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Harbison v. Little

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Harbison was convicted of first-degree murder and burglary and sentenced to death. Under Tennessee’s new lethal injection protocol, without determining whether the prisoner was conscious or not, the State would administer three strong drugs: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride in quick succession. Pancuronium bromide is specifically prohibited for euthanizing animals under Tennessee law

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Per the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional.

    Facts.

    Edward Jerome Harbison was charged and convicted of first-degree murder and burglary and sentenced to death. Harbison appealed his conviction, petitioned for post-conviction relief, and petitioned for habeas corpus. All of Harbison’s petitions were denied. Under Tennessee’s new lethal injection protocol, without determining whether the prisoner was conscious or not, the State would administer three drugs: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride in quick succession. Pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride create an agonizing death without sufficient anesthesia, and pancuronium bromide is specifically prohibited for euthanizing animals under Tennessee law. 

    Issue.

    Whether, per the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol is constitutional.

    Held.

    Yes,per the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol is constitutional.

    Discussion.

    Under the Eighth amendment,there is limited protection against “unnecessary pain” during an execution. In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436 (1890).However, the court has not deemed any specific method to be unconstitutional under theses grounds. Nonethless, the method of an execution will be deemed unconstitutional if the method is grossly disproportionate or if it causes “unnecessary and wanton” pain. To successfully satisfy a “unnecessary and wanton” pain claim, the defendant must prove that there is a sufficient risk of pain fundamental to the method. Here, Tennesee’s protocol has a significant risk that Harbison will not be anesthetized correctly prior to receiving the pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride because poorly trained executioners will not dose Harbison with sodium thiopental properly before administering the other drugs. Pursuant to Estelle v. Gamble, the Court determined that wantonness was the “deliberate indifference” to the “serious” medical needs of an inmate.429 U.S. 97 (1976).Further, a deliberate indifference is evident when the government actor knew there was a significant risk of harm, yet disregarded it. Other courts have legalized lethal injection protocols that assess the prisoner’s conscious or unconsciousness before the administration of the final two drugs. Here, Tennessee’s protocol does not provide this essential procedure. Therefore, the protocol is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.


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