Blocked execution may lead to case vs. method

Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 11:01 p.m.
The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked the execution of convicted cop-killer Clarence Hill, possibly delaying all executions in Florida until the summer and throwing into question the use of the lethal injection method.
Hill was strapped to a gurney and connected to the tubes that deliver the lethal drug for an hour Tuesday evening, according to his attorney, before Justice Anthony Kennedy issued a stay. Hill has argued the drugs used in the process could cause pain and violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The full court continued the stay Wednesday and set oral arguments for April 26, meaning it could be the summer before it rules on the case. Hill's execution will be blocked until the court makes a decision, likely delaying another execution scheduled next week and possibly others in the state.
"Thank God Clarence gets to live longer," said his defense attorney, D. Todd Doss of Lake City. He said he informed his client of the ruling early Wednesday afternoon and that Hill "was extremely relieved and very hopeful."
The Supreme Court will consider a technical issue about whether federal civil rights law can be used to challenge Florida's lethal-injection method. The case could then be sent back to the lower courts to decide whether the method is constitutional.
Hill's appeal cited a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet by University of Miami medical school physicians, who found the procedure is flawed and could cause inmates to suffer extreme pain.
"The data suggests that we cannot guarantee this is a humane process," said Dr. David Lubarsky, chairman of the school's anesthesiology department and study co-author.
It isn't the first time questions have been raised about Florida's execution method. The state's electric chair - nicknamed "Old Sparky" - caused flames to shoot from inmates' heads twice in the 1990s. Before the Supreme Court could rule on the method's constitutionality, the state in 2000 adopted lethal injection as its main execution method at its execution chamber at Florida State Prison near Raiford.
The state doesn't have the same kind of option this time, said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who has written about lethal injections.
"There's nothing that the state can change to," she said. "They've sort of been backed up against the wall."
The Supreme Court has never ruled on a lethal injection method, she said, but the case could eventually wind its way back to the court for a definitive ruling.
But it's unlikely the court would rule lethal injection is unconstitutional, said Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at the University of Florida and chairman of an American Bar Association team examining the death penalty here.
Even without the rightward shift foreseen with the expected confirmation of Samuel Alito as an associate justice, Slobogin said, the court would likely uphold the procedure.
"On this issue, it's likely you'll get a majority of the court affirming the government's position regardless of who's on it," he said.
Hill, 48, was sentenced to death for murdering Pensacola police Officer Stephen Taylor during a botched bank robbery 23 years ago. His appeals were rejected by the Florida Supreme Court last week and by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday afternoon, before the U.S. Supreme Court issued the last-minute stay.
Another inmate, Arthur Dennis Rutherford, was scheduled to be executed next week. His attorney, Linda McDermott, said she's fighting the execution before the Florida Supreme Court today mainly on claims her client is innocent - but also that Hill's case will mean the execution is delayed regardless of the outcome on that issue.
"It's probable there will be no execution until the issue is resolved with the United States Supreme Court," she said.
Carolyn Snurkowski, a death appeals attorney with the state Attorney General's office, said she didn't know whether other executions would be delayed. Because Hill's case is about the narrow technical question, she wouldn't comment about whether she believed the courts would uphold the lethal-injection method.
"We're not even there yet," she said. Hill was connected to tubes and prepared to die before the court made its ruling, Doss said. State Department of Corrections officials said they "were prepared to proceed" with the execution but wouldn't provide additional details.
In the lethal-injection process, Hill would first have injected an anesthetic to render him unconscious. A second drug would paralyze his muscles. Potassium chloride would then be injected to stop his heart.
The University of Miami study looked at toxicology reports from executions in four states with a similar process and found post-death blood concentrations of the anesthetic were lower than required for surgery in 43 of 49 of the inmates. Twenty-one of those inmates had levels consistent with awareness.
Lubarsky said inmates who gained consciousness could feel like they're being buried alive due to the paralytic drug and then feel the lethal chemical burn through their veins. But it's unclear whether that's happening without further study, he said.
"In the absence of proof we're doing the right thing; we ought not to continue," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top