6th Circuit favors Tenn. lethal injection process

Resource type: News

The Associated Press State & Local Wire |

by LUCAS L. JOHNSON II

A federal appeals court on Thursday vacated a lower court’s ruling that Tennessee’s lethal injection process is unconstitutional.

In 2007, the U.S. District Court in Nashville supported a claim by Edward Jerome Harbison, 54, that Tennessee’s lethal injection process violates his Eighth Amendment right because it involves an “unnecessary … infliction of pain.” Harbison was convicted in the 1983 beating death of an elderly woman in Chattanooga.

The state appealed the lower court’s ruling based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection process, which is similar to Tennessee’s. The case did not prevent Tennessee from carrying out another execution earlier this year.

The 6th Circuit on Thursday agreed with the state and vacated the injunction barring the state from executing Harbison, despite the dissension of one judge.

Judge Eric Clay said an “evidentiary hearing” is necessary in light of the Supreme Court decision.

He said by failing to give the district court the chance to consider Tennessee’s lethal injection process, the 6th Circuit “effectively usurps the district court’s role as fact-finder and decides an issue never presented to the district court: whether there are material differences between Kentucky’s and Tennessee’s lethal injection protocols.”

“As a court of appeals, we are obligated to provide the district court with the first opportunity to receive evidence and rule on this question,” Clay wrote. “I therefore respectfully dissent.”

Stacy Rector, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing, said she agrees with Clay’s assertion. But she said regardless of the method of execution, Tennessee’s death penalty system has its share of problems as cited by a committee created by the Tennessee General Assembly to study administration of the death penalty.

“The committee determined that the death penalty in Tennessee is unfairly applied, more costly than life without parole and risks the execution of an innocent person,” Rector said. “The controversy over Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol represents merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the death penalty system.”

But Leigh Ann Jones, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee attorney general’s office, said the appeals court ruling is proof that “the state conducts lethal injection proceedings in a constitutionally appropriate manner.”

Stephen Kissinger, Harbison’s attorney, said he will seek an appeal.

“I think the decision is clearly incorrect,” Kissinger said. “And we are certainly going to ask them (the U.S. Supreme Court) to take the case up and to ensure that the lower courts in this country follow the Supreme Court’s decisions instead of going out on their own.”

Harbison did get a Supreme Court victory earlier this year when the High Court said the government should pay federally appointed lawyers for working on state clemency requests for death row inmates.

Harbison wanted the government to pay for his federal public defender to represent him in a clemency petition to the Tennessee governor. But the 6th Circuit ruled against the request, saying the law “does not authorize federal compensation for legal representation in state matters.”

The high court disagreed, reversing the appeals court’s decision.

Associated Press Writer Duncan Mansfield in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.

Related Resources

Issues:

Death Penalty, Human Rights & Reconciliation

Global Impact:

United States