High Court Fine-Tunes Death Penalty Laws

The Supreme Court rules that death-row inmates may challenge lethal injection as an unnecessarily cruel — and thus unconstitutional — punishment. The unanimous decision came on the same day the court expanded inmates' ability to challenge their convictions in federal court based on new DNA evidence.

In the first case, the justices opened the door to new constitutional challenges to lethal injection, the method commonly used to execute death-row inmates. In their majority opinion, the justices said those condemned to die can make last-minute claims that the chemicals used are too painful, and that their use is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Thirty years ago, death by lethal injection was conceived of as a more humane way to execute the condemned; 37 states now use that method — all but one of the states that administers capital punishment.

But the lethal cocktail that is used has not changed, and critics charge that unnecessary suffering is caused by the drug combination and the lack of training for those who administer it.

In the cycle of three drugs delivered, a short-term anesthesia comes first. It is followed by a paralytic that would prevent the condemned person from indicating that he is still conscious and feeling white the lethal — and extremely painful — third drug is administered. The last, fatal drug is considered so painful that it has been banned for use on animals in 12 states.

The high court was not unanimous in its second death case, which involved the conviction 20 years ago of Paul Gregory House for the murder of a neighbor. At trial, the prosecution told the jury that the motive for the killing was rape, and that evidence tied House to the crime scene.

House, who had a previous record of sexual assault, has maintained his innocence. Years after the crime, the new science of DNA produced evidence that directly contradicted evidence presented at trial.

The semen on the victim's body came not from House but from the victim's husband. As Justice Kennedy noted in his majority opinion, a state medical examiner later testified that the blood stains on House's pants were likely spilled from open vials of the victim's blood that was packaged with House's pants.

This, as well as other evidence — including testimony of a drunken confession by the victim's husband — does not prove House's innocence, said the court majority, but it does meet the high standard the court has required in order to open up a case to federal court review.

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