Supreme Court upholds use of controversial execution drug

A deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of a controversial drug in lethal-injection executions Monday, even as two dissenting justices said for the first time they think it’s “highly likely” the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.

WASHINGTON — A deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of a controversial drug in lethal-injection executions Monday, even as two dissenting justices said for the first time they think it’s “highly likely” the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.

The justices voted 5-4 in a case from the state of Oklahoma that the sedative midazolam can be used in executions without violating a constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The drug that was used in executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma in 2014 took longer than usual and raised concerns that it did not perform its intended task of putting inmates into a coma-like sleep.

In Oklahoma, state officials tried to halt the lethal injection after the inmate writhed on the gurney and moaned. He died 43 minutes after the process began.

Executions have been on hold in Ohio since a troubling 26-minute execution in 2014 during which a prisoner getting a first-ever two-drug combo repeatedly gasped and snorted. In Arizona, officials were cleared of any wrongdoing in an execution that lasted nearly two hours, but they nevertheless changed the drugs they use to put inmates to death.

Justice Samuel Alito said for a conservative majority that arguments the drug could not be used effectively as a sedative in executions are speculative and he dismissed problems in executions in Arizona and Oklahoma as “having little probative value for present purposes.”

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “Under the court’s new rule, it would not matter whether the state intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake.”

Alito responded, saying “the dissent’s resort to this outlandish rhetoric reveals the weakness of its legal arguments.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the time has come for the court to debate whether the death penalty itself is constitutional. More than 100 death row-inmates have been exonerated, showing that the death penalty is unreliable, Breyer said. He said it also is imposed arbitrarily, takes far too long to carry out and has been abandoned by most of the country. Last year, just seven states carried out executions, he said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer’s opinion.

“I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” Breyer said, referring to a constitutional provision that prohibits cruel punishment. He was drawing on the cases he has reviewed in more than 20 years on the Supreme Court bench.

In an extremely unusual turn, four justices read their opinions on capital punishment from the bench. Justice Antonin Scalia, part of the court’s majority on Monday, read a brief reply to Breyer. “Welcome to Groundhog Day,” Scalia said, noting that the court has repeatedly upheld the use of capital punishment.

The Supreme Court’s involvement in the case began in January with an unusually public disagreement among the justices over executions. As the case was being heard, Justice Samuel Alito said death penalty opponents are waging a “guerrilla war” against executions by working to limit the supply of more effective drugs. On the other side, liberal Justice Elena Kagan contended that the way states carry out most executions amounts to having prisoners “burned alive from the inside.”

In 2008, the court upheld Kentucky’s use of a three-drug execution method that employed a barbiturate as the first drug, intended to render the inmate unconscious. But because of problems obtaining drugs, no state uses the precise combination at issue in that earlier Supreme Court case.

Meanwhile, the current court challenge has prompted Oklahoma to approve nitrogen gas as an alternative death penalty method if lethal injections aren’t possible, either because of a court ruling or a drug shortage.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Only 13 new COVID-19 cases confirmed by Alberta gov’t Saturday

There’s currently only two active cases in province’s central zone

Food Truck Fridays to start new Drive and Dash events next week

Events will be held in Westerner Park parking lot Thursday evenings, Friday afternoons all June

Alberta gov’t to expand mental health supports

The Government of Alberta says a $21.6-million investment will expand online resources… Continue reading

City of Red Deer encouraged residents to participate in Food Bank Ninja Challenge

The City of Red Deer is encouraging residents to participate in a… Continue reading

READER VIDEO: American White Pelicans spotted in Red Deer River

A Red Deer Advocate reader spotted a group of American White Pelicans… Continue reading

Protesters rally in Toronto against anti-black, Indigenous racism

TORONTO — Thousands of people are taking part in a rally on… Continue reading

Another COVID-19 case reported in northern New Brunswick on Saturday

CAMPBELLTON, N.B. — People from a city in northern New Brunswick lined… Continue reading

B.C. sees second day in a row with no COVID-19 deaths as schools ready to reopen

VICTORIA — British Columbia announced no new deaths from COVID-19 for the… Continue reading

UN sets pandemic voting rules for Canada’s Security Council campaign

OTTAWA — The United Nations has confirmed that the election for non-permanent… Continue reading

Police watchdog investigating death of Richmond man

RICHMOND, B.C. — British Columbia’s police watchdog has been called in to… Continue reading

COVID-19 cancelled their wedding plans, so they married on a B.C. mountaintop

Ceremony was live streamed to friends and family around the world

Tooting the importance of whistling

OK, so someone who tattles on another person is a whistleblower, and… Continue reading

Police see increase in speedy drivers on quieter streets during pandemic

Police across the country say they’ve been dealing with more complaints about loud, fast vehicles

Most Read