Supreme Court Justices Signal Doubts About Some Death Penalty Procedures

Newly-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh seemed to signal a willingness to join liberal bloc members in expressing skepticism on the procedure, in some cases.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
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Newly-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh seemed to signal a willingness to join liberal bloc members in expressing skepticism on the procedure, in some cases.

The Supreme Court, hearing arguments on a case involving the death penalty on Tuesday, made some ponder whether the institution is rethinking its beliefs on the controversial practice.

Two conservative members of the Court made it clear that they had some questions about the death penalty, including doubts about the specific case before them. The discussion would give some reporters in the room the idea that some Supreme Court Justices could be shifting their opinion on the matter.

The case before the Supreme Court on Tuesday centered around Russel Bucklew, who was convicted decades ago of murdering a man who had been living with his ex-girlfriend at the time. Court documents also demonstrate that Bucklew — in the aftermath of the murder — kidnapped and raped his ex, shot a gun toward her 6-year-old son, and wounded a police officer in pursuit of him before he was detained, reported Yahoo! News.

Bucklew was convicted and sentenced to death in Missouri, but his lawyers appealed his sentence to the Supreme Court, arguing that a health condition that he has would cause him excruciating pain. Bucklew suffers from cavernous hemangioma, which causes him to have blood-filled tumors on his body, notably on his face and neck. His lawyers argue that the drugs in the lethal injection would cause him immense pain, violating the Constitutional tenet of the right of the convicted to avoid “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Lawyers for the state argued they could go on ahead with the lethal injection. Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed some misgivings as to whether that was the case. Previous rulings from the Supreme Court have said that death penalty executions which do cause pain are not constitutional, putting the onus on the convicted to provide a different means of death.

“So you’re saying that even if the method imposes gruesome, brutal pain, you can still go forward? Is there any limit on that?” Kavanaugh asked.

Surprising some commentators, Chief Justice John Roberts even used language that seemed to cast doubts as to whether he fully supported the practice of the death penalty or not. Although in a previous ruling from the Court, Roberts had sided with the minority in believing that Bucklew didn’t deserve a stay of execution — his comments raised some eyebrows.

Roberts said something to the effect of “if the death penalty is constitutional” in his questioning. That “if” is a big deal — one that BuzzFeed legal analyst Chris Geidner was taken by surprise by.

“I never would have expected those words to come out of the Chief’s mouth until they did,” Gedier wrote in a Twitter post. “And I know I wasn’t alone in the press corps to note that phrasing.”