In the most closely-watched death penalty case in years, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled 5-4(pdf) that Oklahoma can use the controversial and experimental execution drug midazolam that was behind the last year’s horrific killing of 38-year-old man Clayton Lockett—who writhed and groaned for 43 minutes before ultimately succumbing to a heart attack.
The decision not only gives the approval for states to use a killing method that many regard as torture, but it also amounts to an ideological defense of the death penalty itself—however cruel. Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito stated:
Our decisions in this area have been animated in part by the recognition that because it is settled that capital punishment is constitutional, “[i]t necessarily follows that there must be a [constitutional] means of carrying it out.” And because some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, we have held that the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain. After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.
The ruling was slammed by dissenting justices as deeply inhumane.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor—joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan—wrote that the majority decision “leaves petitioners exposed to what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”
“[U]nder the Court’s new rule, it would not matter whether the State intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake: because petitioners failed to prove the availability of sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, the State could execute them using whatever means it designated,” the dissent states.