U.S. Supreme Court to Review Lethal Injection
The U.S. Supreme Court has recently granted review of Oklahoma’s death penalty procedure. Three inmates sued the state over its lethal injection procedure, specifically its use of a chemical called “midazolam.” Midazolam is one of three drugs used in the chemical cocktail that make up Florida’s lethal injection process. The Oklahoma inmates argue that the use of midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The reasoning for this lies in what midazolam’s purpose is during the execution process.
Midazolam is first injected into the death row inmate in order to cause unconsciousness. Rocuronium bromide is next, and works to paralyze the body. The final blow is potassium chloride, which is used to stop the heart. Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama, and Virginia all use similar drug combinations for their lethal injection procedure.
However, critics of the process and the inmates in the Supreme Court petition say that midazolam is not an effective general anesthetic and does not achieve the appropriate level of unconsciousness. In fact, the FDA has not approved midazolam for use as a general anesthetic, so the petitioners argue that various state prisons, including Oklahoma and Florida, are using the drug in an experimental manner. The result is a prisoner who is not properly unconscious or paralyzed and a lethal injection that goes terribly awry, thereby defeating the purpose of a humane execution under the 8th Amendment.
Additionally, many states were forced to switch their drug cocktail after European drug manufactures banned American prisons from using their products in executions. As a result, prisons are now turning to untested and novel combinations of drugs, such as those being used in Florida and Oklahoma.
Thus far, Florida has not yet had serious problems with the use of midazolam. However, Ohio and Oklahoma experienced controversial and frightening experiences recently.
Ohio stopped using midazolam after the botched execution of Dennis McGuire. McGuire gasped for air, snorted, choked, and convulsed for more than 10 minutes before he died. The execution took almost 24 minutes. He was injected with midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. Oklahoma’s execution of Clayton Lockett is what inspired the lawsuit and halted execution in the state for the better part of 2014. Lockett lived for 43 minutes after receiving the drugs. He was able to talk briefly and lift his head up before his body started convulsing violently. His cause of death was later determined to be a heart attack. A third execution in 2014, which occurred in Arizona and took Joseph R. Wood III nearly two hours to die, also involved midazolam.
The Supreme Court’s agreement to review the case is its first foray into the death penalty conversation since 2008. Its decision will have reverberations across the nation, especially in a climate that is less and less friendly to the use of the death penalty. The Court’s decision will will be closely watched in Florida, one of America’s top death penalty states.
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