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Dismissal of §1983 Challenge to Alabama's Lethal Injection Procedure Reversed

Dismissal of §1983 Challenge to Alabama's Lethal Injection Procedure Reversed

On March 21, 2012, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions a death row's prisoner's lethal injection procedure claim.

Alabama State prisoner Thomas D. Arthur, Pro Se, on death row appealed the dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. §1983 Civil Rights action, alleging Alabama's lethal injection method of execution violated the 8th and 14th Amendments and the separation of powers required by Article III of the Alabama Constitution. The allegation stemmed from 2011 when Alabama switched the drug Sodium Thiopental to Pentobarbital as the first of the three drugs administered. According to Arthur, Pentobarbital took substantially longer to insensate and thus created a significant risk of the prisoner experiencing excruciating pain when the second and third drug was administered before the pentobarbital took effect, violating the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In addition, Arthur claimed the prison personnel who injected lethal drugs failed to follow procedures, violating the Equal Protection Clause, and Alabama's secretive procedure also violates the Due Process Clause. The delegation of lawmaking authority to prison officials on lethal injection also allegedly violates the Alabama Constitution.

Since Arthur failed to state a claim for relief on the Equal Protection Clause, the district court dismissed it, along with the 8th Amendment and Due Process Claim as being time barred. Arthur appealed.

The 11th Circuit cited Alabama’s lack of evidence to contradict Arthur's evidence. The State relied on lethal injection procedures carried out by Georgia, Oklahoma, and Ohio and other circuit rulings. But the 11th Circuit noted that Alabama had undergone substantial change in their injection administration method. Arthur's complaint and supporting affidavits were different from the other complaints and rulings. Furthermore, when it came to being time barred, Arthur could not challenge the procedure until Alabama executed a death row prisoner, using the new drug. No other evidence was previously available to support the claim. Relying on execution experts' testimony, based on observation from two executions, Arthur alleged Alabama failed to perform a required consciousness check, deviating from its execution protocol. Without a written protocol, the court recognized that Alabama's veil of secrecy will disparately treat Arthur, and Alabama could unexpectedly change its uncertain protocol for his execution.

The court concluded that the district court erred by dismissing the equal protection claim. The 11th Circuit also stated that the district court erred in dismissing the 8th Amendment claims. The judgment of the district court was reversed and remanded. See: Arthur v. Thomas, 674 F.3d 1257 (11th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Arthur v. Thomas