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Case might slow executions

An appeal from Florida's death row may give inmates everywhere an avenue to challenge lethal injections.

Published January 29, 2006

WASHINGTON - By agreeing this week to hear the case of a Florida man condemned to die, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide an issue that could slow down executions nationwide.

The court agreed to review whether death row inmate Clarence Hill can challenge lethal injection through a civil rights claim.

While that is a technical and procedural issue, a victory by Hill could give death row inmates everywhere an avenue to challenge lethal injections as unconstitutionally painful and cruel.

If Hill wins, he could argue the cruelty issue in front of a lower federal court, giving him months of additional appeal time.

"I don't have a lot of confidence that he will prevail," said O.H. "Bill" Eaton, a Seminole-Brevard circuit judge who teaches other circuit judges about the death penalty. "But he may. This U.S. Supreme Court has been surprising in its rulings on a lot of criminal issues."

A Hill victory also could allow other condemned inmates to make the same argument and could force the court to rule on the constitutionality of lethal injection.

That could temporarily block or slow executions, a point of frustration among death penalty supporters. The average time on death row in Florida, for instance, is just under 13 years.

But some experts suspect some justices agreed to hear the case so they can clamp that avenue of appeal, which capital defense lawyers have been using with greater frequency in recent years.

"I suspect there may be some members of the court who want to take this case to say this is definitely not an avenue" of appeal, said Robert Batey, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law. "And there may be others who say there may be an argument here."

A loss by Hill could solidify lethal injection as an accepted means of execution.

"Not only will it mean this inmate will very likely be executed, but it also would make it much harder for other inmates to challenge executions based on the method of execution," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law and political science professor at Duke University.

Arguments are scheduled for April. The court said it will issue a ruling this summer.

Executions in other states have gone ahead. Texas executed a man Wednesday night and Indiana carried out an execution Friday.

Less clear is how the court's decision will affect pending executions in Florida. Death row inmate Arthur Rutherford is scheduled to die Tuesday for a 1985 murder in Santa Rosa County.

Rutherford's attorneys said they will file the same appeal as Hill's lawyers did, which they believe will result in a stay.

But Gov. Jeb Bush, who was in Washington, D.C., this week, said he didn't believe Rutherford's execution would be called off because of the Hill case.

Chemerinsky, the Duke law professor, disagrees. He suspects a federal appeals court will block Rutherford's execution while the Hill case is decided.

Hill, 48, was sentenced to die for the 1982 murder of Stephen Taylor, a 26-year-old Pensacola police officer. Hill shot Taylor in the back during a bank robbery.

Hill has exhausted all of his appeals in the 23 years since his sentence.

Death penalty cases travel through nine steps from trial to execution, including an automatic appeal to the Florida Supreme Court and appeals to the U.S. District Court, the Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Each of those steps takes months or years. Judges must review the records of those cases, which are thousands of pages long, said Eaton, the Seminole-Brevard circuit judge.

Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have streamlined the appeals process, though capital cases still take years to wind through the courts.

Hill was strapped to a gurney and had IV lines running into his arms Tuesday night when the execution was halted by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Family members of the officer Hill killed were prepared to watch the execution, then were sent home.

"It fuels into the wider concern of whether the death penalty is really worth all this hassle," said Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado sociology professor who has studied Florida's death penalty, noting that support for the punishment has fallen recently to around 50 percent of the population.

"Whatever the benefits are, can we achieve the same results by not spending so much money and putting people in prison for life?"

Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this reporter. Chris Tisch can be reached at 727-892-2359 or

[Last modified January 29, 2006, 01:27:17]

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