'Cruel and Unusual' Case Halting Executions?

Texas, the U.S. state that carries out the most death penalty sentences, may be on the verge of a shutdown of executions performed by lethal injection.

On Monday the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas stopped today's planned execution of Heliberto Chi, who was convicted in 2001 for killing the manager of a men's clothing store during a robbery attempt.

The court has given the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and prosecutors 30 days to reply to Chi's allegations that the current method of administering lethal injection in Texas constitutes cruel and unusual punishment that would violate the Eighth Amendment.

While the court hasn't ordered a halt to lethal injection executions, taking this issue under advisement may prompt Texas to soon join 11 other states in such a moratorium.

Last month the Supreme Court said it would hear a similar challenge to lethal injection.

Legal experts agree that Tuesday's Texas court order signals that the state might put all such executions on hold until the nation's highest court deals with the issue.

However, Elisabeth Semel, a law professor at University of California-Berkeley, cautions that it's too early to say whether all lethal executions in the states that allow such a method will be halted until the Supreme Court rules.

"Courts generally are cautious about granting stays when the constitutional claim against lethal injection comes up after the execution day has been set," she said.

Semel believes the high court will search for a uniform standard to apply to lethal injection procedures that will avoid arbitrary differences in how the procedures are reviewed by various state and local courts.

The next scheduled execution in Texas is Nov. 27. However, Christopher Scott Emmett of Virginia will most likely challenge his execution, scheduled for Oct. 17, by referencing the case pending at the Supreme Court.

At issue before the high court will be the standard of pain regarding the executions, the drug protocol that is used, as well as the ability of the people involved with the administration of the drugs to carry out the procedure.

Most states use the same protocol of three drugs: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Currently, of the 38 states with the death penalty, 37 allow lethal injection. However, 11 states have put lethal injections on hold for a variety of reasons. Three states -- Illinois, New Jersey and New York -- have all methods of executions on hold.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the lethal injection case early next year with a decision sometime this spring.

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