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.
‘‘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.
The argument against the three-drug protocol is that if the initial anesthetic does not take hold, the other two drugs can cause excruciating pain. One of those drugs, a paralytic, would render the prisoner unable to express his discomfort.
The case before the court came from Kentucky, where two death row inmates did not ask to be spared execution or death by injection. Instead, they wanted the court to order a switch to a single drug, a barbiturate, that causes no pain and can be given in a large enough dose to cause death.
There are two notable reasons that states use the current 3-drug cocktail: The paralytic is given so that there are no movements by the prisoner during the process, which would be unpleasant to watch and could stir controversy over whether the prisoner was experiencing pain. The cocktail is favored over a single barbiturate because the latter is the method used to euthanize animals, and there is public discomfort with the idea of putting humans to death in the same way as animals.