Washington — The longest pause in executions in the U.S. in 25 years is about to end.
A splintered Supreme Court cleared the way Wednesday, approving the most widely used method of lethal injection.
Almost immediately, Virginia lifted its moratorium on the death penalty. Mississippi and Oklahoma said they would seek execution dates for convicted murderers, and other states were ready to follow.
A nearly seven-month halt in executions was brought on by the court's decision to review Kentucky's lethal injection procedures, which are similar to those in roughly three dozen states. The break is the longest since a 17-month period ending in August 1982.
Voting 7-2, the conservative court led by Chief Justice John Roberts rebuffed the latest assault on capital punishment, this time by foes focusing on methods rather than on the legality of the death penalty itself. Justice John Paul Stevens voted with the majority on the question of lethal injections but said for the first time that he now believes the death penalty is unconstitutional.
The court turned back a challenge to the Kentucky procedures that employ three drugs to sedate, paralyze and kill inmates. Similar methods are used by roughly three dozen states.
Death penalty opponents said challenges to lethal injections would continue in states where problems with administering the drugs are well documented.
The case decided Wednesday was not about the constitutionality of the death penalty generally or even lethal injection. Instead, two Kentucky death row inmates contended that their executions could be carried out more humanely, with less risk of pain.
The inmates "have not carried their burden of showing that the risk of pain from maladministration of a concededly humane lethal injection protocol, and the failure to adopt untried and untested alternatives, constitute cruel and unusual punishment," Chief Justice John Roberts said in an opinion that garnered only three votes. Four other justices, however, agreed with the outcome.
Roberts also suggested that the court will not halt scheduled executions in the future unless "the condemned prisoner establishes that the state's lethal injection protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain."
States can avoid this risk by using the three-drug procedure approved in the Kentucky case, Roberts said.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.