High Court to Decide if Lethal Injection is 'Cruel and Unusual'

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to examine whether lethal injection violates the Eight Amendment, which bans "cruel and unusual punishment."

The nation's highest court took up the challenge earlier this past week after two Death Row inmates – Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling – in Kentucky filed the appeal, claiming the state's procedure of lethal injection could cause excruciating pain.

Several states that use lethal injection as the method for capital punishment have issued moratoriums, halting scheduled executions while the case is under review by the Supreme Court. Texas made it clear Friday that it would proceed with more executions despite the high court's announcement Tuesday.

In a 2005 trial, a state judge ruled against Baze and Bowling after hearing testimony from medical experts and other witnesses. The lower state court was backed last November by the Kentucky Supreme Court, which said the Constitution "does not require a complete absence of pain."

Lethal injection is administered through a three-drug process in most of the 38 states that practice the execution method, according to the Associated Press. The first injection of sodium pentothal serves as an anesthetic and is supposed to render the inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. Pancuronium bromide is given next to paralyze the inmate's muscles, thereby interrupting the breathing process. Lastly, potassium chloride is delivered to stop the heart.

Opponents of capital punishment have argued that if the anesthetic is not properly administered to the inmate, he can suffer excruciating pain without being able to cry out.

The heart of the issue in the Kentucky case is not whether the method of lethal injection should be used in executions but whether the risk of "substantial risk of wanton and unnecessary pain" substantiates a revision of three-drug formula.

"All of the current lethal injection chemicals could be replaced with other chemicals that would pose less risk of pain," stated the petition filed by Baze and Bowling's attorneys.

While Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) said the mere risk of suffering is not enough grounds to back a new formula, said, he agreed the procedure should not "inflict pain unnecessarily."

"Surely there is a chemical which, administered in a large enough dosage, will stop the heart without a possibility for the person to experience pain," said Duke, according to the Baptist Press.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not accepted a challenge to a method of execution since 1879. Lethal injection was first conceived in Oklahoma by the state medical examiner as a more humane method than the electric chair.

Legal groups and law experts say the ruling for the Kentucky case will also shed light on legal issues surrounding methods of execution in the country.

"The lack of Eighth Amendment guidance has unraveled the death penalty in this country," Fordham Law Professor Deborah Denno told The San Francisco Chronicle.

Both Baze and Bowling are convicted of double homicides. Baze shot a sheriff and his deputy who were serving warrants on him. Bowling killed a married couple outside their dry-cleaning store.

The Kentucky case is schedule to be heard by the Supreme Court in January, with ruling due by June.