WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case challenging the sedative used in a lethal-injection cocktail that has led to several botched executions in Oklahoma.
The argument quickly turned heated. The justices clashed with one another and fired hostile questions at the lawyers.
"Nothing you say or read to me I am going to believe ... until I see it with my own eyes," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor to an Oklahoma lawyer defending lethal injection.
The case focuses on a narrow issue: Whether one of the three drugs sometimes used for lethal injections -- a sedative -- is effective in preventing severe pain and suffering, or whether states must find a different drug.
But the arguments laid bare deep divisions on the Supreme Court over broader questions about the death penalty. Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan were most forceful in opposition, with both repeatedly asserting lethal injection was like being "burned alive" with chemicals.
Conservatives -- pointing to different medical studies and several lower court rulings -- strongly disputed that. They suggested the arguments were a back-door way of dismantling the death penalty.
"Let's be honest about what's going on here," said Justice Samuel Alito. "Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty, which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?"
Thirty-two states have the death penalty, but it is increasingly difficult to carry out. Justice Antonin Scalia said that's because of the "abolitionist movement putting pressure on the companies that manufacture" drugs to stop making them available for executions.
In this case the drug companies stopped providing two other sedatives, forcing Oklahoma to find an alternative, or like Utah, turn to another method and bring back the firing squad.