The death penalty: killing them nicely?

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The death penalty: killing them nicely?

Robert Walsh says that when politicians talk about ‘humane executions’ , they avoid talking about stopping the death penalty


Execution cannot be 'humane'(Mark Coggins under a Creative Commons Licence)

"Perhaps my execution will help stop capital punishment" – Robert Harmon, who was gassed at San Quentin, 9 August 1960.

Clayton Lockett’s death was so terrible that it started the conversation again about more humane ways of execution. President Obama is also thinking about it. His press secretary Jay Carney says Obama is a supporter of capital punishment but only for really terrible crimes. Reporting Obama’s words, Jay Carney said that it is right that the US does executions humanely, but that everybody would agree that this execution was not humane.

People have talked about humane executions for a long time. At first executions were in public, often to be as cruel as possible. Near the end of the 19th century there was a need to make death faster and cleaner. The British changed hanging from a slow, painful, public show to something quiet and private behind prison walls. At the time of the last British executions in August 1964, it took only seconds from start to finish. The Americans found new methods - the electric chair, the gas chamber, the firing squad, and lethal injection. Like the British they made executions private not public. People said each new method was more humane than before.

The idea of humane executions is not the real problem. Making death quick is possible. Making the mental suffering for prisoners, their families, and their advocates is not. It’s also impossible to imprison criminals humanely for 15 or 20 years while they are given hopes and then their hopes are taken away during the appeals.

Killing them in seconds does not stop the suffering when they are in prison for years and waiting to die. Talking about humane executions stops us from talking about stopping executions everywhere. When death penalty supporters and opponents talk about less painful methods they are not thinking about if it is a good idea for the State to execute someone. If people want to stop executions, it is a waste of time and energy to talk about the best ways to do executions. It certainly doesn’t help prisoners like Clayton Lockett. It does possibly help the people who want to keep the death penalty not to talk about stopping it.

Lockett’s death makes us think about the problem of making executions easier or stopping them. European drug companies stopped selling drugs used in executions, Oklahoma and other states had to find other companies or use different drugs. Oklahoma used a new drug on Lockett for the first time. This increased the chances of problems. Lockett’s suffering shows that trying new ways of killing people is a risk for prisoners.

The way Lockett died possibly came from the idea of making executions easier and more medical. Oklahoma was the first state to accept lethal injection but Texas was the first to use it. Before, Oklahoma used the electric chair. Lethal injection was used more and more to make executions seem humane.

Professor Robert Blecker is a supporter of the death penalty. He says it is a good idea to face what we do directly. Not to make it easier. Not to make it like something in a hospital. If we want to execute the worst criminals, it is a good idea to execute in a way that says this is a punishment.

Clive Stafford Smith does not support the death penalty. He says he watched two men die with lethal injection, two die in the gas chamber, and two in the electric chair. And he says very clearly that there is no good way to do this.

Smith’s colleague Maya Foa is also very serious about using prisoners to try new drugs. She says that Lockett’s execution shows that without openness, there is a bigger risk of suffering for the prisoner. States need to stop secret executions. What the executioners are doing to try to say these killings are constitutional, shows that there is a big problem with saying executions are humane. It also shows clearly why no drugs company wants to sell drugs to executioners.

Blecker also thinks it is not a good idea to try to see lethal injection as medical. Officials in Missouri describe an execution as a ‘procedure.’ Although the American Medical Association has asked its members to refuse to help in executions, the needles are often used by what officials call ‘medical technicians’ with medical equipment.

Blecker says that talking about execution as medical stops us seeing what we are doing with the death penalty. We are killing a helpless human being who is no danger to us, because and only because he deserves it.

After the Lockett case, mistakes with new ways of doing executions look likely to continue.

Robert Walsh is a freelance journalist who writes on military history and crime.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)