Supreme Court Rules Using Drug in Botched Executions Is Constitutional

The execution chamber at the Arizona State Prison Complex is shown on March 4. Arizona Department of Corrections/Handout/Reuters

Updated | The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the use of the sedative midazolam is constitutional when administering the death penalty, thus giving the OK to use the drug in future executions.

In the 5-4 decision, the justices argued that the inmates who challenged the legality of the drug did not prove that midazolam was cruel and unusual when compared to known and available alternatives, according to the majority opinion. A group of inmates behind the challenge had suggested that Oklahoma could execute prisoners using two other drugs, sodium thiopental or pentobarbital.

"Petitioners have failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the use of midazolam violates the Eighth Amendment," the justices wrote in the majority decision, delivered by Justice Samuel Alito. "To succeed on an Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claim, a prisoner must establish that the method creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain and that the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives."

The lawsuit in Glossip v. Gross​ was brought by a group of death-row inmates in Oklahoma. The plaintiffs argued that the use of midazolam violates an inmate's Eighth Amendment right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.

The controversial sedative was used recently in problematic executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma. Executions in both Arizona and Oklahoma had been on hold while the court made its decision. The question brought before the justices was whether midazolam masks the pain of other drugs or if it causes suffering during executions.

Joining Alito in the majority opinion were Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elana Kagan dissented.

The court's decision came after several high-profile botched executions faced intense public scrutiny around the country, and questions were raised about new drug cocktails used in lethal injections. Midazolam was used in the April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, who reportedly shook uncontrollably and gritted his teeth after officials injected him with the drug. He ultimately died from a heart attack. The same drug later was administered during executions in Arizona last July and in Ohio in January. In both instances, prisoners again showed visible signs of pain before dying.

In January, the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for Oklahoma death row inmates until the justices ruled on the challenge involving midazolam. Their decision to hear the case marked the first time since 2008 that the high court agreed to decide on a challenge to the legality of lethal injection.

The United States is one of 40 countries in the world that allows capital punishment. The country last year saw the lowest numbers of executions in two decades, as 35 people were executed nationwide, down from 39 who were executed in 2013, according to a report released in December by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Shortly after the court issued its decision on Monday, critics of the death penalty vowed to continue fighting the process. One group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, referred to executions as a "costly, unchecked government power that is shrouded in secrecy."

The Supreme Court ended its term on Monday with two other decisions on the environment and election districts. The justices will reconvene in October.

Supreme Court decision on using execution drug midazolam