Baze v. Rees

Decision Date16 April 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07–5439.,07–5439.
Citation08 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 4435,21 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 164,128 S.Ct. 1520,170 L.Ed.2d 420,2008 Daily Journal D.A.R. 5398,76 USLW 4189,553 U.S. 35
PartiesRalph BAZE and Thomas C. Bowling, Petitioners, v. John D. REES, Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Corrections, et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus *

Lethal injection is used for capital punishment by the Federal Government [128 S.Ct. 1522] and 36 States, at least 30 of which (including Kentucky) use the same combination of three drugs: The first, sodium thiopental, induces unconsciousness when given in the specified amounts and thereby ensures that the prisoner does not experience any pain associated with the paralysis and cardiac arrest caused by the second and third drugs, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Among other things, Kentucky's lethal injection protocol reserves to qualified personnel having at least one year's professional experience the responsibility for inserting the intravenous (IV) catheters into the prisoner, leaving it to others to mix the drugs and load them into syringes; specifies that the warden and deputy warden will remain in the execution chamber to observe the prisoner and watch for any IV problems while the execution team administers the drugs from another room; and mandates that if, as determined by the warden and deputy, the prisoner is not unconscious within 60 seconds after the sodium thiopental's delivery, a new dose will be given at a secondary injection site before the second and third drugs are administered.

Petitioners, convicted murderers sentenced to death in Kentucky state court, filed suit asserting that the Commonwealth's lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.” The state trial court held extensive hearings and entered detailed factfindings and conclusions of law, ruling that there was minimal risk of various of petitioners' claims of improper administration of the protocol, and upholding it as constitutional. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment because it does not create a substantial risk of wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, torture, or lingering death.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

217 S.W.3d 207, affirmed.

Chief Justice ROBERTS, joined by Justice KENNEDY and Justice ALITO, concluded that Kentucky's lethal injection protocol satisfies the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 1529 – 1538.

1. To constitute cruel and unusual punishment, an execution method must present a “substantial” or “objectively intolerable” risk of serious harm. A State's refusal to adopt proffered alternative procedures may violate the Eighth Amendment only where the alternative procedure is feasible, readily implemented, and in fact significantly reduces a substantial risk of severe pain. Pp. 1529 – 1532.

(a) This Court has upheld capital punishment as constitutional. See Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 177, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859. Because some risk of pain is inherent in even the most humane execution method, if only from the prospect of error in following the required procedure, the Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain. Petitioners contend that the Eighth Amendment prohibits procedures that create an “unnecessary risk” of pain, while Kentucky urges the Court to approve the ‘substantial risk’ test used below. Pp. 1529 – 1530.

(b) This Court has held that the Eighth Amendment forbids “punishments of torture, ... and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty,” Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130, 136, 25 L.Ed. 345, such as disemboweling, beheading, quartering, dissecting, and burning alive, all of which share the deliberate infliction of pain for the sake of pain, id., at 135 . Observing also that [p]unishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death[,] ... something inhuman and barbarous [and] ... more than the mere extinguishment of life,” the Court has emphasized that an electrocution statute it was upholding “was passed in the effort to devise a more humane method of reaching the result.” In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 447, 10 S.Ct. 930, 34 L.Ed. 519. P. 1530.

(c) Although conceding that an execution under Kentucky's procedures would be humane and constitutional if performed properly, petitioners claim that there is a significant risk that the procedures will not be properly followed—particularly, that the sodium thiopental will not be properly administered to achieve its intended effect—resulting in severe pain when the other chemicals are administered. Subjecting individuals to a substantial risk of future harm can be cruel and unusual punishment if the conditions presenting the risk are “sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering” and give rise to “sufficiently imminent dangers.” Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 33, 34–35, 113 S.Ct. 2475, 125 L.Ed.2d 22. To prevail, such a claim must present a “substantial risk of serious harm,” an “objectively intolerable risk of harm.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 842, 846, and n. 9, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 128 L.Ed.2d 811. For example, the Court has held that an isolated mishap alone does not violate the Eighth Amendment, Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 463–464, 67 S.Ct. 374, 91 L.Ed. 422, because such an event, while regrettable, does not suggest cruelty or a “substantial risk of serious harm.” Pp. 1530 – 1531.

(d) Petitioners' primary contention is that the risks they have identified can be eliminated by adopting certain alternative procedures. Because allowing a condemned prisoner to challenge a State's execution method merely by showing a slightly or marginally safer alternative finds no support in this Court's cases, would embroil the courts in ongoing scientific controversies beyond their expertise, and would substantially intrude on the role of state legislatures in implementing execution procedures, petitioners' proposed “unnecessary risk” standard is rejected in favor of Farmer's “substantial risk of serious harm” test. To effectively address such a substantial risk, a proffered alternative procedure must be feasible, readily implemented, and in fact significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain. A State's refusal to adopt such an alternative in the face of these documented advantages, without a legitimate penological justification for its current execution method, can be viewed as “cruel and unusual.” Pp. 1531 – 1532.

2. Petitioners have not carried their burden of showing that the risk of pain from maladministration of a concededly humane lethal injection protocol, and the failure to adopt untried and untested alternatives, constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Pp. 1532– 1538.

(a) It is uncontested that failing a proper dose of sodium thiopental to render the prisoner unconscious, there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation from the administration of pancuronium bromide and of pain from potassium chloride. It is, however, difficult to regard a practice as “objectively intolerable” when it is in fact widely tolerated. Probative but not conclusive in this regard is the consensus among the Federal Government and the States that have adopted lethal injection and the specific three-drug combination Kentucky uses. Pp. 1533 – 1534.

(b) In light of the safeguards Kentucky's protocol puts in place, the risks of administering an inadequate sodium thiopental dose identified by petitioners are not so substantial or imminent as to amount to an Eighth Amendment violation. The charge that Kentucky employs untrained personnel unqualified to calculate and mix an adequate dose was answered by the state trial court's finding, substantiated by expert testimony, that there would be minimal risk of improper mixing if the manufacturers' thiopental package insert instructions were followed. Likewise, the IV line problems alleged by petitioners do not establish a sufficiently substantial risk because IV team members must have at least one year of relevant professional experience, and the presence of the warden and deputy warden in the execution chamber allows them to watch for IV problems. If an insufficient dose is initially administered through the primary IV site, an additional dose can be given through the secondary site before the last two drugs are injected. Pp. 1533 – 1534.

(c) Nor does Kentucky's failure to adopt petitioners' proposed alternatives demonstrate that the state execution procedure is cruel and unusual. Kentucky's continued use of the three-drug protocol cannot be viewed as posing an “objectively intolerable risk” when no other State has adopted the one-drug method and petitioners have proffered no study showing that it is an equally effective manner of imposing a death sentence. Petitioners contend that Kentucky should omit pancuronium bromide because it serves no therapeutic purpose while suppressing muscle movements that could reveal an inadequate administration of sodium thiopental. The state trial court specifically found that pancuronium bromide serves two purposes: (1) preventing involuntary convulsions or seizures during unconsciousness, thereby preserving the procedure's dignity, and (2) hastening death. Petitioners assert that their barbiturate-only protocol is used routinely by veterinarians for putting animals to sleep and that 23 States bar veterinarians from using a neuromuscular paralytic agent like pancuronium bromide. These arguments overlook the States' legitimate interest in providing for a quick, certain death, and in any event, veterinary practice for animals is not an appropriate guide for humane practices for humans. Petitioners charge that Kentucky's protocol lacks a systematic mechanism, such as a Bispectral Index monitor, blood...

To continue reading

Request your trial
1010 cases
  • People v. Dykes, S050851.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • June 15, 2009
    ......Abilez (2007) 41 Cal.4th 472, 536, 61 Cal.Rptr.3d 526, 161 P.3d 58; see also Baze v. Rees (2008) ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 1520, 170 L.Ed.2d 420 [Kentucky's three-drug protocol for lethal injection, a protocol that is identical to ......
  • Marshall v. Dunn
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
    • October 23, 2020
    ......7 at 52-53 (citations omitted). But, the Supreme Court has held that "capital punishment is constitutional." Baze v. Rees , 553 U.S. 35, 47, 128 S.Ct. 1520, 170 L.Ed.2d 420 (2008) (citing Gregg v. Georgia , 428 U.S. 153, 187, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 ......
  • State v. Santiago, SC 17413
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • August 25, 2015
    ...... Baze v. Rees , 553 U.S. 35, 50, 52, 128 S. Ct. 1520, 170 L. Ed. 2d 420 (2008) (opinion announcing judgment). Page 10 2 Excessive and Disproportionate ......
  • State v. Santiago
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • August 25, 2015
    ......Moreover, it is clear that [r]easonable people of good faith disagree on the morality and efficacy of capital punishment; Baze v. Rees , [553 U.S. 35, 61, 128 S. Ct. 1520, 170 L. Ed. 2d 420 (2008) (opinion announcing judgment)]; and that the value of [that sanction], and ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
52 books & journal articles
  • Prisoners' Rights
    • United States
    • Georgetown Law Journal No. 110-Annual Review, August 2022
    • August 1, 2022
    ...midazolam, because prisoners failed to identify less painful, readily implemented alternative method of execution); Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 47, 61-62 (2008) (not cruel and unusual punishment to execute prisoner by 3-drug protocol because risk of pain not objectively intolerable); see, e.......
  • Can Congress overturn Kennedy v. Louisiana?
    • United States
    • Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Vol. 33 No. 3, June 2010
    • June 22, 2010
    ...543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005) (execution of persons who are juveniles at time of crime violates Eighth Amendment). (25.) See Baze v. Rees, 128 S. Ct. 1520, 1559 (2008) (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment) ("Consistent with the original understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Claus......
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • Sage International Criminal Justice Review No. 24-4, December 2014
    • December 1, 2014
    ...372 (1985)Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668 (2004)Barclay v. Florida, 463 U.S. 939 (1983)Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880 (1983)Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008)Beard v. Banks, 542 U.S. 406 (2004)Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. ___ (2009)Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980)Beecher v. Alabama, 408 U.......
  • Criminal Justice Secrets
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review No. 59-4, October 2022
    • October 1, 2022
    ...courts have decided this and other issues, see Berger, supra note 164, at 1392–95. 169. Sepulvado , 729 F.3d at 419 (quoting Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 51 (2008) (plurality opinion)). 170. 553 U.S. 35. 171. See id. at 41, 58 (stating that “Kentucky’s decision to include the [paralytic in th......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT