While conceding that the chemicals used to execute death row inmates in Kentucky might cause needless pain, the state’s Supreme Court ruled yesterday that using them did not violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Conflicting medical testimony prevents us from stating categorically that a prisoner feels no pain,” Justice Donald C. Wintersheimer wrote for the unanimous court. “The prohibition is against cruel and unusual punishment and does not require a complete absence of pain.”
Concern over execution of the mentally disabled prompted the American Bar Association last August to join a widening chorus of professionals calling for a halt to death sentences and executions for defendants with severe mental disorders that “significantly impaired” their rational judgment or capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct. The moratorium was endorsed earlier by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The groups also opposed death sentences for prisoners with mental disorders that impaired their ability to assist their lawyers and make rational decisions on their appeals. The Supreme Court has already barred execution for the mentally retarded and for juveniles.
“An increasing percentage of people executed are people giving up their appeals,” said Ronald J. Tabak, a lawyer at the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Manhattan and a specialist in capital cases who led the bar association’s death penalty task force. “And of these, a significant percentage have serious mental illness.”