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US court reviews lethal injections during anti-execution campaign


For the first time in more than a century, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to examine whether a form of execution, in this case lethal injection, violates the nation’s constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment".

The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International and some religious groups have organized events to draw attention to the issue.

The coalition coordinated its fifth ‘Day Against the Death Penalty’ on 10 October. The day included events in the State of Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any other US state in the last 10 years.

From 19-21 October, Amnesty International USA is sponsoring the 2007 ‘National Weekend of Faith in Action on the Death Penalty’, during which churches, other faith communities, including interfaith groups, and human rights activists will hold special events.

Rabbi Harold Berman of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, who participated in an anti-death penalty rally in Columbus on 26 September, told Ecumenical News International, "The Jewish tradition has held antipathy to the death penalty in practice for more than 2000 years. The justice system has too many mistakes on record. Besides the fallibility of the system, there’s discrimination. Those who are executed tend to be poor, tend to be minority, and tend to not get a fair shake in the justice system."

At issue in the Supreme Court case is not whether lethal injection should be used but rather whether the current three-drug combination is the best mixture to kill a condemned prisoner in the most humane way.

If the Supreme Court defines a different drug combination, the number of death penalty executions could rise in the US in the near future.

Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told The Baptist Press news agency that the mere risk of suffering is sufficient grounds to back a new formula, but that the drug combination should not inflict unnecessary pain.

"Surely there is a chemical which, administered in a large enough dosage, will stop the heart without a possibility for the person to experience pain," said Duke, according to The Baptist Press.

Generally speaking in the US, religious groups perceived as being progressive oppose the death penalty, while those viewed as conservative support it. For example, the National Council of the Churches of Christ opposes the death penalty, while the National Assembly of Evangelicals and The Christian Coalition support it.

The Mennonites, Amish, Society of Friends (Quakers), and Unitarian Universalists have historically been among the most active groups in opposition to the death penalty. The Roman Catholic Church is generally strongly opposed to capital punishment.

The death penalty is applied in 38 US states and by the federal government. It is typically used in cases of murder, treason and certain types of rape.

In 2006, 53 persons in 14 states were executed: 24 in Texas; 5 in Ohio; 4 each in Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia; 1 each in Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, California, Montana, and Nevada. Of those executed, 32 were white, and 21 African-American. All 53 were men, and lethal injection was used in 52 cases, with electrocution used once.

Ecumenical News International