(U-WIRE) PITTSBURGH – The Supreme Court sent a powerful message to lower courts this week when it granted a Mississippi inmate a stay of execution literally moments before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.
The Court’s 7-2 decision gave strong indication that a majority intends to block all executions until the Court decides on a lethal injection case from Kentucky next spring, according to The New York Times.
The decision also sets precedent for lower courts that were struggling to decide whether to hold executions in their districts until the Court decides on the Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees.
Baze v. Rees, will issue precedent on how judges should evaluate claims that the particular combination of drugs used in lethal injections pose an unnecessary risk of pain and suffering, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
While execution by lethal injection was introduced as – and outwardly appears to be /- a more humane form of capital punishment, many argue that the short-acting anesthetic used in its practice in the United States can lead to consciousness during an excruciatingly painful death that occurs anywhere from five to 18 minutes after the dose is injected.
Unlike capital punishment cases in the past, Baze v. Rees will only set precedent on the constitutionality of lethal injection as it applies to the Eighth Amendment, not on the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.
This isn’t to say that the Court’s decision won’t have vast impact, however. If the Court finds lethal injections unconstitutional, it could have broad reaching effects. Lethal injections represent the largest proportion of executions performed in the United States.
In 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 59 people were executed in the United States, and all but one of them died by lethal injection.
And as the alternatives to lethal injections – electric chair, firing range and hanging, in some states – seem hardly less cruel and unusual, most likely, if the Court finds the current method of lethal injection unconstitutional, it will put more rigid standards on the drug combinations used in lethal injections – not eliminate the method altogether.
If nothing else, the Court’s decision to hear a case on the constitutionality of lethal injection will hopefully ignite a public discussion on what the government has a right to do in terms of the death penalty.
Even if forms of capital punishment are here to stay, it is important that the Supreme Court continues to reevaluate government practices to keep capital punishment methods in check.