By approving the most widely used method of lethal injection, a fractious US Supreme Court has cleared the way for states to end the longest pause in executions in a quarter-century.
Almost immediately, Virginia lifted its moratorium on the death penalty. Mississippi and Oklahoma said they would seek execution dates for convicted murderers, and other states were ready to follow.
A halt of almost seven months in executions was brought on by the court’s decision to review Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures, which are similar to those in roughly three dozen states. The break is the longest since a 17-month period ending in August 1982.
Voting 7-2, the conservative court led by Chief Justice John Roberts rebuffed the latest assault on capital punishment, this time by foes focusing on methods rather than on the legality of the death penalty itself. Justice John Paul Stevens voted with the majority on the question of lethal injections but said for the first time that he now believes the death penalty is unconstitutional.
The court turned back a challenge to the Kentucky procedures that employ three drugs to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates. Similar methods are used by roughly three dozen states.
Death penalty opponents said challenges to lethal injections would continue in states where problems with administering the drugs are well-documented.
The case decided on Wednesday was not about the constitutionality of the death penalty generally or even lethal injection. Instead, two Kentucky death row inmates contended that their executions could be carried out more humanely, with less risk of pain.
The inmates “have not carried their burden of showing that the risk of pain from maladministration of a concededly humane lethal injection protocol, and the failure to adopt untried and untested alternatives, constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” Roberts said in an opinion that earned only three votes.
Four other justices, however, agreed with the outcome.
Forty-two people were executed last year out of more than 3,300 people on death rows across the country.
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