Mo. executions ruled not cruel or unusual

A federal decision means the state may be able to resume lethal injections for condemned inmates.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:48 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

ST. LOUIS — A federal appeals court on Monday opened the way for Missouri to renew execution of condemned inmates, ruling the state’s three-drug method of execution is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The case filed on behalf of condemned killer Michael Taylor had effectively halted Missouri executions by lethal injection since early last year.

“Mr. Taylor presents no argument that the penalty of death by lethal injection is grossly out of proportion to the severity of his crime,” a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The court reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr., who ordered reforms to Missouri’s lethal injection procedures, including the use of a doctor specializing in anesthesia. So far, the state has been unable to find one willing to participate in executions.

Missouri is among nine states that have put executions on hold as they grapple with whether lethal injection is inhumane.

Taylor’s attorney, Ginger Anders, said the decision will be appealed but declined to comment further. Calls to Gov. Matt Blunt and Attorney General Jay Nixon were not returned.

The lethal injection debate centers on how three drugs are administered in succession. Opponents say they can constitute cruel and unusual punishment if given improperly.

If the initial anesthetic does not take hold, a third drug that stops a condemned prisoner’s heart can cause excruciating pain, it has been argued. But the inmate would not be able to communicate the pain because of a second drug that paralyzes him.

Taylor, convicted of killing 15-year-old Ann Harrison in Kansas City in 1989, was moments from being executed in February when the execution was halted.

The debate over executions increased after it was learned that Missouri’s doctor responsible for overseeing administration of the lethal chemicals, identified as surgeon Alan Doerhoff of Jefferson City, was dyslexic. Anders has called relying on the dyslexic doctor for the process a “set-up for disaster.”

Doerhoff testified last year that he’d overseen Missouri’s executions for years, and on occasion he altered the amount of anesthetic given to inmates.

Anders was not arguing that Taylor’s life be spared, although his family is hanging on to that hope.

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