Wednesday, April 29, 2015
The case centers around Oklahoma's use of midazolam as the first drug in the cocktail. In particular the case asks whether midazolam, a sedative, reliably induces a sufficiently pain-free state so that the condemned prisoner wouldn't feel the intense pain associated with the second drug, potassium chloride. (Everyone agrees that potassium chloride alone causes intense pain and suffering. The pain is described as burning alive, or burning from the inside out.) If so, there's probably no constitutional problem with midazolam. (Under Baze, the Court upheld a different lethal injection protocol on the assumption, supported in the record, that the first drug reliably produced a deep, coma-like unconsciousness.) If not, however, Oklahoma's protocol may violate the Eighth Amendment.
But there's a problem: Nobody seems to know for sure. More: the state's expert's testimony at trial on a key point about how midazolam works was wrong--so much so that the state itself backed away from that testimony. That means that the district court's ruling, based on its conclusion that midazolam sufficiently protects against pain, based on the state's expert's testimony, is seriously flawed. (Justice Kagan described it as "gobbledygook." That seems about right.)
The Court focused principally on two questions today. The first, whether the state's use of midazolam reliably induces a sufficiently pain-free state so that the condemned prisoner wouldn't suffer from potassium chloride, seemed to divide the Court along conventional ideological lines. The progressive wing went with the condemned (against the use of midazolam), and the conservatives went with the state. The second question--whether the petitioners bear the burden to show that midazolam does not induce the state (and to identify a constitutional alternative for the state), or whether the state bears the burden to show that its use of midazolam does not cause intense pain and suffering--divided the Court the same way.
Justice Kennedy is probably the swing vote, but he was relatively quiet today. He only piped up when the arguments turned to whether the petitioners contributed to the problem in the first place. (Oklahoma started using midazolam because it couldn't gain access to the barbiturate drugs that more reliably protect against pain--and that the Court upheld in Baze. Oklahoma can't gain access to the barbiturate drugs because manufacturers have stopped supplying them, for ethical reasons, for use in lethal injections. Justice Alito suggested that opponents of the death penalty contributed to that situation, and that the Court shouldn't be complicit in this "guerrilla war" against the death penalty.) Justice Kennedy simply asked what relevance this all had to the case. Answer from the petitioners: none.
On one level, the case asks pretty narrow and technical questions about a particular drug and the burdens in proving an Eighth Amendment violation under Baze.
But on another level, the case potentially strikes a serious blow against the death penalty itself. That's because if the Court strikes Oklahoma's use of midazolam (whatever it does with the burden), Oklahoma and other lethal-injection states will have to look to a much less attractive alternative--something like electrocution, the gas chamber, or even a firing squad. (That's "much less attractive" on the barbarity scale, not the constitutional one (alas).) Some states have already moved in this direction. If that happens across the board, moves like this could erode public support for the death penalty. And if that's true, a ruling for the petitioners could be much more than a narrow, technical ruling on lethal injections: it could strike a serious practical blow against the death penalty itself.