The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared divided over the use of lethal injections in executions during oral arguments on Wednesday. The liberal justices fought back against the use of lethal injection saying that prisoners were facing being burned alive by the three-drug cocktail, which is a violation of the Constitution. Tensions were high during the arguments.
Three death row inmates who are against Oklahoma’s method of lethal injection brought the case before the Supreme Court. There were originally four inmates in the case but the court refused to halt Charles Warner’s lethal injection in January from the liberal justices. This case came to the Court after three previous executions were botched. In April, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett struggled and writhed in pain for almost an hour before finally dying. Prisoners in Ohio and Arizona showed signs of feeling pain during their executions. The ruling focuses on the drug midazolam, which is expected to prevent an inmate to feel the drugs used to paralyze and stop the heart.
A ruling against the drug would force states to look into other execution methods for their prisoners. USA Today reported that last month, both the American Pharmacists Association and the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists discouraged their members from participating in the process. The U.S. group called it “fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care.”
States are struggling to find pharmacies that are willing to offer the drugs that are in question. European pharmacies continue to refuse to help because of strong opposition to the death penalty. The European Union issued a ban in 2011 leading to many states having to get the drugs through a degree of secrecy. States have now been forced to change their capital punishment methods, Tennessee allows electrocution, Utah recently approved the use of the firing squad, and Oklahoma is expected to legalize the use of nitrogen gas. Justice Stephen Breyer said a state trial expert’s testimony that midazolam is likely to induce a coma was accompanied by “zero” evidence.
Justice Kagan compared the effect of the controversial drug cocktail to that of being burned alive from the inside. “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.” Chief Justice John Roberts spoke against Robert Konrad, the public defender representing the Oklahoma prisoners saying that he has not offered an alternative that is more humane. The conservative justices cited that the prisoners were convicted of horrific crimes and sentenced to die. The justices noted that all states accept lethal injection because it’s more humane than the other options that exist.