Federal appeals court judges in Washington, D.C., are mulling the grisly subject of how precise the law is in dictating how federal prisoners should be put to death. A Justice Department attorney delved on Wednesday into some of the more gruesome details of execution procedure, including whether hanging causes a condemned inmate to strangle or breaks his neck, Politico reports. Arguments on whether the federal government can resume executions focused on whether they must be carried out in the “manner” prescribed by state law in the state where the person was convicted. The case is a challenge to Attorney General William Barr’s plan to put the federal government back into business of meting out capital punishment for the first time since 2003.
Judge David Tatel, a Bill Clinton appointee, sounded skeptical of the federal position that the law tells the feds they must use one of the same basic methods as the relevant state, like lethal injection, hanging or the gas chamber. Judges Greg Katsas and Neomi Rao, two Donald Trump appointees, appeared more open to Barr’s claim of broad authority and were concerned about the consequences of micro-managing the execution process. Representing inmates, Catherine Stetson said, “The people who know what they are doing are the states that are carrying out the death penalty.” Justice Department attorney Melissa Patterson emphasized the impracticality of insisting that the federal government follow a state’s death penalty procedure. Barr’s plan reanimated long stalled litigation over the legality of the federal death penalty protocol. Federal capital punishment had been halted while the Supreme Court considered whether a three-drug cocktail was unconstitutional cruel-and-unusual punishment because of its ability to inflict severe pain. In 2008, the Supreme Court approved the drugs used by most states and the federal government.