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Lethal Injection Goes on Trial, But Goes On

by John Gramlich and Daniel C. Vock, Stateline.org Staff Writer

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Nine minutes after a lethal dose of drugs was shot into his arms, Texas murderer Michael Richard last night (Sept. 25) became the 929th death-row inmate in the United States to be executed by lethal injection since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.

The three-drug mixture used to stop Richard’s breathing and then his heart is the same chemical cocktail the U.S. Supreme Court – just hours before – agreed to scrutinize in a case that challenges the way 37 states put inmates to death.

The case was brought by two Kentucky prisoners, who argue that the state’s drug regimen exposes inmates to illegal cruel and unusual punishment. The appeal doesn’t seek to throw out lethal injection as a form of capital punishment but seeks changes in how it’s administered and reviewed in the courts.

By agreeing to hear arguments, the high court raised hopes among death-penalty opponents that an immediate, nationwide moratorium on use of lethal injections would result – at least until the justices issue an opinion in the case, Baze v. Rees, sometime next year.

But those hopes were dealt a serious blow when the full court rejected a series of last-minute appeals by lawyers for Richard, who was pronounced dead in the Texas death chamber in Huntsville at 8:23 p.m. local time, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice.

Challenges to lethal injection procedures and the use of doctors in executions already have put lethal injection on hold in 11 states: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee. The high court’s refusal to issue a stay of execution for Richard signaled that executions are able to continue elsewhere, even as lawyers for death-row inmates rush to file new appeals pleading for a delay until the justices’ decision.

Individual states, however, could put executions by lethal injection on hold while the court deliberates, death penalty experts said.

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