States may continue using a popular but controversial drug in lethal injection executions, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a 5-4 decision.
In Glossip et al. v. Gross et al., the question was whether or not to allow states to use midazolam, a drug used to render inmates unconscious before executing them. The April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma helped bring the topic to public attention. In that case, high doses of midazolam failed to sedate Lockett sufficiently, and he yelled in pain while the other execution drugs were administered. In today's case inmates in Oklahoma filed a petition with the court, saying the use of midazolam violates the eighth amendment to the Constitution, which protects against the use of cruel and unusual punishment.
Today, lethal injection is by far the most popular method of execution in US states, with all 31 states that authorize the death penalty using it, and many of those states have been using midazolam, as NPR's Nina Totenberg reported in April.
The case wasn't just closely watched because it was about the contentious issue of capital punishment; it's also because states have had an increasingly difficult time getting a hold of lethal injection drugs in recent years. A drug called sodium thiopental had been used to put prisoners into a coma pre-execution in recent years, until a shortage hit when some companies stopped producing the drug, for fear it would be used in executions. The resulting shortage helped lead states to increasingly rely on midazolam. Without midazolam and with supplies of sodium thiopental still short, states might have been forced to rely on other methods of execution. Several states have other forms of execution on the books — Utah, for example, reauthorized the use of firing squads earlier this year due to the shortage of injection drugs. And New Hampshire allows hanging in cases when the state can't perform lethal injection.