U.S. executions seen on hold as method challenged
DALLAS (Reuters) - Executions in the United States will most likely be put on hold as the U.S. Supreme Court reviews a challenge to lethal injections, but that will not bring a quick end to the death penalty, experts said on Friday.
The Supreme Court said on Tuesday it will decide whether the commonly used lethal injection method violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The court will decide an appeal by two death row inmates from Kentucky arguing that the three-chemical cocktail used in lethal injections inflicted unnecessary pain and suffering.
Two condemned inmates won last-minute reprieves on Thursday, one in Alabama and the other in Texas -- developments which analysts said were directly related to this case.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley issued a temporary stay postponing the execution of a convicted killer so the state could review its method of lethal injection.
In Texas, the most active capital punishment state by far, Gov. Rick Perry has signaled that it will be business as usual in the state's busy death chamber. But the U.S. Supreme Court granted a convicted murderer there a stay late on Thursday.
"I think the signal from the Supreme Court last night is that we will have a moratorium until the Kentucky litigation is resolved. It is essentially a de facto moratorium," said Jordan Steiker of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
"I think most jurisdictions will put executions on hold in any case and in Texas I think the Supreme Court is withdrawing the option. I think the political actors in Texas regrettably lack the restraint to allow the federal litigation to run its course," he said.
Texas executed a convicted murderer on Tuesday by lethal injection hours after the Supreme Court announced it would review the method. But analysts said that went ahead only because his attorneys had no time to mount a Kentucky-style challenge.
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, there are two more executions currently scheduled in the state in 2007. Texas has executed 26 inmates so far this year and 405 since it resumed the practice in 1982.
The Death Penalty Information Center says there are 11 more executions scheduled across the United States before the end of 2007.
Analysts also see execution dates being put on hold for now but stress that all this is only temporary as it is the current method and not lethal injection, much less the death penalty itself, which is being reviewed by the top court.
"If the death penalty is constitutional there has to be a method that is constitutional," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
All but one of the 38 U.S. states with the death penalty and the federal government use lethal injection, which has come under scrutiny after botched executions in California and Florida in which the condemned took over 30 minutes to die.
Politically, capital punishment has wide bipartisan support in the United States, from conservative evangelical Republicans who find Biblical sanction for it to some Democrats who say it is appropriate for especially heinous crimes.
Even in Texas it is usually reserved for the worst offenders and the vast majority of convicted killers in America are never sentenced to death. The United States is the only major western democracy which retains the death penalty.