Posted: June 12, 2017
Death Penalty

Recent US Execution Hits Two Issues: SC Deliberation on Death Penalty and the Use of Sedative

Death Penalty and the Use of Sedative

The execution of Alabama inmate, Ronald Smith,  brought light two pressing issues that remained unresolved – that the US Supreme Court still  struggles with such death penalty cases and that the debate over the constitutionality of the death penalty and the use of certain drugs remains an unsettled issue

Ronald Smith’s execution was delayed not once but twice by Justice Clarence Thomas in order to provide the justices with more time to consider his  case. However, on December 9, the execution took place after the high court had ruled that the two-time delayed execution could finally proceed.

Issue Number One: Death Penalty vs. Life Imprisonment

The US Supreme court tolled the execution two times on early Thursday evening. Smith’s legal defense  team argued that a judge should not impose the death penalty when the jury  clearly recommended life imprisonment as a punishment.

The attorneys of the executed Alabama inmate had made an appeal to the highest court of the nation to block the executive. Back in November, Chief Justice Roberts sided with liberal justices. It would have taken five (5) justices to block the Smith’s execution. However, only four had agreed to hear the case. Ultimately, the execution took place which happened to be the second death penalty enforced in Alabama this year.

Most cases handled by the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court, are subject to lengthy opinions. Public arguments are usually taken into account, but the last-minute deliberations involving inmates on death row are not as transparent as usual. In Smith’s case, his attorneys also cited the death penalty in Florida as an example. The immense power given to judges was questioned as well.

In the state of Alabama, a jury can possibly recommend a life sentencing sans parole. However, as what had happened in Smith’s case, the judge was able to override the recommendation and imposed death penalty instead. Smith’s defense lawyers pointed out that it is only in the state of Alabama where such a scenario could happen.

On the other hand, the State lawyers argued that the sentencing done by the Alabama judge was deemed appropriate and legally sound.  Lawyers for the state  also argued that the sentencing decision of the juror  is likely to be  the sole decision on criminal sanction he or she is bound to make, and such decision often comes at the conclusion of an emotionally draining and exhausting trial.

From Life Imprisonment to Death Penalty

The transition from lifetime sentence to death penalty happened at the court of Judge Lynwood Smith who is  now a federal judge. He compared the killing of the store clerk to an execution as the clerk was beaten badly into submission before getting shot in the head. The death of the store clerk also left his newly-born child fatherless. One crucial note that the judge cited in the court records is that Mr. Smith came from a family of Middle class which means that he had been exposed to opportunities like education. Alabama had put a halt on the executions after a problem caused by the scarcity of execution drugs as well as the limitations and cases over its use. In January of this  year,  another Alabama inmate was also executed and that had been the first one since 2013.

Issue Number Two:  Criticizing the Use of Midazolam

Robert Smith’s case appeared to have shed light on another crucial facet of the death penalty – the use of the sedative drug called Midazolam. When he was executed, witnesses have pointed out how the prisoner heaved his chest and coughed. He is said to have moved also showing that he was in an agonizing situation during the administration of lethal injection.

Critics of the drug called Midazolam once again showed dismay with the use of the said drug after several other accounts of pain and agony have been noted in line with its use. According to the staff attorney of the University of California’s Berkeley Law School, Jen Moreno, the struggling and the gasping seen in Smith’s reaction is similar to the other cases of problematic executions  in other states. She reiterated that the these types of drugs should not be used in imposing a death penalty.

Critics have called the execution a failed experiment While it is no longer surprising to hear such comment after a series of problematic executions in the last five years, many are still calling for the review of the death penalty as well as the reconsideration of other drugs to carry out a more humane death sentence. According to the Assistant Federal Public Defender in the State of Arizona, it is expected to see more of the failed executions as long as Midazolam is continued to have become part of the process.

There are several cases that illustrate some of the issues with the use of Midazolam. The execution of Clayton Lockett, an Oklahoma inmate, in 2014. According to the report, Lockett  moaned and clenched his teeth for a long time. His execution took 43 minutes. In Ohio, inmate Dennis McGuire also snorted and gasped for almost half an hour during his execution in January 2014. According to the executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based organization, the execution of Smith confirms that there are several questions and concerns with the use of Midazolam that have to be addressed prior to carrying out other death sentences.

For more than thirty years, states, where the death penalty is legal used the same drugs in administering the lethal injections. However, supplies of the said drug became a problem after those who are against the death penalty in Europe have subjected the drug manufacturers to immense pressure  to prohibit the use of the said drugs in executions in the US.

In June 2015, US Supreme Court refused to ban the drug involved in the controversial method of execution.  The Supreme Court was divided but a majority of the justices remained adamant on the legality and constitutionality of death penalty. The conservative majority of the highest court said that the prisoners of Oklahoma who challenged the use of the drug combo failed to  prove that the drug is not effective in masking pain and agony during the execution. Furthermore, there was also a lack of a better alternative to the drug.

Legal procedures, the constitutionality of the death penalty, the identification of a more humane method of execution—will all continued to be studied, discussed, and debated. questions waiting to be answered on the colossal issue of death penalty.  



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Death Penalty