Lethal Injection Ruled Constitutional in Tennessee

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Judge hears arguments on Montana’s lethal injection method.

A judge in Tennessee has upheld the state’s lethal injection process for executing inmates, hours after a federal judge in Mississippi said that state’s process may break the law.NASHVILLE — Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled Wednesday afternoon that the state’s lethal injection protocol is constitutional, a major decision in the battle over capital punishment in Tennessee that has lasted for years.HELENA, Mont. (AP) – Attorneys representing the state of Montana and two death row inmates traded claims Wednesday about the speed and availability of a drug that is being proposed for use in executions. Judge Claudia Bonneyman of Davidson County said the 33 plaintiffs—all inmates condemned to death—and their attorneys could not prove that the one-drug method of lethal injection Tennessee uses carries a risk of cruel and unusual punishment, a civil liberty guaranteed under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Judge Jeffrey Sherlock will decide Thursday whether to rule on the state’s plan to use the sedative pentobarbital or send the case to trial on Sept. 2. She also noted it is the same drug effectively used in Oregon and Washington death with dignity cases, when terminally ill patients choose to take the drug to end their lives. “She said a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Baze, which upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures, set the standard that an isolated mishap — including physician error — did not create an Eighth Amendment violation. “The end of the Chancery Court case does not necessarily mean executions will resume, however.

Attorneys for inmates Ronald Allen Smith and William Gollehon contend pentobarbital is not proven to be “ultra fast-acting,” as required by Montana law. A Tennessee Supreme Court ruling earlier this year put them on hold until final disposition of the case, which would include appeals.” Tennessee has not executed a prisoner in five years because of challenges to lethal injections. Representatives for the ACLU said in their trial briefing that this case is not meant to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty, rather it concerns the protocol used by the executioners. This is Bonneyman’s second ruling on Tennessee’s capital punishment laws: In 2010, she ruled that Tennessee’s previous execution protocol of using three drugs for lethal injection was unconstitutional, as it allowed “for death by suffocation while conscious.” Bonneyman’s ruling does not mean Tennessee will immediately reinstate executions, as appeals are almost certainly going to be filed. Assistant Attorney General Pan Collins countered by pointing to a website that aggregates summaries of medical research that says the effect of the drug is almost immediate.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, US district judge Henry T Wingate said Mississippi’s plans did not appear to include a drug meeting the legal requirement for an “ultra short-acting barbiturate” that would render a person unconscious almost immediately. Pharmacologists have said in depositions and declarations that “ultra fast-acting” is not a common medical term, so they could not speculate on its application to lethal chemicals. Midazolam has been implicated in troubled executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma that went on longer than expected as inmates gasped and made other sounds.

Immediately following the ruling, Assistant Federal Public Defender Kelley Henry, who represented some of the inmates, asked what the deadline for an appeal would be. NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported: “The capital punishment case focused on the three-drug cocktail long used to carry out lethal injections, and the controversial substitute drug used more recently. Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi corrections department, wrote in an email that the order barred the state from using any drug to execute a condemned inmate.

For years, the cocktail used an anesthetic to put the prisoner into a deep, insensate, comalike state so he or she would not feel the two painful drugs used to kill him. “In recent years, however, manufacturers of the anesthesia drug have refused to provide it for executions on moral, ethical and — in some cases — public relations grounds. More than 30 inmates on death row filed a lawsuit saying the Tennessee Department of Correction protocol to kill inmates using lethal injection of a single drug was unconstitutional. So some states have substituted a drug called midazolam — a sedative, not an anesthetic — which is not approved by the FDA as effective for achieving a comalike state. “Death penalty opponents have claimed that prisoners are thus subject to feeling excruciating pain, as evidenced in some botched executions. But Oklahoma and other death penalty states counter that, properly used in very high doses, midazolam is an appropriate drug — and on [June 29], a five-justice majority agreed.” Hood’s office asked the state supreme court in July to set a Thursday execution for convicted murderer Richard Jordan, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, but the state court did not act.

Politicians moved from a three-drug lethal injection method similar to Mississippi’s to a one-drug method and to reinstate the electric chair as a back-up.

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