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Will the Supreme Court Kill The Death Penalty This Term?

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Will the U.S. Supreme Court add the fate of the death penalty to a term already fraught with hot-button issues like partisan gerrymandering, warrantless surveillance, and a host of contentious First Amendment disputes?
That’s the hope of an ambitious Supreme Court petition seeking to abolish the ultimate punishment. But it runs headlong into the fact that only two justices have squarely called for a reexamination of the death penalty’s constitutionality.
Abel Hidalgo challenges Arizona’s capital punishment system—which sweeps too broadly, he says, because the state’s “aggravating factors” make 99 percent of first-degree murderers death-eligible—as well as the death penalty itself, arguing it’s cruel and unusual punishment.
He’s represented by former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal—among the most successful Supreme Court practitioners last term. Hidalgo also has the support of several outside groups who filed amicus briefs on his behalf, notably one from a group including Ari…

Alabama Senate approves nitrogen gas as execution option

The Alabama Senate on Tuesday voted to offer condemned inmates the option to die by nitrogen suffocation, a method of execution untested on humans but which supporters argue might provide a more humane method of death than other methods.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, passed the chamber 25 to 8 after majority Republicans ended debate on the measure. It goes to the House of Representatives.

Like other states, Alabama faces challenges carrying out executions by lethal injection, its main method since 2002. The state has struggled to obtain supplies of sedatives needed for the procedure, and the current drug used – midazolam – has been criticized for not providing sufficient sedation to protect against the pain of the remaining two drugs, which paralyze the muscles and stop the heart.

Media witnesses to the execution of Ronald Bert Smith last December said Smith gasped and coughed for 13 minutes after receiving midazolam; the execution took 34 minutes. Smith’s attorneys said it showed “he was not anesthetized at any point during the agonizingly long procedure.”

Nitrogen hypoxia would involve placing a mask on a condemned inmate, or putting the individual in a chamber. The oxygen available would be replaced by nitrogen, resulting in death. Oklahoma approved it as an alternative execution method in 2015. Mississippi recently approved it as an alternative method.

Pittman argued nitrogen hypoxia -- in which an inmate, covered with a mask or secured in a chamber, has their oxygen supply replaced with nitrogen -- could provide a more humane method of execution.

"It leads to quick unconsciousness, (and) death without any residual issues with carbon monoxide," he said.

While executions by gas chamber occurred until 1999, the method typically involved the use of hydrogen cyanide. As with other execution methods, gas became controversial for long or drawn-out executions; witnesses said Jimmy Lee Gray, executed by gas in Mississippi in 1983, was seen smashing his head into an iron bar to achieve unconsciousness.

Nitrogen hypoxia has been used to euthanize animals, though guidance from the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends it chiefly for birds and encourages the use of a sedative if used on larger animals. But no state has carried out an execution using the method.

“As with a number of the proposed execution methods, it will involve human experimentation,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., an anti-death penalty group. “It’s obviously unethical to conduct experiments. It has not been used in involuntarily taking someone’s life.”

The proposal is an option; under the law, the primary method of execution would remain lethal injection. Inmates can also choose death by electric chair. If all three methods were found unconstitutional, the bill authorizes the Department of Corrections to employ a constitutional method of execution, such as firing squad.

Democrats objected to the bill.

"The (method) that has been passed has not been tested . . . we don’t know what it’s gong to cost us," said Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

Pittman's bill initially would have allowed inmates to choose death by firing squad, but Pittman replaced it in a Senate committee earlier this month, saying hypoxia would be more humane.

The bill requires the Alabama Department of Corrections to develop the methods of nitrogen execution.

The Senate also approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, that would require condemned inmates appealing their sentence to raise collateral issues like the effectiveness of counsel at the same time they make their direct appeal of their sentence. The collateral issues, known as a Rule 32 appeal, are currently raised after direct appeal. The effect of the change, if passed into law, would shorten the appeals process on death sentences.

Source: Montgomery Adviser, Brian Lyman, April 18, 2017

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