updated 5/24/2004 2:56:12 PM ET 2004-05-24T18:56:12

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that a convicted Alabama killer can pursue an appeal claiming lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment in his case.

Justices said that lower courts were wrong to block appeals by death row inmate David Larry Nelson, who was less than three hours from execution last fall when the Supreme Court gave him a temporary reprieve.

Nelson's case had given justices a stark look at how inmates are put to death. Nelson maintained that his veins — damaged by drug use — make it impossible to insert an intravenous line without cutting deep into flesh and muscle.

The court was using Nelson's case to decide a technical question of whether last-minute appeals from death row inmates should be allowed in federal courts.

O'Connor writes for court
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court, said that Nelson should be allowed to argue that his punishment would be unconstitutionally cruel unless special precautions were taken.

Justices had been told in filings by physicians that if done improperly, the procedure could cause Nelson to badly hemorrhage and suffer heart problems before the deadly drugs kill him.

Road map to the Supreme CourtAlabama attorneys maintained it was too late for Nelson to try to stop his execution, arguing that his case was 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.

O’Connor said the court was not going to “open the floodgates to all manner of method-of-execution challenges,” as Alabama feared. Nelson’s appeal had prompted legal challenges to the types of drug cocktails used in lethal injections in other states.

Justices have clashed 5-4 in a string of emergency appeals this year from inmates seeking temporary reprieves, on grounds that their own lethal injections would be unconstitutional. Injection is available to inmates in 37 states.

State's reasoning rejected
Alabama lawyers had said that Nelson should not have been allowed to challenge a procedural part of its death penalty system. O’Connor disagreed.

“Merely labeling something as part of an execution procedure is insufficient to insulate it from a (legal) attack,” she wrote.

Joe Morgan III, one of Nelson’s lawyers, said the 9-0 vote should encourage critics of lethal injection. “I’d like to think maybe this is the first step in changing the way we do things procedurally and otherwise,” he said.

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

In other action Monday, the court:

  • Agreed to referee a modern-day fight over state control of alcohol that recalls the days of Prohibition. The high court agreed to hear three cases involving state bans that prevent consumers from buying wine directly from an out-of-state supplier over the Internet. The dispute pits states and an established network of alcohol wholesalers against independent wineries that want to sell their products over the Internet or by phone.
  • Agreed to decide if the government can force cattle producers to pay for research into cow diseases and for catchy ads promoting “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”
    For nearly 20 years beef producers have had to pay fees that are used to promote the industry, but lower courts have ruled that the beef programs — and others like them — violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
    Opponents of such fees contend that the mandatory fees infringed on their free speech rights because they are forced to pay for some marketing campaigns with which they don’t agree.

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