In a ruling that will likely reactivate the death chambers in Texas and the other states that carry out executions, the U.S. Supreme Court today rejected arguments that the lethal injection process violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The 7-2 decision appears to allow about three dozen states that employ a three-drug cocktail to end the lives of condemned inmates to once again set execution date for prisoners on death row. But it also appears that inmates might continue to challenge the process if they can demonstrate that a more humane method of execution is available.
The inmates challenging lethal injection "have not carried their burden of showing that the risk of pain from maladministration of a concededly humane lethal injection protocol, and the failure to adopt untried and untested alternatives, constitute cruel and unusual punishment," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the case that originated in Kentucky.
Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the two dissenting votes.
A prominent death penalty opponent suggested that a stronger case might have been made by inmates from a state that has conducted more executions than has Kentucky.
"The record on lethal injections was sparse in Kentucky," said Richard Dieter, who runs the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. "They had only carried out one lethal injection. Other states have had repeated problems with this process, and the risks of extremely painful executions have not been removed by this decision."
Executions across the nation have been on hold since the Supreme Court announced in September that it would hear arguments in the Kentucky case. Even though Texas was not a party to the case, the decision to hear arguments had a near immediate effect in the state that leads the nation with 405 executions by lethal injection since 1982.
Several executions scheduled to be carried out in the Huntsville death chamber were placed on hold. However, one Texas inmate, Michael Richard, did go to his death on the day the Supreme Court served notice that it would hear the case when lawyers attempting to file a last-ditch appeal were rebuffed by Sharon Keller. The chief judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to accept the documents because they arrived after closing time.