Lethal injection arguments heard before TN Supreme Court - WSMV News 4

Lethal injection arguments heard before TN Supreme Court

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(WSMV file photo) (WSMV file photo)

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday on the way the state administers the death penalty.

The state of Tennessee hasn't executed an inmate since 2009.

The state's Supreme Court put death by lethal injections on hold until it was sorted out what kind of drugs could be used.

The justices are being asked to decide two issues: does the way the prison system puts inmates to death violate their rights because it causes a lingering death?

And can doctors legally write prescriptions and can pharmacists legally fill them for drugs they know will kill people?

Federal public defenders representing death row inmates argued that they can't.

"If a physician participates in this process, it is not only unethical and a violation of the medical board's rules, but it is a crime," argued Michael Passino, an attorney for death row inmates.

In 2015, the state adopted a new lethal injection protocol; a doctor prescribes five grams of pentobarbital, a drug often used to euthanize animals.

Pentobarbital replaced the three-drug cocktail because one ingredient is no longer available.

The inmates’ lawyers said with pentobarbital, it can take an inmate up to an hour to become biologically dead.

Justices challenged the inmates’ lawyers to name an acceptable alternative.

"Under that argument, it sounds like there would be no protocol which would meet the standards," said Justice Sharon Lee.

The inmates’ lawyers didn't propose one.

Attorneys for the state countered that the death penalty is constitutional and there must be a way to carry it out.

"What is the alternative? What is the alternative? Is that risk unnecessary? And the petitioners, not only have they not shown that, they completely disavow any claim that there is a reasonable alternative," said Jennifer Smith of the Tennessee Attorney General's office.

It's expected to be at least a month if not longer before the justices issue their ruling.

According to the Tennessee Department of Correction, there are 64 inmates on death row.

A Knox County man has been there the longest; he's been there since 1982.

For more death row facts from the Tennessee Department of Correction, click here.

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