TIME Crime

Arizona Execution Will Move Forward After Last-Minute Appeals

Lethal Injection Execution
Walls Unit in Huntsville prison where lethal injections are carried out on inmates in Huntsville, Texas. Jerry Cabluck—Sygma/Corbis

The court, reluctant to step into the battle over lethal injection, denies a constitutional challenge by Arizona death row inmate Joseph Wood over the secrecy of execution drugs

Updated at 3 p.m. E.T. Wednesday

A rare victory for a death row inmate over the weekend was quashed Tuesday when the Supreme Court lifted a stay of execution for Joseph Wood, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his girlfriend and her father in 1989.

In a three-sentence order, the Supreme Court reversed a judgment by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that halted Wood’s execution based on the secrecy surrounding where the state obtains the drugs to carry out lethal injection. About a half-hour after Wood was scheduled to be executed, Arizona’s top court announced that it had temporarily halted the execution on appeals. Wood’s lawyers said he did not have proper legal representation. They also claimed that Arizona’s “experimental” lethal injection methods, which include drugs like midazolam that have been used in executions that have gone awry in other states, would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But that stay was lifted Wednesday afternoon after the court heard last-minute appeals from Wood’s lawyers, clearing the way for Wood to be executed by lethal injection.

Death row inmates around the U.S. have challenged the constitutionality of their lethal injections, often arguing that the laws and policies shielding drug manufacturers’ identities are unconstitutional. Due to drug shortages and boycotts by pharmaceutical companies, many states in the last few years have obtained lethal injection drugs from compounding pharmacies, which are unregulated by the federal government.

Courts around the country have been largely unreceptive to those arguments. Wood’s case, however, was an exception.

Wood’s lawyers asked the state to halt his execution if it did not provide the origins of the drugs as well as the qualifications of the executioners, relying not on an Eighth Amendment argument regarding the risk of cruel and unusual punishment, but rather a First Amendment defense that Wood had a right to access information about his execution. A U.S. District Court judge in Phoenix initially denied the request, but the Ninth Circuit sided with Wood.

The court denied appeals by the state to lift the stay, sending the case to the Supreme Court, which has been reluctant to step into the ongoing battle over lethal injection.

But while the fate of lethal injection in the U.S. remains uncertain, reverting to an older method of executions got an unexpected endorsement. In a separate opinion by the Ninth Circuit that upheld Wood’s stay of execution before the Supreme Court intervened, Judge Alex Kozinski called lethal injection flawed and proposed bringing back the firing squad.

“If some states and the federal government wish to continue carrying out the death penalty, they must turn away from this misguided path and return to more primitive—and foolproof—methods of execution,” Judge Kozinski wrote. “The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. Eight or ten large-caliber bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time. … Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood.”

Legislators in several states have proposed bringing back firing squads. Only Oklahoma and Utah currently allow them, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but only under very limited circumstances.

Wood’s execution was set for Wednesday morning.

TIME Crime

Behind the Video of Eric Garner’s Deadly Confrontation With New York Police

TIME talks with the man who filmed the fatal incident on Staten Island

+ READ ARTICLE

Updated July 23, 2014

On July 17, Ramsey Orta was talking to his friend, Eric Garner, about where to eat dinner — Friday’s, maybe, or Applebee’s. They eventually decided on Buffalo Wild Wings, but Garner never made it. Soon, a fight broke out nearby, Orta says, and after Garner helped break it up, New York Police Department officers on the scene accused Garner of selling untaxed cigarettes and attempted to arrest him.

Garner, a 43-year-old father of six who was unarmed at the time, argued with the officers about why he was being targeted. To corral Garner, one officer used what appeared to be a chokehold, a technique banned by the NYPD. Several others helped drag him to the ground. Garner, who had a history of health problems, died soon after.

Orta recorded the incident on his phone and the video has helped turn the fatal encounter from a local tragedy into a national debate over the use of force by police. Orta, 22, says he’s known Garner for several years and called him “the neighborhood dad.” Orta’s video shows what appears to be one officer pressing Garner’s face into the sidewalk as other officers attempt to subdue him. On the ground, Garner can be heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.”

“I felt like they treated him wrong even after the fact that they had him contained,” Orta says.

Since Orta’s video became public after being published by the New York Daily News, the officer who grabbed Garner by the neck, Daniel Pantaleo, was ordered to turn in his badge and gun; another was reassigned to desk duty. The four emergency medical workers who responded to the scene have also been suspended without pay. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “very troubled” by the footage, and both prosecutors and the NYPD are investigating the incident.

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, criticized the department’s response as “a completely unwarranted, kneejerk reaction for political reasons and nothing more.”

Orta recorded another violent arrest at the same location in Staten Island a week earlier. He says officers have harassed him since the Garner video became public, but he says he isn’t likely to put his camera away if something happens in his Staten Island neighborhood again.

“It just gives me more power to not be afraid to pull out my camera anytime,” he says. “Even if they’re pushing me back, I might just like keep going forward and if I get arrested, hey, I got something on camera.”

Video reported by Paul Moakley, edited by Raymond Chu

TIME Crime

California Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Lethal Injection Execution
Walls Unit in Huntsville prison where lethal injections are carried out on inmates in Huntsville, Texas. Jerry Cabluck—Sygma/Corbis

Uncertainties and delays over executions violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, says federal judge

A federal judge ruled California’s death penalty unconstitutional Wednesday, saying uncertainties and delays over executions violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In his 29-page decision, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney, a Republican-appointed judge in Orange County, vacated the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother, while making a lengthy and detailed critique of the death penalty.

“The dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution,” Judge Carney wrote. “Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

Since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death while only 13 have been executed. More than 90 have died awaiting their executions, and more than 40% have been on death row for longer than 19 years. California currently has 742 inmates on death row, the most in the U.S. according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Death penalty experts and law professors called the decision unprecedented on Wednesday. “It’s the first time I can think of since the 1970s that a judicial opinion has taken on the death penalty as a whole rather than just the individual,” says Hadar Aviram, a law professor at the University of California Hastings.

It’s unclear how binding the ruling will be outside of the Jones case. Elisabeth Semel of the University of California-Berkeley’s Death Penalty Clinic says the state is likely to appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, potentially opening up a new chapter in the legal wrangling over the death penalty in California.

“Certainly, prosecutors will argue that the order does not have the effect of ‘automatically’ invalidating the death penalty in the cases of other individuals who have been sentenced to death or who are facing capital prosecution,” Semel wrote in an e-mail. “But also, certainly, there will and must be efforts to give the ruling traction on behalf of other defendants.”

The ruling may also give fresh urgency to calls from anti-death penalty advocates for a state referendum on executions, and may prompt Gov. Jerry Brown to re-evaluate how the system functions. Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles district attorney and a spokesperson for SAFE California, an anti-death penalty group, called the decision “historic.”

A spokesperson for the state’s attorney general’s office says it is reviewing the decision.

TIME Religion

Atheist to Give First Town Board Invocation Following Supreme Court Battle

A Supreme Court decision upholding prayer before town board meetings has emboldened non-believers to give their own messages

As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments last November on whether town board meetings that open with prayer violate the First Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia asked a rhetorical question: What does an invocation sound like from a non-believer?

Dan Courtney has an answer. The former president of the Freethinkers of Upstate New York will deliver the invocation before the town board of Greece, New York Tuesday evening, the same town at the center of the recent Supreme Court case.

Courtney says he contacted the board the same day the court ruled 5-4 that prayer did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibiting the government from establishing an official religion. And he’ll soon be one of several non-believers around the U.S. who have recently delivered secular messages before public town meetings.

While Courtney says he wasn’t surprised by the ruling, he was disappointed.

“Sectarian prayer is very divisive,” he says. “Almost by definition, you’re excluding a portion of people who don’t believe in that doctrine, and it excludes the 20% of the population that is non-religious.”

But at the same time, the Supreme Court ruling appears to have emboldened several non-believers to deliver their own messages in a public forum, including an invocation at the Osceola County, Fla., board of commissioners meeting by a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community and several invocations by a non-believer at Portage, Michigan city council meetings.

In his message, Courtney says he’ll draw on the Declaration of Independence and invoke the idea that governments derive their authority from the people, not a higher power.

“If you’re an American, this should resonate with you,” he says.

TIME Immigration

Immigration Activist Jose Vargas Released From Border Detention

Jose Antonio Vargas Arrest Immigration
Jose Antonio Vargas in handcuffs at the airport in McAllen, Texas, on July 15, 2014 United We Dream/Define American

The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist turned activist lacks a U.S. visa

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who became an immigration activist after openly admitting his undocumented status, has been released after he was detained by border-patrol agents at a Texas airport on Tuesday as he attempted to board a flight.

“I’ve been released by Border Patrol,” Vargas said in a statement. “I want to thank everyone who stands by me and the undocumented immigrants of south Texas and across the country. Our daily lives are filled with fear in simple acts such as getting on an airplane to go home to our family.”

A border-patrol spokesperson had earlier confirmed to the Associated Press that Vargas was held after being arrested at the airport in McAllen, Texas, but had no other details.

Vargas, who has a valid Philippine passport but not a U.S. employment visa, announced his undocumented status in a 2011 story in the New York Times Magazine and wrote a cover story for TIME a year later about his experience.

He now travels the country as an activist working to change U.S. immigration laws. On July 10 that work brought him to McAllen, which he visited with a camera crew from his advocacy organization, Define American, to document the shelters housing thousands of unaccompanied children who have fled the escalating violence in their Central American hometowns. Vargas was apparently unaware that the U.S. Border Patrol has a checkpoint set up about 45 minutes outside of the South Texas town.

“I feel stupid. I’ve been traveling around the country, visiting 43 states in like 3 years, and I’ve been flying using my Philippine passport,” Vargas reportedly wrote in a text message sent over the weekend to a Washington Post reporter. “But I’ve never been to the Texas border area. I just figured I could use the passport. But apparently I can’t because border-patrol agents check foreign passports.”

Shortly before his arrest Tuesday, Vargas tweeted that he was attempting to pass through security with a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution and his Philippine passport as his only documentation:

TIME Sports

After Today, Wrigley Field Will Never Be the Same

Wrigley Field Chicago Cubs
Chicago's landmarks commission unanimously approved a multimillion-dollar renovation July 10 of Wrigley Field, home of baseball's Chicago Cubs. Jonathan Daniel—Getty Images

Chicago's landmarks commission has approved a $575 million renovation to the Chicago Cubs’ iconic stadium

One of America’s sports cathedrals is officially inching closer to the Jumbotron era.

Chicago’s landmarks commission unanimously approved a plan July 10 for a multimillion-dollar upgrade to Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s Chicago Cubs, clearing the way for seven advertising signs that includes a video screen hovering over its iconic ivy-covered outfield walls. The plan has raised the ire of Wrigleyville’s residents and could trigger a lawsuit from owners of the ballpark’s surrounding rooftop clubs and restaurants who rely on their unobstructed view inside the stadium.

The $575 million upgrade has been in limbo for months after the Cubs failed to reach a deal with rooftop owners who argue that additional signage in the outfield will block their views and hurt their business.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which must approve any changes to Wrigley after the ballpark was deemed a city landmark in 2004, initially signed off on a $500 million renovation last year, which included just two new outfield signs and prompted the threat of a lawsuit from surrounding rooftop owners. But as talks broke down between the team and rooftop owners, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts unveiled a new proposal that included seven signs, more lights and larger clubhouses, essentially abandoning negotiations and all but inviting legal action from rooftop owners.

The team took the new proposal to the commission after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked the Cubs to reduce the size of the outfield advertising and pledge to continue negotiating with rooftop owners, who have a revenue-sharing agreement with the team that expires at the end of 2023.

The Ricketts family, which owns the Cubs, argues that additional advertising is necessary to fund major renovations to the ballpark that could ultimately raise revenues and help the team get to its first World Series in more than a century.

But the changes have been challenged not only by surrounding rooftop owners, who fear the signs will hurt business, but also by those who view The Friendly Confines — with its hand-turned scoreboard, ivy-covered outfield and neighborhood feel — with nostalgia and bristle at any changes to one of America’s most beloved stadiums, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

While the landmarks commission approved the renovation, the city council still has to OK it – and the rooftop owners still may opt to sue the team after all.

But if the renovations finally move forward, the additional revenue could provide a boost for the city’s beloved Cubbies, who haven’t reached the playoffs since 2008 and haven’t won a World Series since 1908. They’re currently 39-52 and in last place in the National League Central Division.

TIME Culture

What Do Kansas and Nebraska Have Against Small Libraries?

Little Library Evicted
A newly built Little Free Library stands on an area between the sidewalk and the street near Southminster United Methodist Church in the Indian Village neighborhood of Lincoln, Neb., July 8. The city of Lincoln says it can'’t sit in a public right of way. Matt Ryerson—Journal-Star/AP

These birdhouse-size book bins are causing unexpected controversy

The tiny library started out innocently enough. Built outside a church in Lincoln, Neb., it was one of about 25 free, barely-bigger-than-a-birdhouse-size book dispensaries that have sprung up in this Great Plains city. But that was before public officials said this particular library was a public hazard that violated a city ordinance. The city’s verdict: get rid of the library or we’ll do it for you.

“We were all envisioning the mayor pulling up in a Subaru and taking an axe to it,” says Barbara Arendt, who spearheaded the library’s construction. “We didn’t realize we were behaving egregiously.”

Mini libraries have been popping up around the country since 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisc., built a model of a one-room schoolhouse and filled it with books to honor his mother, a former teacher. Rick Brooks, a former manager of continuing studies programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, saw the tiny library and teamed up with Bol to build more of them as a way to promote literacy. Their mission was to build 2,509 of what they called Little Free Libraries, the same as the number of normal-sized libraries endowed by the book-minded philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The small libraries typically offer about two dozen titles, ranging from kids’ books to science texts. The only rule is that you can’t take a book without leaving one.

The project took off. As of January, the Little Free Library organization estimated there are some 15,000 tiny libraries around the nation. But as the seeds of this homegrown movement have sprouted, local red tape has become an obstacle.

In Leawood, Kan., 9-year-old Spencer Collins addressed city council members July 7 after the city determined that his little library violated a decade-old city ordinance prohibiting tiny structures in front yards.

“I like checking the little library to see what books have been taken and what new books are left,” Collins told the city council, according to Fox4KC. “I think free little libraries are good for Leawood and I hope you will change the code.”

(One resident called the libraries “eyesores” and said that changing the city’s codes and bylaws would “destroy Leawood.” The city council issued a moratorium until Oct. 20 to reevaluate the ordinance, and Collins has reopened his library.)

In November 2012, Whitefish Bay, a village outside Milwaukee, banned the tiny libraries because of a similar prohibition on front yard structures. After several months of criticism, the village board reversed its decision.

Most of the tiny libraries pop up without incident and Bol says the occasional zoning controversy tends to generate the sort of public outrage that benefits his cause.

In Lincoln, Arendt and the city appear to have reached a middle ground. Arendt has agreed to move the library away from a public right-of-way, defined as the grassy strip between the street and the sidewalk and typically off-limits for private structures. That area is generally left free for mailboxes and utility crews to access underground cables and pipes. In exchange, the city has said it won’t levy what could have been a $500 fine.

Miki Esposito, Lincoln’s director of public works and utilities, says the concern was over liability. Would the city be responsible if the library was damaged by utility workers or snowplows, which are known to knock down mailboxes in winter.

“We love these little libraries,” she says. “We think they’re adorable. We just want them to be placed properly.”

Esposito says the city has given Arendt a couple weeks to move the library. When that happens, she says city officials will have their shovels ready to help.

TIME Drugs

Brooklyn Prosecutors Won’t Pursue Low-Level Marijuana Arrests

Rally Held In Support Of Brooklyn DA's Plan To Stop Prosecuting Minor Marijuana Offenses
Elected officials, community leaders and local activists attend a rally outside Brooklyn borough hall in support of the district attorney's plans to end prosecuting minor marijuana offenses on April 25, 2014 in New York City. On Tuesday, the district attorney's office announced it would no longer pursue some low-level drug charges in the borough. Spencer Platt—Getty Images

The district attorney thinks resources are better spent on more important crimes

Add Brooklyn to the growing list of places in America where getting caught with a small amount of marijuana may not result in legal consequences.

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office announced July 8 that it will no longer prosecute adults charged with low-level marijuana offenses who have limited or no criminal records. The policy change has been in the works for several months but was delayed as the district attorney’s office worked to address concerns from the New York Police Department.

District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said in a statement that the move to stop pursuing minor marijuana cases will allow his office to redirect resources to higher priorities and ensure that “individuals, and especially young people of color, do not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice system for engaging in non-violent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property.”

Last year, the D.A.’s office processed more than 8,500 cases in which the top count was a marijuana possession charge.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton acknowledged Thompson’s ability to set enforcement priorities, but said that the police department’s policies involving marijuana arrests had not changed.

“We understand that it is the prerogative of each of the city’s district attorneys to decline to prosecute any criminal offense occurring within their respective jurisdictions,” Bratton said in a statement. “However, in order to be effective, our police officers must enforce the laws of the state of New York uniformly throughout all five boroughs of the city.”

The move toward decriminalization in New York City’s most populous borough comes the same day legal sales of recreational weed sales began in Washington state, and one day after New York became the 23rd state to allow medical use of marijuana.

TIME justice

This Is Why Your Local Police Department Might Have a Tank

Alecia and Boun Khan Phonesavanh (center), the parents of 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh who was severely burned by a flash grenade during a SWAT drug raid, attend a vigil with their daughters outside Grady Memorial Hospital where he is undergoing treatment, on June 2, 2014, in Atlanta.
Alecia and Boun Khan Phonesavanh (center), the parents of 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh who was severely burned by a flash grenade during a SWAT drug raid, attend a vigil with their daughters outside Grady Memorial Hospital where he is undergoing treatment, on June 2, 2014, in Atlanta. David Goldman—AP

Forget Officer Friendly. A new report finds that local police departments are becoming excessively militarized, equipped with weapons, uniforms and even vehicles formerly used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan

In a pre-dawn drug raid late last month in northern Georgia, the Habersham County police entered the home of the Phonesavanh family while they were sleeping and dropped a “flashbang” grenade in a crib holding a 19-month-old boy, who was badly burned and later placed into a medically induced coma. No one was arrested, and no weapons or drugs were found inside the home.

The officers making the raid were part of what the county police call an SRT – or a Special Response Team. That moniker is normally used by the military. But SRT and SWAT teams using military-style tactics and weaponry are becoming increasingly common.

As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have wound down, police departments have been obtaining military equipment, vehicles and uniforms that have flowed directly from the Department of Defense. According to a new report by the ACLU, the federal government has funneled $4.3 billion of military property to law enforcement agencies since the late 1990s, including $450 million worth in 2013. Five hundred law enforcement agencies have received Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, built to withstand bomb blasts. More than 15,000 items of military protective equipment and “battle dress uniforms,” or fatigues worn by the U.S. Army, have been transferred. The report includes details of police agencies in towns like North Little Rock, Ark., (pop: 62,000), which has 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, a Mamba tactical vehicle and two MARCbots, which are armed robots designed for use in Afghanistan.

“More Americans are becoming aware of the militarization of policing, but the use of paramilitary tactics to fight the war on drugs has been going on for a very long time,” says the ACLU’s Kara Dansky.

Throughout the 1980s, law enforcement agencies got more aggressive in how they served drug warrants. By the 1990s they looked to the military not only for equipment but tactics, and in 1997, Congress created the 1033 Program — with the motto “from warfighter to crimefighter” — that allows the Department of Defense to funnel surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies at no cost. According to Pentagon data obtained by The New York Times, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns and 200,000 ammunition magazines since 2009.

As police departments have added military gear, they’ve also upped the number of SWAT deployments, especially for use in drug warrants. According to research done by Peter Kraska, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University, 89% of police departments serving populations of 50,000 or more had SWAT teams in the late 1990s, twice as many as in the mid-1980s. In the mid-2000s, 80% of smaller police agencies – those serving between 25 and 50,000 people – had SWAT teams, up from 20% in the mid-1980s.

Those squads are increasingly being deployed for drug searches. According to the ACLU, almost two-thirds of SWAT deployments between 2011 and 2012 were for drug raids. Many of those units, says Kraska, base their strategy and tactics on military special operations like Navy SEALs.

“When people refer to the militarization of police, it’s not in a pejorative or judgmental sense,” Kraska says. “Contemporary police agencies have moved significantly along a continuum culturally, materially, operationally, while using a Navy SEALs model. All of those are clear indications that they’re moving away from a civilian model of policing.”

Using military-style equipment has an effect on the behavior of police officers as well, adds Kraska. “It changes the culture of the police department,” she says. “It gets them into a much more intense, paramilitary mindset rather than thinking about a community-oriented approach to policing.”

A number of incidents involving SWAT teams on drug raids have occurred around the U.S. in recent years, often involving force with military-style equipment that critics say is excessive. But some towns are turning their backs on military gear. In New Hampshire, a state legislator has introduced a bill banning towns from accepting military vehicles. And residents in towns in New York and California are speaking up about the militarization of their agencies.

In Habersham County, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is probing whether officers broke the law in using excessive force at the Phonesavanh home. “I don’t know what kind of surveillance they did,” said the family’s lawyer Mawuli Mel Davis, “but that can’t be the standard.”

TIME Crime

Drug Challenges Are Failing to Halt Executions

Marcus Wellons
Marcus Wellons, convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old girls, was executed Tuesday. Wellons was the first inmate put to death in the United States since a botched execution in Oklahoma in April. AP

Courts remain skeptical of legal arguments challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection drugs and their origins

The execution of two inmates late Tuesday night after multiple attempts to halt their lethal injections reveals at least one thing: challenging the constitutionality of executions on the grounds that the origin of the drugs is unknown is failing to gain traction.

Georgia executed Marcus Wellons, convicted of the 1989 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl, on Tuesday using the sedative pentobarbital. About an hour later, Missouri used the same drug to execute John Winfield, convicted in the 1996 murder of two women. Both states have refused to reveal where they obtained the drug, but it’s likely they received it from compounding pharmacies, which are not subject to the same regulations as drug manufacturers. The executions, which appeared to go as planned, were the first following the botched lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Ohio in April. Since then, nine executions have been stayed or postponed.

In the last few weeks, lawyers for Wellons and Winfield have tried to stop their lethal injections in part by arguing that the secret origins of the drugs being used risked violating the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Lawyers argue that drugs manufactured by compounding pharmacies behind closed doors and with little oversight risk contamination, which could lead to a prolonged or painful death. Inmates around the country are challenging their pending executions based largely on the drugs’ hidden origins and are more often than not running into courts that are unreceptive.

Southern Methodist University law professor Meghan Ryan says many courts are generally skeptical of attempts to halt executions and hesitant to rule on an issue where there’s little precedent from the Supreme Court.

“The arguments being made don’t really track with Supreme Court precedent very well, and a lot of courts are unwilling to make that jump,” Ryan says. “It’s forging into a new area.”

The Supreme Court ruled lethal injection constitutional in 2008, but drug protocols have changed in most states since then. Many pharmaceutical companies have banned sales of drugs to states for executions, forcing prisons to look elsewhere.

Still, Ryan adds that death row inmates have nothing to lose by challenging their executions.

“Maybe they have very good arguments, but courts often view them skeptically because they’re often considered last-ditch efforts,” she says.

Florida plans to execute John Ruthell Henry, convicted of killing his wife and her son, Wednesday evening. A federal appeals court has rejected a bid to delay his execution.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser