By Tom Leonard in New York
Last Updated: 1:45am BST 04/10/2007
The highest criminal appeals court in Texas delayed an execution yesterday in a signal that even the most avid supporters of the death penalty in America are concerned that lethal injections are too cruel.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the execution of Heliberto Chi, a convicted murderer, after his lawyers raised questions about the "constitutionality" of injections.
Texas, which executes far more criminals than any other state, had previously ignored the growing concern but yesterday's decision brings it into line with the US Supreme Court, which announced last week that it would review the legality of lethal injections. State prosecutors have 30 days to respond.
The Texas Attorney General's Office said it would review the case of each Death Row inmate with an approaching execution date.
Some Texas prosecutors vowed they would continue to push for the death penalty, if necessary substituting a different execution method.
advertisementBut critics believe the Chi reprieve has stopped the death penalty in its tracks in Texas, as it has in at least 10 other states which have suspended executions.
"Until the Court of Criminal Appeals addresses the questions raised in this case, there will be no more executions in Texas," said David Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who worked on Chi's appeal.
Wes Ball, Chi's lawyer, said: "I'm grateful there's some measure of common sense descending on the great state of Texas. We're not left in the wilderness."
Lethal injection is almost the universal method of capital punishment in America. Texas has executed 26 people this year.
The lethal injection procedure involves administering a cocktail of three drugs – an anaesthetic, a muscle paralyser and a chemical that stops the heart.
But opponents say it violates the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment". They cite medical evidence that it appeared to have caused some recipients to suffocate while they were conscious but paralysed.
The Texas decision coincided with the publication of an Amnesty International report today calling on doctors to stop carrying out such injections.
One of the main criticisms levelled at lethal injections is that they are often badly administered by poorly trained prison staff.
Amnesty, which opposes the death penalty on principle, compared lethal injections to a paralysed prisoner in a "chemical straitjacket" who was unable to move or cry out while suffering "excruciating pain and extreme mental suffering" before death.
Its report detailed a series of well-documented "botched" executions, where some prisoners have endured prolonged deaths of over an hour, while others have gone into convulsions or suffered "cut-down" operations to find veins.
These include the execution of the triple murderer Bennie Demps in Florida in 2000, where prison staff took 33 minutes to find a vein for the injection.
In Florida last December, Angel Diaz was seen moving – grimacing, blinking, blowing, and mouthing words – for around 24 minutes before a second injection was administered.
After half an hour, a doctor wearing a hood to cover his face entered the chamber and Diaz was pronounced dead, Amnesty said.