Courtesy of Bill Hennessy

Lethal injection case an 'indictment' of Supreme Court, Prejean says

Prominent death penalty opponent says hearing on Oklahoma's use of midazolam reveals ugly truths about execution

A Wednesday Supreme Court hearing on Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol is not just about drugs used to execute U.S. death row inmates — it’s an “indictment” of the Supreme Court’s continued support for executions, according to Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most prominent death penalty opponents.

“What they have been allowing is blanket medical experimentation with killing people,” said Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun whose autobiographical account of her relationship with a death row prisoner inspired the Oscar-winning 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.”

“There’s no empirical, scientific way for them to find a humane way of killing,” Prejean said. “There’s no control group or anything like that.”

The justices on Wednesday heard an oral argument on Oklahoma’s use of the anti-anxiety drug midazolam, the drug used in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014. Lockett appeared to struggle and moan before he was finally killed. Death penalty opponents argue that a number of other executed inmates, including William Happ, who was executed in Florida in October 2013, exhibited similar reactions to lethal injection cocktails that included midazolam. Three Oklahoma death row inmates are part of the case, Glossip v. Gross, taken up by the Supreme Court on Jan. 28.

Charles Warner, who was executed using midazolam on January 15, was originally one of the defendants in the case. In the Supreme Court’s decision to deny Warner a stay of execution earlier that that day, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the one expert who testified that midazolam works successfully to alleviate pain, Roswell Lee Evans, “cited no studies, but instead appeared to rely primarily on the Web site www.drugs.com.”

Midazolam is currently part of the lethal injection cocktail used in executions in Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma.

For Prejean, Wednesday’s hearing is not just about one drug. This is itself an indictment of the Supreme Court that has not recognized the fundamental abuse of human rights they commit by experimenting with human killing,” she said.

In the 2008 case Baze v. Rees, the justices ruled that the three-drug cocktail then used did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment because it employed a barbiturate that causes “coma-like unconsciousness” and ensures “the prisoner does not experience any pain associated with the paralysis and cardiac arrest caused by” the rest of the drugs.

Prejean believes that determining whether any method of lethal injection is humane is scientifically impossible. “There’s no way for the living to tell whether the executed inmates are suffering,” Prejean said.

Like many death penalty opponents, she argues that lethal injection masks the harsh reality of execution. "We put alcohol on [the person’s] arm first, so it looks like a [medical] procedure," Prejean said.

In March, Utah reinstated death by firing squad as its chosen method of capital punishment after a decade-long shortage of lethal injection drugs. Many pharmaceutical companies do not want their products used in executions, making it more difficult for states to procure the drugs used in lethal injection. Prejean hailed Utah’s decision as a “more transparent” way to kill convicts. 

She also called on states to disclose exactly how they are procuring lethal injection drugs. “We don’t know where they are getting their drugs or if they’re using Drano to kill people,” Prejean said. 

Many death penalty opponents have argued that states are withholding information about the source and cost of their lethal injection drugs. Texas is currently involved in an appeal to overturn a ruling requiring it to disclose the source of its lethal injection drugs. 

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