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What Should We Do About Botched Executions? Stop Executing People

Several horrific executions by lethal injection have prompted calls for reform — but more perfect killing methods shouldn't be our aim.
May 7, 2014, 6:55pm
Photo via State of California

The brutally botched lethal injections plaguing the US criminal justice system this year have collectively been called a "crisis." But that's a misnomer — the continued existence of capital punishment is the crisis.

It is true that, in the wake of the shortage of the anesthetic pentobarbital typically used in lethal cocktails — the European Union instituted an ethics-driven ban on export of the drug for use in executions — particularly cruel and unusual state killings have been carried out in recent months. Most notably, the state killing of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last week prompted rightful collective disgust. The execution used a previously untried lethal cocktail and took 1 hour and 44 minutes; for 43 of those minutes, Lockett groaned and writhed before eventually dying of a heart attack.

This incident is not unique: When authorities in Ohio administered an untested drug cocktail to Dennis McGuire in January, he appeared to gasp for air for 26 minutes before dying. A week earlier in Oklahoma, Michael Lee Wilson exclaimed "I feel my whole body burning” when an injection developed in an unregulated compounding pharmacy sent him to a slow death.

A lengthy report on these incidents published today by the Constitution Project included the distressing detail that the specific chemical combinations being deployed in the wake of the pentobarbital shortages are banned in some states from use by veterinarians when putting down animals. The three-drug combination is believed to cause suffocation through paralysis while the dying animal is still fully awake.

Three-drug lethal cocktails are not new to execution protocols; the method was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2007. But that was before the US ran out of pentobarbital. The EU's moratorium should have prompted a pause for thought over the barbarous practice of state execution. Instead, it prompted a scramble for new chemicals, and a dangerous reliance on compounding pharmacies. The results have been quite literally excruciating.

As long as states condone sanctioned murder, the impossibility of scientific surety over "clean" deaths looms large — and there's no test run for taking a life.

It is a sad reflection of capital punishment's immutable position in certain US state justice systems that a string of torturous and tortured executions have spurred debate about how the state can better kill people, rather than an empowered push to outlaw state murder. Death row is going nowhere, and as a result, the US remains an archaically sovereign state, ruling over life by administering death.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing death row inmates can do little more than push for execution stays as they demand more information and more certainty that deaths will not come after slow torture. Attorney Maurie Levin has filed a stay of execution motion on behalf of Texas death row prisoner Robert James Campbell in the wake of the latest Oklahoma horror. The motion filing expresses the current concern over untried drug combinations — namely that, with the cocktail recipe veiled in secrecy, there can be no assurance that botched executions won't continue. The lawsuit states, "The fact that Oklahoma attempted to execute Mr. Lockett using a different protocol that did not include the chemical (compounded pentobarbital) called for by Texas' current protocol does not obviate a risk that derives primarily from the secrecy of the entire process." In other words, just because Oklahoma did it incredibly badly doesn't mean Texas can do it correctly.

In line with demands for unified standards and transparency, the Constitution Project has urged states to adopt a “one-drug protocol” that kills an inmate with a single high dose of an anesthetic or barbiturate. As the report grimly notes, this is the preferred method for euthanizing an animal. And indeed, when the options are a protracted, painful death or a swift and painless execution, the latter is preferred. But these deliberations should be off the table; death penalty abolition should be the order of the day.

As long as states condone sanctioned murder, the impossibility of scientific surety over "clean" deaths looms large. There is no test run for taking a life, and there are no re-tries for Lockett or Wilson or McGuire; the suffering during their executions is indelible. There's one sure way to end painful experimental executions, and that is to end executions. Short of this, we are confined to a ghastly calculus in which the ideal outcome is a quick death.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Photo via Wikimedia Commons