Supreme Court to address lethal injection
Ralph Baze has been convicted of killing two law-enforcement officers and sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court must ensure that Kentucky...
CalendarMonday: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert resume TV shows; Supreme Court hears arguments about humaneness of Kentucky's execution methods.
Tuesday: New Hampshire presidential primary; sentencing hearing begins in Miami for terrorism supporter Jose Padilla.
Thursday: Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Saturday: Local Democratic caucus in Indianapolis to choose candidate for U.S. House seat vacated by death of Rep. Julia Carson.
Source: The Associated Press
The drug cocktailLethal injection currently is used to execute inmates by 35 states, including Washington. Most of the states use a process involving three shots, given in succession:
Pancuronium bromide paralyzes the inmate.
Sodium thiopental, now rarely used in hospitals, is an anesthetic.
Potassium chloride stops the heart.
WASHINGTON — Ralph Baze has been convicted of killing two law-enforcement officers and sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court must ensure that Kentucky executes him in a constitutionally humane way.
What that means is open to debate.
On Monday, the justices will consider the fate of Baze and the about 3,300 other inmates facing lethal injection nationwide. It's the most consequential death-penalty case in recent years. It's also more subtle than it may appear.
"This case presents a lot of very complex issues," said Elisabeth Semel, director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
Baze and another murderer, Thomas Bowling, are challenging Kentucky's method of executing death-row inmates with a lethal blend of three drugs. Neither man is a sympathetic plaintiff. Baze shot a sheriff and deputy in the back with an assault rifle when they arrived to serve fugitive arrest warrants. Bowling shot a married couple in front of their 2-year-old child.
Both men argue that an imperfectly administered drug mixture exposes prisoners to the possibility of deceptively painful deaths, violating the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"They are going to appear serene and tranquil and peaceful and comfortable, regardless of whether in fact they are awake and in agony," anesthesiologist Mark Heath testified.
The death penalty isn't directly at stake in the case, Baze v. Rees. Neither is lethal injection; the general method can survive, even if the inmates win. Rather, the court could compel states to come up with a different combination of drugs or impose stricter procedural requirements on execution teams.
More broadly, Baze v. Rees will shape what standard courts use to decide future Eighth Amendment challenges.
The case has had a short-term effect, as judges have delayed executions in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and other states in the four months since the Supreme Court agreed to consider Baze's challenge.
The death-row inmates want punishments banned if they pose an "unnecessary risk" of pain and suffering. They think the current lethal-injection procedures flunk this standard.
Kentucky, allied states and the Bush administration argue that punishments should be banned only under the higher standard of a "substantial risk" of causing pain and suffering.
"Some risk of pain is inherent in any method of capital punishment," Solicitor General Paul Clement argued in a legal brief.
The court previously has declared that the Eighth Amendment prohibits "unnecessary and wanton" infliction of pain and measures that conflict with society's "evolving standards of decency." As often happens, this latest case could come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored a 5-4 opinion in 2005 banning the executions of juvenile offenders, reversing his earlier support for such executions.
Lethal injection is used in 35 of the 36 states that impose capital punishment, including Washington; Nebraska relies on electrocution. Most lethal-injection states use the same three-drug mixture that Kentucky uses. Seventeen of these states have weighed in on Kentucky's behalf.
First concocted in Oklahoma in 1977, the standard lethal-injection mixture entails three shots in succession. Taken together, the drugs ensure that inmates will die in a "relatively humane manner," Kentucky's attorneys argue.
Administered improperly, inmates' attorneys respond, the drug combination can become tantamount to torture.
In December 2006, for instance, Florida murderer Angel Diaz took 34 minutes to die because of botched procedures. A subsequent state investigation concluded it was "impossible" to know whether Diaz was in pain, even though 12-inch chemical burns were found on both of his arms.
In January 1992, in an execution overseen by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, Arkansas witnesses heard convicted murderer Ricky Rector moaning in apparent pain while a five-man execution team tried for 50 minutes to find a vein.
"Kentucky's haphazard and ill-considered lethal-injection procedures exacerbate the risk that some condemned prisoners will suffer an excruciating death," attorney David Barron argued in his legal brief for Baze and Bowling.
As a technique, lethal injection reflects the search for a clean-cut method for killing criminals. The guillotine, for example, was conceived as a humane replacement for the ax, the sword and more gruesome methods such as burning at the stake.
Electrocution was "devised for reaching the end proposed as swiftly and painlessly as possible," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. noted in 1901.
Officials later scrapped the electric chair after episodes such as the March 1997 electrocution of Florida murderer Pedro Medina, in which witnesses reported seeing smoke and flames shoot out of the helmet covering Medina's head.
The Supreme Court, though, rarely has ruled on a specific method of execution.
In an 1878 case involving a Utah murderer, the court upheld the use of firing squads. One hundred and twenty-six years later, Utah banned future firing squads.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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