Supreme Court to review Oklahoma lethal injection procedure

24 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Justices to Hear Case Over Drugs Used in Executions.

It is taking up a case brought by three death row inmates, who accuse the state of violating the US Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide a case on the constitutionality of the new combinations of drugs that some states are using to execute prisoners and that critics say cause intense suffering. The court will hear a challenge to Oklahoma’s choice of drugs even though the justices declined last week to stop an execution there that used the contested chemicals.

The justices agreed Friday to review whether the sedative midazolam can be used in executions because of concerns that it does not produce a deep, comalike unconsciousness and ensure that a prisoner does not experience intense and needless pain when other drugs are injected to kill him. Those problematic executions include Clayton Lockett, an Oklahoma inmate in April who died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the lethal injection process was started.

With the addition of this case, the court’s term seems likely to end with three major decisions — on same-sex marriage, on the fate of the Affordable Care Act and, now, on the administration of capital punishment. It takes only four of the nine justices to agree to hear a legal claim, but a majority of five is needed to issue a ruling, including stopping an execution. The inmates challenging the state’s procedure argue that the sedative used, midazolam, cannot achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery and is therefore unsuitable for executions. In Warner’s case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor worried that it had not been proven that the state’s new procedure was valid, following a botched effort in the execution last year of Clayton Lockett. “Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished,” Sotomayor wrote. “But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death.

As a result, it appears the liberal justices voted to the hear the case, even though conservatives stood firm in their position that the drug is legal. I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions.” She was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G.

The case will provide the Supreme Court’s first evaluation of lethal injections during a time when the customary drugs have become scarce and states have tried new combinations and refused to identify the sources of the lethal chemicals. “Lethal injections are a subject on which everyone deserves clarity, but the law has been thoroughly chaotic for the last seven years,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University. “The court’s decision to address the confusion at last is welcome.” The case the court agreed on Friday to hear, Glossip v. The most common anesthetic used was sodium thiopental, but in 2011, its sole manufacturer said it would no longer make it after Italian officials banned export of the drug for capital punishment. Gross and decide the same issue posed by Warner’s case. “The time is right for the court to take a careful look at this important issue, particularly given the bungled executions that have occurred since states started using these novel and experimental drug protocols,” Baich said. In 2008, the justices upheld the use of a different three-drug combination in a case from Kentucky and set a high bar for challenges to lethal injections.

The execution procedure involves three drugs: Midazolam, which is intended to render the prisoner unconscious, before the injection of a paralytic followed by the injection of a heart-stopping agent. Some states have switched to midazolam because companies making the traditionally used barbiturates, which have a longer track record and deeper anesthetic properties, have refused to provide them for executions.

The inmates are trying to stop their executions, arguing that the state would essentially be experimenting on them by injecting them with unproven and untested drugs. Since then, however, Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona have carried out apparently botched executions in which the inmates seemed to writhe in pain or took hours to die. Another Oklahoma prisoner and plaintiff in the case, Richard Glossip, who was convicted of a 1997 contract murder, is scheduled for execution on Thursday. “Our immediate concern now is to try to get a stay for Mr.

Inmate Clayton Lockett clenched his teeth, moaned, and writhed on the gurney before a doctor noticed a problem with the intravenous line and the execution was called off. Some states, like Oklahoma, have relied on unproven drug cocktails, all while saying they must conceal the source of the drugs involved to protect suppliers from legal action and harassment. “It looks like a street-level drug deal,” said Dean Sanderford, a lawyer for Lockett. “And they’re keeping all the information secret from us. . . . They don’t need to be carrying out any more executions until they come clean, until we know exactly what happened with Clayton’s execution and everything about these drugs, where they’re getting them.” After a review of Lockett’s death, Oklahoma a few months ago announced changes to its lethal injection procedure. Oklahoma is apparently looking at becoming the first state to use “forced deprivation of oxygen,” while Tennessee may bring back the electric chair and Utah may reinstate the firing squad, according to the Globe.

Medical experts testifying on behalf of the inmates at an evidentiary hearing said the effects of high doses of midazolam, which Oklahoma adopted, were too unpredictable to justify its use.

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