Monday, June 29, 2015
The Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross rejected an Eighth Amendment challenge to Oklahoma's three-drug lethal injection cocktail. The ruling deals a blow to opponents of the death penalty and leaves in place a protocol that's resulted in a spate of gruesome and botched executions. It also means that the plaintiffs' executions will move forward under Oklahoma's protocol.
The case was important, because victory for the challengers would have left states with few, if any, viable and sustainable options for administering lethal injection--and may have marked the de facto beginning of the end of the death penalty. (That's why some states have explored other methods of execution recently.) But there was no victory for the challengers, so the ruling allows states to move forward with a popular, but deeply flawed, cocktail.
If the past is any indicator, opponents of the death penalty will now work outside the courts to get suppliers of Oklahoma's new drug to stop providing it to states that use it for lethal injections--the same strategy they used to force Oklahoma to turn to a new protocol in the first place. And if the past is any indicator, they'll be successful, which might, in turn, lead to the next protocol and the next challenge.
Challengers argued that Oklahoma's use of the sedative midazolam as the first drug did not reliably induce and maintain a deep, coma-like unconsciousness that would render a person insensate to the excruciating pain caused by the second and third drugs (which paralyze and cause cardiac arrest, respectively). Oklahoma turned to midazolam after suppliers for the state's previous first drugs dried up.
Justice Alito wrote for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas. Justice Alito wrote that the challengers didn't show that the state's use of midazolam created a demonstrated risk of severe pain, substantial compared to alternatives, and that they didn't identify a viable alternative. Justice Alito credited the district court's factual findings as to midazolam's ability to stop pain, and wrote that the district court didn't clearly err in finding that alternative drugs (the state's old drugs) were unavailable.
Justice Sotomayor wrote the principal dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. She argued that the district court erred in crediting the state's expert and in putting the burden on the challengers to identify a viable alternative to the state's use of midazolam.
Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg, and argued that the Court should entirely reevaluate the constitutionality of the death penalty. Justices Scalia and Thomas each wrote concurrences addressing Justice Breyer's points.