Death Penalty

A Lethal Injection of Reality

Medicalizing executions helps maintain support for the death penalty.

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Sixteen minutes into last week's botched lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the warden closed the blinds on the windows to the execution chamber and turned off the sound so that witnesses could not see Clayton Lockett writhe or hear him moan. The procedure, designed to resemble a medical treatment—albeit one with an involuntary patient and a very low probability of recovery—had begun to look uncomfortably like the cold-blooded killing of a helpless person.

Since Lockett was himself guilty of such a killing, having been convicted of shooting a 19-year-old woman during a burglary and watching as his accomplices buried her alive, many Americans—most, judging from public opinion polls—would say justice was done. But the eagerness of death penalty advocates to address the shortcomings revealed by Lockett's drawn-out demise suggests that majority support for capital punishment depends on sanitizing the practice to conceal its true nature.

Thomas Szasz, the late critic of coercive psychiatry and the "therapeutic state," argued that "physician-assisted suicide," which gives terminal patients access to lethal drugs by prescription, misleadingly medicalizes a moral issue. The same is true of "physician-assisted execution," with the added complication that most people with medical expertise do not want to assist executions because they view their proper function as saving people's lives rather than killing them.

That reluctance seems to have been the main reason it took so long to kill Lockett, who died of a massive heart attack more than an hour and a half after he was wheeled, strapped to a gurney, into the execution chamber. A technician spent 51 minutes looking for a suitable vein, finally settling on Lockett's groin.

The needle evidently was not inserted properly, because Lockett was still conscious after the first drug sent through the IV tube—midazolam, a benzodiazepine—should have knocked him out. It seems he therefore could feel the suffocating effect of the next drug, the paralytic agent vecuronium bromide, and the burning, muscle cramps, and chest pain caused by the potassium chloride that was supposed to stop his heart.

Witnesses reported that Lockett twitched, repeatedly tried to sit up, and mumbled "oh, man" after he was pronounced unconscious. According to one of Lockett's lawyers, "It looked like torture." He died 43 minutes after the first drug was administered.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin promised to find out exactly what went wrong with Lockett's lethal injection and in the meantime suspended further executions. But why does it matter that Lockett, having committed a crime heinous enough to merit the death penalty—which involves not just the loss of life but the mental torture of knowing it's coming—got a taste of the suffering he inflicted on his victim as that sentence was carried out?

It matters because lethal injection, first adopted by Oklahoma in 1977, is supposed to be "the most humane form" of capital punishment, as New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean called it when he signed a bill reinstating the death penalty in 1982. But in this context, "humane" really means "acceptable." The point is not to make condemned murderers comfortable; the point is to make us comfortable.

There are some obvious fixes that would make headline-grabbing fiascos like Lockett's prolonged death less likely. Better training of the technicians who carry out lethal injections would help, and so would simplification of Oklahoma's needlessly complicated protocol, which calls for three drugs when one large dose of a barbiturate such as sodium thiopental would do.

But if preventing unnecessary pain is the goal, it is hard to improve on the firing squad or the guillotine. Such old-fashioned methods were abandoned not because they were too painful but because they were too bloody.

As Lockett's execution vividly demonstrated, those two concerns are distinct. One has to do with how a condemned prisoner feels as we kill him; the other has to do with how we feel about killing him. Medicalizing executions helps us avoid the latter question. 

NEXT: Brickbat: The Big Cover Up

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  1. “…sanitizing the practice to conceal its true nature.”

    Let’s pretend that we are not savages at heart.

    1. Owww-ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
      Nope. Can’t do it.

  2. I have a hard time working up sympathy in this case. I’ve never been an advocate of humane killing. It should be brutal and public, and should be used on any officer of the law who killed an innocent member of the public – regardless of circumstances.

    1. It should be brutal and public, and should be used on any officer of the law who killed an innocent member of the public – regardless of circumstances.

      Because that has worked out well historically.

      No, LEOs should be held to the same standard and issued the same punishments as the citizenry.

      1. Because that has worked out well historically.

        What historical precedent is there for executing law enforcement officers who kill innocent citizens?

        No, LEOs should be held to the same standard and issued the same punishments as the citizenry.

        Considering their oft-ballyhooed professional training on dealing with conflict and the use of deadly force, you don’t think it appropriate for LEOs to be held to a higher standard?

        1. What historical precedent is there for executing law enforcement officers who kill innocent citizens?

          Nuremberg, for one.

          1. Well, there’s one. Got any more? Enough to adequately make your counter point? Like about 10 million more (give or take)?

    2. UnCivil, the hardest part of combatting monsters is to avoid becoming one yourself.

      1. That’s why you have to export the monsters you use for cleaning house, David Drake style.

      2. Suthenboy, you start from the unsubstantiated assumption that I am not already a monster.

        1. *headsmack*

          You got me there.

    3. “It should be brutal and public, and should be used on any officer of the law who killed an innocent member of the public – regardless of circumstances.”

      Because this has something to do with the article…

      Perhaps the Romans were onto something with crucifixion.

      1. Time to bring back decimation. Cops in a department committed or covered up a crime? Time for decimation, baby!

        1. hehe, like your style. Wouldn’t mind sticking it to cops like that.

  3. “the most humane form” of capital punishment

    or the more “scientific” in the common understanding of the word as “magical”.

  4. “Such old-fashioned methods were abandoned not because they were too painful but because they were too bloody”

    They were abandoned in large part because death penalty opponents argued that they were too brutal. The advocates are trying to find something acceptable within the confines of the box the opponents have defined.

    1. It’s pretty hard to come up with some form of murder by mafia-like bureaucracy that isn’t brutal.

      And by “pretty hard” I mean “impossible”.

      Cold-blooded, premeditated killing is what it is.

  5. Government is incomprehensibly incompetent at the vast majority of the things it attempts. That is just baked into the nature of it. It is made up of people, fallible, corruptible people. People who are spending someone else’s money, people who are rarely ever held accountable for their corruption or their mistakes.

    The death penalty serves two purposes, in theory. First it removes monsters from among us. Second, those monsters are given what they deserve. In theory. In practice it is a huge mistake to let government engage in something as complex as deciding and dispensing what is deserved. That is a recipe for certain disaster.

    1. That.

      I’m not against the death penalty because I believe it to be cruel. I’m against it because I can’t trust the government to not fuck it up.

    2. And your solution is?

      1. Thank you.

        See my reply to LiveFree below.

    3. In practice it is a huge mistake to let government engage in something as complex as deciding and dispensing what is deserved.

      So you are against having a criminal justice system and would prefer a civil-only system of justice where only quantifiable property could be weighed? That’s actually a thing, so I’m not just being a smartass. If you don’t, you’re kind of a hypocrite.

    4. Anyone you allowed to do it would be called gov’t by you.

  6. A technician spent 51 minutes looking for a suitable vein, finally settling on Lockett’s groin.

    Oh, FFS! Hadn’t heard that tidbit.

  7. Also a massive mistake in theory. Incarceration and execution are both admissions that punishment is not expected to work. The government is merely removing the threat from society for as long as it is reasonable to expect it to take for the criminal to resume civil behavior. Life in prison and execution both say there’s no expectation for civil behavior to resume.

    1. This was supposed to be a reply to Suthenboy.

      1. I got that.

        I was waiting for someone to point out that what I said could also apply to incarceration, and thus leave us with no option for any kind of criminal justice system. If government can’t do it, then who can? Obviously any organized group of human beings can fall prey to the same mistakes as any other, but having no criminal justice system is not a very satisfying conclusion.

        I am ok with incarceration. When mistakes are made at least some remedy is available. With the death penalty, not so much.

        Additionally, the flaws I mentioned with government can be somewhat tempered by the inclusion of juries in the system.

        It aint perfect, but until all men are angels, its what we’ve got.

    2. Never thought of that before. It’s interesting but I don’t know that I totally agree. I think life in prison, instead of being an admission that punishment isn’t expected to work, is instead a proclamation that some crimes are so awful that, by committing them, you’ve forfeited your right to ever return to civil society, rehabilitated or not. I’ve never been one of those folks–and there are a lot of them who follow this site who are–who thinks that punishment per se is not an appropriate consideration for criminal laws, in other words that it should solely be about rehabilitation and protection.

  8. I’m interested in the relationship between the anti-death penalty position and pacifism. War is killing, but most people don’t consider everyone who kills in war as being murderers, presumably (though I could be wrong–haven’t really thought this all the way through) because the killing is sanctioned by the state. So if the state can sanction organized killing, can’t it also sanction killing as a punishment for heinous crimes? In other words, if you’re anti-death penalty purely on the principal that the government shouldn’t ever be able to take someone’s life, don’t you have to be pacifist too? I suppose that nominally war can be differentiated as some sort of national self-defense, but that argument is pretty tenuous in most cases.

    1. “There you go again ….”

    2. Somewhat more seriously:

      I agree this stuff is rife with apparent cognitive dissonance. I’m, um, bemused by the debates over whether certain weapons or techniques of war are “legal” or “civilized”. At what point does “when diplomacy fails” become “war crime”?

      1. That reminds me of the first .50 revolver to use smokeless powder. The projectile was a huge wadcutter style bullet with both a hollow nose and base. It was a military cartridge designed to stop the mad howling savages in colonial lands. It was a French cartridge, I forget the name. It sticks in my memory because it was illegal to shoot white people with it. That was considered inhumane.

        1. And don’t get me started on the *crossbow*!

    3. “I suppose that nominally war can be differentiated as some sort of national self-defense, but that argument is pretty tenuous in most cases.”

      You are onto it there, only you have lumped all war together. It is not tenuous. Some wars are self-defense, thus justified and the combatants not murderers. Some wars are not, so even state sanctioned killing is murder.

      This goes to the heart of the fallacy that the state can define what is moral or create and dispense rights.

      1. Aren’t you really just begging the question, though? Who gets to decide which wars are self-defense? Justified to whom? The winners? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these folks who buys all the moral equivalence crap. But let’s not pretend that things are ever really as clear-cut as we’d like them to be.

      2. Put it this way–I think WWII was the most straight-forward war of the 20th Century. The Germans and Japanese were nations of conquest who had and continued to commit atrocities of historic proportions. But let’s not pretend that if they had won, many, many Americans that we consider heroes would not have been convicted of war crimes.

        1. I don’t think I am begging the question. Some wars, as you point out, are pretty straightforwardly one group defending themselves from an aggressor.

          *full stop*

          It just occurred to me that this whole discussion is moot. Wars are people working out their differences with guns. It is kinda pointless to have a philosophical discussion about it.

    4. “… if you’re anti-death penalty purely on the principal that the government shouldn’t ever be able to take someone’s life, don’t you have to be pacifist too?”

      I think it’s logical. Which is why I am anti-death penalty and a pacifist.

      1. I respect that. And that’s also why I’m neither.

    5. That’s what The President’s Analyst was about: the joy of being allowed to kill people, and doing it.

    6. I’d define murder as killing another person, on purpose, not in self defense. So the death penalty definitely fits in there.
      War I see as the thing that happens when the rules of diplomacy decent society don’t work to resolve a conflict. And I’s say that wars are sometimes necessary, but never good.
      Individual soldiers are in some sense defending themselves when they fight, so I wouldn’t ever really call them murderers. The people in charge I’m not so sure about.

      Ultimately, war is all about might makes right. So you can’t really apply moral principles in the same way you would to other situations.

    7. I think part of it is most people agree with their country’s policy when going to war. Luckily, being an American, we’re always on the good side (at least so far. And don’t tell me we’re not, even in the Gulf wars we’re at least fighting some enemy that attacked us first, Though if you ask me any war against any country with muslims in it where we target the muslims would be justified.)

  9. The most permanent of punishments should have the most perfect of processes. Since we obviously don’t have the latter, we might not want to have the former.

    1. Well said.

    2. Second “Well said.”

      Waxing scifi-ish, however, I foresee a time when brain science is used to “prove” a person knowingly committed a crime.

      1. ‘Committed’ or ‘will commit’ ?

        1. That time will come a little later.

  10. Revenge murder cannot be sanitized.

    1. You are obviously unfamiliar with the magical cleansing power of bleach.

  11. Anesthesia and guillotine.

    1. Excellent suggestion. All executions should be public. The prisoner(s) would be brought to the place of execution (usually a Mall) by tumbril. After a pronouncement of the crime, a drum roll, and the guillotine would fall. It’s disposing of the heads that I am concerned with. Possible a public display for a while just to remind people? Anyway, we have lots to learn, so let’s start cracking those books about the French Revolution.

      1. It’s always fairly amusing that the people most able to conjure the most fancifully gory execution scenarios are those ostensibly opposed to the practice. Kinda like the bible belt socons who just can’t stop thinking about the disgusting ways that gay people like to have sex.

        1. Read my comments again. I think you have reading comprehension problems if you did not detect some sarcasm. Or are you one of these people who takes everything literally?

          1. Given the genuine viewpoints you’ve posted here in the past, surely you can see why playing the modest proposal game would be confusing. (There ought to be a law!)

        2. I guess I’m one of those people. The reason I think that they should be gory is that things like lethal injection make it too easy for people to pretend that it is something other than cold blooded killing.
          You never know, maybe that would make executions more popular. But I think that most people don’t have the bloodlust that used to be much more common and public, gory executions would change some minds. It’s sort of lie how many people who eat meat don’t want to think of what all is involved in producing meat.

      2. It’s disposing of the heads that I am concerned with. Possible a public display for a while just to remind people?

        Are you kidding? Auction ’em off!

  12. All bad “jokes” aside. The death penalty never proved a damn thing anywhere at any time. Life imprisonment (obviously without any parole) is the solution for the worst crimes, and after due process. Also, keeping people on death row is very expensive. In any event, lethal injection probably has a better chance of being botched than many other forms of execution. Still, the guillotine should be considered. Ha!

  13. Personally I think that the idea that medicalizing the death penalty is to make it acceptable to the general public is mistaken. The general public is fine with killing “bad guys”. The sanitizing is done to placate people who might want to do away with the death penalty, but feel that they can’t.

    I’m not saying that popular support for the death penalty should excuse it if it’s wrong; that’s a different issue. I’m saying that hangings were popular public entertainment back in the day, and I have little reason to think that the populace has changed all that much.

    There are arguments for doing away with the death penalty. That it might be painful and humiliating for a person actually guilty of brutal crimes isn’t one that has a lot of traction.

    1. I think that the public has changed more than you think. Cock fighting and dog fighting used to be common popular entertainment, but now they are pretty generally considered terrible things.

      Death and gore are just not part of people’s lives as much as they used to be and I think there has been a real change in attitudes about that sort of thing.

      Maybe I’m wrong, who knows?

      1. Dogfights and cockfights have been banned, of and on, for a lot longer than the cessation of public executions, or that’s my impression.

      2. Dogfights and cockfights have been banned, of and on, for a lot longer than the cessation of public executions, or that’s my impression.

      3. Cockfighting and dogfighting lost out to widespread television and cinema–where you can see far more gore, if that’s your thing, or can entertain yourself with all manner of other things.

        Death and gore are just as prevalent–only now we fake it.

        And the senitiment expressed is absolutely correct–the only reason executions take place with lethal injections in quiet back rooms in prisons is because that is the shape of the box that anti-death penalty advocates have created.

  14. The death penalty need to be comfortable for people who do it. The word “humane” is unacceptable in a context of penalty a monster. The murderers and rapists must die like animals on a farm.

    1. It’d be easy to find people who’d love doing it. That’s what The President’s Analyst was about. (He had the exact opposite opinion from the psychiatrist in Analyze This.) If you could arrange for 2 murderers to kill each other, that’d be the ideal; why shouldn’t they have some fun on the way out as a consolation prize?

      The point is, you don’t need everyone to like it. Lots of people can’t even bear healing others if there’s blood involved, but fortunately there are plenty who can.

    2. People generally try to kill animals humanely.

      Revenge is ugly and harmful. Brutalizing a murderer or rapist doesn’t undo any of the evil they did or make anything better for anyone.

      1. Revenge is only one of the motives for execution. As long as a human monster is alive, there is always a chance that some idiot with a theory will manage to get him set free. And to date there is no evidence for a reliable cure for whatever is wrong with people who commit vicious crimes.

        For myself, I would accept that a Ted Bundy was cured when he tried to commit suicide because of the awfulness of what he did. But I’m a Crank.

  15. The point of an execution should be to make all moral people comfortable by removing threats that cannot be dealt with in another way.

  16. Why can’t we use lasers?

    1. Drone strikes! Approved by Democrats and apparently quite effective!

  17. Szasz also specifically mentioned physician attendance at executions as medicalization of a political/moral act. I cannot remember the reference off-hand. If you like, I will look it up

  18. This was not a botched execution. The final desired result was the death of a horrific killer. That did in fact occur.

    If we are squeemish about it or the tech is malfunctioning, get a rope.

  19. Ritualization and medicalization of the execution process is a farce.

    If you want to have someone die comfortably, go to the experts — the voluntary suicide guys. Read the latest edition of “Final Exit” for their current recommendation, which is cheap, fast, comfortable, and clean.

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