Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Story:

Yesterday, while Americans voted, the US Supreme Court heard arguments about the meaning of the constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment,” in a case arising out of Missouri’s plan to execute Russell Bucklew by lethal injection.

The Background:

Bucklew’s challenge is a rarity in the world of death penalty litigation. It is not a direct attack on lethal injection as a method of capital punishment in itself (what is known as a “facial” challenge), but rather one directed “as applied” to this particular inmate, with his medical history.

Bucklew suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a rare disorder that has caused “unstable, blood-filled tumors to grow in his head, neck, and throat.” He contends that the tumor in his throat could rupture during the execution protocol, filling his mouth and airway with blood and causing his execution to be “painful far beyond the pain inherent in the process of an ordinary lethal injection.”

The Thing to Know:

The state responds, on the basis of precedent, that any inmate who challenges the constitutionality of a method of execution must suggest an alternative method – whether he is bringing a “facial” challenge or, as here, an “as-applied” challenge.

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