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Tennessee Court Upholds Lethal Injection Procedures

A county judge has upheld Tennessee's method of execution by lethal injection. The ruling is the latest in the state's years-old death penalty fight.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled the protocol was constitutional, saying a group of death row inmates and their attorneys failed to show that the use of a single injection of the drug pentobarbital, compounded especially for the state, violates the Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

The Tennessean reported on the decision:

"In her ruling, Bonnyman cited experts who testified at trial that the drug is effectively used in other states. She also noted it is the same drug effectively used in Oregon and Washington death with dignity cases, when terminally ill patients choose to take the drug to end their lives.

"She said a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Baze, which upheld Kentucky's lethal injection procedures, set the standard that an isolated mishap — including physician error — did not create an Eighth Amendment violation.

"The end of the Chancery Court case does not necessarily mean executions will resume, however. A Tennessee Supreme Court ruling earlier this year put them on hold until final disposition of the case, which would include appeals."

Tennessee has not executed a prisoner in five years because of challenges to lethal injections. Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court decided to cease all executions until a final decision on the matter was reached. An appeal of today's ruling is all but certain.

Tennessee courts aren't the only ones hearing cases regarding lethal injections. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a death penalty case in June, upholding the use of lethal injections. NPR's Nina Totenberg reported:

"The capital punishment case focused on the three-drug cocktail long used to carry out lethal injections, and the controversial substitute drug used more recently. For years, the cocktail used an anesthetic to put the prisoner into a deep, insensate, comalike state so he or she would not feel the two painful drugs used to kill him.

"In recent years, however, manufacturers of the anesthesia drug have refused to provide it for executions on moral, ethical and — in some cases — public relations grounds. So some states have substituted a drug called midazolam — a sedative, not an anesthetic — which is not approved by the FDA as effective for achieving a comalike state.

"Death penalty opponents have claimed that prisoners are thus subject to feeling excruciating pain, as evidenced in some botched executions. But Oklahoma and other death penalty states counter that, properly used in very high doses, midazolam is an appropriate drug — and on [June 29], a five-justice majority agreed."

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