Over a forceful dissent from its three liberal members, the Supreme Court early Friday morning refused to halt the execution of a death row inmate in Alabama who said that the state’s history of botched executions made it likely that he would suffer intense pain as he was put to death.
The inmate, James Barber, was executed about two hours later. Early news reports did not note major flaws in the procedure.
Mr. Barber was convicted in 2003 of beating Dorothy Epps, 75, to death with his fists and a claw hammer.
The Supreme Court’s brief order gave no reasons for denying the stay, but the court’s conservative majority has been notably unsympathetic to claims from death row inmates that the method of execution to be used would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In an 11-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, said the majority had empowered “Alabama to experiment again with a human life.”
The possibility that Mr. Barber would suffer severe pain was hardly remote, Justice Sotomayor wrote.
“Just last year in Alabama, in three consecutive executions by lethal injection, prison officials spent multiple hours digging for prisoners’ veins in an attempt to set I.V. lines,” she wrote. “Two of the men survived and reported experiencing extreme pain, including, in one case, nerve pain equivalent to electrocution.”
John Q. Hamm, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, told reporters Friday morning that prison officials had made three attempts over six minutes to secure two intravenous lines. “We carried out a successful execution of the inmate as directed by the Supreme Court,” he said.
In November, in response to the earlier incidents, Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, suspended all executions in the state and called for a “top to bottom” review of its lethal injection protocols.
Other states, Justice Sotomayor wrote, had assigned reviews of shortcomings in execution protocols to independent investigators. Ms. Ivey, by contrast, asked the state’s Department of Corrections, which was responsible for the flawed executions, to review its own work.
Three months later, without issuing a report, the department announced in a brief letter that it had added personnel and equipment and was prepared to proceed. The letter did not explore or explain the earlier failures, Justice Sotomayor wrote.
When Mr. Barber sought information about the earlier executions, she wrote, Alabama officials stonewalled him. “The state has not only failed publicly to account for what went wrong,” Justice Sotomayor wrote, “but also actively obstructed Barber’s attempts to find out what happened.”
She said the court should have stayed Mr. Barber’s execution so that he could obtain the information he sought.
“The Eighth Amendment does not tolerate playing such games with a man’s life,” she wrote.
Justice Sotomayor wrote that the court’s refusal to grant a stay was part of a larger trend of speeding execution without adequate consideration.
“Today’s decision is another troubling example of this court stymying the development of Eighth Amendment law by pushing forward executions without complete information,” she wrote, adding: “This court has so prioritized expeditious executions that it has disregarded well-reasoned lower court conclusions, preventing both the meaningful airing of prisoners’ challenges and the development of Eighth Amendment law.”
Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve U.S., a group that opposes the death penalty, said Mr. Barber’s execution was disturbing.
“When Alabama presents killing a man in the dead of night with extra straps on the gurney to prevent him writhing in pain as an execution going smoothly,” she said in a statement, “it just goes to show how broken lethal injection is.”
Steve Marshall, Alabama’s attorney general, said in a statement that “justice has been served,” adding: “I ask the people of Alabama to join me in praying for the victim’s family and friends, that they might now be able to find some sense of peace and closure.”