Sonia Sotomayor
US SC Justice Sonia SotomayorReuters

The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear a death row inmate's challenge to Alabama's execution method: death by lethal injection. The SC's refusal prompted the liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor to denounce the top court's decision, stating that lethal injections amount to unconstitutional cruelty.

The death row inmate in Alabama, Thomas Arthur, had filed an appeal against the use of lethal injection as a method for his execution and had suggested an alternative method of facing the firing squad. Arthur had filed appeal owing to his heart condition, which when combined with the drug components of the lethal injection, namely midazolam, would induce a "painful heart attack" while he remained conscious. His claim was testified by a doctor. 

Also read: Pfizer bars its drug from being used in executions

The Supreme Court had upheld the drug's use in 2015's Glossip v. Gross, and had said that those inmates who objected to the methods must prove the drug would cause severe pain and propose another means of execution, which Arthur did.

In response to the court's denial of hearing Arthur's appeal, Justice Sotomayor wrote an 18-page dissent, along with Justice Stephen Breyer, for the court's liberals in Glossip,saying that the lethal injection "may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet" in the search for a humane manner to carry out the death penalty.

"After 34 years of legal challenges, Arthur has accepted that he will die for his crimes. He now challenges only how the state will be permitted to kill him," Sotomayor wrote.

Botched executions by lethal injection

Several cases have been reported over the years in which the death row inmates have faced botched executions because of the lethal injection. The Supreme Court, in 2008, had held that a lethal injection protocol involving sodium thiopental, a barbiturate that rendered the prisoner unconscious, did not violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments." However, the following year, the only American manufacturer of the drug suspended its domestic production. The country then switched to  a similar barbiturate, pentobarbital, but that drug became unavailable in 2013. The shift was then made to using midazolam as the first drug in the protocol, designed to render the inmate unconscious before the second and third drugs paralyse them and stop their heart, Slate reported.

However, midazolam does not work as it is intended to in inducing consistent unconsciousness. The drug does provide some anesthetic effect but doesn't always maintain unconsciousness. Various inmates have woken up during their executions  because the drug stopped working, making them subject to intense pain as other drugs worked to stop their heart.

Although the majority of the Supreme Court considers execution by lethal injection constitutional, a few people like Sotomayor have spoken against the use of the execution method.

Sotomayor in her dissenting opinion asserted that that the drug midazolam might only mask pain of the inmates but it doesn't relieve it. The top court in the past has said that needless suffering during executions is unconstitutional.

Justice Sotomayor in her opinion piece wrote that the 11th Circuit decision gives states a road map to come up with the execution practices in accordance with the "evolving standards of decency" that guide Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. "These evolving standards have yielded a familiar cycle."

"States develop a method of execution, which is generally accepted for a time. Science then reveals that—unknown to the previous generation—the States' chosen method of execution causes unconstitutional levels of suffering. A new method of execution is devised, and the dialogue continues. The Eighth Amendment requires this conversation. States should not be permitted to silence it by statute," Sotomayor wrote.