Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch once wrote a book on the moral and ethical arguments surrounding the debate on assisted suicide and euthanasia. In that book, he argued against legalizing euthanasia by stating that human life is intrinsically valuable and intentional killing is always wrong.
We now know that Gorsuch’s philosophical and legal reasoning on that matter does not extend to death penalty cases. With the clock racing against Ledell Lee, who for 24 years maintained his innocence and waged an 11th-hour fight to have new DNA testing done, Gorsuch became the deciding vote in a 5-4 ruling that allowed Lee’s execution to move forward just minutes before his death warrant expired.
It was the first major vote of Gorsuch’s new term on the Supreme Court, and it enabled Arkansas to carry out its first execution in 12 years as part of a highly controversial—and clearly cruel and unusual—marathon of death before one of the drugs it uses in the state-sanctioned killings expires.
In a dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision not to stay Lee’s execution, Justice Stephen Breyer stated:
Arkansas set out to execute eight people over the course of 11 days. Why these eight? Why now? The apparent reason has nothing to do with the heinousness of their crimes or with the presence (or absence) of mitigating behavior. It has nothing to do with their mental state. It has nothing to do with the need for speedy punishment. Four have been on death row for over 20 years. All have been housed in solitary confinement for at least 10 years. 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.
Breyer goes on to note the “arbitrariness with which executions are carried out in this country,” and that this arbitrariness “runs contrary to the very purpose of a ‘rule of law.’” Lee’s execution, Breyer writes, is a case in point.
As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported, the Supreme Court’s ruling was conveyed to Arkansas authorities at 11:26 p.m. Eighteen minutes later, the state began administering lethal injection to Lee. According to the state, Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m., just four minutes before his death warrant expired.
Lee was convicted of the 1993 killing of Debra Reese. But there are so many unanswered questions in the case, and many indicators that Lee was not given a fair trial, or proper access to justice, as Fusion has reported. So given the questionable manner in which Lee was tried and convicted, and the possibility that new evidence could exonerate him, wouldn’t the natural inclination be to err on the side of sparing Lee’s life? Apparently not, according to Gorsuch.
If the truth of Lee’s guilt or innocence finally does emerge, it’ll obviously be too late. But if DNA evidence does posthumously clear Lee’s name, part of the burden of blame will lie squarely on the shoulders of our new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, who claims that all life is valuable.