Lethal injections on trial in US court

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The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether lethal injections violate the United States constitution in a case that could affect the way inmates are executed around the country.

The high court will hear a challenge from two inmates on death row in the state of Kentucky, Ralph Baze and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jnr, who sued the state in 2004, claiming lethal injection was cruel and unusual punishment. Baze had been scheduled for execution last night, but the Kentucky Supreme Court halted the proceedings earlier this month.

The US Supreme Court has previously made it easier for death row inmates to contest the lethal injections used across the country for executions.

But until yesterday, the justices had never agreed to consider the fundamental question of whether the mix of drugs used in Kentucky and elsewhere violates the US constitution's eighth amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. Baze and Bowling say the procedure inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering on the inmate.

All 37 states that perform lethal injections use the same three-drug cocktail: an anaesthetic, a muscle paralyser and a drug to stop the heart. Opponents of the death penalty have argued that if the condemned is not given enough anesthetic, he can suffer excruciating pain without being able to cry out.

The two inmates sued in 2004 and a trial was held in early 2005. A state judge upheld the use of lethal injection and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed that decision. The appeal taken up yesterday stems from that decision.

"This is probably one of the most important cases in decades as it relates to the death penalty," said David Barron, the public defender who represents Baze and Bowling.

Baze, 52, has been on death row for 14 years. He was sentenced for the 1992 shooting deaths of two law enforcement officers.