UNITED STATES. COURT ALLOWS INMATE APPEAL ON LETHAL INJECTION
June 12, 2006: US Supreme Court ruled that a death row inmate can bring a challenge under a federal civil rights law to the method of execution that uses a lethal three-chemical cocktail.
The justices handed a victory to Florida death row inmate Clarence Hill, who wanted to proceed with his challenge to the chemicals on the grounds they could cause unnecessary pain and would violate his civil rights.
In a second decision, the high court ruled a Tennessee death row inmate should get a new chance to prove his innocence, based on DNA and other evidence unavailable at the time of his conviction for the 1985 murder of a female neighbor.
The justices ruled that convicted murderer Paul House has cast doubt on his guilt sufficient to get federal review and they sent the case back for more hearings before a lower court.
In the Florida case, the ruling for Hill allows him to proceed with his claims before a lower federal court. It also could encourage other death row inmates in the United States to bring similar challenges.
The ruling written by Justice Anthony KennedyTop of Form only decided that Hill could bring the challenge and did not address the merits of his underlying claim against lethal injection.
All but one of the states with the death penalty and the federal government use lethal injection for executions. The only exception is Nebraska, which requires electrocution.
The standard method involves administering three separate chemicals: sodium pentothal, an anesthetic, which makes the inmate unconscious; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes all muscles except the heart, and then potassium chloride, which stops the heart, causing death.
Hill's lawyers cited a 2005 study published in the Lancet medical journal that found that pancuronium bromide can cause suffocation while potassium chloride can cause burning in the veins and massive muscle cramping before death.
The Supreme Court's narrow ruling on a procedural issue only held that an inmate who has exhausted his usual appeals can use the civil rights law to get a hearing on his challenge to the execution method.
Kennedy said federal courts should protect states from "dilatory or speculative suits." And he said that filing such a lawsuit does not entitle the inmate to an order staying the execution as a matter of course. (Sources: Reuters, 12/06/2006)