High Court Upholds Lethal Injections

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the most common method of lethal injection executions, likely clearing the way to resume executions that have been on hold for nearly 7 months.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, turned back a constitutional challenge to the procedures in place in Kentucky, which uses three drugs to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates. Similar methods are used by roughly three dozen states.

In Oklahoma, one of the states to use the three-drug procedure, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson acted to halt executions in October pending U.S. Supreme Court action in the Kentucky Case.

The ruling has big consequences nationwide, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews. First off, the 36 states in the federal government that use lethal injections have essentially made lethal injection the only form of executions commonly used now in the United States. For the last several months, while it reviews this lethal injection challenge, the justices have been issuing stay after stay of execution in states around America, in effect putting in a moratorium on capital punishment itself.

Andrews notes that by saying that lethal injection is not cruel and unusual punishment, it does two things:

  • It lifts that de facto moratorium that the states were recognizing while the justices reviewed this.
  • And it states flatly that lethal injections can go forward from now on, because the people who have been challenging lethal injections have not proved, according to the chief justice and the six other justices that voted with him, that lethal injections are cruel and unusual.
The immediate effect of Edmondson's action was to delay the execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Terry Lyn Short, who lost his final appeal was waiting to have his execution date set.

"We ... agree that petitioners have not carried their burden of showing that the risk of pain from maladministration of a concededly humane lethal injection protocol, and the failure to adopt untried and untested alternatives, constitute cruel and unusual punishment," Chief Justice John Roberts said in an opinion that garnered only three votes. Four other justices, however, agreed with the outcome.

Roberts' opinion did leave open subsequent challenges to lethal injection practices if a state refused to adopt an alternative method that significantly reduced the risk of severe pain.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.