While being on death row does mean a death sentence, it doesn’t mean the procedure itself should be painful — a standard to be measured in an approaching Supreme Court case after not-so-harmless lethal injections.
According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court chose to hear a case Friday brought by four inmates on death row about the constitutionality of certain combinations of execution drugs that have sparked controversy for their having caused severe pain during the lethal procedure. This decision rightfully puts the spotlight back on Oklahoma, where inmate Clayton D. Lockett experienced visible pain after an injection last year and died 43 minutes later.
Morality of the death penalty aside, the court’s decision to address this issue could eliminate the unnecessary harm involved, which shouldn’t be inherent to lethal injections.
One of the drugs in question is midazolam, a sedative meant to induce unconsciousness that is used before the other drugs in order to prevent pain. In addition to being used in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona, it has also been administered in Florida several times, as the NY Times article reported.
While proponents of capital punishment might argue that it doesn’t matter if death row inmates experience pain, given the nature of their crimes, states still have a responsibility to prevent cruel and unusual punishment, regardless of the inmate’s reason for being on death row.
Additionally, there certainly shouldn’t be any ambiguity about the effects of the drugs that are used — if they must be used — especially since medical experts have noted that those injected with midazolam can suffer while paralyzed if the drug doesn’t work properly, according to the NY Times article.
As the article reported, in her dissent of the court’s refusal to stay the execution of Charles F. Warner, one of the inmate plaintiffs, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that a witness from Oklahoma in defense of the drug referenced Drugs.com instead of medical studies. As Sotomayor suggested, the chances of an execution going awry weigh heavily against one expert’s argument given that mistakes are avoidable.
Another major problem that arose with the case is the sheer irony of the court voting not to stay the execution of one of the inmates who led the case, when that inmate was appealing the use of the particular drug combination in question. However, with nine justices on the court, only four have to agree to hear a case while five must agree to hold off an execution.
As indicated in another NY Times article, if the Supreme Court doesn’t stay the other executions, the lead petitioner in place of Warner is to be executed this week, while the others have execution dates prior to April, when the court will hear the case.
In spite of the court’s bizarre split on the decision to stay the execution, the case will hopefully reduce any complacency with problematic execution drugs. Rather than simply administering more of the same drug to make sure it works, as the Associated Press reports Oklahoma now does with midazolam, states must use the safest options available, whether or not that means using other drugs or none at all.
Isabelle Cavazos is a junior majoring in English and Spanish.