TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Executions in 37 states are likely to be put on hold after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider the constitutionality of lethal injections.

Two condemned Kentucky inmates are challenging that state’s use of a lethal, three-drug cocktail, claiming it represents cruel and unusual punishment. Florida uses a virtually identical method to execute inmates, experts said.

“I think we’ll see a broad hold on executions across the country,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “This is not just about Kentucky, it’s about how lethal injection is carried out in the U.S.”

Maine does not allow lethal injection or any other form of capital punishment.

The Florida Supreme Court is expected to hear a similar challenge to lethal injection next month in cases involving convicted Brevard County child-killer Mark Dean Schwab and Ian Deco Lightbourne, who is facing the death penalty for an Ocala murder.

Schwab is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Nov. 15. But most analysts said they expect a postponement until the U.S. Supreme Court rules – which may be not until next year.

With 383 inmates, Florida’s Death Row population trails only California. Reaction from those inmates was swift.

Jerone Hunter, currently the youngest person on Florida’s Death Row for his role in bludgeoning six people and a dog to death with baseball bats in Deltona in 2004, said inmates at Florida State Prison in Starke see lethal injection as cruel and unusual.

In an interview at the prison. Hunter echoed critics of the procedure.

Because the injection paralyzes before it kills, he said, “There’s no way of really knowing if the inmate is really suffering. You can’t really tell.”

Florida’s use of lethal injection has been under intense scrutiny since the execution in December of Angel Nieves Diaz.

The convicted killer took 34 minutes to die and required two doses of lethal drugs.

Witnesses said Diaz appeared to experience pain during the protracted execution, his face contorted and eyes darting around the death chamber at Florida State Prison.

A medical examiner later concluded that Diaz’s executioners had failed to properly insert intravenous needles, forcing the lethal chemicals into the condemned man’s tissue rather than his veins.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush halted executions after Diaz’s death so that state procedures could be reviewed. Corrections officials responded by requiring more staff training and better monitoring proceedings in the prison’s death chamber.

Schwab’s scheduled execution for the 1991 rape and murder of 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez would be the first in Florida since those changes were ordered.

The state’s use of lethal injection – adopted in 2000 as an alternative to the problem-plagued electric chair – was also approved earlier this month by a judge reviewing Lightbourne’s case.

“The court rejects the argument that the Diaz execution was botched,” Ocala Circuit Judge Carven Angel wrote.

Martin McClain, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who handles death-penalty appeals, said Tuesday that “there is no question that the issues involved in the Kentucky case have a direct impact on Florida.”

The high court’s review is likely to delve into not just how lethal injection is performed but also the effectiveness of the chemicals involved.

The protocol used in Florida and other states employs a three-drug combination intended to first render inmates unconscious and then cause respiratory and cardiac arrest.

But researchers at the University of Miami, in a report published earlier this year, found the barbiturate dosage used may not be sufficient to keep inmates unconscious for the duration of the execution. The third and final drug – potassium chloride – also does not always induce cardiac arrest, researchers found.

Instead, inmates may die through painful asphyxiation after the second drug, pancuronium, paralyzes their muscles, the study concluded.

“The researchers involved in this study were not all opponents of the death penalty,” said Teresa Zimmers, lead author and a molecular biologist. “But by the end, they were all opponents of lethal injection.”

Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum said they were confident that Florida’s procedures would meet constitutional standards, though McCollum acknowledged that Tuesday’s decision raised a new appeals route for Schwab and any other inmate facing execution in Florida.

“But I don’t believe the argument would be valid,” McCollum said. “The process here is humane.”

(Orlando Sentinel correspondent Kristen Reed contributed to this report.)

(c) 2007, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-25-07 1932EDT

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