The Supreme Court upholds death row inmates' right to contest execution procedures in federal civil rights lawsuits.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the long-standing practice of utilizing federal civil rights lawsuits to contest state execution procedures in a 5-4 ruling. The Georgian argument that such challenges must be made in federal habeas corpus procedures when the death row prisoner suggests an alternative method not permitted by state law was rejected by the Court in Michael Nance's favor.
A different decision would have significantly restricted appeals of execution procedures. The importance of the choice was underscored by Matthew Hellman, a partner at Jenner and Block who argued on Nance's behalf before the Supreme Court. "We are really pleased with the Court's ruling, which underlines that inmates have legal options to seek protection from harsh punishment."
In a federal civil rights lawsuit, Nance claimed that the sole execution method permitted by Georgia law—the lethal injection—would be unconstitutionally cruel. Nance claimed that due to pre-existing medical conditions, prison officials would have to "pierce his neck" to place an intravenous line for the execution since his veins were so seriously damaged. Nance suggested the firing squad because current Supreme Court case law mandates that inmates who disagree to a state's method of execution provide a different way by which they can be put to death.
The state claimed that Nance was attempting to have his death sentence overturned, a claim that can only be made in a habeas corpus case because firing squad executions are illegal in Georgia. This reading of the law would require inmates like Nance to submit subsequent habeas petitions, potentially delaying his execution along with hundreds of others. After Georgia's federal courts accepted the state's arguments, Nance requested a review by the Supreme Court.
At first glance, the decision in Nance v. Ward appears to be very technical. The court granted a Georgia inmate's request to be killed by firing squad in lieu of lethal injection because he was afraid of the agony; the court's decision was based more on how inmates can appeal their executions than anything else.
However, as Fordham law professor Deborah Denno explained to LAW360, the court's decision preserves a limited legal option for contesting execution procedures and offers death row inmates who desire to challenge what is going to happen to them some extremely unusual "breathing room."
This is particularly true when, as in the case of Nance, they have every reason to believe that doing so won't permanently harm their longtime support for the death penalty and their ongoing attempts to keep the system of state-administered death in operation.
In the Nance case, the Supreme Court had to decide whether or not challenges to the methods of execution could only be brought before federal courts in the form of habeas corpus petitions and, if they could, whether or not these challenges would count as the so-called successive petitions that are currently prohibited by federal law. Federal law mandates that anyone requesting such relief must bring all claims in a single action and places a one-year deadline on the submission of federal habeas corpus petitions.
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