« Interesting early information from the Safe Streets & Second Chances effort to take an evidence-driven approach to recidivism | Main | A (partisan) look at some of Judge Brett Kavanaugh's record on criminal justice issues »

July 28, 2018

State judge rejects constitutional attack on Tennessee's lethal injection protocol

The state of Tennessee has not conducted an execution in nearly a decade, but it has three scheduled for later this year including one slated for August 9.  The prospect of these executions going forward got more likely this past week after, as reported in this local article, a state judge rejected a suit brought by many death row inmates challenging the constitutionality of the state's lethal injection protocol.  Here are the basics:  

Tennessee can use controversial drugs to execute inmates on death row despite concerns from defense attorneys and experts that doing so is "akin to burning someone alive," a Nashville judge ruled Thursday. The ruling is a blow to 33 death row inmates who had challenged the state's lethal injection protocol, saying it led to cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the U.S. Constitution. Among them is Billy Ray Irick, who is scheduled to be executed Aug. 9.

But the ruling won't be the final word.  The inmates' attorneys quickly announced they would appeal.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle issued the 51-page ruling on the case Thursday evening, forcefully denying the inmates' claims and saying they failed to meet two critical bars necessary to overturn an execution method....  "Although dreadful and grim, it is the law that while surgeries should be pain-free, there is no constitutional requirement for that with executions," Lyle wrote, echoing an argument made by attorneys for the state....

The inmates, who filed the suit against the state in February, did not argue against the death penalty itself. Instead, they focused on the use of midazolam, the first drug in the state's new protocol, that is meant to put an inmate to sleep before two other drugs stop the heart and lungs.

Experts who testified on the inmates' behalf said midazolam is often ineffective, leaving people awake and aware of the acidic poison that kills them. The experts pulled examples from executions across the country, in which witnesses saw inmates thrashing, moaning and crying as the drugs coursed through their veins. "That is akin to burning someone alive. That is not hyperbole. That is not an exaggeration," said Henry. "That's avoidable."

Lyle acknowledged that the inmates' case included testimony from "well-qualified and imminent experts," and she conceded "the inmate being executed may be able to feel pain from the administration of the second and third drugs."... But, Lyle wrote, the inmates' attorneys did not prove that the three-drug protocol would lead to prolonged periods of "needless suffering," one of the key factors that could lead to unconstitutional torture. She pointed to the relatively brief executions cited by the inmates' attorneys, which ended after an average of 13.55 minutes.

Deputy Attorney General Scott Sutherland, who represented the state and the Department of Correction, tied midazolam to ongoing work to make executions more humane. He pointed to rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other judicial panels that upheld executions using midazolam. And he said that the inmates had failed to prove pentobarbital was readily available to be used instead of the three-drug protocol.

Lyle agreed. "It is not enough, the United States Supreme Court has held, for the inmate to claim that the State’s method of execution is cruel and unusual," Lyle wrote. "The inmate must also make a claim in the lawsuit he files and must prove at trial in his case that there is a known and available method to execute him that, in comparison to the State’s execution method, significantly reduces a substantial risk of pain."

The state court ruling referenced in this article is available at this link, and here is a portion of the introduction to the 50-page opinion:

The law of the United States requires that to halt a lethal injection execution1 as cruel and unusual, an inmate must state in his lawsuit and prove at trial that there is another way, available to the State, to carry out the execution.  That is, the inmate is required to prove an alternative method of execution. Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2732-33 (2015). Absent proof of an alternative method, an execution can not be halted....

Thus, whether a lethal injection method is unconstitutional is a comparative analysis.  To halt a lethal injection execution as cruel and unusual, an inmate must prove not only that there is a better drug for lethal injection but that the better drug is available to the State.  That proof has not been provided in this case.

The Inmates who filed this lawsuit have failed to prove the essential element required by the United States Supreme Court that there exists an available alternative to the execution method they are challenging.  On this basis alone, by United States law, this lawsuit must be dismissed.

July 28, 2018 at 01:57 PM | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB