Five grams

The state used five grams of pentobarbital in May to execute Earl Forrest, the 87th Missouri inmate executed by lethal injection since George Mercer died in the gas chamber at the old penitentiary more than twenty-seven years ago.  Mercer was executed in the gas chamber because the prison system did not have a place for lethal injections. Although gas was still an option, the gas chamber was no longer safe to use. It was good enough for the inmate’s experience but the chamber’s sealing gaskets were so bad that it was likely no witnesses would have been left alive to testify that he had been legally executed. The chairs were removed from the gas chamber and a gurney was placed inside for Mercer.  

Twenty-five men remain under death sentences in Missouri but it might be some time before your correspondent or someone else on behalf of the Missourinet goes back to Bonne Terre for another execution.  

Forrest was the 22nd execution these eyes have watched.  Those men were responsible for at least 36 murders.  Several, including Forrest, were considered likely killers in other states or were suspected but not charged in other Missouri murder cases. 

He killed three people, including a Dent County Deputy Sheriff, in a meth-related incident.  Death for Forrest came peacefully, a situation that seems unfair to many.  When the curtains around the execution room were opened, witnesses could see him lying on the medical gurney, his head turned toward those he had invited as his witnesses.  He, as has been the case with all of the others we’ve seen, was tightly strapped down so that only his head and feet could move.  Although the time of death was set at 7:18 p.m., he might have died sooner.  He stopped wiggling his feet and talking to his witnesses only about 45 seconds after the drug started flowing.   The curtains are closed after five minutes to let the medical staff check for signs of life, then reopened when they have certified the inmate is dead.  

The Attorney General’s office calls witnesses a few days later to see if we saw any signs of suffering or pain, just in case death penalty opponents try to claim the drug causes the recipient to suffer.  For the record, we have never seen any of the 22 men we have watched indicate any sign of pain and suffering.  Forrest showed no indication of discomfort.

Missouri used to use a three-drug procedure to produce death.  But it now uses only one because of court rulings and industry actions against the use of FDA-regulated drugs for executions.

These 112 men, living and dead—the 87 executed and the 25 waiting—are not the only ones who have been sentenced to death by lethal injection in Missouri.  The Corrections Department says 181 men and five women have been given that sentence. What about the others?  

The department gives reporters an information packet at each execution that includes a list of the disposition (a pretty cold word, but we are talking about murder cases here) of all of those sentenced to death.  You may interpret what we are about to tell through whatever lens you view the death penalty.  For some, it will be an indication that the system works.  For others, it will be an indication that it is flawed and might have led to executions of innocent men.   Some, perhaps many, of those who have been re-sentenced to life without parole won new trials and took a plea bargain instead of risking another death sentence in a new trial. 

This stuff can get pretty complicated but we think we have a pretty good handle on the people who have been facing a death sentence but are not facing it now, and why.

Thirty-nine inmates have gotten new trials that resulted in sentences of life without parole.  One of them has since died.  Those surviving range in age from 36 to 76. Two are women.

Five more were sentenced to life with a chance for parole after fifty years. They are now 55-68 years old. Although one is now in his 37th year in prison, he is not thirteen years from possible parole because his new sentence came after a new trial and the clock is resent with that new sentence.  He’s 61 now and still has a long time to go.

Four men were resentenced to life for a lesser crime, second-degree murder.  Two, ages 46 and 55, remain in prison.  One completed that lesser sentence in 2010 and was released. The fourth died in prison.

Fifteen inmates facing the death penalty have died of natural causes.  They were 33 to 82 years old. Two were women.

One inmate became a prison murder victim four years after he arrived in a state prison.

Three have committed suicide. One killed himself at the age of 61, ten months after being sentenced. One died at 31.  The third, a woman, committed suicide in her cell at age 43 just a few hours after a jury had convicted her in her second trial.  

One inmate, whose conviction was reversed not long after being put in prison, was transferred to a federal prison on federal charges and remains there. If he’s released, he still faces the murder charge in Missouri.

A half-dozen have been released, some after their convictions were reversed, including one who was retried and convicted of manslaughter and then released after finishing the manslaughter sentence.

Some inmates are awaiting new trials and we’ll assign them to a category after those trials take place. 

Four inmates are under a “special circumstances” category.   The death sentence for Roosevelt Pollard is under a stay because he’s been declared mentally incompetent.  His conviction remains and if his condition improves, he still could be executed.  He’s been in prison thirty years and is now 53. 

We’re not sure where to put David Barnett although he could be the fortieth inmate in the “life without parole” category.  His conviction was reversed last year by a federal judge and sent back to the lower court.  The prosecution had 180 days to file a request for a new death sentence. It appears that time has elapsed, meaning Barnett automatically gets life without parole.

Two inmates achieved “special circumstances” status under Governor Mel Carnahan.

Darrell Mease, who murdered a man, his wife, and their paraplegic son, was scheduled for execution January 27, 1999.  That would have been the second day of Pope John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis.  The Missouri Supreme Court re-set the date for February 10 after realizing the situation with January.  The Pope, in a private conversation with Carnahan, urged him to show mercy to Mease.  Carnahan, who had approved 26 executions by then, later said that he could not resist making an exception with Mease after the Pope looked him in the eye and asked for mercy.  So Mease shows up as one of the 39 on the “life without parole” list.

William Boliek, now 60 years old, was to be executed in 1997.  But two days before he was to die, Carnahan ordered a three-member board to investigate claims that his court defense had been inadequate.  The board submitted a report to Carnahan who was killed in a plane crash in 2000 before acting on its recommendations.  The wording of Carnahan’s stay is such that only he could have lifted it. Governor Holden asked the Missouri Supreme Court to vacate the stay but the court refused.

It’s hard to predict how many of the 25 still under a death sentence will be executed.  All still have enough appeals remaining to lead to speculation that Forrest will be the only execution this year.  Questions about the pentobarbital used for executions remain.  Two days after Forrest’s execution, Pfizer announced steps to keep any of its products from being used for executions.  Industry observers say that shuts the door on access to open-market drugs used in that process.

The Corrections Department refuses to identify the source of the drug it uses although some sources say Missouri gets it from a compounding pharmacy in Oklahoma.  Texas and Georgia also get the drug from compounding pharmacies. 

Licensed pharmacists, licensed doctors, or a third party supervised by a licensed pharmacist can mix or change the ingredients of a drug to tailor medication for a specific purpose.  Sometimes a patient needs medicine in liquid form although it is available on the open market only as a pill the person cannot swallow.  Or maybe the medication has a dye in it that causes an allergic reaction.   The compounded drug is not under Food and Drug Administration regulation, meaning the FDA cannot verify its safety or its effectiveness.

Regardless, five grams of pentobarbital does the job.  Effectively.

Killing death

We’ve gotten emails from a conservative group proudly announcing that the conservatives appear to have realized the death penalty needs reassessment.

It’s interesting that there is a certain amount of chest-thumping about this discovery because until now the conservative majority in the Missouri legislature has turned up its collective nose at any proposal by Democrats to study the issue or to just repeal the death penalty.

You can ask Senate minority leader Joseph Keaveny about the seemingly sudden shift. He has tried to get legislation approved to study the issue for several years but has been rebuffed repeatedly.

Be that as it may, Senator Paul Wieland’s bill to repeal the death penalty has cleared a Senate committee and is going to the full senate for debate with a committee recommendation that the Senate approve the bill. Wieland’s latest press release squarely addresses an issue that critics say the pro-life forces have sidestepped for years—at least in the eyes of death penalty opponents. “I am a devout Catholic,” says Wieland in his release, “and I believe if I’m going to be pro-life, I should be so on both ends of the spectrum—from conception to natural death.”

No one will be watching this bill more than Earl M. Forrest.

The state Supreme Court has set a May 11 execution date for him because back in 2002 he got into an argument with a woman about her purchase of a mobile home and a lawn mower from him. He killed her and a man who was at her home, took $25,000 worth me meth and went to his home. When law enforcement officers showed up, he got into a shootout with them and killed a Dent County deputy sheriff and wounded the county sheriff. Forrest was wounded. He’s now 66 years old. The U. S. Supreme Court has refused to review his case and all of his state and federal appeals otherwise appear to have run out. The legislature is to adjourn two days after his scheduled execution so there is some urgency to deal with Wieland’s bill.

Lloyd Leo Anderson, the last man to be executed by lethal gas in Missouri, was in a position similar to that of Forrest. After Anderson’s appeals ran out, St. Louis Representative Jay Howard introduced a bill to end capital punishment. Governor Warren Hearnes stayed Anderson’s execution until the legislature decided the issue. When the legislature killed Howard’s bill, Hearnes lifted the stay and Anderson was gassed on January 26, 1965. But not before some angry last words: “Tell them I didn’t get a fair trial. Tell Hearnes to kiss my ___ ass. The same to the rest of you guys,” apparently referring to the large number of witnesses that crowded around the gas chamber, peering through windows to watch him die minutes later.

Missouri executed eighteen men between November, 2013 and September 1, 2015 when I watched Roderick Nunley die quietly for the kidnap, rape, and murder of a fifteen-year old Kansas City school girl a quarter century earlier. He was the eighty-sixth Missouri inmate executed by drugs. The first drug-induced execution was that of George Mercer January 6, 1989—in the gas chamber at the old penitentiary. No new execution facilities were available then.

There are twenty-seven men left under a death sentence in Missouri. No one has been sentenced to death in the last two years, mostly because of plea bargains—as we understand the situation.

Wieland’s bill says anyone sentenced to death by the time his bill would become law on August 28 would be re-sentenced to life without parole. At least twenty men who had been sentenced to death already have been re-sentenced to life without parole after further re-evaluation of their cases. Two men, Robert Driscoll and Joseph Amrine, have been released after their death sentences were overturned. One has been declared mentally incompetent to be executed although he’s still under a death penalty.

Your correspondent has watched more than twenty men die on a gurney from lethal injection. After several of those executions, relatives of the victims have spoken with reporters in a prison press room. No one has ever indicated any regret about the inmate’s ultimate fate. And in the last few times, they have expressed resentment at a system that has taken so long to put a killer away. More than once they have complained about the cruel and unusual punishment that the system has inflicted on the survivors of the victims. We wonder how the families of the victims of the twenty-seven men under a death sentence feel about Wieland’s bill.

Missouri has repealed the death penalty before. It did it in 1917 only to have the legislature reinstate it in 1919 when sponsors spoke of a marked increase in murders since the repeal. It was repealed again after Anderson’s 1965 gassing and a U. S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 that gassing was cruel and unusual punishment. That let every inmate in America under a death sentence be re-sentenced to life. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that a new system of executions was not cruel and unusual punishment, leading Missouri to reinstitute the penalty in 1977. The legislature changed the law allowing executions by gas or lethal injection in 1988 with lethal injection the preferred means.

So now, it appears, conservatives seem to be deciding that liberals might have had a good idea after all. Is this just the start of a new cycle of thinking or has society forever changed on this issue? Is there nobody whose crime is so abhorrent that the forfeiture of life is the only just punishment? Is life in prison with no hope of ever getting out the worst possible penalty?

Consider part of the last statement of David Zink before his execution July 14, 2015:

“For those who remain on death row, understand that everyone is going to die. Statistically speaking, we have a much easier death than most, so I encourage you to embrace it and celebrate our true liberation before society figures it out and condemns us to life without parole and we too will die a lingering death.”