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Georgia, Missouri end death penalty drought after botched execution

Protestors opposed to the death penalty hold signs and sing songs during a vigil at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia.
Protestors opposed to the death penalty hold signs and sing songs during a vigil at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia.

Two states executed death row inmates within two hours of each other between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, according to NBC News, marking the end of a nearly seven week period of quiet after the gruesome death of an Oklahoma inmate as a result of a botched execution.

Marcus Wellons, 59, was executed late Tuesday night in Georgia by lethal injection with a high dose of pentobarbital after exhausting his last minute appeals, including one to the U.S. Supreme Court. His was the first execution since April 29, when Clayton Lockett's execution went horribly wrong, sparking a federal review of death penalty policies and debate over whether current execution protocols lead to cruel and unusual punishment.

As lethal injections have become more difficult to carry out thanks to execution drug shortages, states have turned to compounding pharmacies, which are not heavily regulated, to mix execution drugs and drug cocktails. States have also worked to conceal details of how they procure the drugs needed. Death row inmates – including Wellons – have argued that laws allowing states to keep information about execution participants and procedures secret violate constitutional rights.

Wellons’s lawyers filed an appeal Tuesday with the eleventh circuit asking for a stay until information about the drug to be used in the execution is disclosed. A Georgia law, passed in 2013, allows the state to avoid disclosing information about individuals who make and obtain the drugs used in executions. A different challenge to his execution was denied on Friday.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Wellons's petition for clemency on Monday afternoon.

John Winfield, 46, was put to death in Missouri early Wednesday morning. A federal circuit court lifted a stay in his case on Tuesday afternoon; another judge had ruled that there was evidence that Winfield's clemency petition had been improperly influenced by state authorities. Winfield was convicted of shooting his ex-girlfriend and killing two of her friends in 1996. The ex-girlfriend, Carmelita Donald, survived but was blinded. 

According to NBC News, Winfield's daughter with Donald fought for clemency. But his appeals, including one to the U.S. Supreme Court, were also rejected.

A third execution is also scheduled in Florida for inmate John Henry on Wednesday at 7 p.m. 

Wellons was convicted in 1993 of having raped and killed India Roberts in an Atlanta suburb in 1989. Authorities found Roberts' earrings, underwear and blood in the apartment of the woman Wellons was dating.

Besides being the first inmate executed since Lockett's death brought capital punishment into the spotlight, Wellons will be the first inmate in Georgia to be executed using compounded drugs and the first since it became legal for officials to keep information about execution drugs secret from the public.

Lockett died after 45 minutes, during which he reportedly writhed and showed other signs of distress. A preliminary autopsy report released by Lockett’s attorneys found that execution officials failed to properly place IV lines into his veins. After his death, Republican Governor Mary Fallin suspended executions in Oklahoma until a review into Lockett’s death could be conducted.

While challenges based on drug secrecy laws have not stopped executions, other approaches have been more successful. Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio commuted the sentence of Arthur Tyler the day after Lockett’s death after the state’s parole board unanimously voted for clemency for him.

And on May 27th, the Supreme Court tightened rules for executing individuals with intellectual disabilities. States will now have to view IQ test scores within a range that includes a five point margin of error rather than a strict cutoff.

Earlier that month, a federal appeals court stayed a Texas man’s execution over concerns that he was too disabled for it to be constitutional. Lawyers for Robert James Campbell also alleged that state officials knew he fell below the state’s cutoff line but kept that information secret.

A bipartisan panel filled with law enforcement experts and former lawmakers issued a report in May recommending an overhaul to the U.S. capital punishment system. The recommendations included expanded transparency about execution protocols, drug sources and compositions, and those involved in the process.