Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson said he was unaware that a federal judge had ruled last week that lethal injection procedures in his home state were unconstitutional.
Thompson also told reporters he was unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed this week to consider a Kentucky case about whether lethal injection violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Thompson's support for the death penalty was a major part of his campaign platform when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee in 1994. Asked for his response to the recent Tennessee and Kentucky cases, Thompson responded, "I hadn't heard that. I didn't know."
Speaking to a group of reporters, Thompson said he didn't think lethal injections would violate Eighth Amendment rights.
"That certainly would be, according to my estimation, going further than the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Constitution has gone," he said.
Tennessee this week postponed a scheduled execution because of a Nashville federal judge's ruling, while the Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a challenge to the practice from two inmates on death row in Kentucky — a case that could further slow the pace of executions around the country.
"No campaign is perfect"
It's not the first time Thompson has been caught off-guard by questions on hot-button topics. In Florida earlier this month, Thompson seemed surprised when asked about oil drilling in the Everglades, a major issue in the state.
Thompson also gave no opinion when asked about efforts by President Bush and Congress to keep brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive two years ago, saying he did not remember details of the case that stirred national debate.
Thompson, who is preparing to participate in his first debate Oct. 9 in Dearborn, Mich., has said his campaign has gone well since he officially announced he was running earlier this month.
"Nobody is perfect and no campaign is perfect, but I really don't see anything out of the first few weeks but good news," he said. "Anybody who's there and saw the enthusiasm and the reaction that we've got would have to be pretty optimistic about things.
"Of course in a crowd of 1,500, if you're making your speech and somebody yawns, the story is usually the yawn," he said. "And I accept that — that's just the way it goes."
Thompson again dismissed harsh criticism from James Dobson, founder and chairman of Colorado-based Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group.
In a private e-mail obtained last week by The Associated Press, Dobson accused the former Tennessee senator and actor of being weak on the campaign trail and wrong on issues dear to social conservatives.
"He is very politically involved and he has his own ideas, I think, about who ought to get the Republican nomination, and it's clearly not me," Thompson said.
"I don't know what's up with the gentleman, but it's a free country and he's free to say whatever he wants to," Thompson said. "All I know is that many of his friends and many of his colleagues are embarrassed by some of the comments that he's made, and they're friends of mine."