The Supreme Court dashed into action Tuesday morning to write up and release an opinion overturning a lower court stay against execution. The ruling came around 2 am and the man, strapped down for hours and hours, was killed in the early morning. His attorney was not notified.
The convict, Daniel Lewis Lee, claimed that single drug execution with pentobarbital sodium was an inhumane violation of the Eighth Amendment rule against cruel and unusual punishment, and asked for a less painful method of execution — firing squad. The Court explained:
The four plaintiffs in this case are all federal prisoners who have been sentenced to death for murdering children. The plaintiffs committed their crimes decades ago and have long exhausted all avenues for direct and collateral review.
Hours before the first execution was set to take place, the District Court preliminarily enjoined all four executions on the ground that the use of pentobarbital likely constitutes cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
The lower court seemed to think there was a valid claim needing review or it would not have issued the stay order, but the unsigned opinion by an anonymous Republican Justice disagreed:
Vacatur of that injunction is appropriate because, among other reasons, the plaintiffs have not established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their Eighth Amendment claim. That claim faces an exceedingly high bar. “This Court has yet to hold that a State’s method of execution qualifies as cruel and unusual.” Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S., (2019) (slip op., at 12).
The Bucklew case was another recent 5-4 opinion concerning execution pain. In that case, author Neil Gorsuch writing and speaking for all the Republicans decided that the Eighth Amendment “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”
In the Daniel Lee case, even though the crime took place “decades ago,” and even though some family of the victims did not want Daniel Lee killed — suddenly the execution became an emergency. Lee spent his last few hours strapped down, ultimately taking the injection and dying in the early morning hours.
The rest of the people on death row also had their appeals dismissed as the Supreme Court prepares a line of executions to take place all summer long.
Imagine if the Supreme Court could move so swiftly in cases where, say, basic separation of powers or an impeachment inquiry were in process and the Court had to determine if the president was entirely above the law. But those things aren’t nearly as important as killing people who have been on death row for decades. These convicts must die now. Basic workings of governance can wait until someday in the future.
Daniel Lee was Tuesday. Today is Thursday and they did it again, 5-4. basically the same procedure went down — a convict challenged his execution, the lower court stopped the execution temporarily to consider the claim, an appeal was made to the Supreme Court, and the Court jumped in to continue its execution spree — this time without commenting on the case.
But Sonia Sotomayor, speaking for the four Democrats, described the convict:
In a matter of hours, the Government plans to put to death Wesley Purkey, a 68-year-old federal inmate who has Alzheimer’s disease and, according to a recent in-person evaluation by a forensic psychiatrist, “lack[s] a rational understanding of the basis for his execution.” (Citations omitted.)
These are the kinds of people who need to be killed immediately — people who don’t want to die a painful death and those whose mental capacities are gone. It is amazing how long it takes until things move so fast. This is likely a function of recent changes on the Supreme Court.