A Brief Look At The Death Penalty And The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court recently made a ruling on Glossip v. Gross, a case on the death penalty. By a 5-4 vote, the court upheld the use of the controversial drug midazolam as part of a three-drug cocktail used in carrying out the death penalty.  The Supreme Court concluded its term on Monday, writes NPR.

Let’s take a brief look at the situation, shall we?

According to The Economist, of the 35 people who were executed in America in 2014, at least three died a death that was unduly harsh or violent.

The problem is that states are having trouble getting the drugs they need to ensure the deaths are painless.

European companies will not sell drugs to be used in executions, and American companies are increasingly uncertain (or worried about lawsuits?) about having their brands linked to lethal injections.

Oklahoma and other states have been changing the three-drug protocol, and in some cases using a drug called midazolam, which was apparently used in the “botched” execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last year.  It was used in others as well.

Does using midazolam defy the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment”? According to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Glossip v Gross, the answer, surprisingly, was no.

“The case was brought before the court by three prisoners on death-row in Oklahoma, who are understandably wary of an execution cocktail that includes midazolam,” writes The Economist.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the petitioners failed to prove that midazolam offers a ‘substantial risk of serious harm’.

Citing evidence that the sedative is effective at the right dosage, the court found that while Clayton Lockett received too little of it, the same three-drug mix finished off 12 other prisoners “without any significant problems”.

The 8th amendment reads:  Amendment VIII. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The 28 member nations of the E.U. have banned the death penalty.   It is a requirement for joining the E.U.

Let’s look at some history of the death penalty in the West.  According to deathpenalty.org:

“In the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This 1948 doctrine proclaimed a “right to life” in an absolute fashion, any limitations being only implicit. Knowing that international abolition of the death penalty was not yet a realistic goal in the years following the Universal Declaration, the United Nations shifted its focus to limiting the scope of the death penalty to protect juveniles, pregnant women, and the elderly.”

“During the 1950s and 1960s subsequent international human rights treaties were drafted, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights.

“These documents also provided for the right to life, but included the death penalty as an exception that must be accompanied by strict procedural safeguards. Despite this exception, many nations throughout Western Europe stopped using capital punishment, even if they did not, technically, abolish it. As a result, this de facto abolition became the norm in Western Europe by the 1980s.” (Schabas, 1997)

The U.S. already had a moratorium on the death penalty.  That began in 1972 after the case of Furman v. Georgia.

According to deathpenalty.org:

“In Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, (1972), the Court invalidated existing death penalty laws because they constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  The Court reasoned that the laws resulted in a disproportionate application of the death penalty, specifically discriminating against the poor and minorities.  The Court also reasoned that the existing laws terminated life in exchange for marginal contributions to society.”

The death penalty was reinstated in 1977, after the case of Gregg v. Georgia:

In Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, (1976), the Court refused to expand Furman.  The Court held the death penalty was not per se unconstitutional as it could serve the social purposes of retribution and deterrence.  Specifically, the Court upheld Georgia’s new capital sentencing procedures, reasoning that the Georgia rules reduced the problem of arbitrary application as seen in earlier statutes.

Clayton Lockett spent 43 minutes writhing in pain on the gurney, according to The Economist.  “This shit is fucking with my head,” he said before finally dying.

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