Facts of the Case
Prisoners sentenced to death in the State of Oklahoma filed an action in federal court under Rev. Stat. §1979,, contending that the method of execution now used by the State violates thebecause it creates an unacceptable risk of severe pain. They argue that midazolam, the first drug employed in the State’s current three-drug protocol, fails to render a person insensate to pain. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied four prisoners’ application for a preliminary injunction, finding that they had failed to prove that midazolam is ineffective. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed and accepted the District Court’s finding of fact regarding midazolam’s efficacy.
“No. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. delivered the opinion of the 5-4 majority. The Court held that there was insufficient evidence that the use of midazolam as the initial drug in the execution protocol entailed a substantial risk of severe pain, compared to known and available alternatives, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Because capital punishment has been held to be constitutional and some risk of pain is inherent in execution, the Eighth Amendment does not require that a constitutional method of execution be free of any risk of pain. Instead, a successful Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claim must identify a reasonable alternative that presents a significantly lower risk of pain, which the petitioners in this case were unable to do. Because the district court is entitled to a high degree of deference in its determination, the petitioners would have to prove that the district court’s factual findings were clearly erroneous in order for the Court to overturn the ruling. In this case, the medical testimony supports the district court’s determination that the use of midazolam did not create a substantial risk of severe pain, particularly in light of the safeguards the state imposed on the process.In his concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the Constitution expressly contemplates the death penalty when it considers the possibility that someone may be “deprived of life,” and therefore capital punishment cannot be unconstitutional. The arguments that it is arbitrary and unreliable, and therefore cruel, deal with the concerns about conviction, not the punishment itself, and are dangers inherent in the jury trial process. The decision of whether to impose the death penalty encompasses the type of moral calculus that should remain in the hands of the jury, as the Constitution provides. Justice Clarence Thomas joined in the concurrence. Justice Thomas also wrote a separate concurrence in which he argued that the studies cited in support of the arbitrariness of the imposition of the death penalty are themselves unreliable because they require that the moral reasons to execute someone be reduced to a metric by academics who were not present at trial. Justice Scalia joined in the concurring opinion.Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a dissent in which he argued that the constitutionality of a punishment must be evaluated based on currently prevailing social and legal standards