WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's latest clash over the death penalty involves the lethal chemical cocktail used by many states and whether it is an unnecessarily cruel way to die.
The court temporarily stopped a Missouri execution early yesterday so justices could consider a last-minute appeal. A few hours later, Vernon Brown was put to death after justices lifted the stay.
The 5-to-4 vote demonstrated the court's sharp division on the death penalty. Earlier this year, by the same vote, the justices issued a landmark ruling barring executions of juvenile killers, calling them cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion on that case; in the Brown case, he voted to allow the execution.
Brown was convicted of strangling a 9-year-old girl with a rope after luring her into his home as she walked home from school in 1986. His lawyers contended his execution would be cruel because the drug combination of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride can paralyze inmates before subjecting them to suffocation, a burning sensation, and a heart attack.
''People are raising this issue across the country. It needs to be addressed," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which is against capital punishment.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which favors the death penalty, said state leaders could head off a Supreme Court showdown by reviewing their methods of execution. ''It doesn't cost much to do it, and it's cheaper than to litigate," he said.
The Supreme Court has never found a specific form of execution to be unconstitutional. A 1999 case challenging Florida's electric chair, known as ''Old Sparky," was dropped at the high court after Florida added lethal injection as an option.
Lethal injection is used in 37 states because it is considered more humane than options such as the gas chamber and hanging. Chemical solutions vary somewhat by state.
Three liberal justices, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, seemed disturbed by Missouri's failure to respond to the claim that execution would be painful. Justice David H. Souter sided with them but did not sign on to their dissent.