updated 3/29/2004 1:23:37 PM ET 2004-03-29T18:23:37

The Supreme Court used the case of Alabama death row inmate David Larry Nelson for a stark discussion about execution methods, and whether federal judges can consider last-minute challenges to punishment.

Nelson had asked to be sent to Alabama’s electric chair. But when his date with the executioner came, the chair was no longer in use. His medical condition would make the new punishment of lethal injection unconstitutionally cruel unless special precautions were taken, lawyer Bryan Stevenson of Montgomery, Ala., told justices.

Because of the condition of his veins — damaged by drug use — it may be impossible to insert an intravenous line without a type of surgery, Stevenson said.

Justices peppered Stevenson and Alabama’s lawyer with questions about how his death sentence would be carried out, with the possibility of prison staff cutting into his neck or thigh to get to a good vein.

The court is deciding a technical question of whether last-minute appeals from death row inmates should be allowed in federal courts. Alabama Solicitor General Kevin Newsom said that Congress intended to limit federal appeals.

Justices air concerns
Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy pressed Newsom for promises that Nelson would have a hearing in state court, and that prison staff would consider the best medical procedures for the inmate. Newsom assured them Nelson would have a full hearing in state courts.

But Justice John Paul Stevens said that if Alabama wins, an inmate would have a limited right to appeal if he were told shortly before his execution “they’re going to hang him up by his thumbs and beat him with whips until he dies.”

Nelson’s case prompted legal challenges to the types of drug cocktails used in lethal injections in other states, and justices have clashed 5-4 in a string of emergency appeals from inmates seeking temporary reprieves, on grounds that their own lethal injections would be unconstitutional.

Most recently, the court’s five most conservative members voided a stay that a South Carolina death row inmate had received earlier this month.

Alabama claims Nelson’s case is a prime example of a sluggish justice system and the need for limits on appeals. He has been on death row more than 20 years.

In 1994, he asked a jury to re-sentence him to death for shooting a man in the back of the head as the man had sex with Nelson’s girlfriend on Jan. 1, 1978. The woman also was shot but survived to testify that Nelson set up the sexual liaison in a robbery plot.

Nelson also was convicted of shooting a cab driver and beating to death an elderly man, the court was told.

Inmate first wanted execution shown on TV
He first asked that his execution be televised, and sped up. He later changed his mind and sought delays.

Last fall, Nelson was less than three hours from execution by lethal injection when the Supreme Court stepped in to stop it. He had sought a stay after learning that executioners might have to cut deep into his flesh to administer the drugs.

The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment “prohibits the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain. It permits sentences of death to be carried out, but not in a manner that is more torturous than necessary to extinguish life,” one of Nelson’s lawyers, Michael Kennedy McIntyre, told justices in a filing.

Attorneys for Alabama said in court documents that at least 14 states besides Alabama allow so-called “cut-down” procedures to access veins: Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The case is Nelson v. Campbell, 03-6821.

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