After conflicting lower court rulings on whether lethal injection for executions is painless, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the method violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Houston Chronicle reports. Texas, which leads the nation in the frequency of executions, put Michael Richard to death last night by injection for a 1986 killing. It was not clear whether other executions will be suspended while the Supreme Court considers the case. The high court, which has outlawed executions for the mentally retarded and juveniles and has made it easier to fight lethal injection in court, will resolve the broader injection question using the case of two Kentucky inmates who claim the method inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering.
It is the first time the high court has addressed the constitutionality of a method of execution since it upheld the firing squad in 1879. Texas, where lethal injection is the only capital punishment method used, has 370 inmates awaiting execution. Jordan Steiker, who co-directs the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas School of Law, said an early barometer of the high court’s leanings could be whether the justices begin halting executions pending the outcome of the Kentucky case. Five of the nine justices must agree to stop an execution. “The court is probably weary of having each state and each federal court entering its judgments” on lethal injection, he said. “This is an effort by the court to answer the question once and for all.”