Supreme Court shows new caution on capital punishment

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court made it easier Monday for death row inmates to contest the lethal injections used across the country for executions and to get DNA evidence before judges in a pair of rulings that hinted at fresh caution on capital punishment.

The decisions, both written by moderate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, ease the rules for longtime prisoners to get their cases back into court and could add years to their appeals.

"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.

The vote was unanimous in allowing condemned inmates to make special federal court claims that the chemicals used in executions are too painful -- and therefore amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

It was a slap to the Bush administration and 25 states that supported Florida in arguing that allowing new appeals would jeopardize finality and justice for victims' families.

"A series of court rulings have created so many chances for appeal that whether we have the death penalty or not is almost becoming moot when people are spending all of their natural lives on death row rather than having the sentence be complete," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday.

The winner in the case was death row inmate Clarence Hill, who 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, intervened and blocked the execution. Hill is on death row for the 1982 killing of Pensacola, Fla., Police Officer Stephen Taylor.

Following the court's intervention in the Hill case, executions were stopped in California, Maryland and Missouri. Another state, North Carolina, began using a brain wave monitor in executions to assure a federal judge that inmates would not suffer pain.

Justices took up the lethal injection case this spring in a spirited debate about the drug combination used in most states. During oral arguments, Justice John Paul Stevens told Florida's attorney that their drugs would be banned for use to euthanize cats and dogs.

Kennedy particularly seemed concerned in April about the amount of pain involved. "Doesn't the state have some minimal obligation under the Eighth Amendment to do the necessary research to assure that this is the most humane method possible?" he asked a government lawyer.

The federal government and 37 of the 38 states allowing capital punishment use lethal injection because it is considered more humane than hanging, gas chambers, electric chairs and firing squads. Nebraska still has the electric chair, although that, too, is being contested.

Lethal injection has become more contested, in part after a 2005 study published in the Lancet medical journal questioned whether a painkiller administered at the start of an execution can wear off before a prisoner dies.

Florida, like most states, uses three chemicals: a pain killer, a drug that paralyzes the inmate and a third that causes a fatal heart attack.

Kennedy, writing for the court, said that while Hill and other inmates can file special appeals under a federal civil rights law after exhausting regular appeals, they will not always be entitled to delays in their executions.

"Both the state and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence," he wrote.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, predicted that more inmates will win stays. He said he did not expect states to stop using lethal injection, only make changes in their processes to satisfy judges.

The lethal injection case is Hill v. McDonough, 05-8794, and the evidence case is House v. Bell, 04-8990.

Associated Press writer David Royse in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.

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