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Supremes Tackle Civility of Execution

Supreme Court takes up question of whether a death row inmate may use federal civil rights law to challenge a state's manner of execution

By Jordan Smith, Fri., May 5, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court on April 26 took up the question of whether a death row inmate may use federal civil rights law to challenge a state's manner of execution. Clarence Hill was convicted of the 1982 murder of a Florida police officer as Hill fled from a bank robbery. Hill had exhausted his federal criminal appeals and was four days away from execution when he appealed his case once again, this time as a challenge to Florida's lethal injection method, filed as a civil rights claim. Hill claims the method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Lethal injection was developed in 1977 as a more human alternative to the electric chair and was subsequently adopted as the sole method of execution in 37 of 38 death penalty states (Nebraska uses electrocution); however, the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections has come under increasing scrutiny, not only by human rights groups, but also by medical professionals. A study last year published in the British medical journal Lancet concluded that improper administration of the drug cocktail by prison employees and not medical professionals probably caused "unnecessary suffering." (In 43 of 49 executions studied, researchers found that the anesthesia administered was less than typically administered prior to surgery.) Moreover, in a brief filed with the Supremes in the Hill case, three veterinarians note that the combination of drugs Florida uses for executions would indeed be considered inhumane and thus legally prohibited in the euthanasia of cats and dogs.

Because the Supremes accepted Hill's appeal on the question of whether inmates may use Reconstruction-era civil rights law to challenge the method of execution, the justices reportedly focused much of their questioning on whether Hill could suggest another, more humane execution method. (A separate appeal, filed in February by a death row inmate in Tennessee – styled Abdur'Rahman v. Bredesen – directly challenging lethal injection as unconstitutionally cruel is currently pending before the court.) The civil rights statute requires an alternative be shown – without that, Chief Justice John G. Roberts noted, Hill's appeal would appear to be a challenge to his death sentence, a route that Hill has already exhausted. A decision in the case is expected this summer.

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