Inmates Win at U.S. Supreme Court in Injection, Innocence Cases

Read syllabus and find link to full text here:  June 12 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the rights of death-row inmates in two cases, ordering a new hearing for a Tennessee man who says he has fresh evidence of innocence and permitting a challenge to Florida’s lethal injections.
The justices voted 5-3 in the Tennessee dispute, saying Paul Gregory House’s murder conviction was the “rare case” in which new evidence might have changed the jury’s verdict. The court let House go forward with his bid to set aside the conviction.
House says DNA evidence now proves that semen stains on victim Carolyn Muncey’s clothing didn’t come from him. House says he also has new information indicating that investigators might have put incriminating bloodstains on his jeans and that the victim’s husband might have been the killer.
“The central forensic proof connecting House to the crime – - the blood and the semen — has been called into question, and House has put forward substantial evidence pointing to a different suspect,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
The lethal-injection ruling doesn’t directly affect the legality of the procedure, which opponents say can create a risk of excruciating pain. Today’s unanimous decision gives inmates an additional avenue to challenge the procedure, which is used in all but one of the 38 death-penalty states, and seek a different method of execution.
The challenge by Clarence Edward Hill “appears to leave the state free to use an alternative lethal injection procedure,” Kennedy wrote for the court in that case.
Minutes From Execution
Hill was minutes away from execution in January when the Supreme Court intervened and agreed to hear his appeal. Hill, now 48, was convicted of the 1982 shooting death of Pensacola, Florida, police officer Stephen Taylor.
Hill points to a 2005 study that found in 21 of 49 executions the prisoner endured a feeling of suffocation and a burning sensation through the veins, followed by a heart attack. Of the 38 death-penalty states, all but Nebraska use lethal injection, and most use the same three chemicals as Florida.
Inmates in Florida are first injected with sodium pentothal, an anesthetic, followed by pancuronium bromide, which causes the lungs to shut down and paralyzes the body. The final chemical, potassium chloride, then induces a fatal heart attack.
The high court today said Hill could invoke a 135-year-old civil rights law to challenge the chemical mix and other aspects of Florida’s injection protocol.
`Timely Enforcement’
A lower court had said his case was barred because it was the functional equivalent of a habeas corpus petition, a procedural device used by inmates to challenge convictions after appeal. Under U.S. law, inmates generally can file only a single habeas petition in federal court — something Hill had already done.
Kennedy said lower courts would need to be vigilant to prevent inmates from using the civil rights law simply to forestall execution.
“Both the state and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence,” he wrote. “Our conclusions today do not diminish that interest, nor do they deprive federal courts of the means to protect it.”
The Supreme Court in May passed on a chance to directly address the constitutionality of the procedure, rejecting an appeal from a Tennessee inmate.
Florida began using lethal injections in 2000, averting a scheduled Supreme Court argument on the constitutionality of the state’s use of the electric chair. Florida now uses lethal injections unless the condemned person opts for the chair. The state has executed 60 people since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Evidence of Innocence
In the Tennessee case, House is seeking to win his release through a habeas corpus petition he is pressing in federal court. He says his lawyer was negligent in not bringing forward the evidence of his innocence at trial.
The state says House had Muncey’s blood on his jeans, was seen the day after the murder leaving the area where her body was later found and lied to investigators about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. House was previously convicted for sexual assault in an unrelated case.
In barring House’s habeas case from going forward, a federal trial judge had said House’s new evidence was “was countered and undermined in virtually every respect” by the state.
A Cincinnati-based federal appeals court upheld that ruling, saying House hadn’t met the standard for reopening a criminal conviction laid out by the Supreme Court in a 1995 case.
Roberts Dissent
Kennedy stopped short of declaring House’s evidence so strong as to render his conviction unconstitutional. “This is not a case of conclusive exoneration,” he said.
In dissent, Roberts said the majority shouldn’t have second- guessed the federal trial judge’s conclusions.
“It is not our role to make credibility findings and construct theories of the possible ways in which Mrs. Muncey’s blood could have been spattered and wiped on House’s jeans,” he wrote in an opinion joined by Scalia and Thomas.
Justice Samuel Alito didn’t participate in the Tennessee case because he joined the court after the dispute was argued.
The cases are House v. Bell, 04-8990, and Hill v. Florida, 05-8794.
To read the full text of this decision go to:  U.S. Supreme Court and open slip opinions.
 

The following is the Syllabus of the Hill v. Florida decision:

 

                      SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Syllabus
HILL v. MCDONOUGH, INTERIM SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 05–8794. Argued April 26, 2006—Decided June 12, 2006
Facing execution in Florida, petitioner Hill brought this federal action under 42 U. S. C. §1983 to enjoin the three-drug lethal injection procedure the State likely would use on him. He alleged the procedure could cause him severe pain and thereby violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. The District Court found that under controlling Eleventh Circuit precedent the§1983 claim was the functional equivalent of a habeas petition. Because Hill had sought federal habeas relief earlier, the court deemed his petition successive and barred under 28 U. S. C. §2244. The Eleventh Circuit agreed and affirmed.
Held: Because Hill’s claim is comparable in its essentials to the §1983action the Court allowed to proceed in Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U. S. 637, it does not have to be brought in habeas, but may proceed under §1983. Pp. 4–10.
(a) Nelson controls here. Although an inmate’s challenge to the lawfulness of a sentence or confinement is the province of habeas corpus, e.g., Muhammad v. Close, 540 U. S. 749, 750, the Nelson Court declined to deem the instant §1983 Eighth Amendment “challenge seeking to permanently enjoin the use of lethal injection . . . a challenge to the fact of the sentence itself,? 541 U. S., at 644. Nelson’s veins were severely compromised, and Alabama planned to apply an invasive surgical procedure to enable the injection. However, that procedure was not mandated by state law, and Nelson appeared willing to concede the existence of an acceptable alternative procedure. Absent a finding that the procedure was necessary to the lethal injection, the Court concluded, injunctive relief would not prevent the State from implementing the sentence. Id., at 645–646. Here, as in Nelson,
Hill’s action if successful would not necessarily prevent the State from executing him by lethal injection. He does not challenge his sentence as a general matter but seeks only to enjoin respondents from executing him in a manner that allegedly causes a foreseeablerisk of gratuitous and unnecessary pain. He concedes that other lethal injection methods the State could choose would be constitutional, and respondents do not contend, at least at this point, that an injunction would leave no other practicable, legal method of lethally injecting Hill. Florida law, moreover, does not require the use of the challenged procedure. Under these circumstances a grant of injunctive relief could not be seen as barring the execution of Hill’s sentence. The fact that Hill challenges the chemical injection sequence rather than a preliminary surgical procedure does not change the analysis. In Nelson, the Court reasoned that “the gravamen of petitioner’s entire claim? was that the surgical procedure was “gratuitous,? id., at 645, whereas Hill alleges that the procedure he challenges presents a risk of pain the State can avoid while still being able to enforce his sentence.
The Court rejects two rules proposed by respondents and their amici to counter the prospect of inmates filing successive §1983 actions challenging one aspect of an execution procedure after another in order to forestall execution. First, the United States contends that a capital litigant’s §1983 action can proceed only if, as in Nelson, the prisoner identifies an alternative, authorized method of execution. Although Nelson’s doing so supported the Court’s conclusion that his suit need not proceed as a habeas action, that fact was not decisive. Nelson did not change the traditional pleading requirements for §1983 actions. Specific pleading requirements are mandated by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and not, as a general rule, through federal courts’ case-by-case determinations. Second, relying on cases barring §1983 damages actions that, if successful, would imply the invalidation of an existing sentence or confinement, see, e.g., Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U. S. 477, respondents and the amici States contend that any challenge that would frustrate an execution as a practical matter must proceed in habeas. This argument cannot be squared with Nelson’s observation, 541 U. S., at 646–647, that its criterion— whether granting relief would necessarily bar the inmate’s execution—is consistent with those cases. Because injunctive relief would not necessarily foreclose Florida from executing Hill by lethal injection under present law, it could not be said that this suit seeks to establish “unlawfulness [that] would render a conviction or sentence invalid,? Heck, supra, at 486. Pp. 4–9.
(b) Filing a §1983 action does not entitle the complainant to an automatic stay of execution. Such a stay is an equitable remedy not
available as a matter of right, and equity must be sensitive to the State’s strong interest in enforcing its criminal judgments without undue interference from federal courts. Thus, inmates seeking time to challenge the manner of their execution must satisfy all of the requirements for a stay, including showing a significant possibility of success on the merits. A court considering a stay must also apply a strong equitable presumption against granting relief where the claim could have been brought at such a time as to allow consideration of the merits without requiring a stay. Nelson, supra, at 650. After Nelson federal courts have invoked their equitable powers to dismiss suits they saw as speculative or filed too late. Repetitive or piecemeal litigation presumably would raise similar concerns. States can and should be protected from dilatory or speculative suits, but it is not necessary to reject Nelson to do so. The equities and merits of Hill’s underlying action are not before this Court. Pp. 9–10.
437 F. 3d 1084, reversed and remanded.
KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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