Your Lethal Injection Case Crib Notes

The Supreme Court this morning hears oral arguments in Baze v. Rees, which challenges Kentucky's lethal injection procedures -- and, by extension, similar protocols for the death penalty in 35 other states. I'll be at the court and will report back on what promises to be a lively review of the twists and turns that have marked the debate over lethal injection since it became the favored means of capital punishment. But here's a preview of what the court's likely to hear.

Attorneys for Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling, two convicted murderers, will tell the justices that animals put to sleep in Kentucky are more closely monitored than the death-row inmates who receive the commonwealth's lethal triple cocktail. Lawyers for Kentucky will counter by saying the only lethal injection performed in the state, in 1999, went off fairly smoothly.

Lawyers for Baze and Bowling will tell the court that "inadequate facilities" and "untrained personnel" create a significant risk that the cocktail will cause "cruel and unusual" pain before an inmate dies. Kentucky will say that the Constitution does not prohibit any and all pain or punishment and that an execution is an inherently painful act.

The defense attorneys will ask the justices to consider alternative procedures that would allow lethal injections to continue in a more humane manner. Kentucky will say that it, and not the judiciary, has the expertise to determine which chemicals ought to be administered, and when, and in what order, and by whom.

The defense will remind the court of recent botched injections in various states. Indeed, those grotesque examples -- like the case of Angel Nieves Diaz, who died after a 34-minute procedure in which Florida prison officials injected the deadly drugs into his soft tissue rather than his veins -- may have influenced the justices' decision to hear this challenge.

Kentucky's lawyers, meanwhile, will want to make sure the justices know that these risks are constitutionally insignificant and that their state's courts have already declared their protocols (new and improved, apparently) to be good to go. Stay out of our business, Kentucky will argue, because we've already fixed the problems ourselves.

That's it in a nutshell. I'll be paying particular attention to Justice Antonin Scalia, who I'm sure has been practicing his scoffing, and to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who will probably cast the deciding vote.

By Andrew Cohen |  January 7, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Previous: Court to Hear Child-Rape Death-Penalty Challenge | Next: Uncomfortable Life-or-Death Moments for the Justices

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Anyone who's ever undergone surgery knows that general anesthesia is essentially painless, and no conscious pain whatsoever is felt during even massive invasion of the body afterwards.
Surely, the same techniques used to transplant hearts can be used to quickly and painlessly end life. It seems the only objection to doing so is our cultural legacy of making a "ceremony" out of execution.

Posted by: Judgito | January 7, 2008 11:25 AM

It's my understanding that anesthesia is the first of the three injections ivolved in the execution process, the second stopping breathing and the third stopping the heart (if I remember correctly). In several cases the application of this has been botched, resulting in extreme pain for the inmate in question.

Posted by: strawbs | January 7, 2008 01:37 PM

The amount of the first drug delivered in the execution protocol - sodium thiopental, is ten times the dosage that would be used in surgery. The inmate is in effect, knocked into deep unconsciousness from the dosage and does not feel a thing that comes afterwards.

I can say this from past first hand observation in Virginia's death chamber.

Posted by: vuac | January 7, 2008 07:24 PM

The amount of the first drug delivered in the execution protocol - sodium thiopental, is ten times the dosage that would be used in surgery. The inmate is in effect, knocked into deep unconsciousness from the dosage and does not feel a thing that comes afterwards.

I can say this from past first hand observation in Virginia's death chamber.

Posted by: vuac | January 7, 2008 07:24 PM

The amount of the first drug delivered in the execution protocol - sodium thiopental, is ten times the dosage that would be used in surgery. The inmate is in effect, knocked into deep unconsciousness from the dosage and does not feel a thing that comes afterwards.

I can say this from past first hand observation in Virginia's death chamber.

Posted by: vuac | January 7, 2008 07:25 PM

I'm just waiting for some lawyer to claim that the waiting for execution is in itself cruel and unusual for the inmate.

Posted by: Jimof1913 | January 11, 2008 11:22 PM

Oh no, oh nooooooo,

This column truly gave us insight from a judicial perspective. He was the Paul Krugman of the Washington Post. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Who will take his place? . . His words were so important.

Posted by: coldcomfort | April 5, 2008 03:31 PM

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