The Supreme Court has approved a lethal injection drug that is blamed for several botched executions. Although several inmates were reportedly “tortured to death” when the drugs did not work as intended, the Supreme Court determined the inmates were not subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” as defined by the The United States Constitution.
The case before the Supreme Court was sparked by the April, 2014, execution of 43-year-old Clayton Lockett.
Accused in the 1999 murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, Lockett was convicted of assault, first degree murder, and rape. He was subsequently sentenced to death by lethal injection.
As reported by the Atlantic, Lockett’s execution was scheduled for April 29, 2014, at 6:00 p.m. Although inmates are generally declared dead within 15 minutes after the lethal injection is administered, something went terribly wrong.
“The potassium chloride was supposed to stop Lockett’s heart immediately, by disrupting the electrical charge that causes the heart muscles to contract. But although Lockett’s heart was slowing, it kept beating.”
“… after the first drugs were delivered Lockett struggled violently, groaned and writhed, lifting his shoulders and head from the gurney… Lockett died 43 minutes after the first executions drugs were administered.”
In the United States, lethal injections are performed using a three-drug cocktail.
As reported by NPR, the first drug is meant “to put people into a deep, coma-like state.” The second drug causes paralysis, and the third stops the heart.
Historically, states used sodium thiopental to achieve the “coma-like state.” Although it was generally effective, the American Pharmacists Association and American Medical Association urged manufacturers to stop providing sodium thiopental for use in executions.
MORE: The justices voted 5-4 in a case from Oklahoma that the sedative midazolam can be used in executions: http://t.co/FV3Tanun3l
— The Associated Press (@AP) June 29, 2015
As a result, sodium thiopental is in short supply — and many states have resorted to using midazolam. However, the controversial drug is “not approved by the FDA to put people into a deep, coma-like state.”
Although midazolam is now used by several states, it is blamed for a number of botched executions.
A divided Supreme Court upheld use of a lethal injection drug used in 3 botched executions http://t.co/OTHIGJvPpO pic.twitter.com/l7XHAUIOHF
— Bloomberg Business (@business) June 29, 2015
As reported by Washington Post, Ohio inmate “Dennis McGuire struggled and choked for several minutes” after the cocktail was administered. Although he was expected to die within 15 minutes, he was not declared dead until 25 minutes after the first shot.
In Arizona, Joseph R. Wood “gasped and snorted” for nearly two hours after his lethal injection was administered.
Although it is unclear what went wrong during the executions of McGuire and Woods, the botched executions were blamed on the unapproved and previously untested drug.
In the case of Clayton Lockett, an investigation conducted by the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences revealed Lockett’s botched execution was caused by human error.
As reported by the New York Times, “Mr. Lockett’s femoral vein, located deep below the surface of the groin, was punctured by inexpert probing and that the execution drugs were not pumped directly into the bloodstream.”
The botched executions prompted several inmates on Oklahoma’s death row to file a formal complaint. The inmates argued that the use of midazolam is unreliable, and is therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment — which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.
However, as stated in the Supreme Court’s decision, the inmates “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.”
The high court also determined the inmates “failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of midazolam… entails a substantial risk of severe pain.”
The Supreme Court’s approval of the questionable lethal injection cocktail is likely to spark ongoing debate, as the death penalty remains a point of heated controversy.
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