Tag Archives: capital punishment

Florida Supreme Court rules against death penalty

The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row — as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder — was put in limbo by a pair of sweeping rulings issued by the Florida Supreme Court.

In two linked cases — each decided by a 5-2 split — the court ruled that death sentences must require a unanimous jury and struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it.

“Requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before death may be imposed … is a critical step toward ensuring that Florida will continue to have a constitutional and viable death penalty law, which is surely the intent of the Legislature,” the court stated in one of two rulings. “This requirement will dispel most, if not all, doubts about the future validity and long-term viability of the death penalty in Florida.”

At the same time the court ordered a unanimous jury decision, it also opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.

Justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — who was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant with a box-cutter in 1998 — deserves a new sentencing hearing.

A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.

That ruling led the state to halt two pending executions and state legislators rushed to overhaul the law. They gave more sway to juries, including prohibiting a judge from imposing the death penalty if the jury recommended life in prison.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, however, rejected calls to require a unanimous decision from a jury, settling instead for a supermajority of 10 jurors. Prosecutors were strongly opposed to requiring a unanimous jury decision, pointing out that some of the state’s most notorious criminals including serial killer Ted Bundy did not receive a unanimous jury recommendation. An analysis prepared for the Legislature showed that only 21 percent of death penalty sentences handed down over the past 15 years were recommended unanimously.

But a majority of justices disagreed, and Justice Barbara Pariente noted that Florida was one of the few remaining states in the nation that did not require a unanimous jury decision. She said the only way to keep the death penalty “constitutionally sound” was to require a unanimous decision.

Justice Charles Canady, in a strong dissenting opinion, contended that the majority went far beyond what was required by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Justices in their ruling did reject a request that Hurst’s sentence be reduced to life in prison, but they said that because of the new requirement, he deserved to have a jury reconsider his sentence. That decision could lead other death row inmates to ask for the same consideration.

David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said that “based on the way that the opinion is written and the reasoning of the Justices, it would appear that all death penalty sentences imposed in Florida require a new sentencing hearing.” Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that, at the least, the 43 inmates whose death penalty cases are still on direct appeal deserve to be resentenced.

The sweeping decision got a muted response from Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose offices said they were reviewing it.

Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi’s office, said that ongoing murder cases could proceed as long as juries were instructed that a unanimous decision was required. But Marty McClain, a long-standing death penalty attorney who filed a legal brief in one of the cases, contended it would be a risky move for prosecutors to proceed until the Legislature acts.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.

Incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran blasted the ruling and said it was an ongoing effort to “subvert the will of the people.”

“This decision is indicative of a court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result,” said Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’ Lakes. “That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state.”

Sanders wants end to death penalty

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called on Oct. 29 for an end to the death penalty, a day after rival Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped short of saying the United States should end capital punishment.

“We are all shocked and disgusted by some of the horrific murders that we see in this country, seemingly every week,” said Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont. “And that is precisely why we should abolish the death penalty. At a time of rampant violence and murder, the state should not be part of that process.”

Clinton’s remark a day earlier to take a “hard look” at abolishing capital punishment gave Sanders an opening to distinguish himself from the former secretary of state, who is the party’s frontrunner in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sanders also called for reforming the criminal justice system, which he said puts more people in jail than any other country on Earth and makes it harder for Americans to get back on their feet once they’re out of jail.

“A criminal record stays with a person for his or her entire life-until the day he or she dies,” Sanders said. “If a person has a criminal record, it will be much harder for that person later in life to get a job. Many employers simply will not hire somebody with a criminal record. A criminal record destroys lives.”

Clinton said she thinks there are certain “egregious cases” in which the death penalty should be considered, “but I’d like to see those be very limited and rare.”

Liberal justices condemn death penalty in lethal-injection case

Rancor over America’s use of capital punishment erupted at the U.S Supreme Court on June 29, the final day of its annual session, as four justices read dueling opinions aloud and two suggested the outright abolition of the death penalty.

Justice Stephen Breyer, speaking for himself and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the safeguards that accompanied the 1976 high-court reinstatement of the death penalty have failed. Breyer said more than 100 death row convicts had been exonerated in recent decades and some innocent people had been wrongly put to death.

One example he cited: Henry Lee McCollum, who was exonerated by DNA evidence last year after 30 years on North Carolina’s death row.

“We believe it highly likely that the death penalty now violates the Constitution,” Breyer said.

Not since 1994 and the retirement of Justice Harry Blackmun, whom Breyer succeeded, have any of the nine sitting justices found capital punishment entirely unconstitutional. Blackmun declared his view just before he retired. Earlier, only Justices William Brennan, who served 1956-1990, and Thurgood Marshall, 1967-1991, consistently opposed the death penalty.

The sentiment of liberals Breyer and Ginsburg, who said the ultimate punishment may disproportionately affect defendants based on race and the state in which they live, is unlikely to change the majority view on the nine-justice bench. Yet it provided a dramatic high-point to the court’s already-momentous term and sparked reaction from both sides of the national death-penalty debate.

The conservative wing prevailed as the court ruled 5-4 that Oklahoma’s lethal injection mix did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Three condemned inmates had challenged the first drug of a standard three-drug protocol, a sedative called midazolam. They said it failed to achieve the level of unconsciousness required for the subsequent injection of two drugs that paralyze an inmate and stop his heart and are known to cause burning pain.

Speaking for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the inmates failed to prove the ineffectiveness of midazolam or to offer alternative methods that might entail less pain.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who spoke next, criticized the court’s conservatives for endorsing “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”

Sotomayor said the majority had wrongly added a new hurdle to death-sentence challenges, requiring proof of an alternative. A “barbarous” method, she said, does not become less so because it is the only method available.

After Breyer spoke, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia simply could not resist dissenting from Breyer’s dissent.

Scalia invoked the liberals’ win in last week’s gay marriage case and said the death penalty, unlike same-sex marriage, has been permitted under the Constitution for centuries.

Court backs lethal injection in Oklahoma death penalty case

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 29 dealt a setback to opponents of the death penalty, endorsing Oklahoma’s method of lethal injection.

June 29 marked the conclusion of the court’s 2014-2015 term.

In two big rulings last week, the justices made gay marriage legal nationwide and rejected a conservative challenge to a key element of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

On June 29, the court ruled 5-4, with its five conservatives in the majority, that a drug used by Oklahoma as part of its lethal injection procedure does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The ruling was a loss for three convicted murders on the state’s death row, Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole. They had objected to the use of a sedative called midazolam, saying it cannot achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery, making it unsuitable for executions.

The three-drug process used by Oklahoma prison officials has been under scrutiny since the April 2014 botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett. He could be seen twisting on the gurney after death chamber staff failed to place the intravenous line properly.

The case did not address the constitutionality of the death penalty in general, but it brought fresh attention to the ongoing debate over whether the death penalty should continue in the United States. The main question before the nine justices was whether the use of midazolam violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the first time indicated they believe the death penalty is unconstitutional.

“We believe it highly likely that the death penalty now violates the Eighth Amendment,” Breyer said in a statement he read from the bench.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia called Breyer’s arguments full of “internal contradictions” and “gobbledy-gook.”

Utah lawmakers: Legalizing death by firing squad is pragmatic approach

Utah lawmakers say they took a pragmatic approach in approving the firing squad as a form of execution if lethal-injection drugs aren’t available.

Their thinking: Develop a backup plan in case a nationwide lethal-drug shortage persists.

But critics say bringing back the firing squad in Utah — the only state to use the method in the past 40 years — could tarnish the state’s image with visitors.

Tourism is big business in Utah, home to world-class ski resorts and spectacular national parks. Travelers spent a record $7.5 billion in the state in 2013, and tourism dollars are linked to one of every 10 Utah jobs, according to a University of Utah report released this year.

But firing squad executions draw a different kind of attention _ one Utah lawmakers decided 11 years ago that the state didn’t need. Former state Rep. Sheryl Allen said this week that reinstating the firing squad as a backup could once again elicit criticism and give the state a bad reputation.

“I think Utah needs to be concerned. That’s not what we want our attention on,” said Allen, a Republican who sponsored the 2004 bill that did away with firing squads as a primary execution method.

Bringing back the method adds fuel to the fire for critics who point to other Utah oddities — such as its strict, sometimes confusing liquor laws — as reasons to steer clear, said David Corsun, director of the University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management.

Utah also has long been linked to polygamy, which was once practiced by Mormons but is now illegal and not sanctioned by the church.

The firing squad could affect Salt Lake City’s position in the competitive and lucrative convention business, Corsun said.

Large associations with members of varied political and social backgrounds try to avoid states where controversial laws recently have passed.

Venues in other cities certainly will bring up Utah’s firing squad measure as a way to sway associations away from the state, Corsun said. Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill Monday, saying he agreed a backup method was needed.

Current legislators and tourism officials, however, downplayed the new law’s impact on Utah’s image. State tourism director Vicki Varela said in a statement she doesn’t think the firing squad presents a major problem because executions are rare and the possibility that the state will have to use its backup is remote.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Ray, said the issue of firing squads in Utah is far less controversial than the ACLU and critics want to make it.

The governor’s office received a much smaller response to Ray’s proposal than it did for other hot-button issues, like same-sex marriage.

Still, among the hundreds of emails sent to Herbert from places including Rhode Island and New Zealand were messages from people like Seattle resident Randy Kilmer, who called the firing squad barbaric and said he would never ski in Utah again if it became law.

Ashley Korenblat, CEO of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab, said tourists follow news about the places they visit. She recalled visitors from Arkansas who commented on another Utah news story of national note: the passing of an anti-discrimination law that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents and religious rights. The tourists were pleased with the state’s progressive step, she said.

“People do notice what you’re doing, and the vacation industry is quite competitive,” Korenblat said. “Regardless of whether (the firing squad is) a good idea or not, it’s a little strange.”

ACLU Utah Legal Director John Mejia said it likely will take only one firing squad death for another influx of international attention. That could happen in a few years when convicted murder Ron Lafferty’s execution comes up.

Lafferty had already chosen to die by gunfire before the 2004 law that had scrapped the method. Another death row inmate, Doug Carter, has picked lethal injection but could be killed by firing squad if the drug shortage lingers and the state can’t get a supply 30 days in advance.

Record number of UN countries call for moratorium on executions

A record number of countries this week backed a key United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty globally.

Amnesty International said 117 of the UN’s 193 member states voted in favor of the resolution at the UNGA plenary session in New York, while 38 voted against and 34 abstained. This was the fifth time a resolution on the issue was voted on by the UNGA. At the last vote in December 2012, 111 states voted in favor, 41 against and 34 abstained. 

“The record vote in favor is yet another indication that global support for the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past. This vote sends an important signal that more and more countries are willing to take steps to end the use of the death penalty once and for all,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, death penalty expert at Amnesty International. 

“The strong cross-regional support evident in today’s vote shows that ending the use of capital punishment is a truly global goal issue. The international community recognizes the death penalty as a human rights issue, and has opened up space for new dialogues on the abolition of the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” 

Since 2007 there have been five resolutions calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty at the UNGA, with support increasing each time. Six more countries supported this week’s resolution compared to last time a similar vote took place in 2012. 

New votes in favor came from Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Fiji, Niger and Suriname. Also, Bahrain, Myanmar, Tonga and Uganda moved from opposition to abstention. Papua New Guinea went from abstention to a vote against the resolution. 

Although UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, they carry significant moral and political weight. 

“This result is also a wake-up call for those 38 countries that still voted against the resolution. They are increasingly isolated in their support for this horrendous punishment.  The death penalty does not serve any legitimate purpose and is a stain on their human rights records,” said Chiara Sangiorgio. 

Amnesty International, in a news release this week, urged all countries that still retain the death penalty — the United States is one — to immediately establish a moratorium on executions, commute all death sentences and abolish the death penalty for all crimes. 

Some background 

When the UN was founded in 1945 only eight of the then 51 UN member states had abolished the death penalty. Today, 95 of the UN’s 193 member states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and, in total, 137 have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. 

The UNGA resolution was first adopted as a draft by the Third Committee of the UNGA on Nov. 21 November, with 114 votes in favor, 36 against and 34 abstentions. The adoption of five resolutions since 2007 on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty has generated momentum to renew the commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. 

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution.

New coalition forms to push for end to capital punishment

With the country’s final executions of 2014 are scheduled to take place in Georgia, Missouri and Texas this week, a new coalition has launched a campaign to push for an end to capital punishment.

The goal — to mobilize the 90 million Americans who support ending capital punishment — was announced early on Dec. 9 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The coalition includes civil rights, religious, human rights and libertarian organizations and the movement is called the “90 Million Strong Campaign.”

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty is coordinating the effort. An announcement said the coalition is responding “to a shockingly high number of death row exonerations, botched executions and an increase in government secrecy surrounding the practice.”

The campaign also “comes at a time when the nation is still grappling with significant questions about fairness, particularly when it comes to race, in the criminal justice system.”

In the last decade, six states have abolished capital punishment. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia either don’t have the death penalty or have not carried out executions in at least five years.

Since 1973, including last month’s freeing of the longest-serving innocent prisoner, 149 people have been exonerated from Death Row.

Madison Opera enters new territory with ‘Dead Man Walking’

Dead Man Walking is quite unlike anything Madison Opera has done, and yet no narrative better addresses the violence, remorse and redemption that are so familiar in grand opera.

The narrative is based on the story of Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and leading advocate for abolishing the death penalty. The opera paints a vivid picture of the last days of Joseph DeRocher as he awaits execution in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for the rape and murder of a young couple. The crime is presented in vivid detail during the opera’s prologue.

DeRocher (baritone Michael Mayes) is a composite character of the men Sister Helen (mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) served as spiritual adviser before their executions. His fate is familiar to the activist nun, who has written several books about the death penalty.

“I want the last thing you see in this world to be the face of love,” she tells DeRocher as he is led away — a “dead man walking” to his own execution. It’s far too late to save DeRocher’s mortal life, but thanks to Sister Helen’s work, there may still be hope for his spiritual redemption.

The opera by composer Jake Heggie and out librettist/playwright Terrence McNally premiered in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera. Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith first saw the New York City Opera’s production when she was working with the Metropolitan Opera in 2002.

“It blew me away with its incredible music, its theatrical intensity and the clear sense that this was a truly great American opera,” Smith said. “I discovered that (Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro) John DeMain had been the conductor of that (New York) performance and had been instrumental in the first post-premiere productions of the opera.  We have been working toward producing it here ever since.”

Dead Man Walking was the first opera by composer and pianist Heggie, best known for writing art songs performed by Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald and other vocal luminaries. It also was the first foray into opera for McNally, who penned the plays Corpus Christi, The Ritz, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion and other acclaimed works. Sister Helen’s account was the perfect point of entry for the Tony Award-winning playwright.

“I wanted to write an opera based on issues — moral, political and social — that would engage a contemporary audience,” McNally said. “I also wanted two strong central characters. Most contemporary operas are chastised for insufficiently compelling or interesting librettos. Sister Helen’s life and struggles for saving the life of condemned people had all the elements I was looking for.”

Like the Oscar-winning 1995 film version starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, McNally’s libretto is based on Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. But the opera is not a musical version of the film, McNally stresses. The murderer DeRocher and his mother are McNally’s creations.

Prejean’s one request of McNally and Heggie was that her tale be presented as one of redemption. Accommodating her wishes was easy to do, McNally says.

“Sister Helen is proof that you can be a devout member of a religious belief system and an activist for reform with a huge and loving heart,” McNally says. “She is one of my role models. Jake and I are very proud that she is proud of the opera we have made of her and her life’s work.”

McNally and Heggie had numerous long discussions about the project before work commenced, as much to address Prejean’s request as to chart their own creative courses.

“I felt deeply inspired and moved by the story right away,” Heggie said. “It felt timely and timeless — very American but universal — and had the essential elements of a grand opera, with the kind of emotion and drama that could fill an opera house.”

McNally’s libretto demanded a variety of American music styles, including jazz, folk, pop, rock and gospel, Heggie said. The story takes place in the South, which has its own “musical landscape,” according to the composer. But it was reflecting the emotional themes of the work that Heggie found most difficult.

“I was hugely challenged by the conflicts in this piece, and the enormity of the grief on all sides,” Heggie said. “All of the themes I explore spring from complex human emotions inspired by love, loss, grief, joy, outrage, a quest for vengeance, a search for forgiveness and redemption. There are so many heightened emotions in this story, and it was important to honor each character and to love them for who they are.” 

The enormity of the crime, as well as the social issues surrounding capital punishment, compound the emotions at its heart. The questions raised by the story are not easy, particularly questions surrounding the death penalty, McNally said.

“I have answers to those questions, but I prefer the audience to answer them for themselves,” says McNally. “This is not a lecture opera, it’s a human drama and we want people to think and feel.”

“Issues of crime, punishment, redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness are in the headlines every day,” Smith said. “Whatever one’s religious or political beliefs, the very true emotions of everyone in the piece will move you.”

Editor’s Note: Please see the full calendar of events planned in Madison surrounding the production of Dead Man Walking, including an appearance by Sr. Helen Prejean.

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‘Dead Man Walking‘ inspires calendar of events

Some 20 events are planned to explore the themes raised by Madison Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking on April 25 and April 27. There will be panel discussions on criminal justice and art exhibits as social commentary, along with film showings and opera previews at area libraries.

Issues raised in the opera warrant the additional scrutiny, according to Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director.

Dead Man Walking’s story has so many layers that this scale of outreach made enormous sense,” Smith said.  “Not every opera lends itself to this, and I hope that we will grow new partnerships and offer more events in the future.”

Some of the events have already been held, but there are still many to attend in and around Madison.

CONVERSATIONS AND PANELS

Religious Perspectives on Criminal Justice, Madison Opera Center, 355 W. Mifflin St., March 23, 2:30-4:30 p.m. Free.

A multi-denominational religious panel will discuss today’s issues and challenges from a variety of philosophical and religious traditions and perspectives.

Art as Social Comment, Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave. on the UW-Madison campus, April 3, 6 p.m. Free, but RSVP by April 1.

Participants in this guided tour will examine visual art examples that reflect society and portray shared human values.

In Conversation: Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie, First Congregational Church, 1609 University Ave., April 24, 7 p.m. Free.

Sister Helen Prejean, on whose life Dead Man Walking is based, and opera composer Jake Heggie will discuss their collaboration that led to the opera’s creation. In addition, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, who appears as Mrs. DeRocher in the opera, will sing “The Deepest Desire,” Prejean’s poetry set to music composed and performed by Heggie.

PREVIEWS AND BEHIND-THE-SCENES

Opera Novice: American Opera, Madison Opera Center 335 W. Mifflin St., March 28, 6-7 p.m. Free.

Opera newbies and those unfamiliar with American opera will benefit from this fun-filled, informative presentation led by Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general manager.

Dead Man Walking Preview, various area locations. Free.

Join Madison Opera staff for an informative multi-media preview of the show at one of the following locations:

• Madison Central Library, April 8, 7 p.m.

• Sun Prairie Public Library, April 9, 6:30 p.m.

• Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, April 10, 2 p.m.

Opera Up Close: The Dead Man Walking Preview, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. in Overture Center, April 13, 1–3 p.m. $20 or free to season subscribers and students.

Join Madison Opera staff, the stage director and featured singers for a multi-media preview and roundtable discussions designed to preview the opera and answer questions.

FILMS

Dead Man Walking, various locations. Free.

The R-rated 1995 Oscar-winning film based on a book by Prejean and featuring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, will screen at:

• Madison Central Library, March 27, 6:30 p.m.

• Fitchburg Public Library, April 9, 6 p.m.

Unlikely Friends, various locations. Free.

This documentary about the victims of brutal crimes, who unexpectedly became friends with their perpetrators through forgiveness, will be shown, followed by post-film discussions led by clergy:

• Madison Central Library, April 2, 6:30 p.m.

• Fitchburg Public Library, April 16, 6 p.m.

Race to Execution, various locations. Free.

This documentary follows the stories of two death row inmates while exploring the deep and disturbing link between race and the death penalty in America. It will screen in the following locations, followed by post-film discussions led by clergy:

• Sun Prairie Public Library, March 20, 6:30 p.m.

• Madison Central Library, April 10, 6:30 p.m.

• Fitchburg Public Library, April 23, 6:30 p.m.

Compulsion, Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall on the UW-Madison campus, 821 University Ave., April 19, 7 p.m. Free. 

The 1959 film starring Orson Wells offers a fictionalized account of the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder trial. The film will be followed by a discussion led by Cinematheque director Jim Healy and the Rev. Jerry Hancock of the Prison Ministry Project.

RECOMMENDed READING

Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States by Prejean.

The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions by Prejean.

European drug bans prompt U.S. to change modes of executions

There’s one big reason the United States has a dearth of execution drugs so acute that some states are considering solutions such as firing squads and gas chambers: Europe won’t allow the drugs to be exported because of its fierce hostility to capital punishment.

The phenomenon started nine years ago when the EU banned the export of products used for execution, citing its goal to be the “leading institutional actor and largest donor to the fight against the death penalty.” Beefed up European rules mean the results are being most strongly felt in the United States, with controversial executions making headlines.

In Ohio last month, Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die after a previously untested mix of chemicals began flowing into his body, gasping repeatedly as he lay on a gurney.

On Jan. 9, Oklahoma inmate Michael Lee Wilson’s last words were: “I feel my whole body burning.”

The dilemma again grabbed national attention when an Oklahoma pharmacy agreed to refrain from supplying an execution drug to the Missouri Department of Corrections for an upcoming lethal injection. Death row inmate Michael Taylor’s had argued in a lawsuit that recent executions involving the drug pentobarbital would likely cause “inhumane pain” — and, ahead of a hearing, The Apothecary Shoppe said it would not provide the drug.

EU nations are notorious for disagreeing on just about everything when it comes to common policy, but they all strongly — and proudly — agree on one thing: abolishing capital punishment.

Europe saw totalitarian regimes abuse the death penalty as recently as the 20th century, and public opinion across the bloc is therefore staunchly opposed to it.

The EU’s uncompromising stance has set off a cat-and-mouse game, with U.S. corrections departments devising new ways to carry out lethal injections only to hit updated export restrictions within months.

“Our political task is to push for an abolition of the death penalty, not facilitate its procedure,” said Barba Lochbihler, chairwoman of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights.

Europe’s tough stance has caused U.S. states to start experimenting with new drug mixtures, even though convicts’ lawyers and activists argue they increase the risk of painful prolonged death and may violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In an upcoming execution in Louisiana, the state is set to follow Ohio’s example in using the untested drug cocktail used in McGuire’s execution. It changed its execution protocol to use Ohio’s two-drug combination because it could no longer procure pentobarbital, a powerful sedative.

The execution was scheduled for February, but was stayed pending a federal judge’s examination in April regarding whether the state can proceed with the plan to execute Christopher Sepulvado, convicted in the 1992 killing of his 6-year-old stepson. 

In 2010, Louisiana switched from the established three-drug protocol to a one-drug pentobarbital lethal injection, but eventually that drug also became unavailable because of European pressure.

“The lethal injection that they are using now in certain states has never been tested, verified, let alone been approved for executions,” said Maya Foa of Reprieve, a London-based charity fighting the death penalty. “This amounts to using humans as guinea pigs. No doctor would ever do that.”

Ohio prosecutors counter that condemned inmates are not entitled to a pain-free execution under the Constitution.

Even if the effect of the two drugs used by Ohio “presents some inherent risk of discomfort, that does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment,” Christopher Conomy, an assistant Ohio attorney general, argued in court documents last month.

The U.S. execution dilemma goes back to 2005, when the EU restricted exports of goods “for the purpose of capital punishment or for the purpose of torture.” That ban includes items such as electric chairs and lethal injection systems.

The drug shortage then started biting in 2010 when Hospira Inc., the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, a sedative that is part of the normal three-drug mixture, stopped production. A few months later, Hospira dropped plans to produce it in Italy because the government there asked for guarantees that it would never be used in executions.

States in 2011 switched to pentobarbital, but Denmark-based Lundbeck Inc., the drug’s only U.S.-licensed maker, faced a public backlash and quickly said it would put the medication off-limits for capital punishment through a tightly controlled distribution system.

Fearing for their reputation, the companies never wanted to see their drugs used in executions.

As U.S. authorities started looking for other sources, Britain went ahead and restricted exports of sodium thiopental and other drugs at the end of 2010.

“This move underlines this government’s … moral opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances,” Business Secretary Vince Cable said then.

Germany’s government also urged pharmaceutical companies to stop exports, and the country’s three firms selling sodium thiopental promised not to sell to U.S. prison authorities.

The EU then updated its export regulation in late 2011 to ban the sale of eight drugs — including pentobarbital and sodium thiopental — if the purpose is to use them in lethal injections.

That produced a flurry of action in the United States. In May 2012 Missouri announced it would switch to using the anesthetic propofol, infamous for its role in Michael Jackson’s overdose death. But propofol, too, was manufactured in Europe, by Germany’s Fresenius Kabi.

Missouri’s plan prompted an outcry across Europe and the EU threatened to restrict propofol exports. That in turn provoked a medical outcry in the U.S. because propofol is used in about 95 percent of surgical procedures requiring an anesthetic, according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Pharmaceutical companies around the globe have been loath to see their drugs used in executions because the market is tiny and promises close to no financial gain, while potentially exposing them to costly bad PR.

In the United States, there is a variety of reason no U.S. manufacturer will supply execution drugs, from the desire to avoid lawsuits to the makers’ own opposition to the use of such drugs in capital punishment.

Fresenius Kabi, whose slogan is “caring for life,” swiftly moved to introduce a stringent distribution control to prevent sales to U.S. prisons. Another manufacturer, Germany’s B. Braun, immediately followed suit.

In October 2012 Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon expressed indignation, saying state and federal court systems, not European politicians, should decide death penalty policy. Still, a month later he backtracked and halted what was to have been the first U.S. execution using propofol.

Missouri and other states have since also resorted to custom-made batches of drugs, while refusing to divulge which pharmacy produced them.

The secrecy has led to new lawsuits, not least after safety concerns over such drugs arose in 2012 after contaminated injections from a Massachusetts facility caused a meningitis outbreak that killed 64 people and sickened hundreds.

An attorney for McGuire’s family supported the European position.

“I think it’s right for the (pharmaceutical) companies to draw a line when people are using the drugs for the wrong purposes,” said Jon Paul Rion.

In principle, there are a number of painkillers, sedatives and paralyzing agents that can kill if administered in high doses. But switching drugs will invite new lawsuits and could involve drawn-out bureaucratic or legislative delays — in addition to doubts about how quickly and mercifully these drugs can kill.

“Such botched executions go some way to debunking the myth that lethal injection is a humane way to kill someone,” said Reprieve’s Foa.

When Europeans criticize the U.S., they frequently cite the inequality of health care and the continued use of capital punishment.

Europe has seen autocratic or totalitarian regimes corrupting justice throughout the 20th century with people being executed for political reasons or without fair trial, resulting in strong opposition to the death penalty after World War II.

Western Germany forbade capital punishment after the war, just as Italy did. France, which gave the world the word guillotine, decapitated only a few people after WW II amid increasing public opposition.

“There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed,” French Literature Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus wrote in 1957 in an influential essay.

France’s last execution now dates back almost 40 years. In Eastern Europe, the death penalty was abolished after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

An international AP poll in 2007 found that about 70 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. In Germany, Italy and Spain only about 30 percent did so.

Overall, experts say Europe’s judicial system is more oriented toward rehabilitation, not punishment. That is also reflected in drastically lower incarceration rates: Across the EU, about 130 people per 100,000 inhabitants are behind bars compared to 920 in the U.S, according to EU and U.S. Justice Department figures.

The death penalty has been abolished or suspended in all developed economies, except for the U.S. and Japan. Execution rankings have routinely shown the U.S. in the unusual company of China, Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

Vietnam has faced a similar dilemma to the United States, finding it difficult to import execution drugs from Europe since it switched from firing squads to lethal injection in 2011 on humanitarian grounds.

The anti-capital punishment camp has also gained ground in the U.S.

The number of U.S. executions has declined in recent years — from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 39 last year. Some states have abolished the death penalty, and those that carry on find executions increasingly difficult to conduct because of the drug scarcity and doubts about how well they work.

Public support for capital punishment also appears to be retreating. Last year, 60 percent of Americans polled said they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, the lowest level measured since 1972, according to Gallup.

To counter the drug shortages lawmakers in some death penalty states — Missouri, Virginia and Wyoming — are now considering bringing back execution methods such as firing squads, electrocutions and gas chambers.

There are still about 3,000 inmates on death row.