Lethal Injection Goes on Trial, But Goes On



Nine minutes after a lethal dose of drugs was shot into his arms, Texas murderer Michael Richard last night (Sept. 25) became the 929 th death-row inmate in the United States to be executed by lethal injection since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

The three-drug mixture used to stop Richard's breathing and then his heart is the same chemical cocktail the U.S. Supreme Court - just hours before - agreed to scrutinize in a case that challenges the way 37 states put inmates to death.


The case was brought by two Kentucky prisoners, who argue that the state's drug regimen exposes inmates to illegal cruel and unusual punishment. The appeal doesn't seek to throw out lethal injection as a form of capital punishment but seeks changes in how it's administered and reviewed in the courts.

By agreeing to hear arguments, the high court raised hopes among death-penalty opponents that an immediate, nationwide moratorium on use of lethal injections would result - at least until the justices issue an opinion in the case, Baze v. Rees , sometime next year.

But those hopes were dealt a serious blow when the full court rejected a series of last-minute appeals by lawyers for Richard, who was pronounced dead in the Texas death chamber in Huntsville at 8:23 p.m. local time, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice.

Challenges to lethal injection procedures and the use of doctors in executions already have put lethal injection on hold in 10 states: California , Delaware , Florida , Kentucky , Maryland , Missouri , New Jersey , North Carolina , Ohio and Tennessee . The high court's refusal to issue a stay of execution for Richard signaled that executions are able to continue elsewhere, even as lawyers for death-row inmates rush to file new appeals pleading for a delay until the justices' decision.

Individual states, however, could put executions by lethal injection on hold while the court deliberates, death penalty experts said.

Texas , with by far the busiest death row in the nation, is scheduled to execute another inmate, Carlton Turner, on Thursday (Sept. 27), the same day that Alabama also is slated to use lethal injection to execute convicted killer Tommy Arthur.

Lawyers for Arthur told Stateline.org they filed papers with the Supreme Court seeking a delay in execution within hours of receiving word that the justices agreed to look at lethal injection.

"We argued that the Supreme Court's decision today (to hear Baze v. Rees ) supports our position that we should be entitled to an opportunity to review Alabama 's lethal injection procedures," said Susana S. Han, a New York attorney representing Arthur.

Both Texas and Alabama have additional executions on the calendar for October, along with Arkansas , Pennsylvania and Virginia , according to the Death Penalty Information Center , which opposes capital punishment.

Experts on both sides of the death penalty said they were pleased the court decided to hear the case.

"We really need some clarification of the law," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation . "I think there's a pretty good chance that the way states are doing it now will be upheld. If a change needs to be made, all we need to know is what the change will be."

The Supreme Court hasn't examined a method of execution since 1878, when it rejected claims that the firing squad was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In the Kentucky case, the condemned man's attorneys questioned the ingredients in the lethal cocktail. They say the sedative doesn't last long enough to mask the "excruciating" pain produced by the other drugs.

The same deadly recipe is used in 36 other states that allow lethal injection (all but New Jersey ), and it hasn't changed in 25 years. The three-drug lethal injection process works like this: First, a sedative called sodium thiopental is administered through an IV, rendering the inmate unconscious. Then a paralyzing agent named pancuronium bromide stops the breathing muscles, and finally a dose of potassium chloride (used, among other things, as road salt) stops the heart.

The Kentucky defense team says drugs available now could make executions far less painful, and they questioned the need to use the muscle relaxant at all, pointing out that it is no longer permitted to be used to euthanize animals.

While chemical execution was adopted as a more humane alternative to the gas chamber, electric chair, firing squad or gallows, it also has stirred discord following reports of botched executions and reports questioning whether prisoners are in pain.


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