High court keeps door open to death-penalty lawsuits

Death-row inmates can rely on civil rights law to challenge the use of lethal injection in their executions, even after they have exhausted all their allowable appeals.

In a 9-0 decision announced Monday, the US Supreme Court left the door propped open for a significant number of condemned prisoners to sue to force an examination of whether lethal injection is a humane method of capital punishment.

Such method-of-execution suits have become the most active area of capital punishment litigation in recent years. Many states and the Bush administration had expressed concern that to allow such challenges might create another layer of delay in carrying out executions.

The case, Hill v. McDonough, did not test the constitutionality of lethal injection. Instead, it raised a technical issue: whether such legal challenges had to be filed under the more restrictive habeas statute or could be pursued as a civil rights matter. The high court said inmates could file appeals under the civil rights law.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said such civil rights suits are different from habeas suits in cases involving the death penalty because they challenge only the way an execution is carried out, not the merits of the underlying conviction.

"Any incidental delay caused by allowing [the death row inmate] to file suit does not cast on his sentence the kind of negative legal implication that would require him to proceed in a habeas action," Justice Kennedy writes.

But Kennedy also warned that the high court's ruling was not a license for death-row inmates to file last-minute challenges to stall an execution. "A stay of execution is an equitable remedy," Kennedy writes. "It is not available as a matter of right."

The decision comes in the case of Florida death-row inmate Clarence Hill, sentenced to die for the 1983 shooting death of a police officer. Hill had used up all his allowable appeals, but as his execution date drew nearer, he adopted a new strategy. Rather than challenging his conviction and death sentence, he sued under a federal civil rights statute challenging the constitutionality of Florida's use of lethal injection. Citing scientific studies, Hill argued that the state's procedure created an unreasonably high risk that he would suffer excruciating pain.

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