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