Taking the Time to Get it Right on Lethal Injections

A showdown begins today in federal court in San Jose, California, over the state's use of lethal injections to execute condemned prisoners. The Los Angeles Times this morning has a good piece about how U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel plans to devote four full days in court to investigate whether California's system of lethal injections-- the procedures and medicines used-- violates the prisoners' rights to be free from "cruel and unusual" punishment.

The prisoner in this case is a man named Michael Morales, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of Terri Lynn Winchell. Morales' attorneys, the Times reports, plan to "probe everything about the state's lethal injection procedures -- the nature and amounts of the drugs used, the lighting in the room where people monitor the inmate's death and the background of the people on the execution team." California officials, the Times says, plan to argue that their procedures do not violate the Constitution and that, even if they did, Morales' team could not meet its burden of proving so. The issue is an open one. The U.S. Supreme Court last term ruled that such challenges could be brought by death row inmates but did not rule either way on whether such challenges ever could succeed.

This case, and the way Judge Fogel is handling it, have significant national ramifications. First, lawyers who practice in this burgeoning area of the law-- there are many similiar challenges to the process of executions around the country-- probably will use this template in the future, asking the judges presiding over their cases to hold involved and serious evaluations of the means by which the state kills prisoners. Second, judges around the country who have such cases will be looking to see how Judge Fogel is handling it and perhaps use his model as their own. And, finally, and certainly most importantly, the evidence revealed during the next four days in San Jose will certainly add to the body of knowledge we have about whether we can do better, and be more humane, when we choose to execute our prisoners.

The questions Morales' attorneys are allowed to ask no doubt will be asked by lawyers in future cases. And the same goes for the lines of inquiry that Judge Fogel says he plans to explore. It will be interesting to see whether California's capital procedures can stand up to this intense scrutiny and what will happen if they do not. I will keep you posted on this throughout the rest of the week.

By Andrew Cohen |  September 26, 2006; 11:30 AM ET
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