(AFP) – Apr 16, 2008
WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US Supreme Court Wednesday ruled that lethal injection was constitutional, in a landmark ruling set to pave the way for executions to resume in the country after a hiatus of over six months.
The judges ruled by a 7 to 2 vote that the risk of suffering to those executed by lethal injection did not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment," which is barred under the US Constitution.
"Capital punishment is constitutional," said Chief Justice John Roberts who wrote the majority opinion, "so there must be a means of implementing it."
The seven justices were markedly split in their reasons for accepting lethal injection however, all but ensuring that more challenges to the death penalty generally and to lethal injection will make their way through the court system in the future.
Several death row inmates, led by a pair from Kentucky, had urged the Supreme Court to rule on whether lethal injection, the most commonly used form of execution across the United States, violated the constitution.
They had argued that the three-part injection method common in the United States, in which a first shot sedates the inmate, a second paralyzes the muscles and a third stops the heart, caused needless suffering in some cases.
If the execution goes according to plan, the inmate quickly loses consciousness and dies within a few minutes. But if the anesthesia is not properly administered, the inmate can suffer immensely.
In a December 2006 execution, convicted murderer Angel Nieves Diaz had to be given two lethal doses after a needle missed his vein and pierced tissue instead. Grimacing as he struggled to breathe, his execution took 34 minutes.
After the Supreme Court agreed in September 2007 to hear the case, executions were put on hold across the country -- keeping the year's total at 42, compared with 53 executed in 2006, and the peak of 98 in 1999.
In Wednesday's Supreme Court decision, Justice John Paul Stevens, who sided with the majority, said that the internal division among justices on the matter makes future legal challenges all but inevitable.
"Instead of ending the controversy, I am now convinced that this case will generate debate not only about the constitutionality of the three-drug protocol ... but also about the justification for the death penalty itself," he wrote in his opinion.
Meanwhile, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg -- one of just two justices to part ways with the majority -- said she was not convinced that lethal injection avoided needless suffering.
"Rare though errors may be, the consequences of a mistake about the condemned inmate's consciousness are horrendous and effectively undetectable," she wrote, saying that, at a minimum, other lethal injection procedures should be pursued.
"If readily available measures can materially increase the likelihood that the protocol will cause no pain, a state fails to adhere to contemporary standards of decency if it declines to employ those methods," Ginsberg wrote in her dissent, in which she was joined by Justice David Souter.
Human Rights Watch agreed: "States that execute prisoners have an obligation under human rights law to do it as humanely as possible, and the lethal injection protocol fails that test,"
The ruling, HRW said in a statement, "is not a green light for executions in Kentucky or any of the 36 lethal injection states."
The executive director for Amnesty International USA said the high court ruling did not address the broader question of whether capital punishment should be outlawed for reasons of social justice and equity.
Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine said through his spokesman that "executions will move forward according to the procedures that were in place prior to the Court's agreement to hear Baze last September." Twenty inmates await on Virginia's death row.
Around two-thirds of Americans favor the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, in a country where 3,260 detainees are presently on death row.
In an unrelated case Wednesday, the US high court also heard arguments on whether the rape of a child is punishable by death -- a sanction which over the past 30 years has been carried out in the United States exclusively in murder convictions.
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