WASHINGTON - A sudden halt to executions in Texas, the United States's most active death penalty state, may signal that there is now an unofficial national moratorium in place across the nation, pending a ruling by the Supreme Court on whether a specific lethal injection cocktail is legal.On Tuesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a temporary reprieve for a convicted killer, Heliberto Chi, giving the state 30 days to explain why his execution should go ahead.
This came five days after the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to prevent the execution in Texas of Carlton Turner, Jr., only hours before he was due to die by lethal injection for killing his adoptive parents. At the same time, it also halted the execution of Thomas Arthur in Alabama.
'It is an unbelievable awakening to see Texas courts following the national norms,' said Rick Halperin, president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, explaining that the Texas courts did not have a history of following precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The two Supreme Court execution stays were interpreted by legal experts as a signal to all U.S. states that they should now wait before carrying out any further executions until the Court ruled on the constitutionality of lethal injections as a method of execution in two separate cases from Kentucky.
The two, Ralph Baze and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr., both convicted killers and now on Kentucky's death row, have appealed to the Supreme Court to halt their executions, arguing that the chemicals used in their state's lethal injections amounted to 'cruel and unusual punishment'. This would make the current cocktail a violation of the eighth amendment of the U.S. constitution.
On Sep. 25, it was announced that the Supreme Court's ruling in the two cases would be handed down sometime during the court's current session, which formally opened on Oct. 1. The ruling could be announced by June 2008.
Immediately following the Supreme Court's decision to review the two lethal injection cases, Texas executed Michael Richard, its 405th inmate since the Supreme Court re-instated the death penalty in 1976. Lawyers were not able to file his appeal in time to take advantage of the Court's decision and he was executed the same night. The Supreme Court's decision led 10 other states to halt executions.
The U.S. federal government and all but one of the 38 states still with the death penalty on their statute books, use lethal injections for their executions. Most states use the same cocktail of the three the drugs administered in Kentucky, an anaesthetic, pancuronium bromide which paralyses muscles and potassium chloride which stops the heart. Nebraska is the only state which still uses the electric chair.
The Supreme Court has not addressed the constitutionality of the method of execution for more than 100 years. There are currently more than 3,500 people on death row in the U.S.
The two inmates in the Kentucky cases and many death penalty opponents argue that if the drugs in the cocktail are not administered correctly, the prisoner can suffer excruciating pain without being able to cry out before death.
The current flurry of legal activity around the lethal injection issue in the U.S. coincided with the 192-member U.N. General Assembly in New York. It is here that the EU will soon table a resolution for a worldwide moratorium on state executions. The moratorium will need a two-thirds majority to pass.
The U.S. is expected to strongly oppose this, but now with an unofficial moratorium apparently in place as its highest court prepares to review the legality of lethal injections, it may be more muted in the General Assembly and outside before the final casting of votes.
This might leave China, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, responsible for most of the world's state killings, more isolated in the anti-moratorium camp.
Anti-death penalty activists in the U.S. remain cautious over whether the Supreme Court will eventually rule that execution by lethal injection is unconstitutional, fearing that the current unofficial moratorium may be short-lived.
'The U.S. Supreme Court has never determined execution to be unconstitutional, and it is not likely they will be any different with lethal injection,' Halperin told IPS.
'They may tinker with lethal injection but the U.S. Supreme Court is so pro-death penalty that they are unlikely to eliminate the death penalty. There may be a slight moratorium or delay in executions.'
But he agreed that given the high rate of executions in Texas -- 26 so far this year -- the Supreme Court's temporary stay on executions, followed by the state's own stay of Chi's execution, 'was very welcome'.
'Texas is the lynchpin, the battleground,' Halperin said. 'It's the worst place for judicial killings in the entire free world.'
The current reassessment of lethal injections, as well as the upcoming attempt to get the U.N. General Assembly to adopt a worldwide moratorium, could pressure the U.S. to follow suit.
'It's a snowball effect,' Deborah Denno, professor at the Fordham University School of Law, told IPS, noting that recent developments were incremental steps that had happened quickly, and the momentum against the final abolition of the death penalty in the U.S. was building.
© 2007 Inter Press Service