Inmate's execution is back on

A judge refused to grant a stay of execution and accused the convict of delaying tactics.

Published September 16, 2006

Condemned police killer Clarence Hill faces execution next week after federal courts have refused to once again block it based on his claims that Florida's lethal injection process is unconstitutional.

Hill was strapped to a gurney at Florida State Prison in Starke with lines running into his arms in January when the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his execution for the 1982 shooting death. In June, the high court ruled unanimously that he could ask federal courts to decide whether the injection chemicals are too painful and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

But so far, federal courts have not ruled on that issue, and have agreed with the state's arguments that Hill should have challenged the use of the chemicals when the state switched to lethal injection in 2000. Gov. Jeb Bush has rescheduled the execution for 6 p.m. Wednesday.

"By arbitrarily setting an execution date ... the state has attempted to manipulate the process and kill Mr. Hill before its unconstitutional method of execution is reviewed on its merits," defense attorney D. Todd Doss argued in documents submitted to the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.

But on Monday, U.S. District Judge Stephan P. Mickle refused to grant a stay of Hill's execution and accused Hill in court documents of delaying tactics. Doss challenged that ruling Thursday with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which has previously turned him down.

Hill, 48, has argued that the three chemicals used in executions in Florida and many other states - sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride - can cause excruciating pain. The first drug is a painkiller. The second paralyzes the inmate. The third causes a fatal heart attack.

A 2005 study published in the Lancet medical journal questioned whether the painkiller can wear off before the prisoner dies, causing severe pain. Hill based his legal challenge on that study.

Carolyn Snurkowski, a lawyer handling death penalty cases for Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, said Hill is not entitled to challenge the chemicals used. She also said Hill should not have waited until four days before his scheduled execution in January to challenge them. Doss, however, said he could not file the challenge until the death warrant was signed in November.

The Supreme Court only allowed Hill the right to file his claims, not "an automatic license for an evidentiary hearing," Snurkowski said.

Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School and an expert on the death penalty, was surprised that Hill has not received a court hearing on his claims.

"The problems in Florida are shared with other states - the chemicals used, poor training, the environment in which injections are done and the secrecy of the process," Denno said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said in June that while Hill and other inmates can file special appeals under a federal civil rights law after exhausting regular appeals, they will not always be entitled to delays in their executions.

Mark Elliott, a spokesman for Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says Hill should receive his day in court.

"With so many unanswered questions about Florida's method of execution, this action by the lower courts is a ghoulish abuse of the legal system," Elliott said.

Hill was condemned for killing police Officer Stephen Taylor during the Oct. 22, 1982, robbery of a savings and loan in Pensacola.

Jack Taylor of Pensacola said there is no doubt that Hill shot and killed his brother, and he is unhappy about the debate over whether Hill might feel pain when he is executed.

"When it comes to the fact that he will be uncomfortable when he dies, that is bull," Taylor said.