With Florida carrying out the nation's third execution in less than 24 hours, some death penalty states — particularly in the South — appear unfazed by the recent furor over how the U.S. performs lethal injections.
A botched execution seven weeks ago in Oklahoma amplified a national debate about the secretive ways many states obtain lethal injection drugs from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies. Before Tuesday, nine executions were stayed or delayed — albeit some for reasons not related to the drug question.
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Amid the court battles, many pro-death penalty states kept pushing to resume executions, including the three carried out during the quick burst this week. Georgia and Missouri executed prisoners around an hour apart late Tuesday and early Wednesday, and John Ruthell Henry was pronounced dead at 7:43 p.m. ET Wednesday after receiving a lethal injection in Florida.
Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, said there has been a regional divide when it comes to how quickly states are returning to the business of putting prisoners to death.
"I think what you're going to see is kind of a division where some areas, some states, predominantly in the South, are going to dig in their heels," Sarat said. "Other states are going to proceed more cautiously and impose, if not an official moratorium, more of a de facto moratorium until things get sorted out."
Botched execution raised concerns
The executions in Georgia and Missouri were the first since April 29, when Oklahoma prison officials halted the process because drugs weren't being administered properly into the veins of inmate Clayton Lockett. He died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the process began.
Lawyers for death row inmates have cited concerns that what happened in Oklahoma could be repeated, and they've challenged the secretive ways many states obtain lethal injection drugs from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies.
There appeared to be no noticeable glitches in the Georgia, Missouri or Florida lethal injections. Marcus Wellons, 59, was put to death in Georgia for the 1989 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl. In Missouri, John Winfield, 46, was executed for killing two women in St. Louis County in 1996.
Henry, 63, was convicted of killing his estranged wife and her son in 1985.
Four states are responsible for 21 of the 23 executions so far this year: Texas with seven, Florida with six, Missouri with five and Oklahoma with three. Georgia and Ohio have each performed one.
Executions on the decline
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that opposes executions and tracks the issue, said that while 32 states still have the death penalty on the books, the number of states actually performing executions has dropped sharply. Pennsylvania, for example, still has the death penalty but hasn't executed anyone since 1999. Utah has had one execution since 2000. Maryland and Washington had two in that same span.
As recently as 2011, 13 states carried out capital punishment. In 1999, 20 states carried out 98 executions, a modern high.
"Places like Missouri and Florida — not only is there political will, but the courts are allowing these things to go forward in secrecy and despite problems with the new drugs," Dieter said.
Georgia and Missouri both use the single drug pentobarbital, a sedative. Florida uses a three-drug combination of midazolam hydrochloride, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
In Georgia, Wellons lay still with his eyes closed as the drugs were administered. Minutes into the procedure, he took some heavy breaths and blew air out through his lips as if snoring. There was no visible movement minutes later. Before his execution, Wellons said he hoped his death would bring peace to the family of India Roberts, a teen neighbour whom he raped and killed in suburban Atlanta.
Winfield, in Missouri, took four or five deep breaths as the drug was injected, puffed his cheeks twice and then fell silent, all in a matter of seconds. He was pronounced dead a few minutes later.
In Florida, Henry's attorneys focused on competency rather than the drug question in an effort to spare his life. The state says anyone with an IQ of at least 70 is not mentally disabled; testing had shown Henry's IQ at 78, though his lawyers said it should be re-evaluated.
Henry stabbed his estranged wife, Suzanne Henry, to death a few days before Christmas in 1985. Hours later, he killed her 5-year-old son from a previous relationship.
Just before his execution, Henry said: "I can't undo what I've done. If I could, I would. I ask for your forgiveness if you can find it in your heart."