The day after I watched “The Green Mile,” my view on capital punishment became conflicted.
One scene that got my attention was when John Coffey began “walkin’ the mile” – walking
toward the execution chamber. Another part of the movie that got my attention was when Percy, a prison guard, intentionally failed to put water on the head of a prisoner before the electricity was administered. This created a gruesome scene and prolonged the suffering of the prisoner.
But, while inflicting unnecessary pain during an execution is an obvious act of cruelty, what about the pain caused during a modern execution that is properly carried out?
Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) weighed in on this issue. While
the 8th Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, SCOTUS recently held that the 8th does not guarantee a prisoner sentenced to capital punishment “a painless death.” This removed any obstacle a convicted murderer from Missouri had, who sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition, on his way to meet the executioner.
As expected, this was a 5-4 decision with strong opinions on each side. This was also one of the first SCOTUS decisions that felt the true impact of the president’s reshaping of the court.
Before the confirmations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, this case could have been
Russell Bucklew, 50, argued that lethal injection might inflict undue agony by rupturing blood-filled tumors on his face, head, neck and throat caused by a congenital condition called cavernous hemangioma in violation of the Constitution’s 8th Amendment.
The court ruled that Bucklew failed to present enough evidence to pursue his request to be
executed by lethal gas. Referring to the history of capital punishment, Justice Gorsuch wrote for the majority that “the 8th 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.”
“The state of Missouri and the victims of Russell Bucklew’s crimes have waited 23 long years for this just and lawful sentence to be carried out,” said a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. “With today’s ruling we are one step closer to justice.”
The ruling was in line with a 2015 decision when the court rejected a challenge to
Oklahoma’s method of execution by lethal injection. In that case, the court held that inmates challenging a method of execution must come up with an alternative option that was less painful.
Bucklew failed to show that lethal gas could be “readily implemented” as required under
Supreme Court precedent, the court ruled. Also, there was no evidence that his chosen
alternative, lethal gas, would be less painful.
Gorsuch, appointed by Pres. Trump in 2017, noted that Bucklew is awaiting execution for
crimes committed more than two decades ago. “Yet since then, he has managed to secure delay through lawsuit after lawsuit,” Gorsuch wrote.
Fellow conservative Justice Samuel Alito said in 2015 that the legal challenge to Oklahoma’s method of execution case was part of a “guerilla war” against the death penalty.
Bucklew was convicted of the 1996 murder in southeastern Missouri of Michael Sanders, who was living with Bucklew’s former girlfriend, Stephanie Ray, at the time. Bucklew fatally shot Sanders at his home, kidnapped and raped Ray, shot at Sanders’ 6-year-old son and wounded a police officer before being apprehended.
Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissenting opinion, repeated his assertion, first raised in the 2015 case, that if prisoners cannot be executed quickly without violating their rights “it may be that there simply is no constitutional way to implement the death penalty.” Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined the dissent.
Justice Breyer raises a much broader point that leads me to ask; Is spending over two decades in a tiny cell on death row waiting to die less painful than experiencing some level of physical pain for over two minutes just prior to death?
Jason Swindle is a criminal-defense attorney and college professor in Carrollton.