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WASHINGTON - A last-minute decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution of a Florida inmate could temporarily halt lethal injections throughout the country until April.
The high court Wednesday decided to hear an argument by convicted killer Clarence Hill that his civil rights would be violated by Florida's lethal-injection method because it causes inmates to suffer pain during the procedure.
"This is a stunning and very welcome development that puts on hold all Florida executions and may well put a timeout on all lethal-injection executions in the United States," said Abe Bonowitz, Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Hill was moments from being executed - strapped to a gurney with intravenous lines inserted and witnesses waiting Tuesday night - when he won a temporary stay from Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The full court confirmed the stay of execution on Wednesday. Hill's case has wended through various courts since Oct. 22, 1982, when he killed a police officer and wounded another during a savings and loan robbery and shootout.
Although a lower court ruled that Hill had exhausted all of his appeals, the Supreme Court decided to hear his argument that Florida's cocktail of lethal drugs amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Most states that employ lethal injection use the same combination of drugs as Florida.
The high court is expected to hold a hearing April 26 to decide whether Hill can continue pursuing his case as a civil-rights issue.
Andrea Lyon, law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and defender of accused murders, joined other lawyers in expressing shock that the court took Hill's case.
"The court had many opportunities to step in regarding whether a particular form of punishment is cruel and unusual. They have not taken them before."
Hill is only the second inmate to win a Supreme Court hearing on whether a particular method of lethal injection violates civil rights, said Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group.
Dieter said he doesn't think all lethal-injection cases will be put on hold until April. But many around the country will, he said.
The previous case - involving convicted killer David Larry Nelson of Alabama - was sent to lower courts to decide whether lethal injection violated his civil rights because of difficulties inserting death-inducing drugs into his collapsed veins.
There are 368 inmates on death row in Florida - among the most in the nation. Hill's case is nearly certain to block next week's scheduled execution by lethal injection of Arthur Rutherford for a 1982 murder in Santa Rosa County.
The office of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court stay.
"It's unfortunate that after more than two decades on death rows and several years since lethal injection was instituted that these objections would be raised at the last minute. It causes undue stress on the victims' families," said Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss.
Carolyn Snurkowski, a Florida assistant deputy attorney general who has worked on most of the state's death cases in recent years, is confident that the state's lethal-injection law will withstand high court review.
"But it may never get that far," she cautioned.
Instead, the court must decide first if Hill can move forward with a claim under federal civil rights law challenging the state's method of execution. Hill had exhausted his rights under regular death penalty appeals and the Supreme Court had previously denied him further avenues.
Congress tightened rules for regular appeals after complaints that some inmates were abusing the courts through years of legal posturing to delay their executions. But Hill is arguing that his case should be considered under civil rights laws - an issue not covered by the new restrictions.
"We should not be violating people's constitutional rights with cruel and unusual punishment," said D. Todd Doss, Hill's attorney. "I don't see the harm in having this aired out in a trial."
If Hill wins his argument at the top court, it could delay his death by years as lower courts decide whether Florida's system of lethal injection should be replaced.
Hill's attorneys also asked the top court to stop his execution because, they say, his mental capacity is that of a 10-year-old. No decision has been made on that issue.
Lethal injection has been the primary form of execution since 2000, after of the state's use of the electric chair had been challenged as cruel and unusual.
In Florida and the 35 other states that allow lethal injection, it is carried out in similar fashion. At issue is one of three chemicals used - pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the muscles. If prisoners' muscles are paralyzed, they may not be able to express any pain in their final moments, medical experts say. An article in the medical journal Lancet found that as many as 43 percent of prisoners experienced pain during lethal injection.
"Lethal injection is a medical charade," said Dr. Jonathan Groner, a pediatric surgeon and professor at Ohio State University who has written extensively opposing the technique.