WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court made it easier yesterday for death row inmates to contest the lethal injections used across the country for executions and to get DNA evidence before judges in a pair of rulings that hinted at fresh caution on capital punishment.
The decisions, both written by moderate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, ease the rules for longtime prisoners to get their cases back into court and could add years to their appeals.
The vote was unanimous in allowing condemned inmates to make federal court claims that the chemicals used in executions are too painful - and therefore amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
It was a slap to the Bush Administration and the 25 states supporting Florida in its argument that allowing new appeals would jeopardize finality and justice for victims' families.
The winner in the case was death row inmate Clarence Hill, who was strapped to a gurney with lines running into his arms to deliver the drugs in January when Justice Kennedy, acting on behalf of the court, intervened and blocked the execution. Hill is on death row for the 1982 killing of Pensacola, Fla., Police Officer Stephen Taylor.
Following the court's intervention in the Hill case, executions were stopped in California, Maryland, and Missouri. Another state, North Carolina, began using a brain wave monitor in executions to assure a federal judge that inmates would not suffer pain.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus by several death-row inmates challenges Ohio's lethal injection drug protocol as cruel and unusual punishment.
Potentially adding fuel to that case was last month's execution of Toledo native Joseph Lewis Clark, 57, whose execution lasted nearly an hour and a half because prison medical technicians struggled to find usable veins through which drugs used could flow.
Shortly after the process began, Clark, who had a long history of intravenous drug use before his arrest in 1984, became agitated. He raised his head, and repeatedly protested, "It don't work" when it became clear the drugs weren't reaching him.
The one vein to which an intravenous line had been connected had apparently collapsed. Prison officials closed the curtain separating witnesses from the execution chamber as they worked to find a new vein. Witnesses, however, could hear Clark moaning and groaning for several minutes.
A few days before Clark's death, another inmate, Jeffrey D. Hill of Hamilton County, won a stay of his execution because he is a party to the federal lawsuit in Columbus. Clark was not a party to that suit.
In the other U.S. Supreme Court case yesterday, justices ruled 5-3 that Tennessee death row inmate Paul Gregory House can use new evidence to try to get his conviction overturned in the 1985 murder of a neighbor. DNA testing revealed that semen found on Carolyn Muncey's nightgown and underwear belonged to her husband, not House.
The ruling lowers the bar for inmates who want to get a new hearing on evidence that was not used at their trials.