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US Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Lethal Injection Case

The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments challenging the use of lethal injections to carry out executions in the United States. The case under consideration comes from Kentucky, where two death row inmates argue that the three-drug-injection-method used widely in executions across the country can cause unnecessary pain and suffering. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

A total of 37 U.S. states allow the death penalty. In 36 of those states, execution involves the use of a three-drug mixture. The first drug is used to make the prisoner unconscious, the second to paralyze the body, and the third to stop the heart.

Opponents of the three-drug method argue that if the first drug does not work, the inmate would feel excruciating pain, but would not be able to move or communicate his agony, because of the second, paralyzing drug.

Washington attorney Donald Verrilli is representing the two Kentucky death row inmates who challenged the procedure. His argument is that too many things can go wrong during the lethal injection process in Kentucky, mainly because the people carrying them out are often poorly trained.

"Our position is the pain that is inflicted here, when this goes wrong, is torturous, excruciating pain under any definition," he said.

Verrilli argues that the risk of extreme pain violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."

Arguing on behalf of the state, Roy Englert says Kentucky has excellent safeguards in place to prevent pain and suffering, and that the risk overall in executions across the country is minimal.

"There have been more than 900 executions carried out by lethal injection in this country, a very small number of them are problematic, and those are attributable to obvious human error, against which we have had adequate safeguards in place," he said.

The Bush administration is siding with the state of Kentucky in opposing the challenge.

The Kentucky inmates are asking that a single-drug procedure, a massive dose of barbiturates, be used, because even if something goes wrong, the prisoner will feel no pain.

Proponents of the three-drug method argue that it is faster, and that it prevents involuntary thrashing by the condemned prisoner, making the process appear more dignified.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia appeared exasperated by all the arguments about pain, saying this is an execution and not surgery.

"Where does that come from, that you must find the method of execution that causes the least pain?" he asked.

Several justices appeared to be struggling with the claim that the three-drug protocol is more painful, and several suggested sending the case back to the lower court for an examination of the three-drug protocol compared with alternatives. Justice Scalia disagreed, saying that could take years.

The case is being closely watched, because executions across the United States have been put on hold until the Supreme Court reaches a decision on lethal injection, expected by June.