Death Penalty

Virtually all of the men and women executed in the United States came from lives subjected to poverty, racism, and mental illness. The methods of their execution have been designed to appear humane while in fact causing excruciating pain before death.

The MacArthur Justice Center has long litigated against the injustice of capital punishment in the United States. We confront these evils head-on in our death penalty litigation, asking whether the people of the United States, and in the South in particular, should countenance the torture and injustice of capital punishment.

We also represent prisoners in Mississippi and Louisiana in their individual criminal cases to prove that the death penalty would be particularly unjust given their intellectual disability, mental illness, or the circumstances of their life.

Our Priorities

Mississippi continues to use the three-drug series for lethal injection executions that has been discarded by other death penalty jurisdictions. If the first drug (midazolam) fails to induce and maintain unconsciousness, the prisoner will consciously suffocate as the second drug paralyzes the lungs, and then experience intense internal chemical burning from the third drug (potassium chloride). The prisoner’s desperate efforts to breathe and cry for help will be stifled by the paralysis while he is being suffocated and chemically burned alive.


On behalf of Richard Jordan and Ricky Chase, we filed suit for an injunction against Mississippi’s three-drug lethal injection protocol in April 2015. Three other prisoners, through separate counsel, later joined the suit. Executions in the state have ceased pending the litigation of this case. We are completing the discovery process in preparation for a trial in mid-2019.


When a chemist named Armin Walser helped invent a sedative more powerful than Valium more than 40 years ago, he thought his team’s concoction was meant to make people’s lives easier, not their deaths...“I didn’t make it for the purpose,” Dr. Walser, whose drug has been used for sedation during 20 lethal injections nationwide, said in an interview at his home here. “I am not a friend of the death penalty or execution.”


One pathologist presented evidence that had never been shown in court. He had reviewed 27 autopsy reports out of the 32 total executions carried out using midazolam. In most of the cases, he found signs of pulmonary edema — fluid in the lungs that indicated the men had been in respiratory distress. The inescapable conclusion was that states have almost certainly been torturing people to death in their execution chambers

Expert Opinion

"...the decision by the Mississippi Department of Correctiosn to substitute midazolam for an ultra short-acting barbiturate as the first drug in the three-drug lethal injection protocol was made without sound medical or scientific reasoning or expert pharmacological advice...the use of midazolam in the Mississippi three-drug protocol creates a substantial risk of serious harm and severe pain to the condemned prisoner."


Mississippi and other executing states claim that drug companies refuse to sell their products for executions because of “guerilla war” pressure tactics by death penalty opponents. But as the articles below demonstrate, the truth is that pharmaceutical companies consider themselves in the medical field with a mandate to save lives and reduce pain, not kill prisoners and cause pain.


The State Comptroller for the State of New York gave a sworn statement on why that State’s Pension Fund, as a major shareholder of pharmaceutical companies, objects to the use of their company’s products being used in executions.

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In 2015, the United States Supreme Court held in Glossip v Gross that condemned prisoners challenging their state’s method of execution must show (1) that the state’s method presents a “significant risk of serious harm” and that there is a “known, available alternative” that reduces or eliminates that risk. However, Mississippi and other states have passed “execution secrecy” laws to prevent disclosure of basic information about the execution process, such as the name of the seller of their execution drugs, the names of corrections department personnel involved in deciding which drugs to use, and other similar facts. This secrecy creates a proverbial “Catch-22” for condemned prisoners: they are required to prove risks and ameliorative methods without having the basic facts and data necessary to carry that burden. Jim Craig and Emily Washington, with assistance from Amir Ali, are challenging these secrecy statutes in Missouri, Georgia, Virginia, and Mississippi. In Missouri, we won in the District Court, only to be reversed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc. In Virginia and Georgia, the District Courts ruled against us; those rulings are currently pending appeal.


The state of Missouri did everything it could to keep secret where it got the drugs it used to put 17 inmates to death. Now, BuzzFeed News has discovered the supplier is a pharmacy repeatedly found to engage in hazardous practices that could put patients — and convicts — at risk.

The United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that a person who is intellectually disabled (once referred to as “mentally retarded”) does not have sufficient responsibility to be subject to the death penalty. The criteria for intellectual disability are: (1) the person has significantly sub-average intellectual capacity, expressed in an IQ under 75; (2) the person has significant limitations in adaptive functioning skills (basic skills of navigating life); and (3) signs of the disability manifested before age 18. These are scientific criteria. All too often, states such as Mississippi and Louisiana obstruct the law by attempting to keep intellectually disabled men and women on death row. Our office fights to prevent the execution of intellectually disabled and severely mentally ill prisoners.


Ronnie Conner is a 59 year old man from Meridian, Mississippi. He has a confirmed IQ between 69 and 72, which meets the first part of the intellectual disability diagnostic standard. He had similar scores on school tests up through the 7th grade. He was in special education; his 8th grade needs assessment indicates he was considered “mentally retarded” in his then-segregated junior high school. Throughout his life Mr. Conner worked hard but could not keep a job because of his inability to understand work assignments; once he severely burned himself trying to dispose of autumn leaves at a warehouse where he worked. Even in adulthood his mother bought, cleaned and organized his clothes and meals. In addition to intellectual disability, Ronnie Conner suffers from schizophrenia and is plagued by auditory hallucinations and delusional thinking. Mr. Conner was convicted and sentenced to death in 1990 for the murder of an elderly woman parked at the train station in Meridian. The testimony against him was primarily by an acquaintance who claimed to have seen him on the streets near the train station and a woman who claimed he gave her a ring later identified as the victim’s. Mr. Conner’s trial attorney had never handled a major felony before the Conner family hired him for $10,000. Although Mr. Conner was a long-time patient of the Regional Mental Health Center for schizophrenia, and had not been taking his medication for at least two weeks prior to the crime, no medical personnel were called to testify to Ronnie’s mental illness. Jim Craig, our Louisiana Director, has represented Mr. Conner at different stages of his appeals over the last 28 years. Finally, in April 2017, we presented evidence of Mr. Conner’s disability and illness in the face of significant opposition by the Mississippi Attorney General. In October 2017, the court ruled that Mr. Conner is intellectually disabled and ordered him moved off Death Row.


Ricky Chase is 49 years old, and was convicted of capital murder in 1990 in Copiah County, Mississippi. He and co-defendant Robert Washington entered the home of a produce-stand salesman looking for cash from the produce stand. The salesman returned home for lunch; upon hearing his wife’s warnings, he said he was getting the gun in his truck. One of the co-defendants found a gun and shot Mr. Hart. Robert Washington pled guilty and testified that Ricky Chase was the shooter. Mr. Chase testified that Washington was the shooter. The jury convicted Ricky Chase and sentenced him to death. Like Ronnie Conner, Ricky Chase has been represented by Jim Craig for the majority of the time since his 1990 conviction. In August 2010, Mr. Craig presented evidence to the Mississippi courts of Mr. Chase’s intellectual disability. Mr. Chase has been tested twice, in 1990 and 2010, and received the exact same IQ score (72) both times. The leading expert for the Social Security Administration on intellectual disability, Dr. Dan Reschly of Vanderbilt University, testified to extensive interviews and review of records demonstrating that Mr. Chase has significantly subaverage adaptive skills. The trial judge ruled against Mr. Chase; on appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court imposed new requirements for proof of intellectual disability and unfairly imposed them retroactively on Mr. Chase’s case. We are now in Federal District Court seeking a fair review of the overwhelming evidence that Ricky Chase is intellectually disabled and that he cannot be executed.


Richard Jordan was first convicted and sentenced to death for capital murder in 1976.  He has thus spent over 41 years incarcerated for the same crime. The initial judgment against him was vacated because Mississippi followed a form of capital murder proceeding held invalid by the Supreme Court in 1976. He was convicted and sentenced to death again in 1977.  The Fifth Circuit vacated his sentence due to improper instructions on aggravating circumstances. He was sentenced to death again in 1983, but once again the State prevented him from having a constitutional proceeding because it refused to permit him to present evidence of his adaptability to prison.  In 1991, a Special Prosecutor agreed that Richard Jordan should receive a sentence of life without possibility of parole, citing Jordan’s exemplary prison behavior, military service, expressions of remorse, and efforts to contribute to society despite his incarceration. The Mississippi Supreme Court subsequently determined that such sentence agreements were void because life without parole was not an available sentencing option under then-existing law.  Jordan sought to modify his sentence to one with parole, but the Mississippi Supreme Court simply vacated the sentence and returned Jordan to his pre-agreement status, thus freeing the State to seek the death penalty again.  Jordan was again sentenced to death in 1998.