US Bishops Appeal to the Supreme Court to Abolish the Death Penalty

by Lily Bessette


The Supreme Court is reexamining the protocols of the death penalty. Several U.S. bishops are welcoming this reexamination and calling for the abolition of the death penalty.


Glossip v. Gross, which is demanding a second look at the practice of capital punishment on the part of the Federal government, was brought forth by three Oklahoma death row inmates, Richard Glossip, John Grant, and Benjamin Cole.

One of the motivating factors for this move was the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April 2014. Lockett’s execution took over 40 minutes. Although he was sedated, his body jerked and his breathing was noticeably heavy. Ultimately, the cause of death was from cardiac arrest.


The sedative used in this execution, as part of the protocol, was Midazolam. The Oklahoma executions’ protocol consists of a “cocktail” of three drugs. The inmates’ lawsuit calls for rejection of this three drug protocol, arguing that the this protocol violates constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment since extreme pain is one of the likely, or at least possible, side effects of the procedure. Extreme pain is apparent in Lockett’s botched execution. Whether or not Midazolam is sufficiently powerful as a sedative for the inmate to experience reduced pain when the other two chemicals that induce death are administered is still disputed.


During the execution, one of Lockett’s veins failed. Some reports claim that this prevented the lethal drugs from working as intended. Other reports claim that officials did not deliver the intravenous drug properly.


In January 2014, the execution of Ohio death row inmate Dennis McGuire, which also involved Midazolam, was also botched, which brought another reason to review the use of lethal injection in the US. McGuire visibly struggled for about ten minutes before he was ultimately pronounced dead. All in all, his execution took over 26 minutes, the longest in the history of the State of Ohio.


The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice Chair, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, said recent executions have shown “how the use of the death penalty devalues human life and diminishes respect for human dignity.”


Due to events in Lockett’s execution, the Oklahoma governor, Mary Fallin, issued a temporary stay of the execution of Charles Warner, who was one of the original plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. The stay of execution was, however, overturned by the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote. Warner had been convicted of the rape and murder of a minor and was executed in mid-January. SCOTUS also rejected the appeal to stay Warren Hill’s, a Georgia death row inmate, January 27 execution, which was brought on grounds of intellectual disability.


On January 28, the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to the three remaining inmates who are plaintiffs in the case. The decision ordered a stay of execution for all petitioning inmates whose execution involves use of Midazolam pending the final decision on the part of SCOTUS.


Catholic leaders have criticized the continued use of the capital punishment. Cardinal Archbishop O’Malley of Boston said that society can protect itself “in ways other than the use of the death penalty.”  In the same spirit, Wenski continued, “We bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”


Dale Baich, the inmates’ attorney, has characterized Oklahoma’s new drug protocols as “novel and experimental.”


Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, has defended the use of lethal injection in Oklahoma. He contends that two federal courts have affirmed the constitutionality of the lethal injection. The ability  “to proceed with the sentences that were given to each inmate by a jury of their peers,” said Pruitt, “depends on defending the constitutionality of the execution procedure.”


The case will likely be heard by April 2015, which will call into question the legality of lethal injection, but which may end up with a federal ban for capital punishment in general. In states that use lethal injection, the ability to obtain the necessary drugs has been increasingly difficult due to manufacturers’ refusal to sell them for the explicit purpose of execution.


Overall, 18 states have abolished capital punishment. The USCCB is working with the Catholic Mobilizing Network, to abolish the U.S. death penalty “in all forms” like Pope Francis called for in October 2014. The Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty was launched by the bishops in 2005.

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