Thursday, May 15, 2008

Supreme Court should forbid cruel punishment

May 14th, 2008
Supreme Court should forbid cruel punishment

Marc Morial

The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted a stay of execution to an Alabama prisoner while it determines whether the procedure of lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling came a month after the hearing of arguments in a case filed in Kentucky on behalf of death row inmates Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling that since September has put a de facto moratorium on all executions by lethal injection.

The case harkens back to 2006 when Clarence Edward Hill, an African-America convicted of murdering a police officer in Pensacola, Fla., challenged Florida’s lethal injection procedure. On death row from 1983 until 2006, Hill was originally sentenced to death by electrocution, but a state law changed it to lethal injection in 2000. But he wasn’t having anything to do with it.

In a sense, Hill became the poster child against lethal injection, the most popular form of execution in the United States. Used by nearly all states with death penalties, the procedure requires the use of three different chemicals in sequence – 1) an anesthetic to numb the body; 2) a chemical to paralyze muscles and stop breathing; and 3) a chemical to stop the heartbeat. Improper administration of the anesthetic could result in a very painful experience, one you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies.

In a 2006 editorial, headlined, "Lethal Cruelty," the New York Times concluded that when poorly administered, lethal injection, considered by some to be more humane than the electric chair, "can in fact be particularly barbaric."

Earlier that year - on January 24, 2006 - Hill was just minutes away from the other side, strapped down to a gurney and hooked up to intravenous tubes awaiting his fate. He got a last-minute stay, courtesy of the Supreme Court.

And while the nation’s high court didn’t rule on whether use of the three chemicals was unconstitutional, the justices did agree unanimously that Hill had the right to make a claim against the state’s method. In June of 2006, the court kicked the lawsuit back to the lower courts, who unfortunately ruled against Hill, contending that he didn’t file his claim early enough. An appeal went all the way back to the Supreme Court, which denied a second stay. On September 20, 2006, Hill was put to death using the method he fought so hard against.

"The idea of a ‘humane execution’ is a contradiction in terms," observed Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, last month after oral arguments in the Kentucky case. "But if states are going to put people to death, they must choose the drugs and methods that carry the least risk of pain and suffering for the condemned."

Because lethal injection appears to be a medical procedure, it is a method of execution is perceived to be humane. When it is administered properly, it is humane. But when it’s not administered properly, it most certainly is not.

The National Urban League has always opposed the death penalty because it tends to disproportionately affect blacks, who are less able to afford adequate representation when accused of running afoul with the law. From 1976 to 2007, over one-third of executed death row inmates were black.

In 2006, according to Amnesty International, the United States ranked sixth in the world in terms of execution count - behind China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. That’s very interesting company to keep, especially for a nation that prides itself in being the world’s greatest democracy and beacon of freedom. If our nation is going to legalize an act as inhumane as execution, we, at the very least, owe it to the condemned to make it as humane as possible.

Justice Harry Blackmun, once famously proclaimed that "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." The National Urban League agrees, especially if it entails senseless suffering. That is why we very strongly urge the justices to see it Blackmun’s way later this year when a final ruling comes down. We are supposed to be a nation of civilized, concerned and humane citizens not a nation of savages.

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