A Cruel and Unusual Ruling: Supreme Court Upholds Use of Controversial Lethal Injection Drug

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison (CA).

Last week, the United States Supreme Court gave humanists reason to celebrate when they finally threw off fundamentalist notions of marriage and declared marriage equality to be a constitutional right. This week, however, the Court issued a ruling related to capital punishment that may make some humanists uncomfortable. On Monday, June 29, the Court declared in Glossip v. Gross that midazolam, a controversial sedative used in administering the death penalty, does not violate the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.

Last year, the media began questioning the ethics of midazolam’s use in executions when Clayton Lockett, a convicted murder in Oklahoma, convulsed on the gurney even after being injected with the drug which was meant to cause sedation and prevent an individual from feeling the excruciating pain brought on by other drugs used in lethal injections. Midazolam has also been used in botched injections in other states, including Ohio and Florida. In response to these tragedies, three inmates, Richard Glossip, John Grant, and Benjamin Cole, filed suit, claiming that the use of midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court disagreed because, as stated by Justice Samuel Alito in his majority opinion, the prisoners failed to offer an alternative method of execution that had a lower risk of pain.

The ruling is a disappointment for opponents to the death penalty. If the Court had ruled midazolam’s use in lethal injection to be unconstitutional, many states would have difficulty carrying out the death penalty at all. Of course, the case also brought up questions about the constitutionality of the death penalty itself. In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called for a “full briefing on the more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.” Justice Breyer’s concerns about the death penalty mirror the reasoning that many humanists apply in their opposition to capital punishment, including the reasoning in the American Humanist Association’s 2000 Resolution on Capital Punishment. Both cite frequent instances of innocent people being sentenced to death row as well as the arbitrary nature by which the death sentence is applied. Breyer does not go so far as to declare capital punishment unconstitutional, but he does state:

“…the matters I have discussed, such as lack of reliability, the arbitrary application of a serious and irreversible punishment, individual suffering caused by long delays, and lack of penological purpose are quintessentially judicial matters. They concern the infliction— indeed the unfair, cruel, and unusual infliction—of a serious punishment upon an individual…I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment. At the very least, the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question.”

While Monday’s decision is a blow to opponents of the death penalty, the questions raised in Breyer’s dissent are poignant ones that will not be disappearing anytime soon. Advocates for human rights, including many humanists, will continue the fight against capital punishment for basic human dignity.

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