A Death Row Inmate Asked SCOTUS If He Can Die by Firing Squad, and It Said Yes

Georgia death row inmate Michael Nance seen in an undated photo. ​

Georgia death row inmate Michael Nance seen in an undated photo.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Georgia death row inmate can die by firing squad, instead of lethal injection. The 5-4 decision in Nance v. Ward opens up another avenue for inmates to pick the execution method of their choice, even if their state doesn’t allow it. 

Lethal injection in the country is currently undergoing a reckoning that’s been a long time coming. Over the last decade, inmates in several states have convulsed, gasped, and vomited after receiving the dose meant to kill them, and the courts have repeatedly waffled on whether the method constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus, violates the Eighth Amendment. 

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In the case of death row inmate Michael Nance, he sued to prevent Georgia from killing him via lethal injection. Nance, who’s in his early 60s, argued that his veins are “severely compromised” and would likely “blow” during the injection, causing “intense pain and burning.” (As recently as May, Arizona spent 25 minutes trying to find a vein on 67-year-old Clarence Dixon and eventually had to put the IV in his groin.)

Nance, who was convicted of murder in 1997 for shooting a driver after robbing a bank, instead wanted to die by firing squad, which the Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional in the past. Despite being, at face value, a more grotesque method of execution, the firing squad is undergoing something of a resurgence in the U.S. South Carolina currently plans to kill Richard Moore with a bullet to the heart, which would mark the first time a firing squad has been used in the country since Ronnie Gardner in Utah in 2010. 

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Georgia doesn’t currently have protocols in place for firing squad executions—but the Supreme Court has said that’s OK in the past. The state could also pass a new law authorizing the firing squad, as Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Carolina have all done. Instead, the issue facing the justices was a procedural one—Nance sued under federal civil rights law Section 1983.

“The question presented is whether §1983 is still a proper vehicle. We hold that it is,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion. 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, however, disagreed based on the concept of federalism. In her dissenting opinion, she argued that because Georgia could have ultimately been blocked from carrying out Nance’s execution, if the state couldn’t find a way to figure out the firing squad, allowing him the option risks infringing on states’ rights. 

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