Supreme Court Enters the Lethal Injection Debate

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In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court began chipping away at capital punishment when it put a stop to executing mentally retarded people. Since then, it has ruled that sentencing juveniles to death is also unconstitutional, and today it decided it will review the hot button topic of lethal injection. So that’s good news; the end of capital punishment must be near. Well, not so fast. What today’s action and the landmark rulings over the past five years have done is to legitimize the practice, not end it. As long as we’re not killing kids and people with an IQ of 50, then the death penalty doesn’t seem all that wrong, right?

At the heart of the public debate surrounding lethal injection are the three chemicals used. The first one anesthetizes the individual, the second paralyzes him, and the third sets off a massive cardiac arrest. The sole purpose of the paralyzing agent is to mask a botched execution should the anesthesia not work, leading to a deceivingly peaceful death. But the court is unlikely to address this troubling issue and determine whether lethal injection is inhumane or even mandate a new deadly mix. Instead, it’s likely to simply establish the standard by which lethal injection qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. That way states can make the proper adjustments to their execution protocols, and get back to the business of executing people. “It will clarify what the rules are, but it is unlikely to answer the question once and for all of whether lethal injection is unconstitutional,” says Ty Alper, associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at U.C. Berkeley’s law school, which prepares its future lawyers to tackle capital punishment cases.

If nothing else, the Court’s decision to review the issue will almost certainly halt all executions until a ruling is made. Oral arguments are scheduled for January.

—Celia Perry

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