As Challenges to Lethal Injection Mount, Justices Set to Hear Case

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Invented almost three decades ago as a humane alternative to other methods of execution, lethal injection is now on the defensive, facing a surprisingly effective attack in the courts from those who argue that it actually can cause intense but undetectable physical pain.

The court challenges have at least temporarily slowed the pace of capital punishment as it was otherwise declining because of falling murder rates and public concern over the system's fairness and accuracy.

Although there is no prospect that the courts will abolish lethal injection, the Supreme Court could make it easier for convicted murderers to press such claims -- further delaying their executions -- if it rules in favor of a Florida death row inmate, Clarence E. Hill, whose case is scheduled for oral arguments today.

"The point of this is not to prevent the death penalty," said Paul Enzinna, a lawyer who represents James Roane, one of three federal prisoners who were to be executed in May until Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted them stays of execution March 2. "I have a client who is going to be put to death and the federal government owes him, under the Constitution, an execution without pain."

But law enforcement officials say that the lawsuits' real objective is a de facto ban on the death penalty and that the courts must prevent that.

"Those who are bringing these cases are philosophically opposed to the death penalty and they are looking for every way they can find to stop executions," said Bill Lockyer, California's attorney general.

In addition to the three federal prisoners, six of the 17 state death row inmates scheduled to die between Jan. 1 and April 21 received at least temporary stays of execution based on lethal injection-related claims.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits have pried loose new information about the secret procedures used in death chambers across the country, forcing courts, state officials and doctors into a detailed, and at times uncomfortable, examination of capital punishment's grim mechanics.

First adopted by Oklahoma in 1977, lethal injection was quickly embraced by other states and has been used in 850 of the 1,018 executions since the reinstatement of capital punishment three decades ago.

The federal government and 37 states (Nebraska uses electrocution) use basically the same "cocktail" of drugs: a massive dose of the barbiturate sodium pentothal to render the prisoner unconscious, followed by pancuronium bromide to stop respiration, and then potassium chloride to stop the heart.

The death penalty jurisdictions saw this cocktail as a relatively peaceful and painless alternative to the electric chair, which had set some inmates on fire. Most inmates given a choice between lethal injection and other methods have selected the needle.

Until recently, few questioned the method. Constitutional challenges to lethal injection were considered the legal equivalent of football's "Hail Mary" pass -- a far-fetched claim that courts routinely brushed aside.

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