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September 18, 2018

Previewing the two capital punishment administration cases before SCOTUS this fall

Garrett Epps has this lengthy new commentary at The Atlantic under the headline "The Machinery of Death Is Back on the Docket: Two Supreme Court cases this fall pose hard questions about the death penalty." Here are some excerpts:

Madison v. Alabamato be argued on October 2, asks whether states can execute demented murderers who no longer remember their crimes; Bucklew v. Precythe asks when, if ever, a prisoner’s individual physical condition makes execution by lethal injection “cruel and unusual.”...

[Vernon] Madison’s legal team — led by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative—argues that “No penological justification or retributive value can be found in executing a severely impaired and incompetent prisoner.” 

Alabama’s response is that the goals of capital punishment — retribution for the wrong and sending a warning to possible future offenders—are served as long as Madison knows why he is being executed, even if he doesn’t remember committing the acts. Madison’s particular condition may have been verified by doctors, the state argues, but dementia has many causes. Future claims of dementia and memory loss will be too easy to fake.

The high court has already held that states may not execute the mentally ill or the intellectually disabled; the leap to the demented would seem inevitable. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, the force behind these limits, has left the court, and death jurisprudence, as of the first Monday of next month, will likely be more volatile than usual.

In November, the court will take up the case of Russell Bucklew, whom the state of Missouri seeks to execute for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders.... Bucklew doesn’t contest his guilt, nor does he claim that Missouri’s lethal-injection protocol is in itself “cruel and unusual.” His is what lawyers call an “as applied” challenge. What that means is this: Though lethal injection may pass muster for most executions, he argues, in his individual case, because of his unusual physical condition, the injection will cause him intense and intolerable pain.

He suffers from a rare medical condition call cavernous hemangioma. The condition has given rise to multiple blood-filled tumors in his head and mouth. These make it difficult to breathe and are prone to bloody rupture. He must sleep sitting up to avoid choking on his own blood. Being strapped flat to a gurney will subject him to suffocation, he argues. In addition, since his blood vessels are affected, he says, those administering the drugs will probably have to use a lengthy and painful procedure called a “cutdown” before the drugs can be administered, prolonging the agony....

Bucklew did offer an alternative already provided in Missouri law — a gas chamber filled with nitrogen gas, which would render him unconscious and then dead without the agony of suffocation.  The Eighth Circuit said that he did not prove the gas chamber would be better.  The court below had heard from two expert witnesses — one who described the agony of lethal injection and another who stated that gas would kill him more quickly.  A trial court could compare the two descriptions and reach its own conclusion about relative agony.  Not good enough, said the appeals court; Bucklew was required to provide one expert who would offer “comparative testimony” — in effect, a single witness to say that one method is less cruel than another....

The Bucklew case, however it is resolved, shows how fully the court has become enmeshed in the sordid details of official killing. As the population of death row ages, issues of age-related disease and dementia will become more important in assessing individual death warrants, and the court will be the last stop for those challenged.

The court seems likely to be hostile to prisoners’ claims, however.  In recent years, when the high court stepped in to halt executions, Justice Anthony Kennedy was usually the deciding vote. Kennedy will almost certainly be replaced by Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh is formally an unknown on the issue. His conservatism in general, however, is orthodox, and conservative orthodoxy is hostile to new claims that executions are “cruel and unusual.”

September 18, 2018 at 12:06 PM | Permalink

Comments

With Kennedy gone and the Kavanaugh nomination on hold, Madison is looking like a 4-4 decision. Will the Court order reargument in the Spring (after Kavanaugh or the Justice to be named later is confirmed) or will they just issue a per curiam opinion in late October affirming as a result of an equally divided court?

Posted by: tmm | Sep 18, 2018 12:36:55 PM

a reasonable question, tmm, but I think the Chief has a history of being a "getable" vote on some capital issues.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 18, 2018 1:18:43 PM


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DEA Mission Statement

The mission of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets.

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