The high court made a controversial ruling on a drug implicated in botched executions. Photo: Getty
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The lethal injection ruling that takes America another step away from banning executions

Has a recent Supreme Court ruling made it harder to defend people on death row?

UPDATE 15/7/15

David Zink was executed by the state of Missouri yesterday at 19:41. 

Sindel said: 

These cases are always very difficult. You’re dealing with a man 14 years after the crime. 14 years different. He’s not the same person he was. You can’t really stop the feelings and emotion that goes with that sometimes. We were optimistic, perhaps mistakenly so.

We saw Zink yesterday. He had become religious. He was a regular reader of the bible and he said he hoped there could be forgiveness for what he had done. He apologised to the victim’s family. He’d become resigned to what was going to happen.

***

Next week is the year anniversary of Joseph Wood’s execution. A convicted murderer, he was given a cocktail of drugs by the state of Arizona – a lethal injection. It took two hours for him to die. It was the third highly problematic execution in 2014, after the similarly harrowing deaths of Dennis McGuire in Ohio and Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

The execution induced wildly different reactions from states. Arizona suspended its death penalty programme. Utah re-introduced the option of execution by firing squad. Nebraska outlawed the death penalty completely earlier this year.

They were all responding, at least in part, to the same possibility  that the lethal injection in America would be ruled as unconstitutional. Last month that very nearly happened.

On 29 June, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Glossip vs Gross. Three Oklahoma inmates on death row argued that the use of Midazolam – used in the three bungled executions last year – should be ruled as a “cruel and unusual punishment”. The eighth amendment of the American constitution expressly forbids this. They lost by five votes, to four.

Crucially, however, the details of the ruling have consequences for attorneys defending people on death row up and down the country. 

Rick Sindel and Kay Parish represent death row inmate David Zink. In 2001, he murdered 19-year-old Amanda Morton after he had rear-ended her car off a freeway in Missouri. After raping her he admitted to strangling Morton and then cutting her spinal cord so that she would “remain that way”. He buried her body in a graveyard. The state of Missouri has set his date of execution for 14 July – tomorrow.

David Zink is due to be executed this week.

His legal team are in the last stages of appeal. His confession means that their main focus falls on the type of drugs that Missouri intends to use to kill Zink.

Sindel and Parish are one of the first, if not the first, lawyers who have to work with the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The most notable problem they have is with a specific judgement – that lawyers using the “cruel and unusual punishment” defence must suggest an alternative form of execution that is not cruel and unusual. Or as Parish says “lawyers must tell a court how to kill our clients”.

It puts lawyers like Sindel and Parish, who are viscerally against capital punishment, in a difficult position.

“It’s a pretty nasty ruling in my opinion, and one that puts those of us trying to prevent our clients from being forcibly subject to this human experimentation in quite an ethical quandary”, says Parish.

The decision suggests that method x cannot be cruel and unusual because you have not explained a better method. Or to put it another way, it asks people who believe that all methods of execution are cruel and unusual to accept the court’s contention that there are humane and dignified forms of execution.

After much deliberation Zink’s team decided last week not to suggest an alternative form of capital punishment.

It’s left Sindel and Parish in a fairly desperate position. Previously they had argued that Missouri’s lethal agent – a form of “pentobarbital” was illegal. They claimed the drug was made by an unknown compounding pharmacy and was a “copy” of an FDA-approved drug, rather than a directly approved agent.

David Zink (left) as a young child.

They also put forward the argument that the method of execution violated state and federal controlled substance laws because the compounded pentobarbital is procured by an invalid “prescription”  written by a doctor who is contractually-bound to write the prescription and who conducts no medical examination.

It didn’t work.

As a result, another lawyer has decided to take one last roll of the dice. Justin Gelfand is an attorney with a very different legal specialism to Sindel and Parish. He’s a former federal tax prosecutor. Counterintuitively he thinks he might be able to save Zink’s life using his own specialisms in tax law.

Gelfand has prepared a public interest lawsuit using an obscure law, a Taxpayers Suit. The law has never been used in this context in Missouri legal history. It allows an action to be brought by a private individual to prevent state or federal government from unlawfully diverting public funds. It is generally used in cases of corruption or impropriety. It’s been filed by four (carefully chosen) plaintiffs, including a former member of the Missouri Senate and a Catholic nun, no less.

They argue that the suit “is not about the general legality of the death penalty in Missouri or elsewhere,” but has been filed because “Missouri public officials responsible for overseeing and administering executions are violating federal and state law using the tax dollars of hardworking Missourians.” 

The suit makes particular reference to arguments made by Sindel, Parish and others  that the state of Missouri’s use of compound pentobarbital is illegal – arguments that had previously been dismissed by Missouri courts.

The hearing for the lawsuit will continue today, less than 24 hours before Zink’s execution date. We’ll know by tomorrow whether it’s been successful, though as it’s never been used before it’s a bit of a long shot. It marks the penultimate day of years of appeals that have fallen on deaf ears in Missouri courts.

The Supreme Court’s decision won’t stop lawyers like Sindel and Parish, but it does make their lives harder. “There are those of us who just won’t give up as long as there is breath in our bodies”, says Sindel. It’s the language of hope, perhaps, over expectation. 

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism