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Oklahoma to resume executions, as use of death penalty declines across US

Nine months after a botched lethal injection, Oklahoma plans to execute death row inmate Charles Frederick Warner at 6 p.m. on Thursday. But nationwide, the use of the death penalty has reached historic lows, amid concerns about the process.

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    Death penalty opponents hold a sign outside the governor's mansion in Oklahoma City, Okla., on Jan. 9, 2014, protesting the McAlester, Okla., execution of Michael Lee Wilson.
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Oklahoma is set to resume its capital punishment procedures Thursday as the state prepares its first execution since April, when a botched lethal injection led to the prolonged and painful death of an inmate and forced the state to overhaul its death penalty process.

Unless the Supreme Court issues a last-minute stay, the state will lethally inject Charles Frederick Warner, convicted of the rape and murder of his former girlfriend’s 11-month-old daughter in 2003, at 6 p.m. at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. 

Mr. Warner was originally scheduled for execution on April 29, 2014 – two hours after the lethal injection of Clayton Lockett, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a teenage girl in 2000. But Warner’s execution was postponed after the injection of Mr. Lockett went awry, causing him to seem to wake and writhe in pain in a process that took nearly 45 minutes and ended when he had a heart attack.

But even as Lockett’s execution last year prompted renewed calls to reevaluate the nation’s lethal injection procedures, the use of the death penalty across the country has reached historic lows.

There were 35 executions nationwide in 2014, the fewest in 20 years and down from 98 in 1999, according to a January report by the Death Penalty Information Center. And more significantly, perhaps, death sentences handed down across US and state jurisdictions have declined 77 percent since 1996.

There were only 72 new death sentences imposed nationwide in 2014 – the fewest in 40 years and down from 315 in 1996. Indeed, 2014 saw the fewest number of death sentences since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1974. And only seven states carried out executions last year, compared to 20 states in 1999.

Much of the decline in capital punishment can be attributed to the nation’s dramatic drops in crime over the past two decades, experts say. But growing questions about whether lethal injection is humane and whether the death penalty is fairly applied across racial, ethnic, and income groups, as well as the dozens of exonerations of death row inmates over the past decade, have also led to its decline.

Since 2003, 50 death row inmates have been exonerated, according The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.  

Still, though public support for capital punishment has fallen somewhat in recent years, and fewer states continue to execute those convicted of murder, support for the death penalty remains robust. 

A Gallup poll in October found that 63 percent of American adults support the death penalty for murder, with 33 percent opposed. In 1994, 80 percent supported the punishment.   

But Oklahoma’s botched execution last April highlighted the use of the controversial sedative, midazolam, which is the first of a three-drug protocol used to put inmates to death in Oklahoma and other states. Midazolam has been used after the supplies of more traditional barbiturates in lethal injections, sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, have dried up over the years as their European makers refuse to provide them for executions, according to reports.

But a federal judge in Oklahoma City in December ruled that midazolam had been used successfully in a dozen executions in other states, including Florida, and allowed the state to resume its revamped program. This included a new death chamber, additional training for death row workers, and a stronger cocktail of lethal drugs.

But some civil liberties activists and journalists have complained that the new death chamber and revamped procedures have served to limit the public’s ability to observe. Only five witnesses will be able to observe Oklahoma executions, while the previous observing room held 12. 

There will also be no audio available, and the director can close the chamber's curtains at his discretion, The New York Times reports.   

“The relevancy of the death penalty in our criminal justice system is seriously in question when 43 out of our 50 states do not apply the ultimate sanction,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, in a statement. “The U.S. will likely continue with some executions in the years ahead, but the rationale for such sporadic use is far from clear.”

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