WASHINGTON—In two rulings on Monday, the Supreme Court opened the door to throngs of new death-row appeals involving lethal injection and DNA evidence, though the justices seemed to cast doubt in both cases about how successful those appeals might be.
In opinions written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court said inmates can file civil rights claims against lethal-injection procedures they claim are needlessly painful and that prisoners who raise late claims of innocence can get new trials if their new evidence is strong enough.
The lethal-injection decision, involving a Florida man who killed a police officer, was unanimous. The DNA ruling split the court 5-3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissenting. Justice Samuel Alito wasn't on the court when the DNA case was argued, so he didn't participate in the deliberations.
The lethal-injection ruling involved Clarence Hill, who was preparing to be executed when the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case earlier this year. He and thousands of other prisoners can now go to federal courts to claim that the mix of chemicals that some states use to produce death causes great pain and therefore violates civil rights laws. Those claims will be considered separately from challenges they might file over their death sentences.
The high court had already green-lighted such claims for prisoners who are former drug addicts and who oppose the invasive cutting that's sometimes necessary to find usable veins for execution.
A lower court had said inmates who challenge the injection were opposing execution and that their claims should be handled like other direct challenges to death sentences.
Kennedy, writing for the high court, said the lower court's attempt to distinguish the challenges was incorrect and that important civil rights questions spring from challenges. They therefore should be handled under a 19th-century civil rights law.
The high court, however, said nothing about the merits of the growing challenges to lethal injection, and the court has so far refused to hear any case that directly addresses that issue. Kennedy's opinion also included language that frowned on "abusive litigation tactics" and said that challenges to lethal injection shouldn't trigger automatic delays for executions. He said courts should weigh the inmates' interests against the states' desire to carry out justice, with presumptive advantage on the states' side.
In the DNA case, the court said that a man convicted of a 20-year-old murder should be able to argue in federal courts that he should get a new trial to prove he didn't commit the crime.
Paul Gregory House was found guilty of raping and murdering his neighbor, but much of the evidence against him was circumstantial.
After most of his appeals were exhausted, he produced DNA evidence that blood and semen found at the crime scene belonged to the woman's husband. In a bitterly divided ruling, a lower court said he was too late and that the evidence was unlikely to persuade reasonable jurors of his innocence.
The high court reversed that ruling, saying House's evidence was strong enough to be considered by jurors, despite its late arrival. Kennedy wrote that the DNA evidence, combined with other errors in the case, made it quite probable that House could convince jurors of his innocence.
It's the first case in which the justices stressed the importance of DNA evidence. At least in theory, it makes it easier for inmates with DNA evidence to get hearings.
Kennedy made clear, though, that House's case was "close" and not a clear case of exoneration. He said it may be the "rare case" in which jurors might have a different opinion of the case with the new evidence.
Roberts complained in his dissent that the court didn't consider all the evidence in the trial together. He said he didn't find the DNA evidence by itself that convincing.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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