A federal judge on Wednesday blocked next week’s scheduled execution of a prisoner in Tennessee, ruling that newly revised lethal injection procedures were unconstitutional.
Judge Aleta A. Trauger of Federal District Court here ruled that the state cannot execute the prisoner, Edward J. Harbison, 52, because Tennessee’s use of a three-drug lethal injection would present “a substantial risk of unnecessary pain.” Mr. Harbison had been scheduled to die by lethal injection next Wednesday.
Tennessee is among 11 states in which executions have been postponed or blocked over concerns about lethal injection and whether it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit research group. Thirty-seven of 38 states with the death penalty allow lethal injection; Nebraska requires electrocution.
In February, Gov. Phil Bredesen imposed a 90-day moratorium on four executions while the state revised its death penalty protocols, which had been criticized as a hodgepodge of conflicting, confusing instructions.
After the state released a clarified and updated set of procedures, it resumed lethal injections in May, with the execution of Philip R. Workman. Last week, Tennessee put Daryl Holton to death by electric chair.
The Tennessean has coverage beginning with, "Judge halts executions by injection."
Tennessee's new lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional because the procedure could pose a significant risk of "unnecessary pain,'' a federal judge ruled.
The Wednesday ruling could delay all upcoming state executions unless a higher court intervenes.
U.S. District Judge Aleta A. Trauger's ruling prohibits the state from executing Edward J. Harbison next week under the current guidelines.
In February, Gov. Phil Bredesen issued a 90-day moratorium on executions so that prison officials could rewrite the guidelines. The governor lifted the moratorium in
Trauger ruled that the guidelines violate Harbison's constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, because the procedure may not cause unconsciousness before ending a life.
Tennessean columnist Dwight Lewis has, "Lethal-injection ruling gives governor an opportunity."
Trauger's ruling struck down the legality of lethal injection. In her ruling, she said state Correction Commissioner George Little adopted the protocol despite having knowledge about remaining risks of excessive pain for inmates. She also said the protocol does not ensure that inmates are properly anesthetized before the lethal injection is administered.
And in issuing her ruling, Trauger stopped Harbison's scheduled execution until the state adopts a valid method of execution. The state has not said whether it will appeal Trauger's ruling. It shouldn't do so. Instead, put that moratorium on the state's death penalty and let's make sure all questions about the state's capital system can be answered.
Surely, there's no rush to just put condemned inmates to death in Tennessee. It's an ugly act and if Tennessee feels it must have such an act, it should make sure no errors are involved. Just one mistake would be one too many.
Associated Press, via Google News, has, "Court ruling halts Tennessee executions."
The protocol "presents a substantial risk of unnecessary pain" and violates death row inmate Edward Jerome Harbison's constitutional protections under the Eighth Amendment, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger said.
The new protocol, released in April, does not ensure that inmates are properly anesthetized before the lethal injection is administered, Trauger said, which could "result in a terrifying, excruciating death."
A spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office said officials are reviewing the ruling and haven't decided whether to appeal. Gov. Phil Bredesen's office had no immediate comment.
Harbison was scheduled to be executed Sept. 26 for beating an elderly woman to death during a burglary in 1983.
Trauger did not issue a stay or throw out the death sentence for Harbison, who has lost all his appeals. He can be legally executed once the state adopts a valid method of execution, she said.
Another federal judge in Nashville this year ordered a delay in the execution of convicted killer Philip Workman, citing the likelihood that the state's new guidelines could still cause unconstitutional pain and suffering. But a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted that temporary restraining order, and Workman was executed by lethal injection May 9.
Bredesen, a Democrat, in February placed a 90-day moratorium on executions because of several glaring problems with the state's execution guidelines, including conflicting instructions that mixed lethal injection instructions with those for the electric chair.
George Little, State Department of Correction commissioner, adopted the new protocol despite having knowledge about the remaining risks of excessive pain for inmates, Trauger said. A spokeswoman for Little did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Little did not give enough consideration to a recommendation to discard the standard three-drug lethal injection cocktail in favor of a single drug method, Trauger said. Current training and medical expertise are not sufficient to ensure a painless execution, she said.
Most states use three drugs — thiopental, an anesthetic; pancuronium bromide, a nerve blocker and muscle paralyzer; and potassium chloride, a drug to stop the heart. Each is supposed to be capable of killing by itself, but if not, the anesthetic is supposed to render the inmate unconscious while the other drugs do the job.