07 February 2006 :the United States is taking a new look at the use of lethal injections to execute condemned prisoners after the challenges of three inmates who were barely saved from lethal injection by the Supreme Court.
The justices will not reopen the cases of Michael Taylor, convicted of rape and murder who was due to be executed in Missouri on February 1, or Clarence Hill and Arthur Rutherford, two convicted killers in Florida who have also had their executions stayed over the past eight days.
But the highest US court will decide whether the three can challenge the use of the deadly mix of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride for executions.
Lawyers for Taylor, Hill and Rutherford are all arguing separately that the mix is "cruel" and "inhumane", which would make it proscribed by the US constitution.
John Simon, a lawyer for Taylor, whose victim was a 15-year-old girl, said he was not an abolitionist. He told AFP he was simply arguing that the chemicals could cause added suffering for his client when he is executed.
The Supreme Court halted Taylor's execution after its scheduled time. Hill had been strapped to a stretcher with intravenous tubes in his arm ready to receive the chemicals when word came through from the justices in Washington on January 24.
Stephen Harper, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the new challenges to the lethal injection followed the publication of a study by experts at the university in April 2005 which described the suffering of death row inmates given the death cocktail.
The researchers said in a letter to the British review, The Lancet, that sodium thiopental, which is used as an anaesthesia, may not work properly.
The pancuronium bromide is given next to induce paralysis, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart and cause death.
"Without anaesthesia, the condemned person would experience suffocation and excruciating pain without being able to move or communicate that fact," said the study.
Of the 38 US states where the death penalty is still legal, 20 use just the injection and most of the others rely mainly on this form of execution.
More suspensions of death penalties are possible but experts said it does not mean that the lethal injection is seriously threatened yet.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, said the Supreme Court will only decide whether the legality of the injections can be raised with lower courts as a civil rights matter.
"It is the first step in at least getting the matter into the court," he said.
"The bigger issue of lethal injection will get decided by many different courts and you may have many different opinions and that issue may come back to the Supreme Court to decide once and for all."
A final decision may take years.
In the meantime, death row inmates in Maryland, California and other states are now trying to get their executions suspended.
But not all of the challenges are working. Last week the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to let Indiana state execute Marvin Bieghler, overturning an appeals court decision clearing the way for him to challenge lethal injection as well.