The US Supreme Court has ruled that inmates have no right to a 'painless death'
The death penalty has long been a hot button topic with many arguing that it is necessary both as a deterrent and a punishment, while others campaign that it is outdated and barbaric. However, as the self-styled leader of the free world, the US is something of an anomaly.
There are only a handful of countries in the west which still have the death penalty and the US is leading the charge. The majority of US states still have capital punishment, with around 25 executions in America per year. This is down from the heady days of bloodshed (in 1999, for instance, there were 98 US executions) but for many, there remains a distinct lack of compassion in any justice system which involves putting people to death.
Missouri death row inmate Russell “Rusty” Bucklew has requested that he is killed with gas rather than lethal injection, due to an unusual medical condition. Bucklew, 50, was convicted in 1996 of rape, murder and kidnapping following an attack on his ex-girlfriend and her new partner and six-year-old son.
“Bucklew murdered Michael Sanders by firing multiple rounds. Bucklew was a violent prior and persistent offender with an abusive past,” the court heard in May 1998. “The nature of this crime, the history of the defendant and the strength of the evidence support the sentence of death.”
However, Bucklew has since successfully received stays of execution in order for the courts to consider his condition - and consequent request. He claims that his congenital condition, cavernous hemangioma, could cause extreme pain if he is given the lethal injection. He argued that Missouri’s chosen method of killing amounts to legally banned "cruel and unusual punishment". Bucklew has also called for this death to be recorded - in order to document his body’s reaction to the injection.
Having rumbled on for many years, the decision on Bucklew v Precythe was finally made. Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, penned the news that many - including Bucklew - didn’t want to hear. "The eighth amendment [to the US constitution] forbids 'cruel and unusual' methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death," wrote Justice Gorsuch. "As originally understood, the eighth amendment tolerated methods of execution, like hanging, that involved a significant risk of pain, while forbidding as cruel only those methods that intensified the death sentence by 'superadding' terror, pain or disgrace."
The last word in the Supreme Court’s 60-page document went to Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Dissenting, she stated: “The principles of federalism and finality that the majority invokes are already amply served by other constraints on our review of state judgments - most notably the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, but also statutes of limitations and other standard filters for dilatory claims. We should not impose further constraints on judicial discretion in this area based on little more than our own policy impulses. Finality and federalism need no extra thumb on the scale from this Court, least of all with a human life at stake.”
“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. Our jurisprudence must remain one of vigilance and care, not one of dismissiveness.”
While this may be seen as a victory for hard justice, it has sparked outrage from the abolition contingent. “In an appalling death penalty opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch just overturned 60 years of precedent,” reads the subheader in an article on liberal news website Slate.
“On Monday, five justices of the Supreme Court authorized Missouri to torture a man to death,” continues Mark Joseph Stern. “In the process, they appear to have overruled decades of Eighth Amendment precedents in a quest to let states impose barbaric punishments, including excruciating executions, on prisoners.
“The court’s conservative majority has converted a once-fringe view into the law of the land, imperilling dozens of decisions protecting the rights of death row inmates, as well as juvenile offenders,” Stern adds. “Its ruling signals the end of an Eighth Amendment jurisprudence governed by ‘civilised standards’ - and the beginning of a new, brutal era in American capital punishment.”
The ruling makes for an unfortunate advertisement for an administration which has come across as cold and uncaring. Ultimately however, any justice system relying on Old Testament principles, such as “an eye for an eye”, will appear increasingly outdated in a modern and predominantly tolerant world.