty. Catherine Garcia

August 22, 2017

Just hours before Marcellus Williams, 48, was scheduled to be put to death on Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) issued a stay of execution, in light of attorneys saying DNA evidence proves Williams did not stab to death Felicia Gayle, a 42-year-old former reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in her home nearly 20 years ago.

In a statement, Greitens said a "sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment. To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt." Greitens is going to appoint a five-person Board of Inquiry, which will review the case and offer a recommendation to him, CNN reports. Williams' attorneys said they did not have the DNA evidence during his 2001 trial, and a forensic DNA expert and biologist hired by the legal team found that hair samples found at the crime scene do not match Williams and none of his DNA is on the murder weapon.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office said there is still plenty of non-DNA evidence proving Williams' guilt; Williams sold Gayle's husband's laptop, and some of the victim's personal items were found inside the trunk of his car. From the beginning, Williams has maintained his innocence, saying he was convicted based on testimony from convicted felons. Catherine Garcia

April 24, 2017

Just a few hours after Arkansas executed death row inmate Jack Jones, a federal judge issued and then lifted a court order that temporarily kept the state from putting to death a second prisoner, Marcel Williams.

Jones, convicted of the 1995 rape and murder of Mary Phillips, was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m., 14 minutes after the procedure began. Attorneys for Williams said it took 45 minutes to get an IV into Jones and he was moving his lips and "gulping for air" after the first drug was administered. They argued that because Williams is obese, it would be difficult to place an IV and he would experience a "torturous death." The state attorney general's office called this description of the execution "inaccurate."

Earlier in the night, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an execution stay for Williams. It is unclear if his attorneys will continue to try to delay the execution; Williams' death warrant is set to expire at midnight. The last time a state executed two prisoners in the same night was in 2000. Arkansas has been moving to execute more prisoners before one of its lethal injection drugs expires at the end of the month. Catherine Garcia

April 18, 2017

The Alabama Senate voted 25-8 on Tuesday to allow the use of nitrogen gas in executions — a method that has yet to be tried out.

The bill, which would let inmates decide if they wanted to be put to death with nitrogen gas rather than lethal injection, now heads to the Alabama House. The bill's Republican sponsor, Sen. Trip Pittman, said the state needs to have another execution method in its arsenal since lethal injection continues to be challenged in court. Oklahoma and Mississippi both allow the use of nitrogen gas in executions, but have not used it. Catherine Garcia

April 18, 2017

On Monday night, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to lift a stay from the Arkansas Supreme Court that was preventing the state from carrying out its first execution since 2005. The move by the U.S. high court effectively quashed the push by Arkansas to execute eight death row inmates, two at a time, by the end of April, when its supply of the sedative midazolam, one of the drugs in its lethal-injection cocktail, expires.

In a dramatic and chaotic series of rulings on Monday, the Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the scheduled executions of Don Davis, 55, and Bruce Ward, 60, both convicted of murder during what appear to be robberies, after their lawyers raised questions about their mental competency. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stay on Davis, whose execution order expired at midnight.

The Arkansas high court also removed a barrier to all eight executions on Monday, however, overruling a county judge, Wendell Griffen, who had prohibited the state to use another of the lethal injection drugs, vecuronium bromide, because the medical supply company said Arkansas lied about its intended use. The Arkansas Supreme Court reassigned Judge Griffen's death penalty cases after he was photographed at an anti-death penalty rally. Separately on Monday, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had lifted a stay on all eight executions, overriding a federal judge who had raised concerns about the use of midazolam, used in several previous botched executions.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said he was disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court didn't allow Davis' execution, but praised the other rulings on Monday. Rutledge said the rest of the executions will continue, since there's "nothing preventing them from occurring." Two inmates are scheduled to be executed on Thursday, two more on April 24, and the last two on April 27. Peter Weber

December 9, 2016

Late Thursday night, Alabama executed Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, for the 1994 fatal shooting of Casey Wilson, a store clerk in Huntsville who was pistol-whipped before being shot. Smith was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m., about half an hour after prison officials began the three-drug cocktail to end his life. He coughed, heaved, and clenched his fists for the first 13 minutes of the execution, and the prison officials injected the final two lethal drugs after two indeterminate consciousness checks to make sure he was sedated. The Alabama prison commissioner said he did not see any movement after the second test, but according to The Associated Press, he raised his arm slightly in both tests.

Smith was sentenced to death by a judge despite the jury's 7-5 recommendation that he be given life without parole. Smith's case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which twice paused the execution. Finally, the high court split 4-4 on Thursday evening, with the four liberal justices voting for a stay of execution; five votes were needed. Alabama's death penalty system is the only one in the country that still allows a judge to override a jury. Peter Weber

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