When the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on the constitutionality of the executions by lethal injection in Oklahoma, its ruling will probably not be a tipping point toward the elimination of capital punishment in the United States, but some experts say it could be the beginning of the end of this practice.
Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center based in Washington, said that much public discussion about lethal injections took place last year after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, who writhed in pain for 40 minutes before dying apparently of heart failure. The execution was “quite a shock” and “got a lot of attention,” which he said explains why the drugs used to execute Lockett deserve a review.
In April, the court will hear oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross, a case brought by four death-row inmates in Oklahoma. One of the plaintiffs, Charles Warner, was executed on Jan. 15 after the court rejected a stay by a 5-to-4 vote. The court announced on Jan. 23 it would take the case and five days later agreed to stay the upcoming executions of the other three inmates until it issues a decision.
The court’s decision to review the case was welcomed by representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a statement Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, called lethal injections a “cruel practice.” Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, Chair of the Committee on Pro-life Activities, added, “We pray that the court’s review of these protocols will lead to the recognition that institutionalized practices of violence against any person erode reverence for the sanctity of every human life. Capital punishment must end.”
Currently the 32 states that have the death penalty use lethal injections. A shortage of drugs previously used in executions has caused states to try a variety of different drug combinations in lethal injections. Some, as shown by Lockett’s botched execution, do not work as intended.
If they are going to continue with that method, the executions cannot take a significant period of time, said Mary Margaret Penrose, professor of constitutional law at Texas A&M’s University School of Law. “The court is saying, let’s at least pause and get more information,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think the court would “overturn the death penalty as a method of punishment,” but the justices might determine that until better medication is available, states should “use another method.”
According to a Gallup poll last fall, a majority of Americans still support capital punishment, but some feel the tide is slowly turning. Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty, said Catholics are becoming more galvanized in their views against capital punishment. She said the botched death by lethal injection is a “stark reminder” that capital punishment is an affront to the dignity of human life.
Last October, Pope Francis called on Christians and all people of good will “to fight...for the abolition of the death penalty...in all its forms” out of respect for human dignity. The U.S. bishops have been campaigning against the death penalty for more than 40 years.
Clifton said that in recent years more Catholics have been against the death penalty because they have recognized it as a pro-life issue. “We are executing the marginalized in our society,” she said, noting that the Scriptures are full of references to how “we will be judged by how we treat the least among us.”