US judge rules gas chamber is illegal

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The Independent Online
FOR THE first time a federal judge in the United States has ruled that the gas chamber is illegal, because it violates a constitutional ban on using 'cruel and unusual' punishment.

The decision by a judge in San Francisco flies in the face of numerous official claims that lethal cyanide gas is a quick, efficient, and almost pain-free way of killing people. The US District Judge, Marilyn Hall Patel, has banned gassing in California, one of five US states where the method is still used. She said it was an intensely painful death, which involves a fierce 'air hunger', similar to strangulation or drowning. It is 'inhumane and has no place in civilised society', she concluded.

The ruling, a victory for the anti-death penalty lobby, stems from a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a vain attempt to block the 1992 execution of Robert Alton Harris, a murderer. It has angered the pro-capital punishment lobby and is certain to be appealed. Harris's execution received great publicity because it was the first use of capital punishment in California for more than 25 years, and because of the bizarre circumstances of his death: he was strapped into the gas chamber, then removed after a last-minute stay of execution. Fifteen minutes later, he was brought back, after the stay was overturned, and killed.

The judge's ban revives questions about the strange manner in which Harris's execution was handled. Only days before his death, in April 1992, Judge Patel issued a stay, based on the ACLU lawsuit, saying that she was likely to find that the use of lethal gas violated the US constitution.

Then, 10 judges on the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles federal appeals for the western states, signed an order siding with her decision, and further staying the execution. But this was overturned at the last minute by the US Supreme Court, which, in an unprecedented move, stripped the western judges of their authority in the Harris case, and ordered him to be killed.

His case was not unique. In January 1992, officials in Arkansas had to tie down Rickey Ray Rector, while they searched for for a 'good' vein in his arm. They were about to cut into his arm when a vein was found in his hand - one hour after the operation began.