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Supreme Court to Consider Use of Voter ID

The court ruled in 1976 that the death penalty itself was constitutional, and that is not at issue now.

Sentencing and death-penalty experts believe that the court's decision to take the appeal will further slow the already dwindling number of executions in states -- at least until a decision is reached next year.

"I think that the impact is going to be a large-scale hold on executions across the country," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. At least 10 states, including Maryland, already have a moratorium on executions because of the controversy over lethal injection.

States began using lethal injection in 1978 on the grounds that it was more humane than electrocution and the gas chamber. Almost all 37 states that employ lethal injection use the same combination of three chemicals. Some studies have shown the combination to be unreliable, potentially leaving inmates paralyzed but not unconscious, and unable to cry out as they experience excruciating pain and eventually suffocate.

The inmates challenging lethal injection are Ralph Baze, who has been on death row for 14 years after ambushing and killing two law enforcement officers, and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr., who killed a couple and shot their 2-year-old son outside the couple's dry-cleaning business in 1990.

The court in earlier decisions ruled that inmates could challenge lethal-injection procedures in federal court, and the petition asking the justices to accept the case said about half of inmates have done so.

Maryland's method of lethal injection is being challenged in federal court, and the state's highest court ruled in December that state officials had not properly adopted the regulations for carrying it out. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), an opponent of capital punishment, has delayed issuing them.

U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson in Richmond ruled in the case of Virginia death row inmate Christopher Scott Emmett last week that the state's proposed method of execution would not subject inmates to cruel or unusual punishment. The judge noted, however, that "the inconsistencies demonstrated by the evidence [about how the methods are carried out] are disturbing and may warrant administrative review."

The combined Kentucky case in the Supreme Court is Baze v. Rees (07-5439).

Among the other cases accepted by the court was one from Virginia, where the commonwealth's highest court dismissed a drug charge against a man who had been illegally arrested for driving on a suspended license. Since the man should not have been arrested for the driving charge, but only issued a summons and released, the Virginia Supreme Court said officers could not lawfully conduct the search, which turned up crack cocaine in his pocket.

Staff writers Jerry Markon, Eric Rich and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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