- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2006


The Supreme Court has triggered a debate over the mix of drugs used to carry out death sentences, with the justices delaying three executions and giving hope of 11th-hour reprieves to other inmates.

Florida and Missouri were forced to cancel executions by injection this week. Prisoners in California, Maryland and other states are trying to win stays this month.

An announcement from the high court last week is giving new hope for their appeals. The justices will consider whether a Florida inmate was wrongly barred from pursuing a claim that the lethal drugs cause pain in violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The court’s eventual decision will not answer broader questions about the appropriate way for states to carry out capital punishment, although some justices have expressed concerns about lethal injection.

The justices’ intervention, even on the technical matter of how inmates can challenge lethal injection, energized lawyers who defend condemned prisoners.

“They are all jumping on the bandwagon. They have an issue with more meat than they had before,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-death penalty group. “It’s going to be harder to carry out an execution.”

Not all inmates have received reprieves.

A Texas prisoner was executed this week after losing Supreme Court appeals. Last week, the court voted 6-3 to let Indiana execute a man despite an appeals court decision clearing the way for the prisoner to challenge the injection method.

“Everybody’s scratching their heads trying to figure out what’s going on,” Mr. Scheidegger said.

Douglas Berman, a law professor at the Ohio State University, said the court created “a ripple effect far beyond what they may have anticipated.”

“What they’ve fundamentally done is guarantee that every execution is in a state of limbo and uncertainty — and led to more litigation,” Mr. Berman said.

Florida probably will have significant support from other states when the appeal of inmate Clarence Hill is argued in April. Every state that has capital punishment, with the exception of Nebraska, uses lethal injection. Nebraska only uses the electric chair.

Florida was one of the last states to switch to lethal injection, ending the standard use of its electric chair, known as “Old Sparky,” in 1999 while a Supreme Court appeal challenging that method was pending.

Lethal injection was considered more humane than the electric chair, firing squad, gas chamber or hanging. Over the years, however, studies have shown that the drug combination used in many states may not adequately sedate inmates before administration of the final medicine that causes their heart to stop.

The Supreme Court last considered a related case in 2004. An Alabama death row inmate had said his damaged veins would require prison doctors to cut deep into his flesh to deliver the chemicals. He won the right to pursue his claim in a limited ruling by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and still is pressing his case.

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