How Not to Botch Executions

The way to end inhumane killings is to abolish capital punishment
Illustration by Bloomberg View; Photographs by Getty Images

On July 23, Arizona killed murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood by lethal injection. Wood took two hours to die as he gasped for breath, by one account, “like a fish on shore gulping for air.”

Arizona’s was the fourth botched execution by lethal injection in the U.S. this year. One way to end these grotesque and inhumane spectacles would be to outlaw this method. The only sure way is to abolish capital punishment altogether.

The rationale for death by lethal injection was to provide a more humane way of killing than the gas chamber or the electric chair. It hasn’t worked out that way.

U.S. prison officials have been experimenting with injection formulas because the European companies that make the drugs they once used have stopped selling to them.

Plainly, though, prison authorities don’t know what they’re doing. The drug mix that Arizona used on Wood was based on the one that led to a botched execution in Ohio in January. A different combination in Oklahoma in April was supposed to render a murderer unconscious, but instead he writhed and groaned. Officials halted the proceedings, and he died of a heart attack.

States have refused to publicly reveal the qualifications of those prison authorities, the provenance of the drugs they are using, or how they developed the protocols. But they are coming under increasing pressure to do so. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sensibly ruled in July that the public has a right to know this information, although the Supreme Court reversed the decision.

Some states are thinking of going back to the electric chair, the gas chamber, or the firing squad. That’s no solution. As the Supreme Court has ruled, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment draws its meaning from the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Even if prison authorities were to land upon a drug protocol that dispatched the condemned without torment or delay, this year’s execution record provides other grounds for abolishing the death penalty: It’s imposed disproportionately on those whose victims were white. Overall, whites make up less than half of homicide victims, yet three-fourths of the victims of men put to death this year were white. And capital punishment is disproportionately meted out to the poor and uneducated.

Then there’s a chance that the state will execute an innocent person. In 40 years, more than 130 people have been freed from death row after evidence emerged of their wrongful convictions. Executions make wrongful convictions impossible to correct.

One can debate the rights and wrongs of capital punishment in principle. In practice, this list of disgusting defects is a sufficient case for abolition. A majority of Americans still favor the death penalty, but opposition has been growing. With prison wardens again drawing curtains around gruesome executions, more Americans may come around to rejecting the idea.

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