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Mississippi Supreme Court Allows Challenge of Lethal Injection Protocol to Continue; Reverses Lower Court

by Lonnie Burton

On December 15, 2016, a 5-4 ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court revived a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit brought by a death row prisoner who claimed he will suffer cruel and unusual punishment if the state is allowed to execute him in the manner it intends. Specifically, the lawsuit alleged that the state's planned use of a compounded version of pentobarbital, which is not approved by the Food & Drug Administration, will cause him to "experience a tortuous death by suffocation and cardiac arrest."

Charles Ray Crawford was convicted in 1994 in Tippah County of capital murder, rape, burglary, and sexual battery, and was sentenced to death by lethal execution. After his numerous state and federal appeals and writs were denied, Crawford sought leave in the Mississippi Supreme Court to file a successive petition for posh-conviction relief, which was eventually denied. While that motion was pending, Crawford filed the instant complaint in state court, seeking to enjoin the state's use of the particular drug in his execution. The state filed a motion to dismiss Crawford's lawsuit, arguing that it was merely an end-run attempt to skirt the procedural requirements of state post-conviction relief statutes and was in reality just another attack on his judgment and sentence, and must be dismissed.

The Circuit Court of the First Judicial Circuit of Hinds County agreed and dismissed Crawford's complaint, finding that Crawford had the "same or similar issues" pending in the Mississippi Supreme Court. Crawford appealed, and the state high court reversed.

The Supreme Court first found that the lower court erred in finding that Crawford had similar issues pending before it. Finding that his successive motion for post-conviction relief presented no argument relating to the method of execution, it said the circuit court's order "is factually mistaken." 

The court also overruled the state's argument that Crawford's challenge to the method of his execution may not be brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Because Crawford's lawsuit "is not seeking to preclude Mississippi from carrying out his execution from lethal injection altogether," but is merely challenging the method or manner of execution, his claims were cognizable in a § 1983 case.

In support of its decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court relied on Hill v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 573 (2006), a United States Supreme Court case that held that method-of-execution claims may be brought pursuant to Section 1983, and that Section 1983 claims may be brought in state court.

Crawford "asserts that Mississippi's planned use of compounded lethal injection drugs present an unnecessary risk of inflicting gratuitous pain during the execution in violation of" the state and federal constitutions, the court wrote. "Without a doubt the courts of this State have the authority to hear and adjudge [this) claim under § 1983." See Crawford v. Fisher, No. 2014-CA-01606-SGT (S. Ct. MS), December 15, 2016.

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Related legal case

Crawford v. Fisher