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Supreme Court Allows Lethal Injection Challenge

June 12, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The high court decided two cases today impacting inmates on death row. Here to walk us through the decisions is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle, Washington bureau chief for the National Law Journal.

Now, let’s start with the lethal injection case. Clarence Edward Hill has challenged his Florida murder verdict time and time again on various grounds, never prevailed. What did he go into court pleading this time?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Well, he was challenging the drugs that Florida uses to carry out lethal injections. He said that these drugs violated his civil rights because they cause or they resulted in unnecessary and gratuitous pain.

Clarence Hill, like the second case we’re going to discuss, Paul House, both men have in common the fact that they have been challenging their convictions for more than two decades, but also they both are pretty much at the end of the line, in terms of the kinds of claims they can bring in so-called habeas corpus petitions that federal courts will consider.

That’s why it was so important to Clarence Hill today to convince the Supreme Court that his challenge to these drugs was really a civil rights claim and not a habeas claim.

Civil Rights vs. habeas corpus


RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that he's been in jail for two decades. During that time, while he was living on death row, Florida changed from execution to lethal injection.

MARCIA COYLE: That's correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Did that make bringing his case easier?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, certainly it provided another possible challenge, if he thought or his lawyers thought there was something wrong with the way Florida was carrying out lethal injection. And so that's what he has done here.

It took him a long time in order to get the information he needed about what kind of drugs Florida was using, and then he went into court. And the courts would not consider it as a habeas petition.

He wants to bring it as a civil rights claim, and that's what the Supreme Court decided today. It decided that this claim really was more properly a civil rights claim, which is easier to bring because it has less of the procedural hurdles that habeas corpus petitions have.

Justice Kennedy wrote the majority -- or wrote the opinion for a unanimous court here, saying that basically Hill isn't challenging his sentence that he should be executed. He's challenging the manner in which that sentence is carried out, and that takes it out of habeas corpus and puts it into the civil rights category.

A future challenge


RAY SUAREZ: But to be clear: Was the court asked to rule on whether lethal injection as a means of execution is legal, is allowable?

MARCIA COYLE: That's a very important point, Ray: It was not asked that. It was only asked if this type of claim is a civil rights claim or a habeas corpus claim.

There are a lot of lethal injection challenges now pending around the country, and the Supreme Court has yet to take a case that confronts head-on whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

So I think, you know, what you can take away from what the court did today is this: It clarified for the lower courts how they should handle challenges like this, to the manner in which lethal injection is carried out. It also made it easier to bring these claims.

I think we probably will see more of these claims. And because we will see more of these claims, it may well hasten the day when the Supreme Court does take up a direct challenge to lethal injection.

The court had one of those challenges come before it last month, and it declined to review it. So it may be waiting to see how the lower courts deal with them before it gets back into this.

Keeping the door open


RAY SUAREZ: Now, in the other decision involving a death row inmate, Paul Gregory House based his plea to the court on a factual innocence plea. What is that?

MARCIA COYLE: He really wanted one of two things from the Supreme Court. He wanted the court to find that his new evidence of actual innocence of the -- he was sent to death row for the murder of a neighbor in conjunction with an attempted rape.

He wanted the Supreme Court to either say, "This evidence is so compelling, so extraordinary that it would be unconstitutional to execute this man." He did not get that from the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court voted unanimously that his evidence did not rise to that level.

But the second thing he wanted, in lieu of that, was, now that the federal courthouse door was pretty much closed to him, was his evidence compelling or sufficient enough to fit into an exception that would open that door a little bit for him?

The court, in 1995, said that, if you have compelling evidence of actual innocence of the crime such that no reasonable juror would likely vote to convict you, that you can get federal court review of your evidence, you can get through that, you can open that courthouse door a little bit.

The court voted 5-3 here today that his evidence was sufficient enough to get back into federal court.

Compelling evidence


RAY SUAREZ: Meaning what, he can have a new trial, or based on the new evidence?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, absolutely. And what was central to the ruling here -- and, again, it was Justice Kennedy who wrote this one, as well -- was the DNA evidence that Paul House presented. Justice Kennedy said that the central forensic evidence linking House to the crime was destroyed, basically, by the DNA evidence.

That, as well as some troubling evidence about blood samples and how they were handled, blood samples taken from House's clothing and the victim's clothing, as well as evidence that possibly the victim's husband committed the murder, those three things made the evidence sufficient that he should be allowed to go back into federal court and press his claim that he is innocent.

RAY SUAREZ: So this decision keeps Paul House's date with the executioner postponed?


RAY SUAREZ: Does it have any effect on other men in similar circumstances who are trying to get DNA evidence into court?

MARCIA COYLE: I don't think it makes new law, because the court was applying a 1995 decision here, but what it does do is it tells courts, even though it's late in the day, as it was for Paul House, 20 years after he's been sent to death row, if an inmate comes forward with DNA evidence and it's compelling evidence of innocence, then, yes, you have to open the courthouse door to hear his claim.

So it will have that impact. We're seeing more and more inmates requesting DNA testing, particularly in rape and murder cases, so we may see courts more willing to entertain those claims.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.