U.S. Supreme Court: Lethal Injection Not Cruel And Unusual

The execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas (AP)
By  | 

The three-drug cocktail used as the poison in lethal injection is not cruel and unusual punishment. That's according to a seven-to-two ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday. But one justice and many local activists say the issue is far from being resolved.

The ruling is based on the case of two inmates on Death Row in Kentucky, who insisted that lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

For the past six months, 35 states including Nevada have been watching this case, wondering if they will need to change their protocol. And even with a decision, local activists say there are still many questions left unanswered.

"Quite frankly, it brings up more questions than it answers," says Lee Rowland with the Nevada ACLU. "To the dismay of some, especially in the capital punishment community who are hoping for a little bit more guidance. This opinion doesn't quite get there."

Nevada's ACLU says the court's ruling definitely isn't a victory for them, but it isn't exactly a defeat either. Six months ago, Rowland filed a petition with the State Supreme Court asking justices to temporarily halt executions until the U.S. Courts decide on the legality of lethal injection.

Nevada's Supreme Court responded by halting William Castillo's execution just an hour before he was scheduled to die. All other executions in the state were also put on hold, but now that order could be lifted based on Wednesday's ruling.

"I think the State of Nevada can fairly go forward with the execution under the Eighth Amendment based on the U.S. Supreme Court case," says Rowland. "The kind of wrench in the works is that we also have a First Amendment argument."

That argument contends the second of three drugs administered during lethal injection prevents an inmate from speaking out or expressing pain.

The ACLU says that's government censorship and while no one in the U.S. Supreme Court echoed that specific opinion, concurring Justice John Paul Stevens says failure to address the second drug will ultimately lead to more delays.

Rowland says this is an open issue the State Supreme Court will have to consider before lifting its stay.

"It really is totally in the hands of the Nevada Supreme Court to see how seriously they take that First Amendment claim and see whether that is enough to continue the stay we currently have; or whether they'll see this as a green light from the Supreme Court to go ahead with lethal injection."

The Nevada Department of Corrections says it can't act on any execution until the State Supreme Court reviews the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

If state courts lift the stay, justices will then schedule the week in which the inmate will die and the Department of Corrections will prepare for and select an exact date and time of execution.

Meanwhile, other states are already acting. Virginia's Governor lifted the state's moratorium on executions just hours after the Supreme Court's decision.