How much pain is constitutionally acceptable for a prisoner sentenced to death to feel during his or her execution? What, exactly, is cruel and unusual punishment?
Though not the precise question presented before the justices, the Supreme Court will be forced to wrestle with those nagging Eighth Amendment concerns Wednesday as it hears arguments in a case challenging the application of a combination of lethal drugs that have been linked to a string of grisly botched executions over the past year.
In Glossip v. Gross, the Court is being asked to determine whether the use of of a sedative known as midazolam by Oklahoma and a number of other states is reliable and effective enough to use as part of three-drug lethal cocktail to execute prisoners on death row.
Midazolam has been subject to rising scrutiny since it was first used by Florida in 2013 as a replacement for another drug that became difficult for states to acquire, amid boycotts from European drug manufacturers opposed to capital punishment.
Even a narrow ruling striking against the use of midazolam could reverberate much more widely and further disrupt states’ ability to carry out death sentences—a penalty that has grown increasingly rare in recent years as only a handful of states continue the practice. States scrambling to find suitable lethal cocktails are finding the task increasingly difficult, as fewer and fewer options remain available.