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Justices’ silence after votes on executions underscores contrast

On prior courts, dissent common

WASHINGTON — No one on the Supreme Court objected publicly when the justices voted to let Arizona proceed with the execution of Joseph Wood, who unsuccessfully sought information about the drugs that would be used to kill him.

Inmates in Florida and Missouri went to their deaths by lethal injection in the preceding weeks after the high court refused to block their executions. Again, no justice said the executions should be stopped.

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Even as the number of executions annually has dropped by more than half over the past 15 years and the court has barred states from killing juveniles and the mentally disabled, no justice has emerged as a principled opponent of the death penalty.

This court differs from some of its predecessors. Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented every time their colleagues ruled against death row inmates, and Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, near the end of their long careers, came to view capital punishment as unconstitutional.

Wood’s execution on July 23 was the 26th in the United States this year and the third in which prisoners took much longer than usual to die. Wood, convicted of killing his estranged girlfriend and her father, was pronounced dead nearly two hours after his execution began, and Wood appeared to gasp repeatedly, hundreds of times in all, before he died.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she and her colleagues are aware of what happened in Arizona, though she declined to say how the court would rule on a plea to stop the next scheduled execution — of Michael Worthington on Wednesday in Missouri.

The court’s rejection of Wood’s claim that he was entitled to learn more about Arizona’s procedures and the source of the execution drugs came at the end of protracted legal wrangling. A federal judge in Arizona initially denied Wood’s claim. The federal appeals court in San Francisco then granted a reprieve. But the justices reversed that ruling in a brief order. The court said the judge who initially ruled against Wood ‘‘did not abuse his discretion.’’

Suspects seeking a last-minute reprieve rarely succeed, a function of the need for five votes on the nine-justice Supreme Court and the reluctance of appellate judges to disturb lower court rulings unless they are demonstrably wrong.

The substance of capital punishment issues usually finds its way to the justices when there is no time pressure. In January, the court heard arguments in a case over a Florida law that used a rigid threshold in intelligence test scores in cases of borderline mental disability.

In late May, a five-justice majority led by Anthony Kennedy struck down the law because it ‘‘contravenes our nation’s commitment to dignity.’’

The soaring language that Kennedy often favors in his opinions has led some death penalty experts to believe that he eventually will provide the fifth vote, along with those of the court’s four liberal justices, to end or severely restrict the use of the death penalty.

‘‘It is impossible to reconcile that language with the secrecy surrounding lethal injections,’’ said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. ‘‘My assumption is quite a lot is happening behind the scenes.’’

Ginsburg cautioned not to read too much into the absence of public dissent when the court rejects 11th-hour appeals to stop executions. ‘‘When a stay is denied, it doesn’t mean we are in fact unanimous,’’ she said.

Still, Ifill said the court’s unwillingness so far to deal with states’ reluctance to reveal much about the provenance of lethal injection drugs is troubling.

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