WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has never found a specific method of execution unconstitutional, and justices ruled in 2008 that the three-drug protocol used for lethal injection in most states then was not cruel and unusual punishment.
In a case from Kentucky, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm’ that qualifies as cruel and unusual.”
Though justices fractured over reasoning in the case, seven of the nine agreed that it was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment for Kentucky to use the three-drug protocol instead of a single drug.
The high court had suspended executions in the country while considering the case and ultimately ruled that a death row inmate couldn’t challenge a state’s method of execution “merely by showing a slightly or marginally safer alternative.”
Roberts, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony M. Kennedy, wrote that the U.S. Constitution “does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions.”
“Some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution — no matter how humane — if only from the prospect of error in following the required procedure,” Roberts wrote.
Roberts’ opinion notes that some people would not be satisfied with any execution method but that the high court had ruled states could have capital punishment laws.
“Throughout our history, whenever a method of execution has been challenged in this Court as cruel and unusual, the Court has rejected the challenge,” Roberts’ opinion states.
“Our society has nonetheless steadily moved to more humane methods of carrying out capital punishment. The firing squad, hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber have each in turn given way to more humane methods, culminating in today’s consensus on lethal injection.
“The broad framework of the Eighth Amendment has accommodated this progress toward more humane methods of execution, and our approval of a particular method in the past has not precluded legislatures from taking the steps they deem appropriate, in light of new developments, to ensure humane capital punishment. There is no reason to suppose that today’s decision will be any different.”