April 16, 2008
At the Edges of the Death Penalty
The Supreme Court rules lethal injection is constitutional; now, they're deciding if capital punishment is limited to cases of murder.
The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) today tackled one case on the death penalty and is on to the next.
The biggest news from SCOTUS was the 7 ? 2 ruling that Kentucky's method of lethal injection was a constitutional form of capital punishment and not cruel and unusual.
"The case before the court came from Kentucky, where two death row inmates wanted the court to order a switch to a single drug, a barbiturate, that causes no pain and can be given in a large enough dose to cause death," NPR reports.
In executions by lethal injection, a team of doctors administers a barbituate to numb, a paralytic, and then sodium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest, through an IV. One of the main objections to lethal injection is that any of the drugs is ineffectively administered, the execution would be painful, undignified, or drawn-out.
That risk, however, isn't enough to make the method illegal, said Chief Justice John Roberts.
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) guidelines say use of the method to put down animals is unacceptable.
Our earlier report on the case discussed whether there was a significant shift toward disapproval of the death penalty in America.
A Pew Forum poll taken last August found that public support for capital punishment has dropped to 62 percent from a high of 80 percent in 1994. White evangelicals are still the death penalty's strongest supporters, with 74 percent approval, but that is down from 82 percent in 1996.
"There's been a pause in capital punishment since last September: a good opportunity to reflect on what life would be like without it and to take the public temperature on the death penalty in general." Slate says.
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In another significant case, the Supreme Court began hearings on whether child rape (i.e., the worst thing people can think of that isn't murder) merits the death penalty. Capital punishment for a crime that didn't result in the victim's death is uncertain ground.
"Nobody in this country has actually been executed for anything other than murder since 1964, although five states, including Louisiana, have laws permitting capital punishment for the rape of young children," Slate's Dahlia Lithwick explains in her analysis of the "inscrutable social consensus the death penalty for rapists."
For the high court, it's a monumental challenge: distilling all of these trends and counter-trends into some broad, workable constitutional rule, a rule that somehow reflects the emerging "national consensus" that we may like the idea of capital punishment far more than the reality of it.