The Supreme Court is reviewing a controversial case this week, and we aren’t referring to the gay marriage arguments that have been dominating the media. No, they are also looking at lethal injection practices used in executions for death row inmates. The arguments began on April 29 and center on a couple of botched executions using the drug midazolam.
Midazolam is a sedative that is part of a mixture of three drugs used to kill inmates. It is supposed to place the recipient into a coma like state before the other two drugs, which are the lethal ones, can take effect. However, three times last year the prisoners could clearly be seen as struggling and writhing in pain before finally dying. One in particular took about two hours.
The executions took place in Ohio, Arizona, and Oklahoma. The case was actually brought to the Supreme Court by lawyers for Clayton Lockett, the Ohio man who was executed and writhed in pain for 43 minutes before dying. Two others joined in on the lawsuit, hoping to stop the use of the drug before their time has come. One other inmate, Charles Warner from Oklahoma, would have been a part of the case as well, but he has since been executed without incident. The lawyers claim that the use of the drug is ineffective and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Some of the justices seemed sympathetic to the arguments on Wednesday.
“Suppose that we said we’re going to burn you at the stake, but before we do, we’re going to use an anesthetic of completely unknown properties and unknown effects,” said Justice Elena Kagan. But Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that the current formula is the only one currently available, and was thus the only legitimate way to execute people. He also pointed out the irony of the reason for the lack of other methods being available because of death penalty opponents reducing their availability.
International pharmaceutical organizations, mostly from Europe, will not supply other types of drugs for executions under rules against it within their own borders. Even domestic organizations, like the American Pharmacists Association, have openly discouraged their members from providing drugs for executions, believing it violates the ethics of trying to save lives.
Still, the death penalty is a legal option in 32 states, and with good reason. High profile cases like James Holmes, the theater shooter, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, have illustrated exactly the type of people who need to be removed from society in a permanent manner. And unless the drugs become more readily available, alternative methods of execution will be necessary when dealing with these monsters. Even if sometimes the results aren’t pretty.