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Lethal Shot Ruling Renews Capital Punishment Debate

Monday’s case leaves unanswered broader questions regarding capital punishment, but could set the stage for a nationwide battle over the subject.

Lethal Shot Ruling Renews Capital Punishment Debate

WASHINGTON – Justices of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that death-row prisoners can challenge the constitutionality of lethal injection, the method used by most states and the federal government to carry out death sentences.

In the ruling, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court allowed condemned prisoners to make last-minute claims that the lethal blend of chemicals are too painful, and therefore amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution’s Eight Amendment.

The winner in the decision was Florida death row inmate Clarence Hill, who was strapped to a gurney for the lethal drugs to be delivered when the Supreme Court in January intervened and blocked the execution.

The result in Hill v. McDonough does not grant Hill an escape from the sentence he received for killing a police officer in 1983 after robbing a bank in Pensacola.

“Other methods of lethal injection the department could choose to use would be constitutional,” Kennedy wrote.

However, it grants Hill some time to further delay his execution. It also opens the door for challenges by other death row inmates across the country who are also facing lethal injection.

"You can expect that every state will now have to defend its protocol," Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and a death penalty expert, said to the New York Times.

Christians, like Americans in general, have remained mixed on the topic of Capital punishment. Denominations like the United Methodist Church have spoken feverishly against the practice, while some high ranking officials in more conservative bodies like the Southern Baptist Convention defended it.

In the latest Gallup Poll, some 82 percent of Republicans approved the death penalty versus 63 percent of Democrats.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment 30 years ago this summer, and has since rejected challenges to the practice based on contentions that it is imposed in a racially discriminatory manner. The High Court has, however, intervened in cases surrounding mentally retarded prisoners and those who were juveniles at the time of the crime.

Monday’s case leaves unanswered broader questions regarding capital punishment, but could set the stage for a nationwide battle over the subject. More than 24 states had filed arguments at the court seeking the opposite outcome.

The case was one of several major death penalty appeals to come before a court that has two new members.

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