Challenging the method

June 14, 2006

Ruling in two capital punishment cases, the U.S. Supreme Court rightly recognized Monday that defendants facing the death penalty should be afforded every chance to challenge a state's decision to execute them. The death penalty is the ultimate punishment, and courts must proceed with the utmost care and deliberation in evaluating a defendant's claim for relief. The court reinforced that principle in a Florida case, while putting off discussion of the bigger issue, the constitutionality of lethal injection, the execution method used in Maryland and 36 other states.

It was a narrow but essential ruling that holds open the possibility of a full debate on this question later.

What remains now is for death row inmates such as Florida's Clarence E. Hill, whose appeal was before the court, or Maryland's Vernon Lee Evans Jr. to push ahead and try to convince lower courts that the three-drug lethal cocktail most in use today amounts to cruel and unusual punishment or that state procedures for its use are unacceptable. The justices allowed Mr. Hill's appeal to go forward because they found that he was challenging the legality of the method used, and not the sentence itself. They acknowledged that changing the method of execution would not preclude Florida from executing the convicted cop killer.

The other death penalty case in which the court ruled may have more impact on defendants who believe they have been wrongfully convicted. Paul G. House has been sitting on Tennessee's death row for 20 years for a rape-murder he says he didn't commit. Using sophisticated DNA testing that wasn't available to him years ago, Mr. House sought to demonstrate that the evidence used to convict him was faulty.

In ruling for Mr. House, the court didn't exonerate him. Rather, it sent this message to lower courts: If new evidence would have raised enough doubts for a jury, a defendant should be permitted to challenge a conviction in federal court through a habeas corpus petition. But the court emphasized that only a "truly extraordinary" case with facts that undermined a conviction should be granted such relief. Mr. House will get his federal hearing.

Clarence Hill and Paul House may yet meet the executioner, but the court's rulings in their cases underscore that death row inmates should be given every opportunity to contest such a final outcome.

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