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Why The Arkansas Death Penalty Case Is Crucial

On Thursday night, the state of Arkansas carried out its first execution in more than a decade. The decision to execute Ledell Lee could have national implications, after controversy, criticism, and the involvement of the United States Supreme Court factored into the decision to inject the prisoner in question with drugs to stop his heart and, ultimately, execute him. The Arkansas death penalty case is important for many reasons, with district courts and the highest court in the country debating whether the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment are violated in death penalty cases.

The New York Times reported that Ledell Lee — who was condemned to death for the murder of Debra Reese over 20 years ago in a suburb of Little Rock, Arkansas, according to NBC News — died at 11:56 p.m. Central Time at a prison in the southeastern part of the state. He had won reprieves in both federal and state courts, but they were overturned. His death warrant expired at midnight, and that evening, appeals had continued to keep him alive, before the Supreme Court finally decided to allow the state to proceed with the execution.

The SCOTUS decision came down to a 5-4 vote. And according to Slate, newly-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch cast the deciding vote condemning Lee to death.

Slate reported that Lee was killed in a series of executions of several prisoners planned by the state before one of the drugs in the three-drug lethal injection cocktail used for capital punishment cases there expired. And according to the New York Times, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer's dissent protested the fact that the state had set up a schedule of executions planned for eight prisoners over 11 days because of the approaching expiration date of Arkansas’s stock of midazolam. According to The Week, he wrote:

Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the 'use by' date of the state's execution drug is about to expire. In my view, that factor, when considered as a determining factor separating those who live from those who die, is close to random...I have previously noted the arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country. The cases now before us reinforce that point.
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The fact that the Supreme Court got involved in this case could have national implications. The use of midazolam has caused the court to be at odds in the past, as it has come under fire for its reported lack of effectiveness in some cases. It is meant to render death penalty inmates unconscious before their executions, leaving them unable to feel pain during the process. But NBC News reported that, in cases in states like Oklahoma, Alabama, Arizona and Ohio in recent years, inmates were reportedly still conscious — despite the administration of the drug — as they were put to death, and showed signs of severe pain.

ABC News reported that some states have outright barred the use of the drug during executions. In the past, Justice Breyer has called for the abolition of the death penalty altogether. According to BuzzFeed, the four liberal justices voted in Lee's case to stop not only his execution, but that of the other Arkansas inmates' executions as well.

One of the reasons Lee's death penalty case was so controversial is because he requested the state let him take a DNA test to compare the results to DNA collected at the scene of the murder he allegedly perpetrated — but the state refused. The Innocence Project, a non-profit that seeks to absolve "the wrongly convicted" through DNA testing, and to reform the criminal justice system, denounced the execution partly on the grounds that Lee's execution was rushed and he was not given the full opportunity to prove his innocence.

As aforementioned, Breyer has condemned the use of the death penalty entirely before. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor underlined the dangers of midazolam in her dissent of the Lee decision. With the support of other judges on the Supreme Court, could the debate around Lee's death and other executions planned in Arkansas ultimately lead to the Court deciding to abolish capital punishment in the United States?

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The Hill reported that in 2016, America had the lowest number of new death row inmates since the reinstatement of the death penalty back in 1976. The grand total of death row inmates last year? 30. And only 20 executions occurred that same year, according to the site.

But, as Slate reported, Justice Gorsuch's first recorded vote cast as a member of the Supreme Court was in favor of Lee's execution. And President Donald Trump supports capital punishment.

Whatever happens with the death penalty in the United States in the future, the fact that the Supreme Court got involved in the Arkansas death penalty case is extremely important when it comes to the practice on a national level. And the debate about capital punishment is not likely to end in the near future.