Supreme Court Justice Calls Death Penalty Drug “Equiva­lent of Being Burned at the Stake”

Jeff Chiu/Pool/Prensa Internacional/ZUMA

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the use of the drug midazolam for lethal injections in a 5–4 decision that pitted the five conservative justices against the four liberal ones. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote her own dissent, argued that the use of the drug, which prolongs the execution process and sometimes doesn’t work at all, was in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Then she went a step further, comparing the drug to a more notorious form of punishment—the burning of heretics at the stake:

[T]he Court today turns aside petitioners’ plea that they at least be allowed a stay of execution while they seek to prove midazolam’s inadequacy. The Court achieves this result in two ways: first, by deferring to the District Court’s decision to credit the scientifically unsup­ported and implausible testimony of a single expert wit­ness; and second, by faulting petitioners for failing to satisfy the wholly novel requirement of proving the avail­ability of an alternative means for their own executions. On both counts the Court errs. As a result, it leaves peti­tioners exposed to what may well be the chemical equiva­lent of being burned at the stake.

Later in her dissent, Sotomayor added a few more comparisons for good measure. “Under the Court’s new rule, it would not matter whether the State intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a separate dissent, went a step further, arguing that the death penalty itself might be unconstitutional.

MOTHER JONES NEEDS YOUR HELP

We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

MOTHER JONES NEEDS YOUR HELP

We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate