« The Daily Memo - 6/12/06 | Main | House v. Bell »

Supreme Court Decision Update - Hill v. McDonough

supreme3.jpgIn the first of two Supreme Court opinions today, Hill v. McDonough (PDF of the Opinion), the Supremes stop short of answering whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but do allow a death-row inmate to challenge the constitutionality of injenctions under a civil right’s law, 42 USC 1983.

Quizlaw Analysis: The opinion today doesn’t hold that the death penalty, or even lethal injection, is unconstitutional. It merely opens the door for death-row inmates to use another avenue to challenge their executions.

Back in 1983, Clarence Hill shot and killed a police officer during the execution of a bank robbery. He was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Earlier this year, after Hill seemingly exhausting all of his appeals, Justice Kennedy granted him a stay of execution only minutes before he was scheduled to die. Hill argued on appeal that execution by lethal injection causes “foreseeable and gratuitous pain,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Typically, in the 38 states that use lethal injection, the process includes three injection-steps. Inmates are first injected with sodium pentothal, which is an anesthetic. This is followed by pancuronium bromide, which causes the lungs to shut down and paralyzes the body. The final chemical, potassium chloride, then induces a fatal heart attack.

In the unanimous opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Supremes opened the door to constitutional challenges to lethal injection, but did not rule on the constitutionality of injections. The lower courts had said HIll’s case was barred. Their reasoning was that Hill’s case was the functional equivalent of a habeas corpus petition, and inmates can generally only file a single habeas petition in federal court. As Hill had already filed a habeas petition, the court reasoned, he was out of turns. The Supreme Court disagreed, however, noting that habeas corpus petitions are brought to challenge the lawfulness of a sentence or confinement. Hill’s case, on the other hand, was a challenge of the method of execution, rather than the lawfulness of his sentence, and was therefore distinct from a habeas petition (and thus it was not barred).

Indeed, Hill was not claiming that he could not be executed, only that he should not be forced into a painful execution. However, as Kennedy noted, “Hill’s challenge appears to leave the state free to use an alternative lethal injection procedure.”