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September 20, 2007

Tennessee's Death Penalty Procedure Ruled "Cruel and Inhumane"

A federal court judge has ruled that Tennessee's lethal injection procedures are cruel and unusual and are therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

The state cannot go ahead with the execution of convicted murderer Edward Jerome Harbison because lethal injection, as it is practiced in Tennessee, "presents a substantial risk of unnecessary pain" and could lead to "a terrifying, excruciating death."

The AP article notes that this is not a stay of execution or a reversal of his death sentence. Tauntingly, the judge notes that Tennessee can execute Harbison as soon as they find a humane way to do it.

Such a method may still exist: under Tennessee law, a capital defendant convicted before 1999 can chose lethal injection or death by electric chair. Harbison was convicted in 1983. So that option may still be open to the state, however, the legislature may have to make the electric chair mandatory before state officials can execute him. (I'm not sure whether the choice is required by the language of Tennessee's capital punishment statute and I'm too tired to look it up.)

I'm waiting to see the judge's opinion and how she dealt with the terms "cruel" and "unusual." As we discussed a few weeks ago (link goes to the version on my blog) there is no clear guidance from the courts as to what those terms mean or whether they are even properly treated as separate from each other.

I'm of two minds about the ruling. On the one hand, I oppose the use of the death penalty at this time and in this country. On the other, I find it hard to believe that a procedure performed daily by veterinarians across the United States is so "inhumane" when performed on a human.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:25 AM

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