The Supreme Court refused Friday to reconsider the death-row appeals of 3 Oklahoma prisoners whose pending executions by lethal injection were upheld by the justices in June.
Without comment, the court denied a petition filed by the prisoners' lawyers that would have turned the case into one testing the overall constitutionality of the death penalty.
The justices ruled 5-4 on June 29 that Oklahoma can use the sedative midazolam as part of a 3-drug lethal injection protocol, despite contentions that it may not render prisoners completely unconscious and incapable of feeling pain. The court's majority said the inmates failed to suggest any better alternative.
But the decision included a sweeping dissent from Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg that questioned whether capital punishment is no longer constitutional. The 2 liberal justices cited scores of death-row exonerations, racial and geographic disparities, decades-long delays between sentencing and executions and a trend away from capital punishment in courts and states.
Breyer, who wrote the dissent, urged the court to hear a case in the near future on whether the death penalty violates the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled that way in 1972, resulting in a 4-year moratorium on executions, but reversed itself in 1976.
"It would be appropriate for the court to use this case to address the constitutionality of the death penalty, because the outcome will turn not on facts specific to any single litigant, but on circumstances common to the administration of the death penalty," attorneys for death-row inmates Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole said.
A similar effort was mounted in early July by Missouri prisoner David Zink, but the Supreme Court refused to delay his execution, and he was put to death July 14. Barring a last-minute reprieve, Glossip is scheduled to die Sept. 16, with Grant and Cole to follow later this year.
A more likely candidate for the Supreme Court to consider whether the death penalty is constitutional will come before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Monday. In that case, a federal district judge already has declared California's death penalty unconstitutional because of long delays, inadequate funding for defense lawyers, and the lack of a lethal injection protocol.
The June Supreme Court case concerned the specific drug used by Oklahoma and some other states to sedate prisoners before lethal drugs are administered. While Florida has used midazolam with apparent success, three executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma resulted in condemned prisoners gasping and writhing on their gurneys.
The high court's 5-member conservative majority ruled that states may continue to uses midazolam because the defendants could not suggest an alternative - a burden that the court's 4 liberal members criticized in a dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Source: USA Today, August 28, 2015
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