Supreme Court allows lethal-injection challenge

9 justices rule Ala. man can appeal on basis that method is cruel, unusual


WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that an Alabama triple-murderer can challenge his death sentence by lethal injection on the basis that opening his veins for the deadly chemicals is cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Constitution.

The nine justices said that lower courts were wrong to block appeals by death row inmate David Larry Nelson, who was less than three hours from execution last fall when the Supreme Court gave him a temporary reprieve.

During arguments before the court in March, Nelson's attorney, Bryan Stevenson, said Nelson's veins were damaged from years of drug use, and that prison officials likely would have difficulty finding a vein in his forearms or hands to place a needle for the lethal mixture of chemicals. If they could not find a vein, they would attempt to insert a "central line" in his groin or neck, he said.

If that failed, the lethal injection would be delivered into a vein located after a 2-inch incision is made into Nelson's leg or arm, Stevenson said.

He said that complications from the procedure included hemorrhage and the potential for death by asphyxia and cardiovascular collapse.

Nelson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that this procedure would violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. He didn't suggest an alternative method of execution.

Both a district court and the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta refused to allow the lawsuit.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court, said that Nelson should be allowed to argue that his punishment would be unconstitutionally cruel unless special precautions were taken.

The issue before the court was a technical one: whether Nelson can use a 133-year-old civil rights law to challenge the vein-opening procedure.

But Nelson's case cast a spotlight on one of the anti-death-penalty movement's newest lines of attack - that the anesthetic used in lethal injections often fails to prevent horrible suffering.

Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that oppose executions, said lethal injection has become the standard during the past three decades because it appears to give condemned inmates a peaceful and sedated death, especially when compared with the grisly scenes that can result when killers are electrocuted or hanged.

In 37 or 38 states

The procedure is used in 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty.

Dieter said the court's decision acknowledged the rights of prisoners to be treated humanely.

The Supreme Court banned the death penalty in 1972 after deciding that it was being imposed too arbitrarily. The justices reinstated the penalty four years later, after several states changed their trial and sentencing guidelines. Since 1976, there have been 910 executions in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

During arguments in the Nelson case, Alabama Solicitor General Kevin Newsom warned that if Nelson were allowed to contest the procedure, it would lead to more inmate appeals over how prison officials carry out executions.

But in the court's opinion, O'Connor said the court was not going to "open the floodgates to all manner of method-of-execution challenges."

Nelson was sentenced to die for the 1978 New Year's Day death of Wilson Woodrow Thompson in Kimberly, Ala. He also was convicted of killing cab driver James Dewey Cash a few hours earlier. And in 1971, he pleaded guilty to beating 82- year-old Oliver King to death in a Birmingham parking lot and spent three years in prison.

Police-search decision

In a separate decision yesterday, the court ruled that police can search a parked car for drugs, guns or other evidence of a crime while arresting a driver or passengers nearby.

The high court has ruled that officers can search a car when arresting someone inside, and the same rule now applies if a motorist or passenger gets out of the car.

The 7-2 ruling addressed a common situation, in which police pull over a suspicious car or come upon it while it is parked. Sometimes motorists get out of the car before an officer approaches, and it was not clear until now whether police had leeway to search the car.

"In all relevant aspects, the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer safety and the destruction of evidence as the arrest of one who is inside the vehicle," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority.

Once told he is under arrest, a suspect outside a car could still lunge inside for a weapon, Rehnquist wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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