Lethal Injection Method Upheld by the Supreme Court

By: Gerri L. Elder

April 16, 2008 was an important day for two inmates in Kentucky who have been sentenced to die for their crimes. Executions by lethal injection had been on hold in the United States for almost seven months, but the Supreme Court decided on the 16th that the three step procedure used to carry out the death penalty in Kentucky and many other states is humane and does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

After agreeing to hear the Kentucky case in September, the Supreme Court justices finally reached a decision and voted 7-2 to uphold the method of lethal injections most commonly used in the United States. Their decision means that execution by lethal injection will likely be resumed without any further delay. Prosecutors in several states have already indicated that they would seek new execution dates if the Supreme Court upheld the three-drug lethal injection method, according to a report by Law.com.

Death penalty opponents say that approximately 24 executions in the U.S. were put on hold while the Supreme Court reviewed the Kentucky case. More than 3,300 people are on death row in prisons across the country and 42 inmates were executed last year before executions by lethal injection were temporarily halted.

The two Kentucky death row inmates that brought the case that eventually made it to the Supreme Court did not ask for their lives to be spared. Their criminal defense attorneys argued against the three drug method used to carry out death sentences. The first of the three drugs is an anesthetic. The inmates argued that if the first drug failed, the second drug, which paralyzes, and the third drug, which causes death, could cause excruciating pain before the eventual death. In the event that the second and third drugs cause this pain, the inmate would be unable to let anyone know because they would at that point be paralyzed.

The inmates asked that the three-drug method of death by lethal injection be changed to a single painless barbiturate injection in a large enough dosage to cause death. No state has ever used the single drug method of lethal injection, however it is the method commonly used to euthanize animals.

Only one inmate in Kentucky has been executed by lethal injection. There were no apparent issues during that execution, but in Florida and Ohio, there have been lethal injection executions that took longer than expected and many believe that the inmates experienced extreme pain during the process.

While the Kentucky inmates lost their case and will likely be executed using the three-drug protocol, Justice John Paul Stevens believes this is far from the end of the debates about the constitutionality of the three-drug method of lethal injection executions, the use of the second drug that paralyzes the inmate and the death penalty in general. Stevens is likely correct as death penalty opponents are already planning their next move, which may involve challenges to the method of lethal injection executions in several other states.