Lethal Injection 'Not Rocket Science,' Ga. Says As Trial Begins

By Chart Riggall | May 20, 2024, 4:16 PM EDT ·

As Georgia began a bench trial Monday against a death row inmate who is suing to be executed by firing squad, counsel for the state told a federal judge that she expected the inmate to have "a hard road to hoe" in disproving that the state's use of lethal injection is safe, effective and can be carried out with relative ease.

Sabrina Graham of the Georgia Attorney General's Office downplayed arguments from Michael Nance that he faces substantial risk of intense pain and suffering if he is administered a fatal dose of pentobarbital as the final punishment for his 1997 death sentence.

Georgia, Graham told U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee, has carried out 25 death sentences using lethal injection, all of which have gone off without a hitch.

"It's not rocket science, Your Honor," she said. "It's just pushing a plunger at a slow and steady rate."

This week's trial, expected to last about six days, comes as the culmination of a yearslong legal fight by Nance to die by firing squad for the 1993 murder of a bystander in the aftermath of a bank robbery.

First filed in 2020, Nance's lawsuit claimed that he faces the risk of his veins "blowing out" during lethal injection, which could cause painful tissue damage and prolong the procedure to torturous extremes.

Judge Boulee initially dismissed Nance's suit as untimely just months after it was filed, with the Eleventh Circuit affirming the dismissal on the grounds that Nance should have filed a habeas corpus claim instead of a civil rights action. But in 2022, that decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 opinion said prisoners could challenge their method of execution via a Section 1983 claim.

While five states — Utah, Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina — have authorized the use of firing squads, only Utah has used it in recent years, for the 2010 execution of Ronnie Gardner, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

With the revival of his lawsuit, which does not challenge his conviction or sentence, Nance's attorneys said Monday that in addition to their client's health concerns, they have grievances with how the state carries out all lethal injections.

The Georgia Research Center's Anna Arceneaux, representing Nance, added during opening statements that the state's lethal injection protocols lack safeguards and accountability amounting to "an effective abandonment of oversight of the process."

To bolster their claim that the bullet is a more effective and reliable method of execution than the intravenous needle, Nance's lawyers called upon Dr. James Williams, an emergency medicine physician and firearms expert who has testified in similar death penalty litigation.

Williams told the court that a properly conducted firing squad has an "error chance approaching zero," rendering the condemned unconscious within three to four seconds and brain-dead within a minute or two.

But Graham said that contrary to Nance's claim that any IV injection would be dangerously untenable, he himself had undergone three IVs in the last year and a half alone for various routine medical procedures.

Graham also asked Judge Boulee to be skeptical of the claim that "lining someone up and filling them full of bullets" was a preferable solution. For one, she said, Nance had to show that the method was more — not equally — effective and painless than lethal injection, a burden she was confident Nance couldn't meet.

Describing the latter method, she said, "They take a deep breath, they yawn, they go to sleep. That's it."

Nance is represented by Anna Arceneaux of the Georgia Resource Center, Cory Isaacson and Andrés López-Delgado of the ACLU Foundation of Georgia and John P. Hutchins, Ryan M. Christian, Jacqueline T. Menk and Kristen Rasmussen of BakerHostetler.

Georgia is represented by Sabrina Graham, Stephany Luttrell and Beth Burton of the Georgia Attorney General's Office.

The case is Nance v. Oliver et al., case number 1:20-cv-00107, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

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