Court ruling could complicate death penalty cases

Court ruling could complicate death penalty cases

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SPRINGFIELD — Death row inmates may have an easier time raising objections to lethal injection under a new U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Illinois officials are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the ruling that will allow the condemned to argue lethal injection is a civil rights violation.

"It’s very likely that the issue will get litigated and resolved in other states because the capital cases in Illinois are still at a relatively early stage," said Illinois Solicitor General Gary Feinerman.

Illinois has a moratorium on the death penalty imposed by former Gov. George Ryan, who also cleared the state’s death row before leaving office. Since then, seven people have been sentenced to death in Illinois.

In the U.S. Supreme Court case, death row inmate Clarence Hill argued the three-drug cocktail preferred by Florida officials is "cruel and unusual punishment" and unconstitutional. The man, sentenced to death for killing a Florida cop, argued sodium pentothal used as an anesthetic would not be enough to mask pain from paralyzed lungs and the heart attack triggered by other drugs administered.

"We don’t think the ruling has any effect on us," said Derek Schnapp, an Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman. "We are always going to go by the law."

Prison officials will not discuss the specifics of Illinois’ lethal injection procedure but state law prescribes "an ultrashort-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent and potassium chloride or other equally effective substance."

Death penalty opponents applauded the lethal injection ruling as well as another decision allowing federal judges to reopen capital cases to consider DNA evidence.

"It’s an overall indication that the United States Supreme Court after many years working to limit appeals now seems to be more cautious in that arena," said Jane Bohman, executive director for Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The lethal injection ruling, Bohman said, is “just starting to make people have to confront the reality that there is no nice way to kill someone."

Illinois has released 18 men from death row because of wrongful convictions.

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