The Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a five-to-four decision that a death row inmate in Missouri may be executed by lethal injection — despite his claims that he has a rare medical condition that he says will cause excruciating pain.
While accusing the inmate, Russell Bucklew, of gaming the system and attempting to delay his execution, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, writing for the majority, said Bucklew had waited too long to object to the way the state planned to execute him.
“Courts should police carefully against attempts to use such challenges as tools to interpose unjustified delay,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, according to the New York Times.
Bucklew’s lawyers argued that his condition, cavernous hemangioma, would make him choke on his own blood during his execution. But Gorsuch argued that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment bars only needless pain and that the Constitution authorizes capital punishment and protects states’ rights to use it without undue delays.
“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,” he wrote.
Bucklew, who was convicted of murdering a man who had been seeing his former girlfriend as well as of kidnapping and raping her, proposed nitrogen gas as an alternative means for carrying out his own execution.
Justice Gorsuch rejected that alternative, according to the Times.
In dissent, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wrote that Mr. Bucklew may face an “excruciating and grotesque” punishment.
“Bucklew cites evidence,” Justice Breyer wrote, “that executing him by lethal injection will cause the tumors that grow in his throat to rupture during his execution, causing him to sputter, choke and suffocate on his own blood for up to several minutes before he dies.”
“There are higher values than ensuring that executions run on time,” she added. “If a death sentence or the manner in which it is carried out violates the Constitution, that stain can never come out.”
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