Lethal injection is the most widely used method for executing death row inmates in this country. Thirty-seven states currently use the procedure. But this week, two states called a temporary halt.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ordered a moratorium after an execution in that state went awry. And in California, a federal judge has imposed a similar ban until state officials revise their method for administering lethal injections.
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel issued a ruling Friday finding that California's method of administering lethal injections, as it is currently carried out, may violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
California's procedure involves administering three drugs to sedate and paralyze, and to stop the inmate's heart. Fogel cited a litany of problems with California's process: Prison staff performing executions are poorly trained and supervised. They work in poorly lit and overcrowded conditions. And they fail to follow simple directions on using the drug intended to anesthetize the inmante. That means inmates may still be conscious and feel excruciating pain when they receive a second and third drug to paralyze them and stop their heart.
The ruling comes in the case of Michael Morales, who was convicted of raping and murdering a teenage girl in 1981. David Senior, an attorney for Morales, says the state of California has shown no regard for professional standards:
"We have an execution team leader who was convicted of smuggling illegal drugs into San Quentin," Senior says. "And yet he was deemed to be appropriate execution team material and the leader of the team."
In his ruling, Fogel said the state's system of "implementing lethal injection is broken, but it can be fixed." He gave state officials 30 days to decide whether they will fix it.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office issued a statement saying the state of California will make certain its lethal injection methods are constitutional.
Fogel's ruling came on the same day that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions by lethal injection in his state, pending review.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld executions by lethal injection, hanging, firing squad and other methods, but it hasn't resolved the question of whether these methods inflict pain in an unconstitutional matter.
Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch, a group that opposes the death penalty, says the methods for using lethal injection are coming under increased scrutiny around the country.
"For 30 years there has been a sort of silence on this issue," Tofte says. "... All 37 lethal-injection states should be on notice now that there are serious flaws in the standard lethal injection protocol."
But in California, Fogel made it clear that he favors reforming the method, not banning it altogether. Fogel said "when properly administered, lethal injection results in a death that is far kinder than that suffered by the victims of capital crimes."