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June 23, 2006

The intriguing next chapter in the lethal injection saga

The Supreme Court's Hill decision on procedures for challenging lethal injection protocols in federal court (basics here, commentary here and here and here) just marks the start of another chapter in the saga of constitutional challenges to execution methods.  And the first few pages in this new chapter are starting to get written.

As noted in this post, Oklahoma's highest criminal court earlier this week gave its blessing to the standard lethal injection protocol.  But in Maryland, as this Baltimore Sun article details, an "administrative law judge has issued a decision in ... that could force Maryland to redevelop its lethal injection procedures."  In Arkansas, as explained in this AP article, the litigation over lethal injection is raging in federal district court.  In Mississippi, as reported in this article, the state attorney general predicts that Hill "will result in more costs and paperwork in Mississippi, but will do little to further slow the process from conviction to execution."

Interestingly, this new New York Times article reports that "medical experts say the current method of lethal injection could easily be changed to make suffering less likely."  Here are snippets from an  intriguing article:

Switching to an injection method with less potential to cause pain could undercut many of the lawsuits.  But so far, in this chapter of the nation's long and tangled history with the death penalty, no state has moved to alter its lethal injection protocol.

At the core of the issue is a debate about which matters more, the comfort of prisoners or that of the people who watch them die.  A major obstacle to change is that alternative methods of lethal injection, though they might be easier on inmates, would almost certainly be harder on witnesses and executioners.  With a different approach, death would take longer and might involve jerking movements that the prisoner would not feel but that would be unpleasant for others to watch.

All of these developments further reinforces my belief, first set out in this pre-Hill post, that Congress should try to do something to clean up the lethal injection litigation mess.  As I suggested before, Congress could at the very least hold hearings to explore the medical matters at issue in all the piecemeal litigation now taking place in state and federal courts nationwide. 

June 23, 2006 at 01:36 AM | Permalink

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