Federal Judges Cite Arbitrariness in Stays and Executions Around Lethal Injection

Five federal judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit dissented from the Court’s denial of a stay of execution to Sedley Alley in Tennessee. (Alley was subsequently granted a stay by the governor on other grounds.) Judge Boyce Martin, writing for the dissenting judges, noted that many inmates around the country were being granted stays of execution after filing challenges to the lethal injection process. Others raising the same claims have been denied stays and have been executed, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case related to this issue (Hill v. McDonough).

Excerpts from Judge Martin’s opinion follow:

“[T]he dysfunctional patchwork of stays and executions going on in this country further undermines the various states’ effectiveness and ability to properly carry out death sentences. We are currently operating under a system wherein condemned inmates are bringing nearly identical challenges to the lethal injection procedure. In some instances stays are granted, while in others they are not and the defendants are executed, with no principled distinction to justify such a result. (Citations omitted.) This adds another arbitrary factor into the equation of death and thus far, there has been no logic behind the Supreme Court’s decision as to who lives and who dies. Until the Supreme Court sorts this out, I would uphold the stay issued in this case, and all cases that come before this Court, and therefore dissent from the Court’s contrary holding.


“The fact is that fifteen executions have been carried out despite Hill. Other courts have issued stays putting executions on hold pending the Hill’s disposition. This patchwork justice is intolerable when dealing with the imposition of the death penalty and undermines the public interest in uniform adjudication.


“No doubt the march toward death is powerful. Currently, however, the march is anything but orderly. The current administration of the death penalty in light of the pending decision of Hill is more like a march in dozens of different directions, which I believe is more costly, more inefficient, and more arbitrary, than entering the stay and waiting temporarily for some (hopefully) clear guidance.”

-Alley v. Little, No. 06-5650 (6th Cir. May 16, 2006) (Martin, J., dissenting from denial of a rehearing en banc) (emphasis added).

See DPIC’s list of executions stayed and carried out since the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Hill case.