[JURIST] A Nashville judge ended a four-month moratorium on executions Wednesday, declaring Tennessee’s modified method of lethal injection [JURIST news archive] constitutional. In November, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman [official profile] ruled that the state’s method of lethal injection violated [The Tennessean report] the Eighth Amendment [text] after lawyers for death row inmate Stephen Michael West [execution advisory] revealed evidence to the court that inmates were awake and in pain when the lethal drugs were administered. Bonnyman found that the current method did not specify a sufficient dosage of sodium thiopental, part of a three-drug “cocktail,” to ensure the prisoner was fully anesthetized, allowing for “death by suffocation while the prisoner is unconscious.” The state proposed a revised plan to confirm the prisoner is unconscious: having the warden call out his name, shake him, and brush his eyelashes. Bonnyman found the revised procedure, administering the two remaining drugs only once there were no signs of consciousness, constitutional [The Tennessean report]. After Bonnyman’s November decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court [official website] temporarily stayed the executions [Nashville City Paper report] of four prisoners, effectively placing the second moratorium on executions [TN.gov backgrounder] in Tennessee in the last three years.
In September 2007, a federal judge held that Tennessee’s revised death penalty protocols [text, PDF; JURIST report], devised earlier that year by the Tennessee Department of Corrections at the request of then-governor Phil Bredesen, did not ensure that prisoners’ are properly anesthetized before they receive a lethal injection and thus constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment. Bredesen ordered a moratorium on executions [executive order, PDF; JURIST report] earlier that year and directed the Tennessee Department of Corrections to review the manner in which death sentences are administered. Bredesen accepted new protocols and the state conducted its first execution [JURIST report] under the new rules in May 2007. The protocol included more detailed guidelines for administering lethal injections but still includes a controversial three-drug “cocktail” which some said may be ineffective in preventing inmates from suffering a painful death [JURIST report]. The number of executions that took place in the US in 2010 was down 12 percent from 2009, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) [advocacy website] annual report [text, PDF; JURIST report]. DPIC attributes the decrease in executions to several factors, including controversy over lethal injections [JURIST news archive]. The report also states that a recent poll shows 61 percent of Americans would choose various alternative sentences over the death penalty as the proper punishment for murder. Executions resumed in the US in April 2008 after the Supreme Court lifted an effective ban on the death penalty by upholding the constitutionality of lethal injection [JURIST report].