The Supreme Court recently finished an eventful term, upholding the Affordable Care Act and legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. But one of the lesser-publicized cases is likelier to ignite much more debate in the years to come.
One might recall the case of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett, whose execution by lethal injection last year was stopped when the drugs he was administered (an experimental new mix of substances) failed to render him unconscious. He allegedly was in great pain for close to an hour before succumbing to a heart attack from the ordeal.
In the case Glossip v. Gross, a group of death row inmates argued that this method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment (which is banned by the Eight Amendment) because the administered sedative midazolam fails to render the condemned unconscious, causing them to feel tortuous pain throughout their execution. The Court disagreed, however, ruling 5-4 that they couldn’t prove the drug’s use was cruel and unusual.
Well, it certainly sounds like cruel and unusual punishment in this case. But a few of the dissenting justices went even further, suggesting that capital punishment itself violates the Eighth Amendment.
At the legislative level, the death penalty is withering away, but slowly. It's been outlawed in seven states within the last decade, and not strictly along partisan or ideological lines. The most recent state was Republican-leaning Nebraska, whose state legislature voted to outlaw capital punishment and voted to override their Governor’s veto of the measure.
In other states, both red and blue, it’s still business as usual. Right here in Indiana, a bill making murder by decapitation or attempted decapitation grounds for the death penalty was passed almost unanimously by the state legislature and became law at the start of the month.
So it’s very significant that the school of thought which considers capital punishment a violation of criminals' constitutional rights made it into the legal conversation of the highest court. Even though it lost before Court this time, it’s probably not going away. If it gains momentum in jurisprudence, we might one day mark this as the beginning of the end of capital punishment in the U.S.
Should that happen, it would be a good day for human rights. More than any other factor in the argument against capital punishment—its inconclusive effect as a deterrent, the cost of executions, the fact that innocents can sometimes be executed—it all comes down to the fact that no government, federal or state-level, should have the right to dictate who lives or dies.
Lockett was convicted of some horrible things, no question. It’s admittedly hard to sympathize with him. Or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or Timothy McVeigh, or anyone who would mutilate another human being as described by Indiana’s new law. But for comparison, if we truly value free speech, we must also defend and tolerate speech with which we disagree or find offensive or vile. Similarly, if the right to live is truly inalienable, then it must also apply to the worst among us.