The lethal injection landscape has been fraught with issues since 2011, when Hospira, the only American manufacturer of a key lethal injection drug, stopped its production in the midst of an international campaign by capital punishment opponents. The company's decision set off a scramble to find another supplier and ultimately another drug, reported ProPublica.
In late 2013, Florida became the first state to execute an individual using midazolam, but it wasn't until April 2014 that concerns about midazolam became widespread. That month, Oklahoma botched the execution of prisoner Clayton Lockett. Despite receiving an injection of midazolam, Lockett groaned and writhed on the gurney for about 40 minutes until his death, witnesses reported.
"I think the Supreme Court would prefer not to have to get involved in the details of executions, but felt compelled to because of what happened last year," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Something went really wrong, and somebody's got to monitor this thing or states will keep repeating it."
The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case of a group of Oklahoma prisoners in April and make a final ruling by July. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, midazolam was used for at least 11 of 35 executions in 2014.
It's possible that midazolam would no longer be used. Other drugs might take its place or Oklahoma might decide to use a single-drug protocol in place of the current three-drug cocktail.
"I don't think that the death penalty is going anywhere," said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
Even if the court limits the use of lethal injection and states continue to face difficulty getting approved drugs, there are other methods that prisons could employ. Virginia lawmakers have already discussed bringing back the electric chair when the approved drugs are not readily available. Wyoming lawmakers have proposed allowing firing squads.
Death penalty experts doubt that such methods would become the primary protocol for execution. "States changed from hanging to electric chair because it was a modern, supposedly painless method of execution," said Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. "There has been a continuous attempt to make executions appear more palatable, humane, and modern."
The rate of executions across the United States has decreased markedly over the past decade. Ten years ago 60 inmates were executed. In 2014, there were 35. Among the 32 states that allow the death penalty, only seven had executions in the past year.
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