The Slatest

The Stunning, Scorching Accusation in Justice Sotomayor’s Death Penalty Dissent

Justice Sonia Sotomayor charged the Supreme Court’s conservatives with permitting the torture of death row inmates.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam in lethal injections, despite the fact that the drug may have been responsible for several botched, extremely painful executions in 2014. The vote was 5–4, with the usual lineup of conservatives against liberals. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a scorching, devastating dissent that carefully disproved both the facts and logic of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion. Sotomayor noted that Alito’s decision rested on the fact that the prisoners had not demonstrated that the state could obtain other, more humane drugs to kill them—so it can go ahead and execute them with the potentially torturous midazolam. In a stunning passage, she then lobs this accusation at the majority:

Petitioners contend that Oklahoma’s current protocol is a barbarous method of punishment—the chemical equivalent of being burned alive. But under the Court’s new rule, it would not matter whether the State intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake: because petitioners failed to prove the availability of sodium thiopental or pentobarbital, the State could execute them using whatever means it designated.

Alito’s only response to this charge? “That is simply not true.”