Gay marriage and Obamacare were not the only controversial issues resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Also decided was how humanely some states — including Florida — kill Death Row inmates.
Widely publicized botched executions by lethal injection prompted three Oklahoma inmates to file a lawsuit. In Glossip v. Gross, the justices were asked to decide if the lack of effectiveness of midazolam, the first of a fatal three-drug cocktail given to render prisoners unconscious, made the executions “cruel and unusual punishment,” as the inmates charged.
In February, Florida, where about 400 inmates are on Death Row, put executions on hold in anticipation of the court’s decision.
But in Monday’s 5-4 ruling, the justices said there is no evidence that the drugs used in Florida and other states violate the Constitution: Executions are expected to be reinstated in Florida, returning a hotly debated issue to the forefront in a state that is a leader in killing Death Row inmates and, disturbingly, the number of Death Row inmates ultimately exonerated. That’s a dangerous mix.
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The court ruling also gave states an opening to find alternative drugs to use in executions. Florida should take this opportunity seriously. But right now, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has already asked the Florida Supreme Court to clear the way for the execution of convicted Orlando quadruple-murderer Jerry Correll, who would be the 22nd person put to death since Gov. Rick Scott became governor in 2011, and it looks like midazolam will be the drug used, despite its spotty history.
The governor’s office told the Editorial Board: “Our office respects the court’s decision and will continue to follow the law. The governor’s foremost concern is for the victims of these heinous crimes and their families,” said John Tupps, deputy communications director.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said that it was disappointed with the court ruling, saying it will “continue to expose condemned prisoners to an unacceptable risk of significant pain and suffering. This decision cannot be reconciled with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.” The NAACP’s stand echoed that of Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Florida’s time in the death-penalty spotlight is not over. A death-penalty case in the state is scheduled to be taken up by the high court during its next term. The justices could declare unconstitutional the process Florida uses to sentence people to death. Timothy Hurst was convicted of murdering a coworker at a restaurant in 1998 in Escambia County. By a 7-5 vote, his jury sentenced him to death, but didn’t agree unanimously on either of the aggravating factors that led them to consider putting him to death.
For now, Correll’s execution is likely next. For Florida, executions gone wrong are nothing new. Flames shot out of Jesse Tafero’s head at his 1990 execution in the electric chair, Old Sparky. In 1997, the same thing happened to Pedro Medina. And in 1999, Allen Lee Davis died bloodied due to a chin strap placed incorrectly.
In 2013, the Florida Bar recommended a comprehensive review of the way the state kills inmates — from the point of arrest to examining who ends up on Death Row. The solid recommendation fell on deaf ears then. Given all that has gone awry, from how justice is meted out to the executions themselves, state leaders should do the responsible thing and reconsider.