The Supreme Court seemed to share some other people's second thoughts when it stopped the planned execution this week of a Missouri death row inmate, McClatchy Newspapers reports. By granting a last-ditch plea, justices at a minimum provided Russell Bucklew with another opportunity to argue against lethal injection. His case may be a peculiar one unique to his medical condition. More broadly, the high court's unusual decision marked one of the few times that justices have stayed an execution, and it hinted at the possibility that the court is joining others in intensifying scrutiny of the death penalty.
Twenty-two other death row inmates have asked the Supreme Court to stay their executions since the court's term began last October. The court, while sometimes divided, rejected all requests. Last term, 31 inmates sought Supreme Court stays of execution. None succeeded. In courthouses nationwide, judges and juries are sentencing markedly fewer criminals to death. The 80 death sentences imposed last year were less than half the number imposed in 2002. In 1998, courts imposed 294 death sentences. So far, neither the Supreme Court, the Obama administration nor Congress questions the idea that certain criminals deserve execution. The court ruled in 1976 that the death penalty didn't violate the Eighth Amendment's protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The precedent stands, even for the court's liberals.