'De Facto Moratorium' on Lethal Injections?

With lethal injection case pending, Supreme Court blocks Miss. execution.

February 10, 2009, 8:21 AM

Oct. 30, 2007— -- Earl Wesley Berry is a killer. He murdered Mary Bounds 20 years ago after the Mississippi grandmother left her church choir practice.

Bounds' daughter Jena Watson expected to see Berry die Wednesday evening by lethal injection.

"It has brought back all of the grief," she said.

But the Supreme Court gave Berry a last-minute reprieve that could have an affect on other death row inmates across the country.

The Court blocked the execution until it decides a separate, pending case next year on whether death by lethal injection is so cruel and unusual it violates the Constitution.

"Right now I think we have a de facto moratorium on lethal injections in this country," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the anti-capital punishment Death Penalty Information Center.

The Court's order will bring capital punishment across the United States to a sudden stop. It's the third time in a month the Justices have blocked an execution.

But the eleventh-hour decision to spare Berry, at least temporarily, angered some victims' rights groups.

"This means further delay in an execution that is already very long overdue," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

"This is a man who beat a woman to death 20 years ago. And we shouldn't be concerned that much about a very remote chance that he might feel some pain in being punished for that crime," he continued.

The justices plan to decide a Kentucky case next year on whether lethal injections are unconstitutional. But 35 other states also use the method. Eighteen have executions on hold until the Court rules. Others, like Mississippi, tried to go forward.

The states, as well as the federal government, began implementing lethal injections as a more humane alternative to a firing squad or the electric chair. Three drugs are used: one induces sleep, one causes paralysis and the final drug stops the heart.

But the process isn't always as so simple.

Death row inmate Joseph Clark murdered a gas station attendant in Ohio, and for his crime, he said he deserved to die.

"If it's time for me to go, it is just time for me to go," Clark said before his execution.

But it took him 86 minutes to die last year while he screamed in pain.

The brother of Clark's victim witnessed the ordeal.

"His foot was bouncing around for a bit and it stopped and we thought he was gone," Michael Manning recalled. "Soon after that is when his head and the top of his shoulders came up and he started to shake his head from side to side."

It took a technician 19 tries to insert the intravenous needle into Clark's body.

Manning says what he saw in that execution chamber should not have happened.

"I believe in the death penalty, but I side on the constitutionality side of it. The Eighth Amendment says no cruel and unusual punishment, and that's what I think that was," Manning said.

Clark's brother Dennis says his brother had to pay the ultimate price for his crime and he, like most Americans, supports the death penalty. But he says lethal injections are inhumane.

"The death penalty is the last, the only thing that you can do at the end if a person has done really wrong," Dennis Clark said. "But it still needs to be done right, and what happened to my brother was not right."

"States have just been careless about this, and that amounts to a tortuous way of treating a human being," the Death Penalty Information Center's Dieter said. "Even though you can execute them, you're not free to do with them as you wish."

The Supreme Court's decision won't overturn death sentences, but it could force states to change their procedures before there's another execution.

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