Eighth Amendment

Echoing his 2015 dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, where the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection protocol, Justice Breyer asked the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of capital punishment in his concurring opinion in Dunn v. Madison.

Vernon Madison was sentenced to the death for the 1985 murder of a police officer. In 2016 he argued he was no longer competent to be executed due to a series of strokes. His psychologist and the state’s psychologist agree that Madison understands that he is being executed in retribution for murder. But he doesn’t remember killing anyone.

In an 8-1 decision in Kansas v. Carr, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling overturning a jury’s death sentence for the Carr brothers and Sidney Gleason in an unrelated murder. Reginald and Jonathan Carr were convicted of killing four people in the “Wichita Massacre”; one intended victim survived because her hair clip deflected the bullet.  

The...

Like many cases involving the death penalty, Williams v. Pennsylvania is a long story.

Terrance Williams was sentenced to death for killing Amos Norwood during a 1984 robbery in Philadelphia when Williams was eighteen. Williams claimed at trial he did not know Norwood, who was fifty-six.

In 2012 Williams’ co-conspirator Marc Draper revealed, among other things, that the prosecutor urged him to falsely testify that the motive for the murder was robbery, not that Norwood had sexually abused Williams, and the prosecutor wrote an undisclosed letter to the parole board on behalf of Draper. A hearing revealed the prosecutor failed to disclose extensive evidence of Norwood’s homosexual ephebophilia (attraction to teenagers).

In Glossip v. Gross the Supreme Court held 5-4 that death row inmates are unlikely to succeed on their claim that using midazolam as a lethal injection drug amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

All death penalty states and the federal government use lethal injection. In Baze v. Rees (2008) the Court approved a three-drug protocol that begins with a sedative, sodium thiopental, followed by a paralytic agent and a drug that causes cardiac arrest. Anti-death penalty advocates have persuaded United States and foreign manufacturers to stop producing sodium thiopental and an alternative, pentobarbital. So, Oklahoma and other states began using midazolam. Oklahoma increased the dose from 100 milligrams to 500 milligrams after Clayton Lockett was moving and talking after being administered 100 milligrams of midazolam. (An investigation into Lockett’s execution concluded that problems establishing IV access was the “single greatest factor that contributed to the difficulty in administering the execution drugs.”)

Taylor v. Barkes could have been a significant qualified immunity case. Prison officials asked the Supreme Court to resolve a circuit split over whether supervisors can be liable for constitutional violations caused by their failure to supervise. The Court “expess[ed] no view” on the vitality of supervisory liability instead concluding no clearly established constitutional right was implicated in this case.  

In a per curiam (unauthored) opinion the Court granted two prison officials qualified immunity related to an inmate’s suicide reasoning that no precedent at the time of the suicide established that an incarcerated person had a right to proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols. So prison officials could not be liable for failing to supervise the contractor providing suicide screening.

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