Supreme Court: No Constitutional Guarantee Of “Painless Death” In Executions

In a major 5-4 ruling on Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a “painless death” in capital punishment. The opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, returned to the origins of the amendment and concluded that Russell Bucklew’s rare medical condition raising the danger of hemorrhage and choking does not constitute a constitutional barrier to execution. The opinion is Bucklew v. Precythe. 

In 1996, Bucklew became violent when his girlfriend tried to break up with him. She escaped to a neighbor’s house but Bucklew followed and shot and killed the neighbor. He then beat the woman and raped her. He was captured after a shootout with police. He later escaped jail and attacked his girlfriend’s mother with a hammer.

Two weeks before his schedule execution, Bucklew raised a medical condition as a unique barrier for the use on lethal injection on him, as described by the Court:

“Mr. Bucklew suffers from a disease called cavernous hemangioma, which causes vascular tumors— clumps of blood vessels—to grow in his head, neck, and throat. His complaint alleged that this condition could prevent the pentobarbital from circulating properly in his body; that the use of a chemical dye to flush the intrave- nous line could cause his blood pressure to spike and his tumors to rupture; and that pentobarbital could interact adversely with his other medications.”

Notably, the execution was halted by former Justice Anthony Kennedy was still on the Court. However, he was replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh who cast the fifth vote with the majority. Kavanaugh wrote a concurrence that left the door open for future challenges but noted that Bucklew failed to shoulder his burden to show a more humane form of execution: “an inmate who contends that a particular method of execution is very likely to cause him severe pain should ordinarily be able to plead some alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce the risk of severe pain.”

Gorsuch explores the far more painful methods of execution historically that were never seriously questioned by the Court under the Eighth Amendment:

“What does all this tell us about how the Eighth Amendment applies to methods of execution? For one thing, it tells us that the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death—something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes. Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 4). Instead, what unites the punishments the Eighth Amendment was understood to forbid, and distin- guishes them from those it was understood to allow, is that the former were long disused (unusual) forms of punishment that intensified the sentence of death with a (cruel) “‘superadd[ition]’” of “‘terror, pain, or disgrace.’”Baze, 553 U. S., at 48; accord, id., at 96 (THOMAS, J., con- curring in judgment).

This Court has yet to hold that a State’s method of execution qualifies as cruel and unusual, and perhaps understandably so. Far from seeking to superadd terror, pain, or disgrace to their executions, the States have often sought more nearly the opposite . . . “

As in prior opinions, Justice Clarence Thomas offers the most extreme view of the Eighth Amendment and insists in his concurrence that, regardless of the “alternative method” requirements of the majority, he would still allow the executive unless Bucklew could show that the chosen method was “deliberately designed to inflict pain.’” That converts the Eighth Amendment test into a test of motivation as opposed to means.

The four justices in dissent objected that the unique condition of his prisoner made the method cruel and unusual given the danger of tumors in his throat hemorrhaging, creating a “serious risk that his execution will be excruciating and grotesque.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said Bucklew has tumors in his throat and elsewhere that could hemorrhage and cause him to suffocate. He chastised the majority for its failure to recognize evidence in the record supporting an alternative method of executive and the failure to simply send the case back down to resolve such factual issues. Breyer objects “Today’s majority appears to believe that because “[t]he Constitution allows capital punishment,” . . . the Constitution must allow capital punishment to occur quickly.”

This is a well-reasoned opinion on both sides and worth the reading.

Here s the opinion: Bucklew v. Precythe

237 thoughts on “Supreme Court: No Constitutional Guarantee Of “Painless Death” In Executions”

  1. I think our Constitution’s notion of ‘cruel and unusual pumishment’ probably came from the treatment of Titus Oates, a paid ‘informer’ who sent many innocent men to horrible deaths. When finally his turn came it was noted that the law did not provide the death penalty for his acts so he was sentenced to multiple, savage whippings in the hope those would kill him. It didn’t. However the precedent was set and it took awhile to realize that that approach to punishment was both cruel and unusual and not to be allowed. Another hard-earned less we learned from our legal forbearers.

  2. All that BS, and you will still lose.Your side has lost all respect and dignity of any known political party. And you still think your side is on the future of this country, good luck with that.

  3. There is no way to guarantee a painless death, because no one knows what the condemned experience when they are executed. We have done away with long, drawn out torture prior to death. It used to be considered a macabre art form for an executioner to prolong an execution for hours, all day even. We do not wish to torture the condemned but rather dispatch them quickly.

    We can devise methods where the condemned murderer is sedated first, so that there is little movement. People under sedation do not remember surgical procedures, when general anesthesia is not warranted. There is an amnesiac in many Twilight Sleeps. We do not know what the criminal experiences in real time. All we can do is devise a method that is quick, and that does not induce outward signs of distress like thrashing. Often there is movement for several minutes during lethal injection. Hanging would be faster but there is the danger of the neck not breaking, and the person is conscious. A firing squad would be fastest, but it would be more scary for the criminal to endure.

    There is no safe way to execute this criminal, because the desired result is death. The alternatives are hanging, gas, or firing squad, which I do not believe are options in that state. I could be wrong.

    This is a case where a murdering rapist wants mercy he did not show his victims. He got 22 years after his terrible crimes, time he would not have had in a speedy system.

    If there was a different option he could choose for execution, I would support that, but I don’t see him choosing getting shot. I see him trying to get out of it.

    Capital punishment should be reserved for egregious crimes, and then justice should be done as quickly as the legal system provides. It is like putting down a rabid dog who cannot be fixed.

    1. Karen, I agree with you “There is an amnesiac in many Twilight Sleeps” duing which time the individual may talk or move. The same has to occur with any type of death even the guillotine that I mentioned earlier. The brain is completely dead after 15-20 minutes. Consciousness ceases by 20 seconds. 2-3 minutes are maximum for CPR to lead to a good outcome.

      That is why I think the cocktails may be the best choice. Potassium stops the heart, a muscle relaxant may reduce muscle movement and the Valium and Fentenyl sedate the patient while the latter adds pain reduction.

      I think Jack Kevorkian used three pharmaceuticals, a barbiturate, a muscle relaxor, and potassium. I think quite a number of people willingly died in that fashion under observation.

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