Wired has an article up on America’s long history of botched executions.
Two weeks ago, things went horribly wrong with the execution of Clayton D. Lockett, a 38-year old Oklahoma man convicted of shooting a young woman and burying her alive. After executioners initiated what was meant to be a lethal injection, Lockett began writhing and tried to rise from the table; he died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after the procedure began. But we should not be surprised.
For his new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College researched the history of botched executions in the United States. And there have been plenty.
I suspect I’m saying this to the choir, particularly since many of my readers are outside of the US, but it’s really time to kill the death penalty (pun fully intended). Increasingly, no one wants anything to do with it. The AMA (American Medical Association) doesn’t want medical personnel involved with it, drug companies don’t want to sell their drugs for use in it, and states are using it less and less.
Indeed, the death penalty is so rare now, that any supposed deterrent on crime is long since gone. (And that deterrence was always questionable anyway.) We don’t use the death penalty pervasively because it’s easy to screw up and wrongly convict someone, and death is the one sentence that can’t ever be corrected, even partially, once it’s been wrongfully imposed. When the death penalty is carried out, it’s often decades after the crime was committed.
Even if the motive for keeping it is retribution, it’s always seemed odd to me that a humane execution (when it can be pulled off) was considered a greater penalty than living the rest of your life in a maximum security prison. Indeed, when juries are informed that they have the option of sentencing a convict to life in prison with no possibility of parole, they almost always take that option instead of the death penalty.
By any measure, the death penalty isn’t working anymore. The only thing it does at this point is provide a money pit for already stretched judicial systems. I’ve read of municipalities shunning the death penalty on particular cases primarily because they couldn’t afford it, much to the frustration of prosecuters.
Increasingly, the US is becoming an isolated hold out on this. Europe abolished it decades ago, and the trend worldwide is toward abolition. The countries that keep it tend to be repressive regimes; not exactly company we want to be lumped in with.
Are there people who deserve death? Probably, but history has shown that our ability to determine that is flawed, at best. And we can’t give life back once we’ve taken it. For that reason alone, the death penalty should go. When combined with the other issues, morally, financially, pragmatically, the death sentence no longer makes sense. It’s time to throw the death penalty on the scrap heap of history, alongside flogging, slavery, human sacrifice, and many of the other practices we long ago concluded were barbaric.