In what has become too common a story of late, there was a botched execution this week. In their eagerness to end a man’s life, and in the absence of the drugs historically used for executions (due to objections by the makers of those drugs that their product was being used to kill people), officials in Arizona used a mysterious and unproven cocktail of drugs to torture a man to death. Of course, death penalty supporters, including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, claim that Joseph Rudolph Wood did not suffer. But, torture is the only word to describe an execution that consisted of a man gasping for air for nearly two hours before finally dying.
My intention is not to defend Wood. He was convicted of shooting and killing a woman and her father in 1989. There were no appeals claiming he was wrongly convicted. The only attempts to prevent his execution came on the grounds that the drugs used and their source should be disclosed before the execution could take place. This appeal was denied by the Supreme Court, allowing the execution to go forward as planned.
Of course, it did not go as planned. Nor did two other executions this year where the drug Midazolam was used in place of drugs that are no longer available. But, it was so important to the people of Arizona that Wood be killed that they were willing to use a drug that had twice before had disastrous results. Of course, these results were not disastrous if the only intention is to kill someone. In that case, all three uses were successful, eventually. But, the use of the death penalty, legally anyway, hinges on it being carried out in a way that does not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. To many, these recent executions do not meet that standard.
But, some would argue that all executions, regardless of the method or duration, are cruel and unusual. A statement from Amnesty International takes this position:
The prolonged execution of a prisoner in Arizona yesterday represents another wake-up call for authorities in the USA to abolish the death penalty, said Amnesty International.
“How many more times do officials need to be reminded of the myth of the ‘humane execution’ before they give up on their experiment with judicial killing?” asked Rob Freer, Amnesty International Researcher on the USA.
At least three executions have not gone according to plan in the USA this year alone.
Amnesty International does not believe that there is any such thing as a humane execution, or that the cruelty of the death penalty is confined to what goes on in the death chamber.
Holding someone under a threat of death – for years or even decades – can hardly be described as the conduct of a state adopting a progressive approach to criminal justice or human rights.
“However the state chooses to kill the prisoner – and whether the execution goes according to plan or not – does not change the fact that this is a punishment incompatible with fundamental human rights principles,” said Rob Freer.
The death penalty in the USA is riddled with arbitrariness, discrimination and error. In recent years, death penalty states in the USA have faced problems obtaining drugs for lethal injection and have resorted to questionable sources and secrecy in seeking to continue judicial killing by this method.
I agree wholeheartedly with Amnesty International’s position on capital punishment. Carrying out executions in such a reckless manner is using people as experiment test subjects. And, while these people are presumably bad people (or, at least people who have done very bad things), they are still human and deserving of a certain level of respect and humanity. What does it say about us as a society that we condone this kind of treatment?
Capital punishment is not about justice. There is no justice to be found in the taking of a human life, even if that person has himself taken the life of another. Execution of murderers is about vengeance. And, what is accomplished? The victims of these crimes are not brought back. The families of the victims are not made whole when a killer is put to death. And, the state is not improved by executing one of its citizens. In fact, the state, and those who act on its behalf, are now guilty of the very crime they are seeking to punish. Ignoring this hypocrisy does not make it any more tolerable.
Even common sense would show its flaws. It is far more expensive to execute someone than to simply sentence a convicted killer to life in prison. People have been executed and later been proven to be innocent. And, it doesn’t even accomplish its primary goal, as capital punishment has been shown to have zero effect as a crime deterrent. But, executing people is not about that. It is about blood lust. Just like we can cheer when villages are destroyed in foreign countries, we can cheer when criminals are killed here at home. But, is any death, even that of someone we have marked as evil, worth celebrating? We should be mourning, if not for the criminal, then at least for our own lack of humanity.
As a country that claims to be a world leader in morality and compassion for its people, there is no way to justify the continued use of capital punishment. And, to see it continue (and to see it even be celebrated–remember the crowds of people cheering the huge number of people who had been executed in Texas during the last presidential primary?) is sickening. The death penalty is indefensible, both morally and legally. Most of the rest of the world sees that:
To date, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The USA is approaching its 1400th execution since resuming judicial killing under revised capital statutes in 1977.
We should be better than that. And, we can be. Abolishing the death penalty is a must.