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Slate's Jurisprudence: Lethal-Injection Challenge

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Slate's Jurisprudence: Lethal-Injection Challenge

Law

Slate's Jurisprudence: Lethal-Injection Challenge

Slate's Jurisprudence: Lethal-Injection Challenge

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5478856/5478857" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Basing their decision on a 135-year-old civil rights law, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court rules Monday that death row inmates may challenge the use of lethal injection on the grounds it is cruel and unusual punishment. The court also announces that a condemned man in Tennessee may use DNA evidence to try to prove his innocence in a 20-year-old murder case. Alex Chadwick discusses these rulings with Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, a conversation with a man who was once imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

CHADWICK: First, the lead. The Supreme Court on the death penalty. Two rulings today. In one, the justices said they will be willing to hear future challenges to lethal injections as a method of execution. In another, they allowed a Tennessee inmate to try to prove his innocence using DNA evidence.

Here with us is Dahlia Lithwick, legal analyst for the online magazine Slate, and for DAY TO DAY. Dahlia, let's start with this lethal injection case. What is at issue here and what about the decision?

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Analyst, Slate): This involved a death row inmate in Florida, Clarence Hill, who literally, Alex, was strapped to the gurney in January, waiting to receive a lethal injection. That was stayed. And the court heard argument in a case that was not a challenge to the actual constitutionality of the lethal injection process.

It was a narrow procedural question essentially saying, can the court make space in the appellate process for claims, such as my claim, says Clarence Hill, that this is a cruel and unusual punishment?

And today the court decided unanimously that yes, you can bring this claim, bring it as a civil rights claim, not as a habeas corpus claim and will be able to hear that petition.

CHADWICK: So what does this mean for future challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injections? There have been several cases in the last several months on this issue of whether or not lethal injection is cruel and unusual because it might be painful.

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, essentially it sort of creates a broader path to the courthouse door. It opens the door for claims like that of Hill and says, you have another route to the courthouse to come and complain to us that it's unconstitutional.

And I should add that at oral argument in Hill, some of the justices already wanted to get to the merits of lethal injection and how appalling it may be. So I think essentially it signals a readiness on the part of the court to start to hear these kinds of claims.

CHADWICK: Okay. The other case involves whether an inmate can try to prove his innocence using DNA. And what are the details in this case?

Ms. LITHWICK: Alex, this involved yet another death row inmate. This one is challenging the DNA evidence that was used to convict him decades ago. Essentially he says the fluids that were found on the victim's body were not mine, and I want to come to court and prove that to you.

Again, the court was asked to sort of make some space in the appeals process to hear claims of actual innocence. And the court today, in a closer decision, said yes, we are going to make some space for you to come forward with this claim that you are actually innocent if we hear these DNA claims.

CHADWICK: Isn't it very common for people to use DNA to exonerate death row cases these days? What's new in this?

Ms. LITHWICK: It's becoming more and more common. It's becoming a real concern for some of the justices, particularly John Paul Stevens, who has said, wait, we can't execute people if there is actual evidence that they didn't do it.

So essentially this is the court saying this is a concern. People out there are talking about it. DNA evidence offers a real tool for exonerating people. And we cannot have such a crabbed view of the law that we can't be open to hear those claims.

CHADWICK: Dahlia, you have pointed out for us earlier the increasing number of unanimous decisions this term. There's another one today in this lethal injection case. What do you make of this?

Ms. LITHWICK: It's interesting, Alex. Today's rulings really shored up the two big trends we're going to start to see, I think. One is a unanimous but fairly narrow procedural ruling in the lethal injection matter. The other is a five-to-three decision written by Anthony Kennedy, who I think is going to become that crucial swing vote, with the court's quote "liberals" lining up against the court's quote "conservatives," and Kennedy at the center.

So I think those two big trends are the two things that we're going to watch for, either unanimous or direct ideological split.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She covers the courts for the online magazine, Slate, and for DAY TO DAY. Dahlia, thank you again.

Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure, Alex.

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