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US High Court Starts Hearing Death Penalty Cases

FILE - A 'death chamber' with lethal injection gurney is seen at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California, Sept. 21, 2010.

The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments Wednesday questioning how the death penalty is carried out in the country.

Executions are carried out unevenly in the United States, with 31 states still sanctioning the death penalty for a range of crimes, while 19 states have banned capital punishment.

None of the cases the Supreme Court has agreed to consider represents an attempt to overturn capital punishment in the United States, but rather to raise legal questions on how states conduct executions.

In the first of at least six capital punishment cases it expects to consider during the next several months, the court heard lawyers argue whether death sentences should be reinstated against two brothers involved in a 2000 crime spree in the central state of Kansas that left five people dead. The state's highest court threw out death sentences against the brothers.

The case centers on whether each brother should have been entitled to a separate sentencing hearing and whether the trial judge erred in his instructions to jurors. A ruling is expected by next June.

In other cases, the high court is considering whether judges have too much discretion in imposing death sentences, whether prosecutors improperly struck all four prospective jurors who are black from a capital punishment case, and whether a judge who initially prosecuted a death penalty case should have removed himself from considering an appeal in the case.