The Supreme Court has upheld the three-drug lethal injection method used by the state of Kentucky in a 7-2 decision, clearing the way for an unofficial moratorium on executions to be lifted.
"Some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution no matter how humane -- if only from the prospect of error in following the required procedure," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "It is clear, then, that the Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions."
"Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of 'objectively intolerable risk of harm' that qualifies as cruel and unusual," his opinion continued.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.
The two convicted murderers at the center of the case, Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling, had unwittingly caused an unofficial moratorium on executions across the country.
Since the court announced in September that it would hear the Kentucky case, states had postponed the execution of 25 death row inmates; some states had stopped scheduling them altogether while the justices mulled the case.
The last execution in the United States occurred the same day the court picked up the case, when Texas put Michael Richard to death on Sept. 25, 2007.
Baze and Bowling had argued that death by lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, an argument the Court rejected. The drugs included in the protocol are sodium thiopental, which anesthetizes; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes; and potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest.
Of the 36 states with a death penalty law on the books, all but one has designated lethal injection as the primary method of execution.
As for what's next, Richard Dieter, who runs the Death Penalty Information Center, a group opposed to the capital punishment, said he believes that "quite a few [execution] dates will be set -- testing whether their states meets the same standard that the court found acceptable in Kentucky."
Dieter said methods of capital punishment are not likely to go unchallenged in the future, despite the court's ruling in the Kentucky case.
"Lower courts could say that based on today's decision that the execution in certain states cannot go forward because they don't even meet the Kentucky procedures," Dieter continued. "This is not a blanket pass for all states to carry out lethal injections."
Associate Justice John Paul Stevens noted in his concurring opinion that the decision is not the final word on the lethal injection issue because other states have their own challenges.
Dieter noted that "Roberts indicated that they have never overturned a method of execution, and that's true, but I don't think this decision removes objections that will continue."
"The fact that there were only two justices in dissent, they may be thinking of the real problems of executions in Ohio and Florida etc.... This must be lingering in the thoughts of the dissenters," he added.
Lawyers for Baze and Bowling had argued that the drugs are administered by untrained officials who can botch the execution and cause extreme pain. They also argued that other drug combinations could be more effective in carrying out the death penalty.