Death Penalty Method Upheld

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court's decision Wednesday upholding the most common method of lethal injection is unlikely to instill fear among inmates on Pennsylvania's death row.

"I don't think you're going to see executions in Pennsylvania starting to roll along," said Rich Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "There's some ambivalence toward the death penalty in Pennsylvania, and the state tends to go slow and scrutinize each case."

The state last executed someone in 1999 and has the fourth- highest number of death row inmates with 225. But it has only executed three people since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. Only California, Florida and Texas have more death row inmates.

Court delays, appeals and public opinion are largely behind Pennsylvania's large population of death row inmates and dearth of executions, said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University and former Secretary of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

"I think there's not a lot of public pressure to put people to death," Ledewitz said. "It doesn't seem to be a winning issue."

It's not a universal sentiment.

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruled, Virginia lifted its moratorium on the death penalty. Officials in Mississippi and Oklahoma said they would seek execution dates for convicted murderers, and other states were ready to follow.

Executions across the country had been on hold for the past seven months while the high court examined the issue. Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell, said no executions were delayed in Pennsylvania because of the Supreme Court case.

The justices voted 7-2 in rejecting a constitutional challenge to lethal injection procedures in Kentucky, which uses three drugs to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates. Three dozen states, including Pennsylvania, use similar methods.

Rendell has signed 78 death warrants since he took office, all of which have been stayed by the courts.

"The governor believes that our lethal injection protocol is neither cruel nor inhumane," Ardo said.

Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court rebuffed the latest challenge to capital punishment, this time by foes focusing on methods rather than on the legality of the death penalty itself. Justice John Paul Stevens voted with the majority on the question of lethal injections but said for the first time that he now believes the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Death penalty opponents said challenges to lethal injections would continue in states where problems with administering the drugs have been documented.

Yesterday's case was not about the constitutionality of the death penalty, generally, or even lethal injection. …