Friday, 25 May 2007

Lethal weapons

Friday, May 25, 2007

THE ISSUE: A federal hearing on Alabama's lethal injection procedures has been canceled. The underlying issues remain.

Nobody can say for sure what would have happened if a federal judge had carried through with his plan next month to hear a challenge to Alabama's method of executing prisoners.
But this much is certain: The questions the hearing was designed to address still exist, and they need to be answered - before Alabama puts anyone else to death.

Across the country, concerns have been raised about the combination of drugs used in lethal injections, the amount of suffering an inmate might experience and the qualifications of those carrying out the execution. The issue has been raised in places as far-flung as California, Delaware, South Dakota and Florida.

In the case of the Sunshine State, new lethal injection procedures were adopted after incorrectly inserted needles resulted in a slow and, some feared, painful death for a Florida inmate last year. After a commission formed by former Gov. Jeb Bush studied the issue, Florida officials adopted dozens of recommendations designed to ensure a humane death and make the execution process transparent.

Alabama desperately needs to take a similar look at its lethal injection procedures. Of course, Gov. Bob Riley doesn't need a federal judge to force the issue. Tennessee's governor temporarily halted executions to address a lethal injection challenge there.

A hearing set by U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins would have provided a perfect forum to look into Alabama's methods. The hearing had been set on behalf of Darrell Grayson, who is scheduled to be executed July 26 in the rape/murder of an elderly Montevallo woman in 1980. Grayson argues lethal injection causes "excruciating pain."

But last week, Watkins ruled in favor of Attorney General Troy King's office, which argued that Grayson could have raised the issue earlier and that litigating it at this point interfered with the state's interest in carrying out Grayson's sentence.

Legally, that argument worked. Logically, it makes no sense.

As defense lawyer William Montross of the Southern Center for Human Rights points out, if Grayson's challenge had failed, there would have been no delay in the execution. If his challenge had succeeded, any execution should be delayed until the injection procedures can be made constitutional.

As it stands now, another inmate is scheduled to die without the state even having to answer questions about its lethal injection procedures, and additional execution dates are being requested and set.

That's wrong. If courts won't insist on answers from the state before those executions take place, Riley should.

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