Cruel Techniques, Unusual Secrets
39 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2017 Last revised: 20 Jun 2019
Date Written: April 1, 2017
In the recent case of Glossip v. Gross, the Supreme Court denied a death row petitioner’s challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol. An important part of Justice Alito’s majority opinion highlighted the existence of a relationship between the constitutionality of a punishment and the requirement of a constitutional technique available to administer the punishment.
Far from foreclosing future challenges, this principle ironically highlights the failure of the Court to describe the relationship under the Eighth Amendment between three distinct categories of punishment: (1) the type of punishment imposed by the court — i.e., death penalty, life without parole, life with parole, (2) the method of punishment — the tool by which the state administers the punishment, and (3) the technique of punishment — the manner in which the state administers the punishment. Because, as Justice Alito insists, a constitutional method and technique must exist for a constitutionally approved punishment, there is a constitutional relationship between these categories.
As such, this Article articulates a holistic model for applying the Eighth Amendment on three levels — the punishment type, method, and technique. This Article develops this taxonomy, making explicit the concepts implicit in a number of Eighth Amendment cases. To be sure, the Court has assessed types of punishments, punishment methods, and punishment techniques individually, but it has never offered a holistic framework by which to understand these related constitutional inquiries. This Article develops such an approach.
In light of the applicable framework, the Article then explores the Court’s application of the Eighth Amendment with respect to the three categories, demonstrating how the Court deviates from its doctrine when considering punishment techniques. It next describes use of secrecy in the context of lethal injection, uncovering the manner in which this secrecy frustrates the application of the Eighth Amendment framework. Further, the Article argues that the state-instigated secrecy does more than create a doctrinal smokescreen — it raises serious constitutional and legitimacy questions concerning lethal injection protocols. Finally, the Article concludes by exploring what transparency in execution methods might mean both in terms of restoring dignity to death row prisoners and for the future of capital punishment in America.
Keywords: Glossip, Death Penalty, Execution Methods, Eighth Amendment, Dignity, Torture, Capital Punishment, Lethal Injection
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