Last night, a man was fed his last meal (price not to exceed $15), strapped down onto a gurney, and wheeled in front of a small group of spectators. He was asked if he had any last words, and then a doctor began the intravenous dosage of the first of three drugs – never before used to kill a human in that exact quantity – in an effort to render him unconscious before stopping his heart. Government officials and the people in the viewing chamber then watched, for 43 minutes, as the man convulsed and writhed in pain, attempting to lift himself off the gurney and out of his leather restraints on more than one occasion, eventually managing to utter “I’m not,” and “something’s wrong.” The curtains to the viewing chamber were eventually closed, journalists were ushered out, and the second state murder planned for the evening was postponed. The man on the gurney eventually died of a heart attack.
Though this sounds like a passage out of a dystopian novel, it happened last night, in the state of Oklahoma, in the year 2014, to a convicted murderer named Clayton Lockett. The official explanation for his prolonged death was a ruptured vein.
In 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected a constitutional challenge to the practice of killing inmates by means of lethal injection (the existing method in the thirty-five states) because, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, lethal injection does not involve a “substantial risk of serious harm.” Under any other circumstances, the dearth of possible serious harm is not a concept I would take issue with – except we’re talking about the government murdering an individual. There will not be any serious harm, but there will be death. How does this make any sense?
The system of capital punishment in the United States illustrates a typically American devotion to a technological solution to just about any dilemma. We believe ourselves to have made immense moralistic strides since the days of public hangings, death by firing squads, and the electric chair. None of these methods necessarily guaranteed a swift, painless death. They were messy, as in the execution of the likely-innocent Jesse Tafero. During Tafero’s 1990 execution in “Old Sparky,” Florida’s grotesquely named electric chair, six-inch flames erupted from his head, and three additional jolts of power were required to finally kill him. Florida officials blamed “inadvertent human error” for the botched execution. Or, take the death of Donald Eugene Harding, executed in Arizona in 1992. The state’s preferred method of killing prisoners at the time was asphyxiation in a gas chamber; Harding lived for almost 11 minutes after the cyanide had been released into the room. He thrashed and struggled violently – a television journalist covering the execution said that Harding’s spasms and jerks lasted 6 minutes and 37 seconds. “Obviously, this man was suffering,” he wrote. “This was a violent death … an ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely.” The list of botched executions is long and horrifying. Just last month, the state of Ohio attempted to execute Dennis McGuire with a never-before-used cocktail of drugs; it took McGuire 25 agonizing minutes to die.
What the outcry over these bungled executions makes clear is this: attempting to make any means of execution “humane” is wholly oxymoronic. It only serves to emphasize the ludicrousness of a civilized society allowing the death penalty. There is no technology; no drug; no level of sanitized secrecy; no Supreme Court decision that will counteract the fact that we are strapping our fellow human beings to gurneys and allowing the state to murder them. We need to stop attempting to make the process palatable – an impossible task where death is involved – and end the death penalty.