Cruel and Unusual? Court to Decide on Lethal Injections

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.

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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.”

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J Cabaniss
2 years 10 months ago
There are a number of comments in this article that deserve comment, starting with Bishop Wenski's assertion that lethal injections are a "cruel practice." Despite what might have happened to Clayton Lockett, "lethal injections" are anything but cruel, as anyone who has seen a pet put down will attest. This may seem a small thing but it is important to address problems honestly, and calling injections cruel...isn't. My biggest objection, however, is to the claim that "capital punishment is an affront to the dignity of human life." It is in fact because of man's dignity that the church has always acknowledged a state's moral right to use it. Although most people seem unaware of it, the passage most central to the church's doctrine on the death penalty is Gn 9:5-6, where we are told by God himself that the life of a murderer is forfeit because the life of his victim was sacred. ("Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.") The argument that the death penalty is contrary to man's dignity reverses this to mean the life of a murderer is protected because his life is sacred. What is contrary to man's dignity is to not hold him fully accountable for his actions, to pass off the blame for his crimes on his upbringing, society, or other people. "Above all, this would be to deny the person's dignity and freedom, which are manifested--even though in a negative and disastrous way also in this responsibility for sin committed." (JPII) There may be valid arguments against the use of capital punishment, but that it is contrary to man's dignity is not one of them.
David Knoble
2 years 10 months ago
That the death penalty is an affront to human dignity seems obvious to me. It is true, that the Hebrew scriptures specify it. However, the Hebrews thousands of years ago, had not yet matured past the "tooth for tooth" stage in their growth toward the one God. Thus, to assert that the scriptures indicate that God requires the death penalty is to grossly misunderstand the nature of the scriptures, and the literary forms therein. If I am to respect life, then I must respect all life. We must hope that we, as a society, can mature past the point of requiring death for heinous crimes. One question involved in this is, if not death, then what? Clearly some people cannot function within society, and must, somehow be removed. One other, serious, issue with the death penalty is the killing of innocents. Death is final. However, our system of justice is an adversarial one. The side with the best lawyer often wins the case. While I do not know of a better system, it is clear that innocent people are periodically sentenced to death. How can we accept that our society has willingly killed an innocent person? It is also true that highly moral people can accept the death penalty. It is necessary, as part of the debate, to put forth alternative methods of removing evil people from society. And there should be a debate. We should not have our courts legislate this matter, but rather it should be decided by our society at large, to be properly effective. Why do we want the death penalty? Is it revenge, "justice," or protection of society? These questions must be addressed for our society to accept any alternative.

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