• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

SPRING FUNDRAISER

Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States

On June 29, 2015 the United States Supreme Court argued in Glossip v. Gross that executions may continue with the use of lethal drug cocktails including the use of midazolam, an extremely painful drug, which in effect, burns to death the condemned by scorching internal organs. The use of midazolam, according to the Court, does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. The Court found that condemned prisoners can only challenge their method of execution after providing a known and available alternative method.

In dissenting views justices opened the legal door for future challenges to the death penalty. In a meticulously crafted dissent Justice Stephen G. Breyer joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg initiated a timely counterargument to capital punishment. This was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor in diverging dissents of their own. The dissents were significant in that they outline the legal framework for the abolition of the death penalty based on the Eighth Amendment. Nevertheless, Sotomayor and Kagan argued in separate opinions that the use of lethal chemicals in executions was intolerably painful.

In turn this begged the question, for many, as to whether or not executions could ever be legitimized since executions must necessarily involve physical or mental pain. In all democratic societies, intentionally inflicting pain on another human being is torture.

This article addresses the Court’s concerns, expressed in Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion, that protests against Glossip’s anticipated execution was a “guerilla war” against the death penalty and that inflicting physical or mental pain intentionally on a human being is an acceptable component of execution and consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

***

In Gregg v. Gerogia (1976) the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 7-2 decision that capital punishment did not violate the Eighth Amendment. This in effect, reversed Furman v. Georgia (1972) which placed a moratorium on capital punishment in the United States. Robert Bork argued the case for the United States, that capital punishment and judicious use of the death penalty may be appropriate if carefully used. The Supreme Court argued that the Court was not prepared to overrule the Georgia legislature who has by law defined capital punishment an effective tool in the deterrence of future capital crimes and as an appropriate means of social retribution (retributive justice) against the most serious offenders

On April 29, 2015, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Glossip v. Gross, a case which challenged the use of the anti-anxiety drug midazolam in lethal injection executions. Petitioners argued in their brief to the Court that there is “undisputed evidence . . . that midazolam cannot reliably ensure the ‘deep, coma-like unconsciousness’ required where a State intends to cause death with painful drugs” (Brief for Petitioner at p. 29). Use of this drug to carry out executions by lethal injection does not comport with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual suffering. In the last year alone, midazolam was used in several botched executions. Then on June 29, 2015, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Glossip v. Gross, ruling that the anti-anxiety medication midazolam is constitutional for use as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection formula. The case was brought by death row prisoners in Oklahoma, who argued that the state’s use of midazolam in this manner creates an “objectively intolerable risk of harm.”

The Glossip ruling evidenced two Justices directly challenging the legal foundation of capital punishment based on the Eighth Amendment which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” Indeed, states such as Nebraska have recently abolished the death penalty based on the Eighth Amendment, making it the nineteenth state to do so, and the seventh to abolish capital punishment since 2007. Nonetheless, a majority of justices on the Supreme Court at the time – John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – still maintain the constitutionality of the death penalty, as argued in Glossip.

In Baze v. Rees (2008), the Supreme Court reviewed the three-drug protocol then used for lethal injection by at least thirty states, in which the first drug, an short-acting barbiturate, rendered the prisoner unconscious, and the second and third drugs, a paralytic and potassium chloride, paralyzed the prisoner and stopped the heart. The Court noted that the first drug, the barbiturate, causes a “deep, coma-like unconsciousness” and therefore “ensures that the prisoner does not experience any pain associated with the paralysis and cardiac arrest caused by the second and third drugs.” The Oklahoma drug protocol challenged in Glossip was also a three-drug protocol that uses a paralytic and potassium chloride as the second and third drugs, but it substitutes the benzodiazepine midazolam for the first drug, creating risk of “severe pain, needless suffering and a lingering death.”

As the Brief for Petitioner states:

“In Baze, there was consensus that sodium thiopental, if properly administered, would produce deep coma-like unconsciousness. With midazolam, the opposite is true. Midazolam is not approved for use as the sole anesthetic for painful surgery. Clinical studies showed that midazolam does not reliably induce deep unconsciousness; when used in surgery, patients felt pain. The medical consensus is that midazolam cannot generate deep, coma-like unconsciousness. There is also no substantial practice among the states of using midazolam for lethal injections. Although sodium thiopental was widely used in lethal injections for years, only four states have used midazolam in an execution, and only two have tried to use it as anesthesia. On these undisputed facts, the use of midazolam to create deep coma-like unconsciousness presents an “objectively intolerable risk of harm” (Baze, 553 U.S.).

***

Midazolam is not a barbiturate, but a benzodiazepine commonly used in pre-operative settings to alleviate anxiety. It is the shortest-acting drug in the same class of anti-anxiety drugs as Xanax, Atavan and Valium. All of the experts who testified in a three-day hearing in Oklahoma in December 2014, including the state’s expert, agree that midazolam has a ceiling effect, above which additional dosing has no additional effect, and no analgesic (pain-relieving) qualities (Joint Appendix to Brief for Petitioner, medical testimony from three-day hearing at pp. 199, 256, 274). The four states which have used midazolam in lethal injection executions are Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma. Three executions that used midazolam triggered formal state investigations into why they did not go as planned (Brief for Petitioner at p. 31). In all of these botched executions, the prisoners initially appeared to lose consciousness, but then started moving and demonstrating signs of struggle and suffering.

Glossip v. Gross originated in federal court in Oklahoma as a response to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014. Charles Warner was originally one of the Petitioners, but the Court denied a stay of execution in his case, and he was executed using midazolam in a three-drug formula on January 15, 2015, just eight days before the Court accepted this case for review. On January 28, 2015, the Court stayed the executions of the three Petitioners, Richard Glossip, John Grant and Benjamin Cole, who are Oklahoma death row prisoners. In their Petition for Certiorari, Petitioners asked the Court to “provide urgently needed guidance” to prisoners and courts addressing new, experimental lethal injection protocols.

In her dissent from the denial of a stay for Charles Warner, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by three other justices, recognized that the district court relied on a “single purported expert” who testified from suspect sources and in a manner that contradicts empirical data. Justice Sotomayor explained, “In contending that midazolam will work as the State intends, Dr. Evans cited no studies, but instead appeared to rely primarily on the Web site www.drugs.com. Here, given the evidence before the District Court, I struggle to see how its decision to credit the testimony of a single purported expert can be supported given the substantial body of conflicting empirical and anecdotal evidence.”

Justice Breyer, who has served twenty years on the Supreme Court, never argued that the death penalty was unconstitutional. What both Breyer and Ginsburg argued was that new evidence over the past two decades had convinced them that the death penalty is costly, ineffective, and unreliable, not that it was necessarily inhumane. Their argument was based on cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and the real possibility of wrongful execution. More than one hundred death row inmates had their convictions or sentences dismissed in the last decade.

Nevertheless, in the majority opinion Justice Alito countered Sotomayor and Kagen’s view arguing that pain is simply part of what constitutes an execution. He states, “Because some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, we have held that the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain. After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.”[1] Breyer, nevertheless argued, that the broader issue of wrongful convictions takes greater precedence since executing innocent people can never be remediated. Moreover, Breyer and Ginsburg argued that “increasingly lengthy delays” of several decades between convictions and executions undermined the deterrence argument that executions deter crimes.[2]

Prior to Glossip, Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, in essence, echoed the opinion of Justice Harry Blackmun who, in 1994, argued that the death penalty in the United States was unable to be impartial toward minorities, specifically African Americans. Likewise, in 2008, Justice John Paul Stevens concluded that the death penalty was arbitrary and unreliable as a deterrent and ineffective in terms of punishment. However in Glossip, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen, while not joining in Breyer and Ginsburg’s dissent, nevertheless wrote what could arguably be the strongest dissent. The two justices claimed that the majority on the court allowed a “method of execution that is intolerably painful – even to the point of being the chemical equivalent of burning alive.”

***

Alito’s position is one in which the inflicting of pain on others, as torture, is a necessary component of execution. This is a plausible position to hold. However, in that Alito and the majority argue that torture does not contradict the U.S. Constitution and the Eighth Amendment is subject to serious question.

***

As stated earlier, torture is the act of deliberately inflicting severe physical or psychological pain on a human being by another as a punishment or in order to fulfill some desire of the torturer or force some action from the victim. Torture, by definition, is a knowing and intentional act; deeds which unknowingly or negligently inflict suffering or pain, without a specific intent to do so, are not typically considered torture. But under U.S. law, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Torture has been carried out or sanctioned by individuals, groups, and states throughout history from ancient times to modern day, and forms of torture can vary greatly in duration from only a few minutes to several days or longer. Reasons for torture can include punishment, revenge, political re-education, deterrence and even coercion.

Alternatively, some forms of torture are designed to inflict psychological pain or leave as little physical injury or evidence as possible while achieving the same psychological devastation. The torturer may or may not kill or injure the victim, but torture may result in a deliberate death and serves as a form of capital punishment. Depending on the aim, even a form of torture that is intentionally fatal may be prolonged to allow the victim to suffer as long as possible, such as half-hanging or even inadvertently seizing in pain from lethal injections.

In other cases, the torturer may be indifferent to the condition of the victim or simply take delight in the sadistic gratification of torture in whatever form.

This indifference best fits the Alito majority. On one hand, indifference may be its most compassionate form of torture, while on the other it very well could mean that sociopaths exist on the highest court in the land. And in Glossip the Eighth Amendment is once again desecrated and Alito’s majority decision exalts the deviant status of the Torture Court of the United States.

Notes

1. Glossip v. Gross, June 29, 2015, No. 14-7955, SCOTUS, I, A, Majority Opinion, Justice Alito, Roberts, Thomas, Kennedy, Scalia, Oyez, ITT Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology.

2.  Death Penalty Focus, Working for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, http://www.deathpenalty.org, May 31, 2013.

More articles by:
May 28, 2020
David Rosen
Silence=Death: Larry Kramer, RIP
Dean Baker
Restaurants in the Pandemic
Martin Billheimer
There is No Vacation Anymore
Jesse Jackson
It’s Time for Bold Responses to a Stark Crisis
Deborah Toler
Is Stacey Abrams Progressive?
Binoy Kampmark
Budget Cockups in the Time of Coronavirus
May 27, 2020
Ipek S. Burnett
The Irony of American Freedom 
Paul Street
Life in Hell: Online Teaching
Vijay Prashad
Why Iran’s Fuel Tankers for Venezuela Are Sending Shudders Through Washington
Lawrence Davidson
National Values: Reality or Propaganda?
Ramzy Baroud
Why Does Israel Celebrate Its Terrorists: Ben Uliel and the Murder of the Dawabsheh Family
Sam Pizzigati
The Inefficient and Incredibly Lucrative Coronavirus Vaccine Race
Mark Ashwill
Vietnam Criticized for Its First-Round Victory Over COVID-19
David Rovics
A Note from the Ministry of Staple Guns
Binoy Kampmark
One Rule for Me and Another for Everyone Else: The Cummings Coronavirus Factor
Nino Pagliccia
Canada’s Seat at the UN Security Council May be Coveted But is Far From a Sure Bet
Erik Molvar
Should Federal Public Lands be Prioritized for Renewable Energy Development?
R. G. Davis
Fascism: Is it Too Extreme a Label?
Gene Glickman
A Comradely Letter: What’s a Progressive to Do?
Jonathan Power
The Attacks on China Must Stop
John Kendall Hawkins
The Asian Pivot
May 26, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together
John Kendall Hawkins
The Gods of Small Things
Patrick Cockburn
Governments are Using COVID-19 Crisis to Crush Free Speech
George Wuerthner
Greatest Good is to Preserve Forest Carbon
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Covid-19 Conspiracies of German Neo-Nazis
Henry Giroux
Criminogenic Politics as a Form of Psychosis in the Age of Trump
John G. Russell
TRUMP-20: The Other Pandemic
John Feffer
Trump’s “Uncreative Destruction” of the US/China Relationship
John Laforge
First US Citizen Convicted for Protests at Nuclear Weapons Base in Germany
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump, Resign Now for America’s Sake: This is No Time for a Dangerous, Law-breaking, Bungling, Ignorant Ship Captain
James Fortin – Jeff Mackler
Killer Capitalism’s COVID-19 Back-to-Work Imperative
Binoy Kampmark
Patterns of Compromise: The EasyJet Data Breach
Howard Lisnoff
If a Covid-19 Vaccine is Discovered, It Will be a Boon to Military Recruiters
David Mattson
Grizzly Bears are Dying and That’s a Fact
Thomas Knapp
The Banality of Evil, COVID-19 Edition
May 25, 2020
Marshall Auerback
If the Federal Government Won’t Fund the States’ Emergency Needs, There is Another Solution
Michael Uhl
A Memory Fragment of the Vietnam War
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
Make a Resilient, Localized Food System Part of the Next Stimulus
Barrie Gilbert
The Mismanagement of Wildlife in Utah Continues to be Irrational and a National Embarrassment.
Dean Baker
The Sure Way to End Concerns About China’s “Theft” of a Vaccine: Make it Open
Thom Hartmann
The Next Death Wave from Coronavirus Will Be the Poor, Rural and White
Phil Knight
Killer Impact
Paul Cantor
Memorial Day 2020 and the Coronavirus
Laura Flanders
A Memorial Day For Lies?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail