Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Death of the Challenge to Lethal Injection? Missouri's Protocol Deemed Constitutional Yet Again

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Death of the Challenge to Lethal Injection? Missouri's Protocol Deemed Constitutional Yet Again

Article excerpt

Clemons v. Crawford, 585 F.3d 1119 (8th Cir. 2009).


Lethal injection is currently the predominant form of execution nationwide. (1) Most proponents of this method cite the convenience and the humanity of this procedure over past methods of execution. (2) However, lethal injections are fraught with problems such as the specificity and safety of the written procedures themselves, implementation of such procedures, and whether lethal injection and executions in general are constitutional. Most often, prisoners file constitutional challenges to lethal injections under the Eighth Amendment, which prevents imposing cruel and unusual punishment on an American citizen. (3)

One of the more recent cases in Missouri cited such a challenge to the implementation of Missouri's lethal injection guidelines. (4) Missouri revised its guidelines in 2006, under a court order to include more specificity and to solidify the process in writing to guarantee uniformity in application of the protocol. (5) Despite the fact that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ultimately upheld the constitutionality of Missouri's new procedure, (6) prisoners continue to challenge its legality in hopes of someday bringing a fruitful claim. Aside from the constitutional questions, lethal injection raises a host of other concerns, most notably the ethical dilemma of including medical personnel on the execution team. The interpretation of these statutes and society's perception of the circumstances surrounding the death penalty and lethal injections remain to be seen as courts continue to examine these issues.


Eight Missouri prisoners filed suit against the State of Missouri through its prison officials, alleging Missouri's lethal injection protocol was unconstitutional. (7) The plaintiffs were condemned to await execution on death row. (8) The prisoners brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983, (9) claiming that the manner in which Missouri conducts lethal injection executions violates the Eighth Amendment. (10) Specifically, the prisoners alleged that previous lethal injection proceedings demonstrated that Missouri failed to take the requisite care and consideration to refrain from imposing cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners. (11)

Since 2006, Missouri has followed a written execution protocol, detailing the parameters of each lethal injection execution. (12) Prior to this time, Missouri followed an unwritten execution protocol that required medical professionals to administer three drugs, in a specific order, to complete the lethal procedure. (13) These drugs were administered into a vein on the patient's arm through an intravenous line (IV). (14) The procedure began with five grams of sodium pentothal, which causes the prisoner to lose consciousness. (15) Then, sixty milligrams of pancuronium bromide were injected, which paralyzes the muscles in the prisoner's body. (16) Lastly, a doctor injected 240 milliequivalent of potassium chloride into the prisoner's IV tube, thereby stopping his or her heart and resulting in the death of the prisoner. (17) When Missouri was ordered to outline its procedures in written form, the procedure remained substantially the same, including the amounts of each drug administered to the patient and the order in which the drugs were injected. (18)

In the complaint, the prisoners alleged that Missouri had "a 'well-documented history of employing incompetent and unqualified personnel to oversee [the] crucial element[s] of executions by lethal injection.'" (19) This statement referred to previous executions in which Missouri employed a medical professional who admitted that he did not keep accurate logs of the lethal injections he administered. (20) This medical professional was named "John Doe I" or "Dr. Doe" for purposes of this litigation. (21) Dr. Doe was a licensed and experienced medical professional, yet the prisoners claimed he did not conform to the high standards of the medical profession. …

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