States' Death Row Injections Get OK After High Court Ruling

By: AP
By: AP

AUSTIN, Texas - Many states wasted little time trying to get executions back on track following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the use of a three-drug lethal cocktail.

Almost immediately, Virginia lifted its death penalty moratorium. Mississippi and Oklahoma said they would seek execution dates for convicted murderers, and other states were ready to follow.

The ruling Wednesday "should put an end to the de facto moratorium on the death penalty caused by legal challenges to this method of execution," said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports the death penalty.

The chief prosecutor in Houston, Kenneth Magidson, whose surrounding Harris County sends more inmates to death row than any other, said he would seek execution dates for the six inmates awaiting execution "in due course."

The nation's high court voted 7-2 Wednesday to reject inmates' challenges to the procedure in Kentucky that use three drugs to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates. Similar methods are used by roughly three dozen states.

Inmates and death row advocates were frustrated that the court brushed aside their arguments that lethal injections are unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

"It's just terrible," said Paris Powell, a convicted killer at the Oklahoma State Prison in McAlester. He added: "It's like the air has just been let out of a balloon. There's disbelief that the ruling came so quickly, but it goes further than just right now. It's now official that the death penalty is here to stay forever, really."

Lawyers for death row inmates said challenges to lethal injections would continue in states where problems with administering the drugs are well documented.

The nation's last execution was Sept. 25, when a Texas inmate was put to death by injection for raping and shooting to death a mother of seven. They've effectively been on hold as states awaited a ruling from the high court.

After the ruling Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine promptly lifted a moratorium on executions that he imposed April 1 when he stayed the execution of Edward Nathaniel Bell, who killed a police officer.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling "affirms that the procedure used in Arizona is humane and allows us to proceed and administer justice."

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist praised the court's ruling and said he asked one of his lawyers to put together "a very short list" of death warrants to consider signing. There are 388 people on Florida's death row.

"Justice delayed is justice denied, and an awful lot of families of the victims have been waiting for justice to be done, and so that's certainly an important factor," he said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the decision supports California's lethal-injection procedure and will allow executions to resume. They have been on hold for two years because of legal challenges in federal and state courts.

California currently has 669 convicts awaiting execution, the most in the country, although Texas leads the way in the number of executions.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 405 inmates. Virginia is second with 99. Twenty-six of the 42 U.S. inmates put to death last year were in Texas.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said he hadn't yet been able to determine the legal ramifications of the decision. Ohio also uses a regimen to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates, although its procedure is not identical.

"You would just think that because the methodology is quite similar that the legal outcome would be similar as well," Strickland said. "But I just don't want to make that assumption without having a little deeper understanding about what they said."

Prosecutors in many states said they were studying the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to determine how to proceed. Others said there may not be an overnight change.

"We're going to read it and see how it impacts us," Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said. "There are going to be specific issues of law and fact in Arkansas that are going to be different from Kentucky. It may answer all of our questions, but it may leave some others unanswered."

In some states, inmates awaiting execution have pending appeals that are expected to take a long time to finish, meaning the ruling may have no immediate impact.

The high court's decision may have helped Nebraska figure out how to proceed with its executions. The state's Supreme Court ruled in February that its only method, electrocution, was unconstitutional.

"We now have a road map for selecting a new method of execution for our state," Attorney General Jon Bruning said Wednesday.


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