capital punishment

In Bucklew v. Precythe the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Missouri wasn’t required to execute Russell Bucklew using a drug he claimed would cause him less pain due to his unusual medical condition, cavernous hemangioma.

Bucklew was sentenced to death for killing a neighbor who was sheltering his former girlfriend and her children after she broke up with Bucklew. Cavernous hemangioma causes tumors to grow in Bucklew’s head, neck, and throat. He claims that the sedative Missouri intends to use in its lethal injection protocol will cause him feelings of suffocation and excoriating pain due to his disease for a longer amount of time than the alternative drug he suggests. He claims Missouri’s protocol is unconstitutional as applied to him. 

The Eighth Amendment disallows “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Supreme Court held in Glossip v. Gross (2015) that a state’s refusal to alter its lethal injection protocol may violate the Eighth Amendment if an inmate identifies a “feasible, readily implemented” alternative procedure that would “significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.”

In a 5-3 decision in a capital case the Supreme Court rejected a Texas court’s reliance on a 1992 definition of intellectual disability and the use of a number of factors as indicators of intellectual disability which the Court described an “invention…untied to any acknowledged source.”

In Atkins v. Virginia (1992) the Supreme Court held that executing the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court tasked states with implementing Atkins.

Generally, to be intellectually disabled for purposes of the death penalty a person must have an IQ of 70 or less (adjusted plus or minus five for the standard error of measurement) and “adaptive deficiencies” (an inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances) onset as a minor.

In Ake v. Oklahoma (1985) the Supreme Court held that if a criminal defendant’s mental health will be a significant factor at trial the state must ensure that the defendant has access to a “competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.”

The question the Supreme Court will decide in McWilliams v. Dunn is whether such an expert must be independent of the prosecution.

In a three-page per curiam (unauthored) opinion in Bosse v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court reversed the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision to allow victims’ relatives to recommend to the jury that they sentence a defendant to death. Shaun Michael Bosse killed Katrina Griffin and her two children.

In Booth v. Maryland (1987) the Supreme Court held that during sentencing capital juries could only hear victim impact evidence that relates directly to the circumstances of the crime. Four years later in Payne v. Tennessee the Court changed course holding that capital juries could hear evidence relating to the personal characteristics of the victim and the emotional impact of the crime on the victim’s family.

Since the Supreme Court’s term began in early October it has agreed to hear 15 cases—13 at its “long” conference before the term began and two subsequently. Many will have an impact on the states. And a number will only impact specific states (and a territory!).