WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a challenge to the lethal three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions during the past 30 years.
By a 7-2 vote, the high court rejected a challenge by two Kentucky death row inmates who argued the current lethal injection method violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment by inflicting needless pain and suffering.
“We too agree that petitioners have not carried their burden of showing that the risk of pain from maladministration of a concededly humane lethal injection protocol, and the failure to adopt untried and untested alternatives constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s main opinion.
Death penalty opponents argued the condemned prisoner can suffer excruciating pain, without being able to cry out, if given too small a dose of the anesthetic.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.
Lyle Denniston at the SCOTUSBlog explains the ruling:
In a widely splintered decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for death-row executions to resume across the country, concluding that the most common method of lethal injection does not violate the Constitution. The final vote was 7-2 in Baze v. Rees (07-5439), although there was no opinion that spoke for five or more Justices. The Court’s plurality adopted as a standard for assessing the validity of an execution method whether it poses a “substantial risk of serious harm.” It rejected the death row inmate’s proposal that the standard be “unnecessary risk.”
Three Justices definitely supported the new standard, but four disagreed with it, in whole or in part. One Justice was silent on the point, and the other said the key issue was not one standard or another, but “facts and evidence” about a given state’s execution method.
While the opinion appeared to leave open a chance that some further challenges could be made to the use of lethal drugs under a specific procedure in another state, it rejected a challenge to the method as used in Kentucky which is fairly close to the protocol used in 36 states and by the federal government. The opinion also appeared to mean that the three drugs now used in all of those jurisdictions do not, alone or in combination, fail the Court’s new standard. What might still be in issue is the actual process that a state uses to administer those drugs, monitor the inmate’s condition, and complete the execution.
If defense lawyers do now mount new challenges, they will have to seek new court orders delaying specific executions, because the Supreme Court had not issued a formal moratorium on executions, even though — as a practical reality — it had not allowed any scheduled execution to occur while it was considering the Baze case. Thus, states would be free to schedule new execution dates.
Justice John Paul Stevens, joining the result only, called for the Court now to consider whether the death penalty in general is unconstitutional — an issue that was not before the Court in the Baze case. Stevens wrote: “The time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has surely arrived.”
Make sure to read the whole thing.
The full SCOTUS ruling can be read here.