The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that Oklahoma and other death-penalty states can use the controversial drug midazolam for lethal injections. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected claims that midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Midazolam is used as a sedative to make inmates unconscious and two other drugs are administered afterward to paralyze and stop the heart. The case was brought forward by a group of Oklahoma death row inmates who argued that Midazolam is an ineffective anesthetic. The court’s five conservative justices disagreed.
“The prisoners failed to identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain, a requirement of all Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claims,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
“Second, the District Court did not establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.”
The court's four liberal justices dissented. Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the court's ruling, saying it “leaves petitioners exposed to what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”
The case was based on three high-profile “botched” executions in 2014, whereby three men regained consciousness. The New York Times reports that Clayton D. Lockett was left writhing and moaning in pain when he woke up, and others were gasping and choking for an extended period of time. In one execution, an Arizona inmate died two hours after the execution began, the Associated Press reported.
When Oklahoma could no longer acquire the drugs that they normally used, they started using midazolam. Many states are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain lethal injection drugs, as objections to capital punishment are causing an ongoing shortage. Both Pharmacies in Europe and the European Union are firmly opposed to capital punishment and the European Commission has imposed an export ban on the drugs used to carry out lethal injections.
Also in dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote, “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty's legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”