While we were still celebrating increased conservative opposition to the death penalty, the US Supreme Court last month shunted the American death penalty into new, shocking levels of brutality. The opinion is described by various legal analysts as “bloodthirsty”, “exceptionally barbarous” and “astonishing for its harshness and cruelty”.
The court’s decision will allow Missouri to execute Russell Bucklew, a man with a rare medical condition, who will probably suffocate in his own blood when administered lethal drugs.
Astonishingly, the court rejects Bucklew’s proposed alternative – death by nitrogen hypoxia, a method allowed by Missouri – because he supplies no detailed specifications for the administration of the gas. As Garrett Epps ponders:
“[I]t is the state that wants to kill Bucklew, and gas is the state’s designated alternative. Is it really so unreasonable to ask the state to take some responsibility for making it work?”
Matt Ford sees the decision as part of a new pattern since the court’s recent shift to the political right: it is now “incredibly difficult for prisoners to challenge the method by which they die.”
But it goes even beyond this: by deftly and cunningly casting aside decades of Eighth Amendment legal precedent, the decision endangers the prohibition on executing juveniles, people with intellectual disability and even people who committed nonhomicidal crimes. As Matt Ford concludes:
“The Eighth Amendment now seems to say whatever the court’s conservative majority think it says—any interpretation will do, as long as it keeps execution chambers running.”
The trend is chilling.