Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the 5-to-4 decision. He was joined by the court’s four more conservative justices.
The drug, the sedative midazolam, played a part in three long and apparently painful executions last year. It was used in an effort to render inmates unconscious before they were injected with other, severely painful drugs.
Four condemned inmates in Oklahoma challenged the use of the drug, saying it did not reliably render the person unconscious and so violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Lower courts disagreed.”
‘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,’ Breyer wrote in his dissent.”
“As part of its lethal injection protocol for executions, Oklahoma uses a sedative called midazolam, which is used to treat anxiety, to make the inmate unconscious. Two other drugs then paralyze him and stop his heart. A group of Oklahoma death-row inmates have challenged the state’s use of midazolam, arguing that it cannot reliably render an inmate unconscious.
“The difference between midazolam and other drugs (like pentobarbitol) is that it’s not a barbiturate. So the inmates’ argument was that it wouldn’t cause the sort of deep coma that would prevent pain later in the execution procedure.”
Today, the court ruled the death row inmates failed to establish that the use of midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court’s four liberal justices dissented.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, criticized the court’s majority opinion, saying it “leaves petitioners exposed to what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said the court affirmed a lower court’s ruling for two reasons:
“First, 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. … Second, the District Court did not commit clear error when it found that the prisoners failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.”
And, he responded to Sotomayor’s criticism, calling it “groundless.”
“That is simply not true, and the principal dissent’s resort to this outlandish rhetoric reveals the weakness of its legal arguments,” Alito wrote.