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Death penalty derailed

October 12, 2007 | Page 16

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on the Supreme Court's decision to take up the issue of lethal injection.

THOUSANDS OF death row prisoners received a reprieve after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments on whether execution by lethal injection is constitutional.

The court will consider the cases of two Kentucky death row inmates and rule on whether the execution method used by all but one of the 38 states that have the death penalty is "cruel and unusual punishment," and therefore in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

The justices are supposed to issue their judgment sometime during the current session, which began October 1 and ends in June 2008. Until then, it appears that most, if not all, states will halt executions--a de facto national moratorium on the death penalty.

When capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago after being halted in early 1970s, lethal injection was supposed to be a "humane" alternative to other execution procedures, such as hanging and the electric chair.

It is a three-step process. First, a prisoner is injected with a chemical that is supposed to sedate them and keep them from feeling pain. This is followed by a chemical that paralyzes, and then another that stops the heart.

But according to witnesses, lethal injections more resemble torture than a humane procedure. It took an hour and a half for Joseph Lewis Clark's "humane" execution in Ohio in May 2006. "It don't work, it don't work," Clark cried, shaking his head, as technicians struggled to find a vein.

During Angel Nieves Diaz's half-hour lethal injection ordeal in Florida, his executioners mistakenly pushed the needles through his veins and into the flesh of his arm, leaving chemical burns. One can only imagine the agony Diaz suffered before he finally died.

According to a report that appeared in the Lancet medical journal in 2005, of 49 executions examined, 21 were probably conscious when they received the last drug that stops their heart.

Even before the Supreme Court's decision to consider the question, 11 states that use lethal injection had put executions on hold because of legal challenges. When news of the high court's action hit, more states, including Alabama and Oklahoma, put a halt to executions.

Even Texas joined in. As a result of the Supreme Court decision to hear arguments on lethal injection, Carlton Turner Jr.'s execution was stayed on September 27, hours before it was to have taken place. Five days later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted a scheduled execution and granted a 30-day stay for Heliberto Chi.

But justice didn't come quickly enough for Texas death row prisoner Michael Richard. Richard's lawyers couldn't get a request for an appeal into the judge's office by 5 p.m. on September 25, the day the Supreme Court agreed to hear the lethal injection case, due to a computer crash. When they asked for time to file the appeal, appeals court Presiding Judge Sharon Keller refused to even think about extending the deadline.

"We close at 5," Keller responded, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Richard's life hung on the difference of 20 minutes, and Judge Keller cut that lifeline.

Texas officials say they will continue to schedule dates for executions, so there will be more challenges to the seeming moratorium there and in other states.

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FOR THE time being, however, executions appear to be halted. And when the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case, the barbarity of the death penalty will be on display for all to see.

"The anti-death penalty community needs to take this spotlight that's being put on the lethal injection issue to build our forces and make a wider case about why the death penalty is wrong," said Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

"No matter how the chemicals are mixed, there's no humane way to kill someone. This is a perfect opportunity for abolitionists to make the case about why the death penalty is wrong on many fronts and push abolition."

The fact that the Supreme Court has been forced to put lethal injection under scrutiny is another blow to the system among several others over the last decade--including moratoriums in Illinois and Maryland, and Supreme Court bans on executing juveniles and the mentally retarded--that have shifted public support for capital punishment.

Internationally, the U.S. stands alongside China, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan in its use of the death penalty--prompting the European Union to propose a resolution for a worldwide moratorium at the new session of the UN General Assembly taking place in New York City.

"The lethal injection issue is one of many reasons the death penalty is wrong, that the death penalty is cruel and unusual," Martin said. "There are 3,700 people on death row, and even if they were to figure out a more humane way to kill them, it's still wrong.

"If you look at these 3,700 people, 95 percent of them couldn't afford their own lawyers. A disproportionate number are African Americans or Latinos are accused of killing white victims. And we know there are innocent people on death row. That's the definition of cruel and unusual."

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