This article is the first in a three-part series on issues surrounding the death penalty.
United States Attorney General Eric Holder voiced his support earlier this month for a moratorium on the death penalty until the U.S. Supreme Court issues its decision in a case currently pending before the Court that challenges the constitutionality of lethal injections.
In a speech before the National Press Club, Holder, speaking in his personal capacity, stated that he believes the death penalty is wrong and urged states to halt executions until the Supreme Court issues its decisions in the pending case from Oklahoma. Holder explained his reasoning, saying the criminal justice system can make mistakes, including both botched injections and wrongful convictions.
“Our system of justice is the best in the world,” Holder said. “It is compromised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there’s always the possibility that mistakes will be made.”
Holder’s fear of botched injections is the very problem that led to the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Oklahoma case. In April of 2014, Oklahoma botched the execution via lethal injection of Clayton Lockett, resulting in a prolonged and painful death. Reports later showed that the cause of the botched execution was a misplaced intravenous line of midazolam, the first drug in the three-drug cocktail. The improperly placed line caused the midazolam to collect in surrounding tissue rather than flow into Lockett’s bloodstream.
Midazolam is a sedative that is used to render the subject unconscious before the injection of a paralytic and then a heart-stopping drug. If the sedative is not administered properly, the second two drugs cause excruciating pain and suffocation. This was clear, as about fifteen minutes into the execution, Lockett attempted to sit up and began gasping and writhing. After nearly forty-five minutes, Lockett finally died of a heart attack. Lockett had been on death row for shooting a nineteen-year-old woman and burying her alive in 1999.
The pending case before the Supreme Court was brought by Richard Glossip, John Grant, and Benjamin Cole Sr., three men currently on death row in Oklahoma. Glossip was convicted of planning the death of his employer, Grant of stabbing and killing a prison cafeteria worker, and Cole of killing his nine-month-old daughter by breaking her spine. The plaintiffs allege that the three-drug cocktail used in Lockett’s botched execution is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment. The case was recently renamed Glossip v. Gross from Warner v. Gross, after the execution of a fourth plaintiff, Charles Warner, on January 15.
All of the plaintiffs had execution dates set, but in January, soon after the execution of Warner, Oklahoma officials asked the Supreme Court to grant stays for the remaining plaintiffs until the Court decided their case or until the state was able to obtain an alternative to midazolam. On January 28, the Supreme Court agreed to stay the executions of all three plaintiffs, stating, “executions using midazolam are stayed pending final disposition of this case.” The Supreme Court plans to hear arguments in the case in late April.