- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Less than a week after Pope Francis pushed to abolish the death penalty during his historic address to Congress, lawmakers in the states have shown little willingness to heed his pleas.

Six executions were slated to go forward in the two weeks following the pope’s trip to the United States, including the execution of Georgia convicted murderer Kelly Gissendaner late Tuesday evening. And while executions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday have been postponed, the delays are due to concerns about the process of lethal injection rather than over moral objections raised by the pope.

Brushing aside a last-minute Vatican appeal, Georgia reaffirmed its commitment to capital punishment Tuesday by executing Gissendaner, its first female death row inmate in 70 years. On Wednesday, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin granted a 37-day stay in the execution of Richard Glossip but only over concerns regarding the state’s execution protocols.

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that Glossip, who was convicted of ordering the murder of his boss, could be killed by a lethal injection with a three-drug cocktail that included the controversial sedative midazolam. The drug was used in a botched execution in the state last year. Despite last-minute pleas to hold off on Glossip’s lethal injection to consider “new evidence” of his proclaimed innocence, the Supreme Court declined to grant a stay Wednesday.

But Ms. Fallin said in a statement late Wednesday that her order will give the Department of Corrections time to review whether the use of another drug, potassium acetate, “is compliant with the state’s court-approved execution procedures.”

Over the course of the next week, Oklahoma and three other states have a total of four executions scheduled. The uncommon, closely clustered series of executions is due partly to a drawn-out appeals process and partly to the fact that several states had put executions on hold while awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Glossip case, said Frank Zimring, a law professor and death penalty expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

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“Now the question is, what kind of reaction will a clustered queue [of executions] create?” Mr. Zimring said.

Opponents of capital punishment were hopeful that the pope’s direct comments during his visit to the U.S. last week would help sway public opinion on the matter, but admit that, at this late stage, the fates of those imminent executions are likely to hinge on legal rather than moral arguments.

“Having them all strung out in this two-week period demonstrates the many flaws in the death penalty,” said James Clark, senior campaigner on the death penalty at Amnesty International USA. “Even if these executions continue to go through, I think it does show the public and decision makers how flawed it really is.”

Neither Gissendaner nor Glossip were the actual killers in the murders they were convicted in. Gissendaner was convicted of orchestrating and planning the 1997 murder of her husband, but it was her then-boyfriend Gregory Owen who carried out the fatal stabbing. He is currently serving a life sentence.

Glossip was convicted of ordering the 1997 killing of the owner of a motel where he worked as a manager. His conviction was based on the testimony given by Justin Sneed, who said Glossip hired him to beat the motel owner to death with a baseball bat in 1997. Sneed was sentenced to life without parole.

But while the pope’s appeal seems to have brought more focused attention to capital punishment, neither his address to Congress nor personal appeals submitted on his behalf in either Glossip’s or Gissendaner’s case has swayed any officials to commute an upcoming death sentence.

“The governors have kind of gone out of the clemency process and the parole boards have also gotten out of the clemency process and that has left things to the courts,” Mr. Zimring said. “And the courts are very uncomfortable with that.”

But at least one federal judge saw reason to intercede. Virginia’s execution of Alfredo Prieto was scheduled for 9 p.m. Thursday, but U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga issued a temporary restraining order that blocks the state from going through with it and instead schedules a hearing for Thursday afternoon.

Prieto’s lawyers have raised concern over drugs that will be used in his execution, specifically pentobarbital that was acquired from prison officials in Texas, and whether the drugs could lead to cruel and unusual punishment.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe already indicated that he would not intervene in the execution of Prieto, who was convicted of three murders and identified as the prime suspect in six others in both Virginia and California. Prieto has also appealed to the Supreme Court.

Other upcoming scheduled executions include Kimber Edwards on Oct. 6 in Missouri, Juan Garcia on Oct. 6 in Texas, and Benjamin Cole on Oct. 7 in Oklahoma.

Despite the cluster of executions over a short period of time, use of the capital punishment in the United States is actually decreasing.

Thirty-five people were executed in just seven states in 2014, and a total of 72 death sentences were handed down by 19 states and the federal government — the lowest number in 40 years.

Gissendaner was the 21st person put to death this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. There are 16 additional executions scheduled in 2015 that have not been stayed, according to the center.

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