Monday, June 29, 2015

Executions and Their Alternatives

This past March, I commented on the Eighth Circuit's en banc decision in Zink v. Lombardi, which rejected a challenge to Missouri's execution protocol. My particular focus was on a strange statement offered by the dissent which said that, if the death penalty is constitutional in the abstract, it follows that there must be some form of execution which is constitutional as well. This, to me, clearly did not hold -- it is perfectly plausible to say that while the Constitution has no objection to capital punishment as such, it still must be the case that any particular form of execution must satisfy the demands of the Eighth Amendment -- and perhaps none will do so.

Of course, leave it to the Supreme Court to take an obvious truth and turn it on its head. Today, in Glossip v. Gross, the Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. In doing so, it made one fateful and indefensible holding: the Court decided that a prisoner cannot solely show that the method of execution is excruciatingly painful, barbarous, even tantamount to torture. He must show it is all of those things compared to a "known and available alternative method of execution." In other words, just like the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court declares that there must be a legal form of execution (not just in theory, but "known and available" to the executing state). And as a consequence, the baseline for "cruel and unusual punishment" rests against the characteristics of the next-best alternative. If, as it turns out, all the methods seem to be brutal and inhumane in their application -- well, the Supreme Court just legalized torture.

There is irony here. For all of Justice Scalia's bleating in King v. Burwell about how the Supreme Court "is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites," that complaint would be far more appropriate if leveled here. The whole reason this "known and available alternatives" argument was an issue was because social movement actors have made it exceptionally difficult for states to access most varieties of execution drugs. If social circumstances dictate that otherwise lawful executions can't be carried out in a fashion concordant with constitutional demands, that would seem to be that (I explored a far more ambitious version of this hypothetical in my "perfect poison" story). But of course, that didn't satisfy the author of the Glossip opinion -- who complained at oral argument that this would represent a capitulation to the death penalty opponents' "guerrilla war" against capital punishment. So the doctrine stands in all of its cruel and unadorned glory: executions must be allowed. If that means subjecting human beings to "the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake,"* so be it.

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