In the past few months, the death penalty has proved a bitterly divisive issue for the Supreme Court. Cases regarding capital punishment have been ruled in early hours of the morning, provoked fiery dissents, and ultimately revealed the deep divides in the court.
The case of Alabama inmate Christopher Price exemplifies this divide. On Monday, the court denied Price’s petition for a writ certiorari, a last attempt to appeal an execution. Price’s case has embroiled the court in tension for several months.
The court ruled at 3 a.m. on April 19 to vacate a stay of execution requested by Price. The 5–4 ruling reversed two lower court decisions and was contested by the court’s four liberal-leaning justices. Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent illustrates mounting tensions regarding not only the future of the death penalty, but also the shifting ideological composition of the Supreme Court.
The requested stay of execution would have postponed Price’s death by thirty days and would have allowed for a new execution warrant to mandate his death by nitrogen gas instead of lethal injection. Price, forty-six, claimed that Alabama’s current execution protocol, a combination of three lethal drugs, would cause him “severe pain and needless suffering” due to a particular medical condition. He requested execution by nitrogen gas, a condoned method of execution in Alabama. In his case against the State of Alabama, Price presented medical testimony bolstering his claims that a lethal injection would be excruciatingly painful. The State of Alabama did not provide any evidence against this claim. A different method of execution would require a new execution warrant, however, and because Price filed his request too late, there was not enough time to draw a new execution warrant in time for his scheduled execution.
Price was convicted of capital murder at nineteen after a derailed robbery resulted in the death of William Lynn, a minister. Price’s case was mishandled from the beginning by his state-appointed lawyer, who contacted only one family member and failed to file for a psychological evaluation. Alabama does not require a unanimous jury verdict to mandate a death sentence. Oregon is the only other state with this policy, but the governor of Oregon has recently placed a moratorium on the death penalty. Price was convicted to death by the minimum number of jurors required by Alabama.
After twenty-seven years on death row, Price returned to the court to request a stay of execution. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s April 10 decision to deny Price’s petition. A federal judge then ordered a stay of execution, which was quickly appealed by the State of Alabama. This time, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Price and affirmed the stay. The State of Alabama then successfully petitioned the United States Supreme Court to vacate the stay. The hearing was on the last day of the window afforded by the execution warrant. At 11:34 p.m. the justices had not yet decided, and Price’s execution was cancelled due to lack of time to finish the execution before the expiration of the warrant. The State of Alabama is currently rescheduling Price’s execution, still to be done by lethal injection.
Price’s case is the most recent in a slew of bitterly divisive death penalty cases heard by the Supreme Court. A February 7 decision allowed the execution of Domineque Hakim Ray, a Muslim man from Alabama accused of killing a teenager in 1995. Ray’s request that an Imam be present at his execution was denied by the State of Alabama, who permitted only the presence of the prison’s Christian minister. The Supreme Court decided by a 5–4 majority to move forward with the execution, provoking widespread criticism. Left-leaning Yale law professor Stephen Carter wrote, “In my thirty years of writing about religious freedom, I can't recall a case as outrageous.” David French, a conservative panelist in the National Review, wrote, “The state’s obligation is to protect and facilitate the free exercise of a person's faith, not to seek reasons to deny him consolation at the moment of his death.”
Only seven weeks later, the Court allowed a stay of execution for Patrick Henry Murphy, a Texas inmate who had requested a Buddhist spiritual advisor’s presence at his execution. Ray and Murphy’s cases were strikingly similar, and the different outcomes provoked widespread criticism. A few weeks later, Price’s case brought the death penalty, and the controversies that accompany it, back to the Supreme Court.
In his 2:51 a.m. dissent, Justice Breyer wrote, “Should anyone doubt that death sentences in the United States can be carried out in an arbitrary way, let that person review the following circumstances as they have been presented to our Court this evening,” The criticism that the Supreme Court seemingly doles out the death sentence arbitrarily has made it into the Court itself, as a result of Price’s case. Breyer’s dissent, coupled with the opposing decisions in Price and Murphy’s cases, exposes the court’s insensitive and seemingly random rulings on the death penalty.
Beyond reflective mounting tension on the death penalty, Breyer’s dissent also sheds light on increased polarization in the Court. He goes beyond the case itself and addresses the behavior of the conservative majority. Breyer had asked that the justices have more time to discuss in the morning, as the execution warrant had already expired. On the denial of this request, Breyer wrote, “To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system. To proceed in this matter in the middle of the night without giving all members of the court the opportunity for discussion tomorrow morning is, I believe, unfortunate.”
It is uncommon for a dissent to question the integrity, and not the decision, of other members of the Court. After the court denied Price’s petition for a last minute appeal on Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a searing opinion to “set the record straight.” Thomas criticized Breyer’s dissent, saying it “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.” Justices Alito and Gorsuch joined on Thomas’s statement. Both Breyer’s dissent and Thomas’s opinion reveal that mounting tensions on the bench have surpassed common practice, and have become deeply entrenched divides.
This divide has unquantifiable impact on the lives of people on death row. The future of the debates is difficult to discern, but will either way affect individuals on death row until their final moments, invoking a critical human rights question.
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