States React to Court's Lethal Injection Ruling The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Kentucky's form of lethal injection is constitutional. Now states can move forward with executions for the first time since September. But in practice, the outlook for executions varies from state to state.
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States React to Court's Lethal Injection Ruling

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States React to Court's Lethal Injection Ruling

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States React to Court's Lethal Injection Ruling

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

What happens now that the Supreme Court has ended a national moratorium on the death penalty? On Wednesday, the court ruled that Kentucky's form of lethal injection is constitutional. Almost all of the states that have the death penalty use lethal injection. In theory, the court's decision means executions can now proceed, for the first time since last September.

In practice, it may not be so easy. Two of our reporters are exploring how states are responding to the ruling. They are NPR's Laura Sullivan, and first, NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: There's no state that executes more people than Texas. On average they put an inmate to death every other week. Lately, prison spokeswoman Michelle Lyons says it's been really quiet.

MICHELLE LYONS (Spokeswoman, Texas Department of Criminal Justice): Yeah, it has. Now that the ruling has been issued, the District Courts really could schedule them for anytime.

SHAPIRO: And there are other places like Texas. Before the sun went down on the Supreme Court ruling, a bunch of states asked to move ahead on executions -Mississippi, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Georgia, to name just a few. Georgia State University law professor Anne Emanuel chaired a recent American Bar Association project on the death penalty in her state.

Ms. ANNE EMANUEL (Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure Professor, Georgia State University): We had two inmates on death row whose execution had been stayed, only because they were challenging the method of lethal injection, and the State Attorney General has already moved to lift those stays.

SHAPIRO: Emanuel says Georgia's death chamber could soon be a very busy place.

Ms. EMANUEL: The concern of course is that we'll see a wave of execution orders issued. But I imagine the state would be reluctant to have too many come down at one time.

SHAPIRO: Why is that?

Ms. EMANUEL: Well, I think, although in a sense we all know we have a 107 people on death row, I don't think as a culture we really contemplate executions of, say, a person a day for a month. I think that might shock the public sensibility.

SHAPIRO: State Officials say it probably won't be that many, four at most. The rest still have legal claims in the works. In Florida, nobody's been executed since December of 2006, and here's why.

Mr. STERLING IVY (Spokesman for Florida Governor Charlie Crist): The inmate did not pass away for 16 minutes after the execution had started.

SHAPIRO: Sterling Ivy, is the spokesman for Governor Charlie Crist. Florida halted all of its executions after the incident. They sent out a panel to evaluate the three-drug cocktail. And their conclusion was to space the drugs out, so each has time to work before the next is given. Ivy says with 388 people on death row, Florida is ready to forge ahead.

Mr. IVY: This ruling this week really validates our process in Florida. What we believe is that this allows us to begin signing death warrants on other cases that may be ready.

SHAPIRO: These states, like Florida, are ready to go. Several others have been stuck in legal quagmires since before the Kentucky case even made it to the Supreme Court.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Take California. Seth Unger is the spokesman for the State's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Mr. SETH UNGER (Press Secretary, California State Corrections and Rehabilitation): We have the largest death row of any state in the nation. We have 669 people on death row, and yet the leading cause of death is old age.

SULLIVAN: It's been two years since California has executed an inmate. A judge there ruled the execution process was not making the prisoner fully unconscious. And the state's been overhauling the system ever since.

Mr. UNGER: We have revised our protocols. We have constructed a new facility. And as soon as we get the moratorium lifted, we do have a number of condemned inmates who have exhausted their appeals and we are ready to move forward and carry out the will of the people.

SULLIVAN: But it could be a while before that happens. The state judge still has to sign off on California's changes. That makes the Supreme Court decisions less of a green light than a yellow light in California.

North Carolina isn't even at the intersection. The state has 166 people on death row and a problem. Thomas Maher runs the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham.

Mr. THOMAS MAHER (Executive Director, Center for Death Penalty Litigation): We have issues here that simply were not being addressed by the United States Supreme Court.

SULLIVAN: The state's medical board decided that doctors can't ethically participate in executions. But North Carolina State Law says a doctor has to be involved. That standoff has been going on for almost a year and the Supreme Court opinion hasn't made a difference.

Illinois has its own situation. The state has halted executions after a series of inmates on death row were found to have been wrongfully convicted. And almost every state expects challenges from defense lawyers.

SHAPIRO: See, the justices said Kentucky's death penalty system has enough safeguards to make sure lethal drugs are administered properly. For example, there are certain training requirements. But every state does things differently and defense lawyers in many states plan to argue that their system isn't as good as Kentucky's.

Ohio prosecutors don't expect challenges from defense attorneys to make much of a difference. Zach Swisher is assistant chief of the Criminal Division at the Ohio Attorney General's office. His state has nearly 200 people on death row.

Mr. ZACH SWISHER (Deputy Chief, Criminal Division; Ohio Attorney General Office): There's not going to be really a stay unless the attorneys can make an argument that there's a substantial difference between Ohio and Kentucky.

SHAPIRO: Lots of states with the death penalty don't actually execute people -at least not routinely. Take Pennsylvania, it has the fourth highest number of death row inmates in the country, but they haven't killed anyone in eight years. For a dozen similar states, the Supreme Court's ruling received a collective shrug. In Colorado, one man is on death row. When we called an officer there, he said this decision has no immediate impact on us.

I'm Ari Shapiro.

SULLIVAN: And I'm Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

SIEGEL: At our Web site you can see how more states have responded to the Supreme Court's ruling, that's at npr.org.

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