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Supreme Court rules in favor of Georgia death row inmate hoping to die by firing squad

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The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 5-4 in favor of a Georgia death row inmate pursuing a legal effort to change his execution method from lethal injection to death by firing squad.

The issue in the case was procedural in nature, but the underlying dispute concerned inmate Michael Nance’s claim that subjecting him to lethal injection would violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Nance, who was sentenced to death in 2002 for fatally shooting a bystander during a bank robbery, argued that his longtime prescription back pain drug may cause the sedative to fail to work properly. He also argued that his “severely compromised” veins may “blow,” “leading to the leakage of the lethal injection drug into the surrounding tissue” and thereby causing “intense pain and burning.”

Nance has instead opted to be executed by firing squad, a form of capital punishment that is not currently available in Georgia. Only four states have approved firing squads to carry out death sentences.

At issue was whether Nance had filed the appropriate type of lawsuit in pursuit of relief for his constitutional claim.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said Nance’s lawsuit was procedurally proper and was thereby allowed to request a form of execution not currently permitted in Georgia.

“A prisoner must identify a readily available alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce the risk of severe pain. In doing so, the prisoner is not confined to proposing a method authorized by the executing State’s law; he may instead ask for a method used in other States,” Kagan wrote.

The 5-4 opinion, which reversed a federal appeals court ruling, cleared the way for Nance to continue his legal effort in the lower courts. 

Nance’s attorney Matthew Hellman praised the decision in a statement to CNN, saying it gives him “a pathway to seek a humane and lawful execution.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in dissent that was joined by the court’s three most conservative members, said Nance should only have been allowed to request alternative forms of executions already allowed in Georgia.

John Kruzel contributed.

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