Nelson v. Campbell

PETITIONER:David L. Nelson
RESPONDENT:Donal Campbell, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, et al.
LOCATION:Pennsylvania General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 03-6821
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 541 US 637 (2004)
GRANTED: Dec 01, 2003
ARGUED: Mar 29, 2004
DECIDED: May 24, 2004

Bryan A. Stevenson – argued the cause for Petitioner
Kevin C. Newsom – argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

David Nelson was sentenced to death for murder and scheduled for execution in 1997. A series of appeals and habeas petitions in federal court delayed the execution until 2002, when an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously rejected a claim dealing with the alleged violation of his Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. After the final appeal was rejected, Nelson was rescheduled for execution on October 9, 2003.

Nelson filed petition in federal district court alleging that the method of execution proposed by Alabama violated his Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama had notified Nelson that, because of damage done to his veins by previous intravenous drug abuse, the execution procedure might require corrections officers to cut through muscles and fat in his arm to get access to a vein that could carry the toxins. He claimed that this was an inhumane method of execution and should therefore be barred. Further, he argued that the petition was not an appeal of his conviction or sentence (appeals of both were prohibited by U.S. Code Title 28, Section 2254, a federal law designed to limit the number of habeas corpus appeals by death row inmates) but rather a freestanding lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the proposed execution procedure. Alabama countered that Nelson’s appeal was intended only to prolong his life through procedural delays, exactly what the federal law was designed to prevent, and should therefore be thrown out.

The federal district court agreed with Alabama, holding that Nelson’s appeal dealt not just with the procedure but with the sentence itself. It was therefore functionally equivalent to a habeas corpus petition, which was barred by Section 2254. A divided 11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed the decision. After the 11th Circuit declined to rehear the case as a whole (en banc), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of execution and then accepted the case for appeal.


Is a prisoner’s appeal of the proposed procedure for his execution functionally equivalent to a habeas corpus petition and therefore barred by Title 28, Section 2254 of U.S. Code?

Media for Nelson v. Campbell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 29, 2004 in Nelson v. Campbell

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 24, 2004 in Nelson v. Campbell

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 03-6821, Nelson against Campbell will be announced Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

This case comes to us on certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The petitioner was convicted of capital murder and was given a death sentence.

The petitioner has severely compromised veins which are inaccessible by standard techniques for gaining intravenous access for administration of a lethal injection.

The weeks before he scheduled execution, the petitioner learned that Alabama prison officials intended to use a so-called cut-down procedure to access his veins if they were unable to access them with a needle.

The petitioner who had already filed once an unsuccessful habeas application filed a complaint under 42 United States Code Section 1983, claiming that use of the cut-down procedure would violate the Eighth Amendment.

He sought a stay of the execution.

The District Court dismissed ruling that the petitioner’s request for temporary and permanent injunctive relief was the functional equivalent of a second or successive habeas corpus petition.

That was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

It is true that prisoners cannot use Section 1983 injunctive actions to challenge the fact or duration of their confinement.

Otherwise, they could easily circumvent the procedural and substantive restrictions contained in the federal habeas statute.

But Section 1983 is available for petitioners to challenge the conditions of their confinement.

We have not yet addressed whether an inmate’s challenge to a state method of execution constitutes a challenge to the fact of an inmate’s death sentence or the conditions of death sentence.

We do not reach that broad question here.

The respondents concede that Section 1983 would be an appropriate vehicle for a prison inmate who is not facing execution to challenge use of a cut-down procedure to access his veins for purposes of medical treatment.

We see no reason to treat petitioner’s claim differently solely because he has been condemned to die.

If as a legal matter, the cut-down were a statutorily mandated part of Alabama’s lethal injection protocol or if as a factual matter petitioner were unable or unwillingly to concede alternatives for obtaining venous access, the respondents might have a stronger argument that success on the merits and an injunction would call into question the death sentence itself.

But the petitioner has been careful in his complaint and throughout these proceedings to argue that the cut-down procedure is wholly unnecessary as a factual and legal matter and to propose alternatives that, if used, would allow Alabama to proceed with the execution.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is reversed.

The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The opinion is unanimous.