The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a death row inmate’s request to be executed by firing squad.
In a dissenting opinion authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s three liberal justices blasted the decision for its perceived cruelty toward convicted murderer Ernest Johnson.
“Severely painful and prolonged seizures”
An epileptic, Johnson argued that lethal injection is likely to cause him to suffer a painful and agonizing death.
The inmate is awaiting capital punishment in his conviction for killing three people during a Missouri gas station robbery in 1994. After a portion of his brain was removed during surgery, he claims that the lethal drug pentobarbital could prompt “severely painful and prolonged seizures” during his execution.
As the date draws near, his efforts to arrange for another method of execution have so far fallen flat. At first, Johson asked for nitrogen gas to be used, but a 2019 Supreme Court ruling determined that states can refuse an execution method with no track record.
Based on that precedent, the Eighth Circut U.S. Court of Appeals shot down Johnson’s request.
Johnson then petitioned to be executed by firing squad, a method not used in Missouri since 1964 and no longer authorized for use in Missouri.
“One more example of the special difficulties”
The earlier Supreme Court decision stipulated that death row inmates must provide an alternative form of execution but were not confined by those on the books in a particular state. Nevertheless, the appeals court ruling determined that he waited too long to amend his complaint.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his own dissent that Johnson’s request was for the courts to decide between a “cruel” and “unusual” punishment, going on to criticize the death penalty more generally.
“I simply add that the difficulty of resolving this claim, 27 years after the murders, provides one more example of the special difficulties that the death penalty, as currently administered, creates for the just application of the law,” he wrote.
For her part, Sotomayor accused the court of jeopardizing the inmate’s constitutional rights, placing him in an impossible bind.
“The Eighth Circuit’s decision punishes Johnson for failing to anticipate significant changes in the law brought about by Bucklew,” she wrote in reference to the 2019 decision. “We should not countenance the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment simply for the sake of expediency. That is what the Eighth Circuit’s decision has done. Because this Court chooses to stand idly by, I respectfully dissent.”