[eDebate] Gregg v. Georgia-Just a Point of Information

scottelliott at grandecom.net scottelliott
Tue Jun 13 11:43:34 CDT 2006

No argument. Just a point of information.

High court OKs challenge to lethal injection

By Gail Gibson and Jennifer McMenamin, Tribune Newspapers: Baltimore Sun;
Tribune news services contributed to this report
Published June 13, 2006

The Supreme Court on Monday broadened the legal path for Death Row inmates to
challenge lethal injection as an inhumane method of execution.

Settling a technical--but potentially crucial--procedural matter, the justices
agreed that Florida inmate Clarence Hill could file a new, last-minute civil
rights claim challenging his method of execution in federal court, even though
he had exhausted other appeals.

The ruling could prompt a wave of new appeals from condemned prisoners although
justices gave no hint that those arguments would succeed.

Legal challenges could raise the broader question of whether lethal injection as
currently practiced violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual

But the nation's high court steered clear of that question Monday, noting that
the appeal from Hill still "appears to leave the state free to use an
alternative lethal injection procedure."

Ruling in a separate death penalty case, the Supreme Court also opened the door
to more appeals based on claims of innocence in granting a new hearing to a
Tennessee prisoner who said DNA evidence could clear him in the 1985 rape and
murder of a neighbor.

One lower-court judge had described the case as "a real-life murder mystery, an
authentic `whodunit' where the wrong man may be executed."

Together, the two rulings reflected the court's continuing concern about how
capital punishment is administered.

The cases lacked the sweep of recent decisions that ended executions for
juveniles and for the mentally retarded, but they were the first key capital
punishment decisions since the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and
were viewed as indicators of how the new court would address the issue.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has emerged as the court's critical swing vote on
death penalty issues, wrote both majority opinions. The court's decision in the
lethal injection case was unanimous, but it split 5-3 in the Tennessee case
involving new innocence claims, with Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. writing a
sharp dissent joined by conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence

Justice Samuel Alito joined the court after it heard arguments in the Tennessee
case and did not participate in the decision.

The decision to allow Florida inmate Hill to challenge the method of lethal
injection despite exhausting his other appeals could force states to adopt new,
more uniform methods of execution. It also could push the Supreme Court to weigh
in on the merits of other lethal injection challenges.

"Today's decisions are further evidence of the Supreme Court's increasing
discomfort with many aspects of the death penalty system," said Steven Shapiro,
national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Carolyn Snurkowski, the assistant deputy attorney general from Florida who
argued the case before the Supreme Court, said Monday she expected more inmates
to challenge lethal injection procedures. But she said she was confident the
claims would not succeed in the lower courts.

Hill was strapped to a gurney with lines running into his arms to deliver the
drugs in January when Kennedy, acting on behalf of the court, blocked the
execution. Hill is on Death Row for the 1982 killing of Pensacola police
officer Stephen Taylor.

The federal government and 37 states that allow the death penalty use a similar
chemical mix to administer lethal injections. Condemned prisoners are injected
with three active drugs--an anesthetic to numb the inmate, pancuronium bromide
to paralyze the muscles and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

A study published last year reported that some condemned men have experienced
intense pain from the drugs that contracted the muscles of their lungs and
heart because they did not get enough anesthetic.

Justices took up the lethal injection case this spring in a spirited debate
about the drug combination used. Justice John Paul Stevens noted that Florida
had adopted new regulations to ensure that dogs and cats are put to death
without pain, and he told Snurkowski that "your procedure would be prohibited
if applied to dogs and cats."

In Monday's second death penalty case, the court for the first time in a decade
revisited the "innocence standard" needed for Death Row inmates to get a
rehearing based on new claims. Instead of requiring that new evidence show
"absolute certainty about guilt or innocence," the court said that an inmate
only need demonstrate that "in light of the new evidence, no reasonable juror
would find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Twenty years after he was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a
neighbor in Tennessee, Paul House produced new DNA evidence showing that semen
on the victim's clothing belonged to her husband. New evidence also raised
questions about blood smears found on House's jeans and whether the victim's
husband had confessed to the murder.

Most highly publicized cases of Death Row exonerations have rested on the
strength of DNA evidence alone.

The court said Monday that other evidence could be considered.

"While this is not a case of conclusive exoneration, and the issue is close,
this is the rare case where--had the jury heard all the conflicting
testimony--it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror viewing the
record as a whole would lack reasonable doubt," Kennedy wrote.

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