The Supreme Court on April 16 upheld Kentucky's use of lethal injections for executions, rejecting plaintiffs' arguments based in part on a misinterpretation of the AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia.
The high court ruled on the appeal of two men on Kentucky's death row, Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling, each convicted of double murders. They claimed the state's lethal injection protocol is a form of cruel and unusual punishment because it's prone to errors, causing the condemned to suffer.
Thirty-six states use lethal injection to implement the death penalty. Such executions are performed through a sequential administration of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.
Lethal injection opponents argue that if the inmate is not properly sedated, the prisoner will suffer paralysis, suffocation, and excruciating pain. Opponents also say there are other, less risky forms of lethal injection, such as an overdose of barbiturates.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Baze and Bowling referred to a portion of the AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia that states combining pentobarbital with a neuromuscular blocking agent is not an acceptable euthanasia agent. If pancuronium bromide is too cruel for animals, they argue, then it is too cruel to use on a condemned inmate (see JAVMA, Dec. 15, 2007, page 1784).
The AVMA objects to using the specifics of its guidelines in any argument about human lethal injection. In 2006, the Association clarified that the statement in question is actually a prohibition against mixing a barbiturate and neuromuscular blocking agent in the same syringe.
The AVMA also pointed out that the application of a barbiturate, paralyzing agent, and potassium chloride delivered via separate syringes or in stages is nowhere cited in the guidelines. Additionally, pancuronium bromide is not mentioned in the guidelines.
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court denied the Kentucky inmates' appeal. "We ... agree that 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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The AVMA's objections to using its euthanasia guidelines in death penalty cases were noted in the majority opinion. The chief justice stated that attempts to tie together what's appropriate in animal euthanasia to methods of humanely executing prisoners are inadequate. "(O)ther methods approved by veterinarians—such as stunning the animal or severing its spinal cord—make clear that veterinary practice for animals is not an appropriate guide to humane practices for humans," Roberts wrote.
Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, welcomed the court decision. "Although we're obviously pleased the Supreme Court has recognized and respects our concerns, we have no doubt that such comparisons will continue to be made," Dr. Golab said. "While veterinary medicine's approach toward ensuring humane death is a model of compassion that is worth emulating, translating the specifics of euthanasia methodologies from animals to people is quite another matter."
The court ruling is unlikely put an end to the lethal injection controversy, however. Even though he sided with the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "(T)he case will generate debate not only about the constitutionality of the three-drug protocol, and specifically about the justification for the use of pancuronium bromide, but also about the justification for the death penalty itself."