I have been inspired by my roommate to deviate from bankruptcy law for this week’s blog. I know…I can hear the horrified gasp now. It’s ok. We’ll get back to bankruptcy next week.
A few days ago I was talking to my roommate about a speaker she had in her Law, Science, and Technology class. The speaker was the newly appointed Chief Judge for the United States District Court, for the District of Arizona, Roslyn O. Silver. She spoke about several key cases she had presided over during her tenure as a judge. One of these was the case of Jeffrey Landrigan. Landrigan was executed by lethal injection in October 2010. This was only Arizona’s second execution since 2000. However, it is not the facts of the criminal case that make the Landrigan execution so noteworthy. Landrigan was convicted of murdering a man during the commission of a burglary. The execution is noteworthy because of the amount of appeals requested and the use of science in those appeals.
Landrigan’s execution was temporarily stayed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and that stay was almost immediately lifted by the United States Supreme Court. Landrigan appealed and requested a stay based on an Eigth Amendment claim that the execution would pose cruel and unusual punishment. When execution by lethal injection is carried out, the State administers three drugs. One of these, sodium thiopental, is used as paralytic, so that the prisoner will not feel any pain when the remaining drugs are given. The sodium thiopental used in US executions is manufactured in the United States by a company called Hospira. It has been tested and approved by the FDA. At the time Landrigan was set to be executed, Hospira had stopped manufacturing the drug, causing a shortage. Despite this, the State of Arizona was somehow able to procure sodium thiopental. The State refused to disclose how it obtained the drug, but it was believed that the drug came from a manufacturer in Great Britain. Landrigan’s attorneys argued that the drug was not subject to the same FDA testing and approval, and its effects were unknown. The Ninth Circuit agreed, stating that it could not be determined whether the drug had been altered, and could result in pain when given, or would be effective in paralyzing. If it had been altered, or it did not produce the normal results, it could subject Landrigan to an execution that would be both cruel and unusual. The Ninth Circuit determined that, while Landrigan’s execution would still go on, it would be stayed until a humane execution could be guaranteed. The State of Arizona could ensure this by either finding another drug, with similar effects, to use or to wait until Hospira began manufacturing sodium thiopental again in 2011. After the decision, the State’s attorneys immediately filed a petition with the United States Supreme Court (surprise!) to lift the stay. The Supreme Court determined that a drug is not unsafe just because it is manufactured outside of the United States and that speculating as to its risk of harm was not enough.
Besides his appeal based on cruel and unusual punishment, Landrigan also appealed based on new DNA findings. He also made an appeal based on ineffective assistance of counsel. He argued that his trial counsel should have presented at sentencing facts and scientific reports that his home life and genetics made him pre-disposed to commit crimes. This items were not presented as mitigating factors at sentencing. The sentencing judge determined that there were not enough mitigating factors to outweight the aggravating factors in Landrigan’s case, and thus imposed the death penatly.
Who knew that science and the law could go hand in hand? Most lawyers are trying to dodge math and science by going to law school. This case shows us that we may not always be so lucky.