Lethal Injection: Not Fit for a Dog?

The first day of the landmark hearing about the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures in California-- the methods and medicines by which the state executes its condemned prisoners-- was as fascinating as I had figured it would be when I wrote about it yesterday. The San Jose Mercury News in its story today pretty much led with comments made by U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, who told the parties Tuesday in federal court in San Jose that: "It's inaccurate to say an execution has to be painless... The question is whether the degree of pain is so severe that it raises constitutional issues under the Eighth Amendment.''

The San Francisco Chronicle led with this: "California's method of lethal injection isn't humane enough to use on a dog, medical witnesses testified Tuesday on behalf of a condemned murderer from Stockton who is challenging the constitutionality of the state's execution procedures." The Los Angeles Times offered a third take on what was important: "During the first day of a trial on the constitutionality of California's lethal injection method of execution, an expert on pharmacology said the drug used to anesthetize inmates wears off 'extremely fast' and potentially exposes prisoners to painful deaths." And the Associated Press went back to the animal angle for its lead: "A veterinarian testified Tuesday he would not euthanize animals the same way that California executes inmates."

Among the many things that make the hearing extraordinary is the candid conversation the judge is forcing the attorneys and witnesses to have about potential solutions to the perceived problem with the way we execute death row inmates. As the Mercury News put it: "In the course of this week's hearing, Fogel is expected to explore a number of possible alternatives to the state's current method, including the option of putting an inmate to death solely with the sodium thiopental, which is fatal in high dosages but takes longer to cause death. In fact, Fogel zeroed in on the issue quickly Tuesday as he questioned Dr. Mark Heath, a New York anesthesiologist who has testified for death row inmates in dozens of lethal injection cases." While the hearing is underway, and until Judge Fogel issues his ruling and it is resolved on appeal, there will be no executions in California.

And what does California say about all of this? Here's the Times' take: "Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Dane Gillette, lead lawyer for the state, said his side would demonstrate that a new procedure that California adopted in response to questions about the drug cocktail -- requiring a continuous infusion of anesthetic rather than a one-time delivery -- would meet constitutional standards. Gillette said the state would not concede that the former procedure was unconstitutional but acknowledged a problem in the execution last year of Stanley Tookie Williams, a gang leader and murderer. In that case, the execution team failed to insert a backup line for the anesthetic -- a fact that Morales' lawyers uncovered in a deposition. Gillette called the episode 'a lesson well learned, one that will never happen again.'"

Stay tuned.

By Andrew Cohen |  September 27, 2006; 11:30 AM ET
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