Hill v. McDonough (05-8794)

Appealed from: U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

Oral argument: April 26, 2006


In this case the Supreme Court faces a sensitive issue involving capital punishment, intermingled with a complicated procedural question. Although the Petitioner in this case is not challenging his conviction and subsequent death sentence, he is questioning the method the state of Florida anticipates using for carrying out his execution. The Court must balance this substantive hot legal topic with the procedural interplay between 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (civil rights legislation) and 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (habeas corpus legislation). The Petitioner’s fate will likely turn on how his action should be properly classified—as a civil rights action or a habeas petition. As a civil rights action, the Court would then decide whether his claim is cognizable under § 1983. As a habeas petition, the Court may rule his claim barred under § 2254.

[Question(s) presented] | [Issue(s)] | [Facts] | [Discussion] | [Analysis]

Questions Presented

1. Whether a complaint brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by a death-sentenced state prisoner, who seeks to stay his execution in order to pursue a challenge to the chemicals utilized for carrying out the execution, is properly recharacterized as a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254?

2. Whether, under this Court's decision in Nelson, a challenge to a particular protocol the State plans to use during the execution process constitutes a cognizable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983?



Can a death-sentenced prisoner claim under civil rights legislation, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, rather than as a habeas corpus petition, that the lethal injection procedure used in Florida constitutes cruel and unusual punishment where research suggests that some prisoners may feel pain before death?



Factual Background

In 1983, Petitioner Clarence Edward Hill was convicted of murder and sentenced to death after shooting and killing a police officer during the course of a robbery and attempted arrest. See Brief for Petitioner at 4. After exhausting the appeals process in both state and federal courts, Hill petitioned the United States Supreme Court to (1) grant him a stay of execution in order to challenge the legality of the lethal injection procedures in Florida, and (2) allow him to bring a claim against Florida’s Department of Corrections for the use of cruel and unusual punishment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id.

Research led by L.G. Koniaris and J.P. Sheldon explored the possibility that lethal injection cocktails, popular among capital punishment states, fail to adequately anesthetize prisoners during execution and, thus, subject them to excruciating pain as the other drugs are administered. See L.G. Koniaris and J.P. Sheldon, Inadequate Anesthesia in Lethal Injection for Execution, at 1412. Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida all use the same combination of thiopental, pancuronium, and potassium chloride for lethal injections. Id. By studying autopsy results, the research recorded the residual amounts of thiopental found in the bodies of executed prisoners from those states. Id. at 1412-1413.

Although the research was admittedly problematic, their results imply that in many circumstances the administered dosage of thiopental was so low that prisoners may have been conscious for the entire procedure. Id. Based on this evidence, the study attempted to prove that because protocol in both Texas and Virginia (states that use the same combination of drugs, but would not allow the researchers access to autopsy reports) does not require executioners to be trained in anesthesiology, to be in the room during the administration of the drugs, or to monitor the amounts of anesthesia administered, prisoners may suffer unnecessarily. Id. If an adequate dose of sodium thiopental is not administered, the prisoner could be aware of and capable of feeling the pain associated with the injection of pancuronium, which induces suffocation and paralysis. Further, the prisoner could be aware of and capable of feeling the pain associated with the injection of potassium chloride, which burns as it travels through the cardiovascular system to the heart, causing severe muscular cramping and, ultimately, cardiac arrest. The prisoner would be unable to signal that he is in pain because of the induced paralysis. Id. at 1413.

Based on this research, Hill has requested a stay of execution in order to file this civil rights claim (42 U.S.C. § 1983) on the basis that Florida’s lethal injection protocol does not adequately anesthetize inmates, subjecting them to pain during the remainder of the procedure and is, thus, cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Procedural Background

After exhausting all of the state and federal judicial proceedings available to him in which to challenge his conviction and sentence, Petitioner Hill modeled his federal § 1983 civil rights action after the Supreme Court case of Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637 (2004). According to Hill, the Nelson court held that someone in Hill’s position may use § 1983 to challenge a state’s lethal injection procedure, as long as the relief sought would not “necessarily prevent [the State] from carrying out its execution.” Id. at 647. In other words, the challenge may seek a more humane method of execution, but may not seek to prevent the execution altogether. 

The Eleventh Circuit characterized Petitioner Hill’s § 1983 challenge as a habeas corpus petition. Federal habeas corpus proceedings are essentially the last opportunity for convicts to have their cases reheard and their sentences potentially changed or overturned. The Eleventh Circuit then held that because Hill already brought an earlier federal habeas petition challenging his conviction and sentence, his present action was an improper “second or successive [habeas] petition.” Respondent’s Brief on the Merits at 3. Because of the Eleventh Circuit’s characterization of Hill’s challenge, the Appellate Court effectively denied Hill a federal forum in which to challenge Florida’s method of execution. Petitioner Hill then appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to decide (1) whether the Eleventh Circuit’s characterization of Hill’s challenge was correct, and (2) if not, whether Hill’s challenge was properly brought under § 1983. The Supreme Court granted Hill a stay of execution until they decide this case.



Petitioner Hill argues that based on the decision in Nelson v. Campbell, the Supreme Court must reverse the Eleventh Court’s ruling that Hill cannot, as a condemned inmate, bring a § 1983 claim of cruel and unusual punishment. That decision allows a prisoner on death row to bring a § 1983 action as long as the judicial relief sought would not “necessarily prevent [the State] from carrying out its execution.” 541 U.S. at 647. Here, Hill does not seek to prevent his execution, but rather to challenge the existing lethal injection procedures used in Florida as cruel and unusual, and to encourage the State to study the possibility that current procedures permit inadequate anesthesia.

The Respondent, argues that Hill cannot bring this claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because it is actually a petition for a federal habeas corpus proceeding (a legal protection against illegal incarceration), and that he has already exhausted his habeas appeals. Therefore, as the Eleventh Circuit ruled in the opinion below, this petition should be considered a “second or successive” habeas proceeding and must be vacated because the Supreme Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.

It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court granted certiorari in order to maintain the status quo, but the Court could certainly rule that Hill’s claim is barred for being a successive habeas corpus petition, and deny him the stay from execution. It seems more likely that the Court is interested in encouraging the state systems to study the possibility that lethal injection procedures are currently inadequate or inconsistent at best. However, it is possible that the Court is concerned with clarifying Nelson v. Campbell, and will use this case to rule that claims of this nature must remain federal habeas corpus claims, and cannot be maintained under § 1983.

Should the Court agree with Hill on the issue of subject matter jurisdiction, hear argument on the § 1983 motion, and stay Hill’s execution, the obvious result is that Hill will (1) be allowed to argue that lethal injection procedures in Florida are cruel and unusual by subjecting the prisoner to unnecessary pain, and (2) will therefore not be executed on the currently scheduled date. After further hearings on the matter, Florida may change the method of execution in this instance and reset Hill’s execution date. However, the decision clearly has greater implications. States that use this particular combination of drugs for lethal injections will be forced to study whether or not anesthesia is improperly administered resulting in prisoners being paralyzed and subjected to excruciating suffocation, muscle cramps, and heart failure. Moreover, condemned prisoners in a multitude of capital states using the same procedures will have access to the court system via § 1983 motions, and will likely flood the system with civil rights complaints and requests for stays on their execution dates until the issue of whether or not lethal injections are cruel and unusual as currently administered.

Human rights and anti-death penalty groups will be able to use any research similar to the Koniaris study to further the arguments against the death penalty more generally. If the form of execution that society currently believes to be the most humane is proven to actually inflict excruciating pain during the execution, then general acceptance of the death penalty in those states may wane. On the other side of the fence, death penalty advocates will likely argue that if current dosages of anesthesia are inadequate, the simple solution is to increase the dosage to a level that leaves no room for doubt as to whether or not the prisoner is conscious or able to experience pain. Further, the decision is likely to spark conversations on the ideas of retributivism, rehabilitation, and the realm of punishment within a democracy generally.

On an even more personal level, if this decision illuminates the public mind to the possibility that certain prisoners suffered during execution, friends and family of those inmates will have to live with the prospect that their loved ones were subject to tortuous pain without the ability to communicate in their last moments. That reality may also have implications for friends and family members of the victims of those prisoners whose views on the death penalty likely cover the spectrum from wanting a more painful execution method all the way to disagreeing with the death penalty entirely.



Applicable Law

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution asserts that “No State shall…deprive any person of life [or] liberty…without due process of law….”  42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserts that “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State…, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States…to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…” 

Federal habeas corpus law is a common law concept that provides prisoners who have already exhausted the appeals process in state courts the opportunity to be heard in federal court if certain contingencies exist. Prisoners are only allowed to file and see through to completion a single federal habeas petition in an attempt to have their sentence reduced or reversed. In 1992 the federal district court granted in part Hill’s federal habeas petition, but were not at that time presented with the issue of Florida’s lethal injection methods. On remand, the state appellate court affirmed Hill’s death sentence in Hill v. State, 643 So.2d 1071(Fla. 1995) and Petitioner Hill again filed for federal habeas relief. This time the district court denied relief and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed their decision in Hill v. Moore, 175 F.3d 915 (11th Cir. 1999), cert denied, 528 U.S. 1087 (2000). Because Hill had already petitioned for habeas relief and been denied, the Eleventh Circuit re-characterized the current claim as an improper “second or successive [habeas corpus] petition” and denied him a forum for the alleged § 1983 claim

Petitioner’s Arguments

Hill argues that this claim is not a habeas petition, but rather a claim under civil rights legislation § 1983 preventing the states from using cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit improperly characterized the petition as a habeas petition and the claim should not have been denied. Based on the research mentioned above, Hill maintains that he has sufficient evidence that the procedures used by the Florida Department of Corrections results in extreme pain to prisoners during the lethal injection procedure because the protocol does not guarantee that prisoners are properly and adequately anesthetized before being injected with subsequent drugs which have very severe and painful side effects. Hill also argues that this claim is not the same as a habeas petition because it is not seeking the same remedy, namely a stay from execution. Instead, Hill argues that he is not attempting to prevent the state of Florida from executing him or argue that the state does not have a right to do so, but simply trying to ensure that the execution method is humane. Furthermore, Hill argues that his claim is the identical to the claim brought in Nelson. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit should not have dismissed his claim.

Alternatively, Hill argues that because his prior federal habeas claim was not yet decided and the current lethal injection methods in Florida were adopted after his federal habeas petition was denied, his petition to the Eleventh Circuit was not improper and should have been entertained. According to Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal, 523 U.S. 637 (1998), and Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473 (2000), if a state prisoner’s petition raises a claim that would not be ripe at the time of the original petition, then it is not accurately depicted as a successive petition.

Respondent’s Rebuttal

The Florida Department of Corrections, the Respondent, overtly implies that Hill is simply trying to sidestep federal habeas procedure because his opportunities for relief have been legitimately exhausted, and instead brings this civil rights claim under § 1983 in order to have another day in court. Moreover, by attempting to bring a § 1983 claim, Respondent believes that Hill is undermining the Congressional intention that federal courts should generally defer to state court proceeding judgments in capital cases. Also, Hill failed to bring his claim in any of the state court proceedings, which implies that the only reason for this particular claim is to attempt to secure a federal court audience after already exhausting his federal habeas appeals.

Although recognizing that Congressional intention behind federal habeas relief was to allow prisoners an additional remedy if the state incorrectly imprisoned the defendant, the Respondent points to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), which ruled that a prisoner cannot bring a claim under § 1983 if a winning judgment would invalidate a state court’s sentencing decision.



The Court’s decision in this case will have important implications for both death row inmates and the states which plan to execute these prisoners. A ruling in favor of the Petitioner Hill would open the door for challenges to state execution methods and force states to examine their capital punishment procedures. This result would likely delay executions, increasing the cost of housing these inmates. An additional cost to the states, and, thus, taxpayers, would be that of examining and/or revamping execution procedures. However, these costs would come with the benefit of assurances of humane executions throughout the country. This benefit will not only affect death row inmates, but also their families and civil rights advocates.



Prepared by: Liz Hanks and Amy McDonald

Additional Sources