Apparently the state in which I live just can't wait to kill someone.
Last minute requests for stays on executions are a common thing. The one made by Herbert Smulls was not unusual in that regard. What was unusual, was that he was executed before his final request was decided by the High Court.
Last week the Supreme Court granted a stay in Smulls' case two hours before his scheduled execution. Two issues were pending before the Court: an all-white jury and the use of compounding pharmacy drugs.
Smulls, an African American, was executed before his last stay was denied.
But wait, maybe for Missouri this is not so unusual. Last August, Missouri executed Allen Nicklasson before the Eighth Circuit could finish their en banc rehearing denial, never mind a possible Supreme Court appeal.
Find Law reports about that:
Whether pro or anti-death penalty, Circuit Judge Bye's dissent from the Eighth Circuit's denial of rehearing en banc is an opinion worth reading. He notes, first, that "Missouri put Nicklasson to death before the federal courts had a final say on whether doing so violated the federal constitution."
And this isn't the first time. Judge Bye cites nine instances in four years in the mid-1980s where Missouri set execution dates before federal review was exhausted. In most of the cases, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun stepped in and scolded the state courts. They apparently haven't learned their lesson.
"In my near fourteen years on the bench, this is the first time I can recall this happening," he wrote. "By proceeding with Nicklasson's execution before our court had completed voting on his petition for rehearing en banc, Missouri violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the long litany of cases warning Missouri to stay executions while federal review of an inmate's constitutional challenge is still pending."
Less then ten years ago Missouri's death penalty practices were condemned by the courts. At that time it had to do with the drugs used to carry it out and the procedure itself. A medical journal noted that the three-drug regimen employed at the time would be insufficient to ensure a pain-free death, and that the regimen would be illegal for use on animals in nineteen states. Missouri had been employing a dyslexic surgeon, who admittedly mixed up numbers and names of drugs, to carry out their executions. Worse yet was the lack of a written protocol and the surgeon's ability to adjust the formula on-the-fly, without consulting an anesthesiologist.
Now back to Herbert Smulls. Think Progress reports:
Herbert Smulls was in the middle of a phone call discussing his attorneys’ final efforts to save his life when he was reportedly seized by prison guards, hauled into an execution chamber, and injected with a toxic cocktail of drugs. At the time of his death, an appeal was pending before the United States Supreme Court asking the justices to halt his execution.
The state of Missouri didn't have time for such legal niceties. They had a man to kill and they wanted to do it right away. Maybe the fact that in January," an Ohio inmate reportedly took 15 gasping, strangling minutes dying" via lethal injection after a new drug was tested on him, violating the rule against cruel and unusual punishment worried them that the court might be willing to listen to such an appeal...or maybe they just relished the idea of killing a man this way.
For Scission Prison Friday I present the following from the Atlantic.
Missouri Executed This Man While His Appeal Was Pending in Court
Asked repeatedly not to execute Smulls while appeals were pending, state officials failed even to respond to emails from defense attorneys that night while corrections officials went ahead with the execution. Smulls thus was pronounced dead four minutes before the Supreme Court denied his final stay request. This was not an accident or some bureaucratic misunderstanding and did not come as a surprise to Smulls’ lawyers. They say it was the third straight execution in Missouri in which corrections officials went ahead with lethal injection before the courts were through with the condemned man's appeals.*
Just last month, for example, Missouri officials similarly executed a man named Allen Nicklasson before his appeals were concluded. That timing of that execution prompted a federal appeals court judge, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kermit Bye, to declare that he was “alarmed” that Missouri proceeded with its execution “before this court had even finished voting on Nicklasson's request for a stay. In my near fourteen years on the bench, this is the first time I can recall this happening.”
Below are some of the emails sent Wednesday night from Smulls’ attorneys to state lawyers as the deadline drew near for the expiration of the death warrant authorizing their client’s execution. Over and over again, the defense tried to impress upon state officials the need to wait for the judicial process to play out before executing Smulls:
Such frantic communication from defense attorneys to state officials is not uncommon in the hours leading up to an execution-- the state, after all, has the body of the man it seeks to execute (literally, habeas corpus). What is striking here, though, is not just that state lawyers failed or refused even to respond to Smulls’ attorneys but that these officers of the court, and corrections officials, essentially divested the Supreme Court of jurisdiction by killing the litigant.
The timeline is everything here. Before 10:00 that night, Smulls’s attorney notified state officials that there were active pending appeals at the both the Supreme Court and the 8th Circuit. “Do not execute Mr. Smulls while claims for legal relief and stay are pending,” the defense attorneys pleaded with opposing counsel. There was no email response from Missouri’s lawyers, Smulls' attorney Cheryl Pilate told me Friday. There was instead a single telephone call, much earlier in the evening, in which a state attorney acknowledge the existence of a stay (before filing to have that stay removed).
At 10:11, the final lethal injection protocols were initiated. By this time, the 8th Circuit had rejected all of the claims before it—over another pointed dissent from Judge Bye—leaving only an active appeal before the Supreme Court. At 10:20 Smulls was pronounced dead. Ten minutes later, at 10:30, the Supreme Court notified the lawyers that Smulls’ final stay request had been denied at 10:24. This means that Missouri began to execute a man 13 minutes before it was entirely sure it could do so. Smulls was pronounced dead four minutesbefore the Supreme Court finally authorized Missouri to kill him.
Via email Friday, I asked state attorneys to comment upon the emails they received from defense attorneys and Missouri’s evident lack of response to them. I asked them to explain their rationale in proceeding with the execution knowing the justices still had the case. Through a spokeswoman, late Friday, they responded:
In my view, if there were a breach here it was as much one of ethics as it was one of law. State lawyers acting as prosecutors (which is what Missouri’s attorneys were doing on the night of the execution) have special obligations to act as “a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate,” according to the comment for Rule 4-3.8 of the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct. “This responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice.” They should have been considering not just their obligation to execute Smulls, in other words, but their obligations to ensure it was done fairly and justly.
There is more relevant language in Missouri's ethics rules. The Preamble, for example, states that a "lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials. While it is a lawyer's duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer's duty to uphold legal process." But because I am no expert in legal ethics, I asked some legal ethicists to weigh in on what happened here. One, Michael Downey, an ethics specialist at the St. Louis law firm Armstrong Teasdale, shared this view:
The lawyers at issue were representing the state were acting in a prosecutorial capacity. Moreover, this was a capital case, and Smulls was facing execution on the very night the communications occurred. When acting in a prosecutorial capacity, lawyers have special obligations to make sure that justice is done. Not to ensure that a criminal receives maximum punishment, but to make sure that justiceis done…Perhaps the lawyers prosecuting the case have a very good explanation for why they did not respond. But it better have been a very, very good reason for not responding to defense counsel, and for allowing an execution – which may or may not have been proper – to occur.
I get that state authorities felt that they had their own legal obligations to enforce the death warrant before it expired and they had to jump through hoops to obtain a new one. What I don't get is the mindset of a lawyer telling the executioners to go ahead and kill a man knowing that at that very moment the justices are considering his case. What law school professor would teach a young student to make such a choice? What Attorney General would recommend that maneuver as official state policy?
“We strive toward excellence,” is the motto of the Missouri Department of Corrections. But let me offer a theory that undercuts that noble promise. State officials pressed ahead Wednesday night, knowing an appeal was outstanding, because they didn't want another delay in Smulls' execution-- didn't want to answer more questions about lethal injection. But, stay or no stay in place, the knowledge that the justices were considering the case should have been enough to cause those officials to pause. Just imagine what we'd be talking about today if the justices had granted Smulls' stay request four minutes after he was pronounced dead. It was not open-and-shut against him. Judge Bye's dissent was not frivolous.
Indeed, it was Judge Bye on Wednesday night who best summed up the balance of factors involved. "Smulls faces the ultimate, irrevocable penalty in the absence of a stay," the judge wrote. "Missouri, on the other hand, merely faces the administrative work involved in obtaining a new date on which to execute Smulls." Judge Bye offered this blunt formula after explaining why Smulls' challenge to the injection protocols to be used against him were worthy of more substantial consideration by the federal courts that only a stay of execution would have provided.
What happened in Missouri this week is unacceptable in a nation that purports to worship its rule of law. It ought to be unacceptable even to the most ardent supporters of capital punishment. And the worst news of all is that there is no reason to think the problem is going to get better anytime soon. Missouri wasn't punished for its zealotry. And that surely signals officials in other death penalty states, like Louisiana, that they won't likely be punished, either, if they execute someone while his appeals still are pending. Herbert Smulls may have deserved to die. But surely not before the Supreme Court was through looking at his case.
*Last November, for example, Missouri executed Joseph Paul Franklin in circumstances almost identical to those that occurred in the Smulls case. Franklin’s lawyers, in a federal complaint filed after his execution, contend that Missouri in these last three executions is violating the terms of its own written policy.
The Missouri Department of Corrections, the complaint alleges, precludes a prisoner from being escorted from his holding cell to the execution chamber while there is pending legal activity—not necessarily a stay—to halt the execution process. The Director of the Department of Corrections is supposed to ask the Attorney General: “Are there any legal impediments or reasons why the lawful execution of (Inmate Name) should not proceed?"
It’s hard to fathom how state lawyers could have answered that question in the negative Wednesday night knowing that the Supreme Court was at that very moment evaluating Smulls’ stay request.