Is Lethal Injection Cruel and Unusual?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Death-row inmates are asking the Supreme Court to order states to use different drugs or tighten their procedures to reduce the risk that prisoners will suffer excruciating pain during their executions.

The justices are hearing arguments Monday morning in a case that challenges Kentucky's method of executing prisoners using a three-drug cocktail. Three dozen states use similar procedures.

The court's decision to step into the case has brought about a halt in executions that is likely to last at least until the summer.

Kentucky, backed by the Bush administration, says it works hard to execute inmates humanely, countering claims that its procedure violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Recent executions in Florida and Ohio, however, took much longer than usual, with strong indications that the prisoners suffered severe pain in the process. Workers had trouble inserting the IV lines that are used to deliver the drugs.

The Kentucky inmates say there are problems with the three drugs that are administered in succession to knock out, paralyze and kill prisoners.

The argument against the three-drug protocol is that if the initial anesthetic does not take hold, a third drug that stops the heart can cause excruciating pain. But that pain would be masked by the second drug that paralyzes the prisoner and renders him unable to express his discomfort.

The inmates say that prison workers need better training and prisoners need to be more closely monitored for pain, or states should switch to a single drug, a barbiturate that causes minimal pain.

The case is Baze v. Rees, 07-5439.

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