The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the lethal injection procedure used by Oklahoma was celebrated by the state on Monday and criticized by attorneys for death-row inmates. In Oklahoma, praise for the decision came with a promise to resume executions, which were put on hold when the justices said they would hear a challenge to the state’s execution protocol.
“State officials act deliberately and thoughtfully in carrying out this responsibility,” Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, said in a statement. “This marks the eighth time a court has reviewed and upheld as constitutional the lethal injection protocol used by Oklahoma. The Court’s ruling preserves the ability of the Department of Corrections to proceed with carrying out the punishment of death.”
Attorneys for the inmates decried the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling that midazolam, a sedative, could be used in executions without violating the Constitution.
“Because the Court declined to require that states follow scientific guidelines in determining their lethal injection procedures, states will be allowed to conduct additional human experimentation when they carry out executions by lethal injection,” Dale Baich, one of the attorneys for the prisoners, said in a statement.
Midazolam was used in the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, who kicked and grimaced during his execution last year before dying 43 minutes after it began. A state investigation blamed the bungled procedure on poor placement of a needle during the injection. The same drug was also used in the execution of an Arizona inmate who took nearly two hours to die last year.
Baich said that “given the substantial risk of harm,” additional legal action was still likely to follow.
“We will continue to work in the courts to hold the states accountable in order to try and prevent botched executions in the future,” he said.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) also praised the court’s decision, saying in a statement that it “upholds the letter and the spirit of the law as it is written.”
Similarly, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) lauded the decision, releasing a statement outlining the crimes for which the inmates in this case were convicted and sentenced.
“I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to preserve the states’ ability to implement capital punishment for the most heinous of crimes,” he said. “This ruling delivers justice in the case of individuals who brutally and callously murdered their victims, such as the nine-month-old whose spine was snapped, an 11-month-old who was raped and then murdered, an innocent coworker who was beat to death with a baseball bat, and a corrections officer who was stabbed to death.”
Meanwhile, opponents of capital punishment decried the ruling on Monday.
“The death penalty is on the outs, with even conservative states like Nebraska outlawing the policy,” Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a statement. “Yet that message clearly hasn’t risen up to the highest court in the land. That means our work is far from done.”
Pruitt had defended the lethal-injection protocol as constitutional in January, when the justices agreed to hear the challenge days before the first of three scheduled executions. Once the court took up the case, Pruitt asked the justices to stay those executions, and the court obliged.
He said his office would now alert the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to set execution dates for Richard Glossip, who is named in the Supreme Court decision, as well as John Marion Grant and Benjamin Robert Cole. All three men were convicted of murder, and all were originally set to be executed between January and March.
“The families in these three cases have waited a combined 48 years for justice,” Pruitt said. “Now that the legal issues have been settled, the state can proceed with ensuring that justice is served for the victims of these horrible and tragic crimes.”
A spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Corrections said Monday it has access to the drugs necessary to carry out these three executions.
While awaiting the court’s decision, Oklahoma’s lawmakers adopted nitrogen gas as the state’s backup method of execution.
“The use of the death penalty, in any form, diminishes us all. When available, we should choose non-lethal ways to ensure justice and to protect society,” Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City said in a statement. “I pray for the day that Oklahoma and other states will abolish capital punishment.”
[This post has been updated.]