Justices allow Tennessee execution to go forward, but inmate still gets temporary reprieve

Tennessee had planned to execute Edmund Zagorski, who is on death row for the 1984 murders of John Dale Dotson and Jimmy Porter, tonight. The Supreme Court would have allowed the execution to go forward, but the state’s governor gave Zagorski a brief reprieve to provide the state with enough time to prepare the electric chair that Zagorski has requested for use in his execution.

The justices vacated an order by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit that had put Zagorski’s execution on hold. Zagorski had sought to reopen his case to benefit from a 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court involving claims that an inmate’s trial lawyer provided inadequate assistance. The 6th Circuit blocked Zagorski’s execution to allow him to appeal a federal trial court’s ruling against him, but tonight the Supreme Court overturned the 6th Circuit’s order. Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor indicated that they would have left the 6 th Circuit’s order in place.

Sotomayor (again joined by Breyer) had strong words dissenting from the court’s refusal to block Zagorski’s execution in another proceeding, this one challenging Tennessee’s lethal-injection protocol. The state had planned to execute Zagorski using three drugs, but Zagorski argued that the protocol will “cause severe pain, mental anguish and needless suffering” because the first drug in the protocol, midazolam, will not properly anesthetize him before the second and third drugs – which will paralyze him and then stop his heart – take effect.

In this case, Sotomayor explained, the trial court had ruled that Zagorski and other inmates had not shown that another drug, pentobarbital, which is “widely conceded to be able to render a person fully” unconscious, was available – even though the state had previously offered a single dose of pentobarbital as a “seemingly available” alternative method of execution. The Tennessee Supreme Court then rejected Zagorski’s request to stay his execution.

Sotomayor complained that the requirement, imposed by the Supreme Court’s cases on lethal injection, that “inmates offer alternative methods for their own executions” was “legally and morally wrong when it was promulgated, and it has been proved even crueler in light of the obstacles that have prevented capital prisoners from satisfying this precondition.”

“Capital prisoners,” Sotomayor stressed, “are not entitled to pleasant deaths under the Eighth Amendment, but they are entitled to humane deaths. The longer we stand silent amid growing evidence of inhumanity in execution methods like Tennessee’s, the longer we extend our own complicity in state-sponsored brutality.”

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