The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to review Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures in a case brought by three death row inmates who argue the controversial drug cocktail used in executions leads to cruel and unusual punishment.
The announcement comes just one week after the high court declined to halt the execution of a convicted murderer, marking the first time the state of Oklahoma has carried out capital punishment since a lethal injection went horribly awry last year. In April 2014, convicted killer Clayton Lockett groaned and bucked from the gurney as doctors struggled to set up a proper IV line; the execution staff resorted to injecting the lethal drug through a vein in Lockett’s groin. He died 43 minutes into the execution.
The fallout from the botched execution in Lockett’s case has continued to raise issues of morality and efficacy over how states carry out capital punishment. In agreeing to take up the case from the trio of death row inmates, the Supreme Court will hear for the first time a case on lethal injection since it rejected a 2008 challenge that the deadly drugs violated the U.S. Constitution.
The condemned men challenging the state’s protocols argue that the three-drug cocktail used to carry out executions is ineffective and causes severe pain to the point of violating the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Attorneys for the death row inmates argue that the first drug used in the process, a sedative called midazolam, has a checkered history in achieving the level of unconsciousness needed to prepare for the lethal doses that follow.
“Oklahoma’s goal was political expediency, rather than the development of a more humane execution process, when it hastily switched to a three-drug protocol using midazolam,” the attorneys argued in their petition to the high court.
Death row inmate Richard Glossip, convicted of ordering his employer to be beaten to death, has the earliest scheduled execution set for Jan. 29. Next is John Grant, who stabbed a correctional worker to death; he is scheduled to see the death chamber on Feb. 19. Benjamin Cole, convicted of murdering his 9-month-old daughter, is due to be put to death on March 5.
Charles Warner, convicted of murdering and raping an 11-month-old, was a fourth petitioner asking for a reprieve. It was down to the wire on Warner’s scheduled Jan. 15 execution before his attorneys heard final word from the Supreme Court – they would not be staying the lethal injection. Four justices dissented the decision, led by Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who issued an explosive eight-page dissent that was highly critical of the expert testimony on lethal drugs that presented to the lower courts. In one particular instance, Sotomayor pointed out, an expert’s testimony relied heavily on research from the website Drugs.com before he approved the sedative midazolam.
“I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol,” Sotomayor wrote.
It is unclear whether the high court will choose to stay the executions of Glossip, Grant and Cole before the case is argued in April. A final decision will likely come down by June.
Dale Baich, one of the lawyers in the case, said in a statement that states “are using experimental drug combinations. The drug protocol used in Oklahoma is not capable of producing a humane execution, even if it is administered properly. The time is right for the Court to take a careful look at this important issue, particularly given the bungled executions that have occurred since states started using these novel and experimental drugs protocols.”