Court rules lethal injection is constitutional

April 16, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Chief Justice John Roberts made it clear on Wednesday that the Constitution does not require pain-free executions. At issue was not the legality of the death penalty, but the way it's administered. It's a concern that has held up executions in California for two years. The Supreme Court's decision could impact Death Row at San Quentin.

California has the nation's largest Death Row with 669 convicts. The unofficial nationwide moratorium on executions caused by a Kentucky case is now over.

California executed its last inmate in January of 2006. Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision opens the door for states to resume the use of lethal injection.

"There's been no question about that. It will resume. And there are many proposals to modify it, reform it. But this decision of the Supreme Court does validate the role of executions in our society," says California Attorney General Jerry Brown.

While acknowledging that there is some risk of pain from lethal injection, it's not cruel and unusual punishment.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, "...the Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions."

Death penalty opponents say the justices should have erred on the side of caution.

"The problem with the three-drug cocktail is the second drug paralyzes the condemned prisoners so that he or she cannot express pain," says Jim Lindburg, a death penalty opponent.

The ruling comes on the same day crime victims held their annual vigil on the Capitol steps to remember their loved ones and to fight for more rights.

Sharon Sellitto's brother died at the hands of notorious killer, Charles Eng, who's on Death Row. She's relieved executions will continue.

"We would like Charles Eng to have his sentence carried out, which is death by lethal injection," says Sellitto. "My mother is 85 years old. My mother was hoping to see justice for her son before she dies. Now, at least, it's taken a step forward."

However, some legal analysts think executions in California won't resume right away because other pending lawsuits have to still be resolved, whether the execution team has been properly trained and whether San Quentin's death chamber is adequate.

"It is important that we have these checks and balances in our system to be sure we are doing things fairly and that we are reaching the right result," says Prof. Linda Carter, J.D., with the McGeorge School of Law.

Once those issues are resolved, the attorney general's office says it could set execution dates for five inmates who have exhausted all their appeals.


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