During a month of frantic courthouse wrangling about whether California inmate Michael Morales should be executed by lethal injection, his lawyers contended that the state’s execution procedures amounted to cruel and unusual punishment because scientific evidence suggests the intravenously Administered three-drug mixture doesn’t alleviate severe pain as it stops the heart. But it wasn’t their argument, or a decision from presiding U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel that temporarily halted Morales’ execution.
Rather, it was the ethical stance by doctors, who refused to serve as monitors prepared to intervene in case of complications, because of their Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
Their objection prompted the judge to order a hearing later this spring to derive a constitutionally proper medical protocol for administering the injections. Lawyers say the Morales case is adding further uncertainty to an already confusing area of the law. “It’s incredibly murky because there have been disparate rulings at the state and federal level on what the standards are and how they should be interpreted,” says Professor Deborah Denno, of Fordham Law School.
To clear things up, most believe it will fall to the Supreme Court to Decide the permissible means of executing death row inmates by lethal injection. “The Morales case is an encouraging sign,” says Tom Goldstein, a Washington D.C. attorney who has just petitioned the Supreme Court to consider his appeal on behalf of Tennessee death-row client Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman.
“The courts for so long have just given this issue the back of their hand, while the states have said, ‘Everyone else is giving lethal injections this way so we can do it too’, even though they don’t have good reasons for using these drugs and can’t justify not having better-trained people administering them.”