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Liberal justices blast Supreme Court majority for allowing Alabama execution

The high court allowed the execution of James Barber despite botched attempts to execute other inmates last year.
Liberal justices blast Supreme Court majority for allowing Alabama execution
The Supreme Court allowed the execution of a death row inmate in Alabama, prompting a dissent from the court's liberal justices. Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The three liberal Supreme Court justices took aim at their conservative colleagues for allowing the early Friday execution of an Alabama death row inmate who had raised claims about the state's history of botching the lethal injection process.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, declined to block the execution of James Barber, who was put to death at about 2 a.m. local time.

"This court’s decision denying Barber’s request for a stay allows Alabama to experiment again with a human life," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion joined by her liberal colleagues, Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Barber had argued that the execution would violate his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

His claim was raised in light of the state's problems executing three inmates last year. Two of those executions, those of Alan Miller and Kenneth Smith, were ultimately called off when prison officials could not access a suitable vein. Another inmate, Joe James, was put to death only after a three-hour delay.

The state subsequently reviewed its procedures, which was enough to convince the Supreme Court and lower courts that the execution could go ahead.

The Supreme Court's brief order did not explain its reasoning in allowing Barber's execution.

"Today's decision is another troubling example of this court stymying the development of Eighth Amendment law by pushing forward executions without complete information," Sotomayor wrote.

She noted that the court in both the Miller and the Smith cases had overturned lower courts that had put the executions on hold.

If it had not done that, "perhaps the state would have been forced to produce evidence in discovery that could explain what kept going wrong and avoided inflicting unnecessary pain on these two men," she added.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority generally allows executions to go ahead, with death penalty proponents critical of last-minute court filings they say are aimed purely at delaying the process. During the oral argument in a 2015 case, conservative Justice Samuel Alito referred to such tactics as “a guerrilla war against the death penalty.”