Supreme Court to Hear Arguments in Lethal Injection Case

The United States Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday, January 7, on whether or not the lethal injection process in Kentucky is a violation of the Constitution’s 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments. While the case, Baze v. Rees, has prompted a de facto moratorium on executions, it does not concern the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.

Currently, 35 of the 36 states with the death penalty use variations of the same three-drug combination in their lethal injection executions. Kentucky uses thiopental to make the inmate unconscious, pancuronium to paralyze the muscles, and potassium to ultimately stop the inmate's heart. The petitioners in Baze state that this combination of drugs has a high likelihood of producing severe and unnecessary pain in the prisoner. The second and paralyzing drug, however, makes the prisoner unable to exhibit any pain. Death row inmates in other states have also challenged lethal injection procedures in recent years.

Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who supports the position of the petitioners in Baze, agrees that the lethal injection procedures as practiced cause unnecessary suffering. The number of botched executions around the country has led to a closer examination of this subject.  She told USA Today, "The heightened scrutiny is unprecedented. There is less trust now in departments of corrections and what happens" during executions. 

There were only 42 executions last year, a 13-year low, with many stays granted because of lethal injection challenges.
(“High court to weigh in on lethal injection,” by Joan Biskupic, USA Today, January 4, 2008). See Supreme Court and Lethal Injection.