Appeals court rejects challenge to Missouri execution team's training, competence

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 | 5:07 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit challenging the training and competence of Missouri's execution team in a decision likely to move the state closer to resuming executions.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the contention of eight death row inmates that Missouri's past hiring of incompetent or unqualified execution team members, and failure to properly train them, posed constitutional problems.

Executions had been on hold in Missouri for four years until the state executed an inmate in May. Reginald Clemons' execution was the second scheduled in the state since the courts ruled that lethal injection in general, and the state's three-drug method in particular, was constitutional.

However, the 8th Circuit put a hold on Clemons' June 17 execution after his attorneys sought to ensure Missouri is using competent personnel.

Attorneys for Clemons and seven other death row inmates had argued that unqualified or incompetent people such as those Missouri has hired in the past would not follow the state's new written execution protocol and risk prisoners being insufficiently anesthetized and suffering undue pain before dying.

The appeals panel said it could not assume Missouri plans to employ medical personnel who aren't qualified to conduct executions. The opinion upheld last year's ruling by a district court judge in Kansas City, who threw out their case.

In June, the state's chief justice said it was unlikely the court would schedule any executions in Missouri while the appeal was assessed in the courts. The Missouri Supreme Court, which schedules executions, did not immediately return phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment on Tuesday's ruling.

Attorney General Chris Koster said through a spokeswoman that his office soon would ask the court to schedule execution dates in appropriate cases.

Meanwhile, attorney Matt Hellman said the inmates' legal team was reviewing options for appeal, which could include the full 8th Circuit.

In 2006, a federal judge declared Missouri's lethal injection process unconstitutional after the surgeon who was overseeing executions testified he sometimes transposed numbers and operated without written procedures or supervision.

The Missouri Department of Corrections responded by adopting written procedures detailing the precise amounts and order of the chemicals to be injected. A federal judge upheld the protocol in 2008, and the state Supreme Court in February upheld the process by which Missouri adopted the execution procedures.

Clemons' attorneys argued before the 8th Circuit panel in February that the state had not shown that it can carry out the procedures correctly. The court granted a stay on June 5 without giving a reason.

On June 30, the state Supreme Court appointed a special master to investigate claims that Clemons was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the April 1991 murders of Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19, in St. Louis.


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