I am convinced that lethal injection is not a good way to execute people. In part, this is because I am also persuaded that, as petitioners have of late unsuccessfully pled the Court, as far as capitally convicted criminals are concerned,
lethal injection would be a cruel way to kill them, and therefore prohibited under the Eighth amendment to the Constitution. A healthy majority of 7-2 sided against the inmates. And on a Court that thinks pumping a man full of toxic chemicals is not likely to cause a "'substantial' or 'objectively intolerable' risk of serious harm," Kennedy could not expect a great deal of compassion.
Thank you Graeme Wood for this summary. The issue here of course is the question of cruelty. Graeme is right that the Court, or most of it, is unmoved by the tales of inmates whose executions by lethal injection are better described as executions by excruciatingly painful, sometimes horrifying, and usually lethal injection. This is troubling to me because lethal injection is not just, from significant time to time, an extremely hurtful way to kill someone, but is needlessly so, and at needless expense to boot.
To leave the varnish off the matter, one bullet fired once into the head is far cheaper and more painless.
But then we are reminded that execution-style executions fell out of favor on account of their purported cruelty and unusualness. Which brings us to the other Court case Graeme mentions:
Jeffrey Fisher, the rapist's counsel, had few options. He brought up changing attitudes toward capital punishment -- more Americans cringe now at the thought of executing murderers than they once did -- but faced an immediate challenge from Roberts, who pointed out that more states have adopted capital punishment for child rape. "Have you heard the expression 'hoist by your own petard'?" asked Antonin Scalia.
Ho ho! I presume counsel responded, "No, your Honor." Some may be offended by how flip Scalia can be; others no doubt are far more offended by the child rapist's flippant attitude not only, apparently, to social norms regarding whom and whom not one should especially not rape (prepubescent family members) but also norms concerning good and bad excuses for not coming in to work. A third group may be offended on both counts. The main point is that trying to pin the practice of capital punishment on evolving standards of cruelty is likely to produce, more reliably than we should want, absurd outcomes in either direction or even both.
"We're becoming more cruel" seems, whatever you think about cruelty per se, a terribly stupid ground upon which to decide a Supreme Court case -- because it exonerates both capital punishment for crimes other than murder and lethal injection. Clearly cruelty is not the issue; queasiness over killing is. There is something grisly and grave about putting a bullet through the head of a criminal. But is it more or less grotesque than playing the worst possible form of Russian roulette with a precise yet clumsy three-stage death cocktail? Indeed, which situation embodies more cruelty -- one in which a brutal child rapist is given a slow, sloppy death, or one in which a murderer who shoots someone dead is shot dead in turn?