3 Miss. inmates lose lethal-injection lawsuit

Published 12:59 pm Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A challenge to Mississippi’s method of lethal injection has been laid to rest for now, more than a year after the state’s most recent execution.

The U.S. Supreme Court this month let stand a Mississippi federal judge’s decision that three death row inmates waited too long to file a lawsuit challenging the combination of three drugs the state uses to put inmates to death.

U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit came July 15, 2008, only a week before Dale Bishop was executed.

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Bishop and three other death row inmates — Alan Dale Walker, Paul Everett Woodward and Gerald James Holland — filed the case. Walker, Woodward and Holland carried the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Pepper’s ruling last November.

There is a three-year statute of limitations on filing lawsuits challenging the execution method. Pepper — and the 5th Circuit panel — said that clock begins ticking on the date when direct review of a plaintiff’s conviction and sentence is complete.

For Walker, the clock would have started Dec. 2, 1996; for Woodward, March 29, 1999; and for Holland, Oct. 5, 1998, according to the court.

The three filed the challenge in 2007, well after the deadline, the 5th Circuit panel said. The panel said the inmates were aware that they were subject to execution by lethal injection from the moment their convictions became final.

Inmates’ attorneys had hoped the case might have been taken up by the Supreme Court amid a continuing national debate over lethal injection methods.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said the Supreme Court ruling was expected “based on the fact that the same issue had been taken to the United States Supreme Court from other federal circuits.”

James W. Craig, a Jackson attorney who represented the three inmates, said the case was decided on the issue of time limitations, not lethal injection procedures.

“The Supreme Court did not decide that Mississippi’s procedure for lethal injection was acceptable,” Craig said. “The court only decided when prisoners must file their challenges to the procedure. Some prisoners are still within that period.

“At some point, a trial will prove that executions at Parchman are likely to suffocate a conscious, paralyzed prisoner to death. That kind of torture is not acceptable in our society or under our Constitution,” Craig said.

No execution date has been set for any of the three. The attorney general’s office has said all three have appeals pending in various federal courts. Hood said will begin asking the Mississippi Supreme Court for execution dates as soon as appeals are exhausted.

Walker was sentenced to death in Harrison County for the 1990 rape and murder of 19-year-old Konya Edwards of Long Beach.

Woodward was convicted in Perry County in the 1986 murder, kidnapping, robbery and rape of volunteer Youth Court worker Rhonda Crane.

Holland was sentenced to death in Harrison County for the 1987 slaying of 15-year-old Krystal King.

Lethal injection had been on hold across the country until a Supreme Court ruling last year in a case out of Kentucky about whether the three-drug combination used in executions causes unconstitutional pain and suffering. Mississippi is among roughly three dozen states that use the combination — an anesthetic, a muscle paralyzer and a substance to stop the heart.

After that ruling, Arkansas prison officials introduced new procedures, which are now under attack in federal court.

Legal challenges remain in other states as well.

In Missouri, Clemons’ lawsuit claims the state has not shown that it can carry out lethal injection procedures correctly. Clemons was scheduled to die in June, but the 8th Circuit granted an indefinite stay without giving a reason.

In Ohio, a federal judge issued a temporary reprieve this month for an inmate after executioners couldn’t find a usable vein for the IV line. Inmate Romell Broom, who wept during the procedure, later said he was stuck with needles as many as 18 times.

Gov. Ted Strickland this month delayed Ohio’s next two executions to allow a full review of lethal injection procedures.

The Supreme Court will hear death penalty cases from Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania in its new term now under way. None directly involve lethal injection procedures.