The death penalty: killing them nicely?

Debating what constitutes as ‘humane executions’ allows politicians to avoid discussing abolition, argues Robert Walsh.


Execution by its nature, is not 'humane' Mark Coggins under a Creative Commons Licence

‘Perhaps my execution will help do away with capital punishment’ – Robert Harmon, gassed at San Quentin, 9 August 1960.

Clayton Lockett’s death was so horrendous it reignited the long-running debate around developing more humane execution methods. It even reached President Obama who, according to his press secretary Jay Carney, is a reluctant supporter of capital punishment for especially heinous crimes. Paraphrasing the president, Carney stated that the US has a fundamental duty to carry out executions humanely, but that everybody would recognize this case fell short of humane standards.

Debate about humane executions has existed for many decades. Originally executions were performed publicly, often for maximum cruelty. Towards the end of the 19th century pressure grew to deliver faster and cleaner death to the condemned. The British refined hanging, evolving it from a slow, painful, bawdy public spectacle to a sombre, private event behind prison walls. At the time of the last British executions in August 1964, the process was so refined it took mere seconds from start to finish. The Americans developed entirely new methods. They replaced the gallows with the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad and lethal injection. Like the British they made executions private, removing them from public view. Each new method was marketed as being a more humane alternative to its predecessor.

If we are committed to execute the worst of the worst, we should execute by a method and in a manner that forthrightly acknowledges it as a punishment.

The idea of humane executions is a smokescreen. Although dispensing virtually instant death is possible, diminishing the mental suffering for condemned inmates, their families and their advocates is not. It’s also impossible to imprison inmates humanely for 15 or 20 years while their hopes are raised and dashed during the appeals process.

Killing them in seconds does nothing to alleviate the suffering during their years behind bars, waiting to die. Talking about humane executions distracts from debate about universal abolition. While death penalty supporters and opponents discuss less painful methods they discuss the technicalities of execution rather than whether the State should execute at all. It doesn’t serve abolitionists to waste time and energy debating the best ways to continue something that they’re trying to abolish. It certainly doesn’t help condemned inmates like Clayton Lockett. It might, however, be useful to some of the more hawkish death penalty supporters to evade discussing abolition.

Lockett’s death lies at the heart of the conflict between refining executions and complete abolition. After European drug companies boycotted the sales of drugs used in lethal injection, Oklahoma and other states had to find alternative suppliers or use different drugs. Oklahoma used a new three-drug combination on Lockett that had never been used before, vastly increasing the likelihood of complications. Lockett’s extreme suffering shows that experimental executions, essentially killing people on a trial-and-error basis, are a hazard for condemned inmates.

Presenting these killings as constitutional, demonstrates the fundamental contradiction in the premise of the so-called ‘humane execution’

Lockett might have died differently if not for the drive towards sanitizing executions. Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection, although Texas was the first to use it. Previously, Oklahoma’s condemned faced the electric chair. Lethal injection steadily replaced other methods due to increasing pressure to provide the appearance of humane death. Yet, as acknowledged by noted death penalty supporter Professor Robert Blecker: ‘We should face what we do directly. Not sugarcoat it. Not surround it with medical personnel making the execution scene virtually indistinguishable from a hospice. If we are committed to execute the worst of the worst, we should execute by a method and in a manner that forthrightly acknowledges it as a punishment.’

Noted anti-death penalty advocate Clive Stafford Smith is equally vehement about the pretence of humane killing, though from the other side of the debate: ‘I have watched two men die on the gurney, just as I watched two die in the gas chamber and two in the electric chair before them, and I can attest that there is no decent way to conduct this indecent ritual.’

Smith’s colleague Maya Foa is equally blunt about using condemned inmates as guinea pigs: ‘This execution demonstrates that without transparency, there is a far higher risk of causing extreme suffering to the prisoner. States need to stop conducting secretive, experimental executions. The contortions which executioners are going through to try to present these killings as constitutional, demonstrates the fundamental contradiction in the premise of the so-called ‘humane execution’. It is also a clear demonstration of why no responsible pharmaceutical firm or pharmacy wants to get involved in selling drugs to executioners.’

Blecker is equally scathing about official tendencies to portray lethal injection as a quasi-medical act. Officials in Missouri describe an execution as a ‘procedure.’ Although the American Medical Association (AMA) has long pushed its members to refuse active involvement in executions, the needles used are often inserted by what officials call ‘medical technicians’ using equipment common in routine medical work.

‘Talking in terms of medical terminology anaesthetizes us to what we’re doing with the death penalty: killing a helpless human being who poses no threat to us, because and only because he deserves it,’ according to Blecker.

Whatever the fall-out from the Lockett case, botched experimental executions look likely to continue.

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