Editorial: Cruel and unusual thinking

The Patriot Ledger

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is regarded as one of the premier thinkers to ever sit on the bench.

He's also viewed as one of the court's most conservative justices in its history.

To that resume, it looks like we may be able to add among the most vengeful, if his questioning Monday in a death penalty case is any indication.

The court is considering a Kentucky case challenging lethal injections as being unconstitutional because they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

During oral arguments, Scalia dismissed concerns over whether the three-drug combination most states used was unnecessarily painful.

"There is no painless requirement" in the Constitution, Scalia said. Scalia later said he would be opposed to further delaying a state's right to kill while the alternatives were being discussed.

Scalia said such a move would mean "a national cessation of executions. We're looking at years. We wouldn't want that to happen."

Actually, Justice Scalia, there are many who, while supporting the ultimate penalty, do not want cruel punishment exacted in their names who would favor that course.

In states that use lethal injections to carry out the death penalty, the three-drug mix is used to sedate, then paralyze the inmate before the final deadly dose to stop the heart is administered.

The problem, which has triggered a nationwide moratorium on executions since September, is the sedative may not be 100 percent effective and if the paralyzing drug is administered, the inmate cannot let his executioners know. The heart-stopping drug can cause excruciating pain, according to experts.

We would think knowingly inflicting pain is cruel, therefore unconstitutional, by any standard.

In Kentucky and a number of other states, it is illegal to use that combination of drugs in euthanizing animals.

Do dogs have a constitutional right that Scalia would deny to humans?

It is Scalia's dismissive attitude that is the most troubling for someone with the life-and-death power he possesses.

The death penalty is a settled matter in 36 states, thankfully not Massachusetts. But that does not mean we can so cavalierly extinguish a life in a society where we think of ourselves as enlightened administrators of justice.

No matter what we think of convicted murderers, we need to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard than the same bloodthirsty actions for which we sentenced them to death.