WASHINGTON (AFP) — A month after the US Supreme Court agreed to wade into the lethal injection debate, executions are effectively on hold across the nation as courts and politicians sit tight amid a legal limbo.
On September 25, the country's highest court agreed to examine whether lethal injections -- used in virtually all US executions -- are "cruel and unusual" punishment, as banned under the US constitution.
Since it accepted to take up the case, all but one of the executions scheduled in the past four weeks around the country have been postponed, and only a handful are still due to take place before the end of the year.
"In effect we do have a moratorium. There is no determination by the US Supreme Court that no execution can happen. It's more of a wait-and-see," said Richard Dieter from the Death Penalty Information Center.
"This may not remove anybody from death row, it might just require some changes in lethal injection procedures and then executions might increase next year or so."
Rights activists argue that lethal injections can be painful. During an execution, three drugs are administered to the condemned person: one to sedate him, one to paralyze him, and one to stop the heart.
However, this is not always done by a medical professional. While the prisoner may appear calm, several studies and botched executions have shown that death may in fact be prolonged and quite painful.
In Florida in December, Angel Nieves Diaz grimaced and shook for more than 30 minutes before finally suffering convulsions and dying.
Authorities later found that the needles were inserted too far and the lethal cocktail had been injected outside his veins.
In 2006, there were 53 executions in the United States, all but one through lethal injection.
Now though, executions appear to have been put on hold almost by default, apart from the controversial execution of Michael Richard in Texas, just hours after the Supreme Court's decision.
This week the execution of a convicted murderer in Nevada was stayed at the 11th hour after an appeal by rights groups over the method of lethal injection to be used.
William Castillo had been due to be executed at 8:30 pm on Monday October 15 but was spared following a last-ditch legal bid by the American Civil Liberties Union to the Nevada Supreme Court.
In Virginia, Christopher Emmett won a reprieve late Wednesday just four hours before he was due to die for murdering a colleague.
The US Supreme Court ruled he could not be executed before his appeal had been considered by the federal Appeals Court. In fact, the federal court is unlikely to rule before the Supreme Court has delivered its own verdict on the constitutionality of lethal injections.
Amid such murky legal waters, the Supreme Court in Georgia on Thursday also postponed the scheduled execution of Jack Alderman, sentenced to death for murdering his wife in 1974.
And in other states the legal uncertainty has prompted governors and judges to stay all executions until the Supreme Court's ruling.
But supporters of the death penalty say that this temporary suspension of the death penalty is likely to be shortlived, since the Supreme Court decision could lead to a resumption or even an acceleration of executions.
"The Supreme Court has never said that any form of execution was unconstitutional, and that includes firing squads and the electric chair," said Michael Rushford, president of a victims' defense group called the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
"This is a side-show, it has created delays in executions. The court will uphold, maybe they'll make some suggestions in the decision about trained personnel doing the lethal injections.
"And the result will be that this tactic which has been used on and off for about at least 5 years to hold up executions will be gone, so in the future, once this method of execution is verified as not unconstitutional, there will be little to stop the states from going ahead and executing their worst murderers."
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