Death Penalty

A Lethal Injection of Reality

Medicalizing executions helps maintain support for the death penalty.

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Sixteen minutes into last May'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 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 it as contrary to their professional ethics.

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 and the mental torture that accompanies it, 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 ways to 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: Wait Right Here

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  1. Why were the curtains drawn to stop witnesses from seeing his death throes? If you’re up for being a witness to an execution, wouldn’t this be the money shot?

    1. Of course, because everybody who thinks it’s permissible to kill murderers or who has some stake in that outcome is a sadist who wants to beat off to torture porn.

      Needs moar histrionics.

      1. Go ahead and accuse me of histrionics if that makes you happy. Despite the flippant tone, it was actually a serious question. If you’re prepared to be a witness, why not this? Also, is there a legal requirement for a certain number of witnesses? If so, wouldn’t this then affect the legality of the execution (as the witness hadn’t actually witnessed everything)?

        1. Go ahead and accuse me of histrionics if that makes you happy.

          That’s not why I accused you of being histrionic, I accused you of being histrionic because you’re being histrionic. The histrionics are, I will admit, somewhat amusing, but I wouldn’t say it exactly makes me happy.

          If you’re prepared to be a witness, why not this?

          Well, for one, the witnesses didn’t make that choice, the warden did. And for another, even if they signed on to witness a lethal injection, they may not have wanted to watch a guy get tortured to death. Because despite your super cereal question with the premise strapped on top of it, not everybody who supports the death penalty or who chooses to witness an execution is a sadistic torture porn aficionado. Ironically enough, it seems to be more or less exclusively death penalty opponents who have an overwhelming obsession with making the procedure into a GWAR production, so as to demonstrate to polite society the barbarity of the practice.

          As to the legality of the witnessing of the execution, I’m unfamiliar with what the law has to say on the matter, but it’s possible the executioner on the other side of the curtain may be sufficient to meet any such a requirement.

          1. not everybody who supports the death penalty or who chooses to witness an execution is a sadistic torture porn aficionado.

            are you choosing to ignore that not everyone who supports the death penalty is not expecting torture or simply not seeing the difference?

            1. Actually the entirety of my point was that most people who decide to witness a lethal injection for whatever reason probably aren’t expecting or desiring to see a drawn out, torturous process of execution. So the “well, if you’re already a sick fuck who likes to watch people die, why would putting the accused through lengthy pain and suffering bother you?” argument-as-super-cereal-question from furry is a little disingenuous. Showing up, say, to witness the execution of your loved one’s murderer doesn’t necessarily entail any expectation or desire to watch the murderer be killed slowly and painfully. Given our constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in America, nobody who shows up to an execution expects to witness a torturous death, which is precisely why cases like this are so shocking to the public.

              1. I don’t expect things like to happen nor would I advocate their being the norm, but I’m not feeling much heartburn over a heinous character like Lockett not getting a clean way out.

                May be a character flaw on my part but I find the pearl-clutching over the condemned a bit over the top.

                1. I can’t muster any sympathy for this guy either, but I’m saying I don’t think anybody who showed up that day to witness his execution was a hypocrite for flinching when they botched it. Watching him writhe on a table probably wasn’t the “money shot” for them.

                  1. fair enough

              2. If you weren’t waste deep in your own derp you might realize his comment was more about the process itself than witnesses motivations (the ‘money shot’ reference was about the culmination of the entire sordid process). The term ‘money shot’ may have originally had only the meaning you’re harping on here, but it has long since become common to use it to refer to culminating parts of experiences and performances generally.

                1. The sentence reads the same either way you interpret the term “money shot”. A guy flopping around on a table gasping for breath isn’t normally the “culmination of the entire sordid process” of a lethal injection, and should rightly have shocked any of the witnesses. Again, that’s why this case is in the news. It’s a man bites dog story. If your client had meant something else, he probably could have elucidated it.

                  1. “If your client had meant something else, he probably could have elucidated it.”

                    He did, right in the next post. Everybody else seems to have gotten it but you in your rush to, well, be PM.

                    1. He did, right in the next post.

                      Yes, he repeated the same thing again:

                      If you’re prepared to be a witness, why not this?

              3. PM, I think you read way too much into what IFH has said. Presumably the witnesses are there to witness what happens. Closing the curtains if something doesn’t go as planned defeats the whole purpose of having witnesses.

                1. If that’s what he meant he could have left off his second sentence, and I would agree. The curtains shouldn’t have been closed, and the reason they were closed is pretty obviously because the state didn’t want anyone bearing witness to its incompetence. However, even giving the most generous possible reading, I don’t see that second sentence as anything other than a potshot.

                  1. “I don’t see”

                    That much is clear.

                    1. That much is clear.

                      The universe doesn’t bless all of us with the gift of interpreting language in whatever way is most convenient at any given moment as it has you, my friend.

          2. PM, I have at no point everybody who supports the death penalty or who chooses to witness an execution is a sadistic torture porn aficionado. If you inferred that from my original post, that says more about you than me. You are the name-caller in this exchange, not me, and you are using emotive language, not me.

            But thanks for the information re the warden, which I did not know. And that was sincere, before you accuse me of anything else.

            1. “You are the name-caller in this exchange, not me”

              It’s just how PM in the AM rolls

              1. Coming from the guy who has never had a disagreement with anybody who wasn’t a SOCON!!!!!(!!!!)!!!! I’ll take that for what it’s worth. Especially in light of the fact that, despite fluffy’s contention, I haven’t called him or anybody else any names in this exchange (unless “histrionic” counts as name-calling).

                1. Just for the record, I don’t think you are a SoCon, just a Con.

                  1. Well I wish you’d make up your mind so I can get my story straight for HUAC.

            2. I have at no point everybody who supports the death penalty or who chooses to witness an execution is a sadistic torture porn aficionado.

              If you’re up for being a witness to an execution, wouldn’t this be the money shot?

              With all due respect, fuck you. That’s exactly what you said and exactly what you meant. Don’t try and pussy out of it now.

              1. “With all due respect, fuck you. That’s exactly what you said and exactly what you meant. Don’t try and pussy out of it now.”

                Like I said…

                1. There’s still no name-calling in that post, but then posting inane shit with no relevance is exactly like you said.

                2. “With all due respect, fuck you.”

                  With all due respect. You have swayed the argument neither one way, or another.

              2. A metaphor is a… oh don’t worry. But the “all due respect” was pretty funny.

                1. A metaphor is…

                  a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object.

                  I wonder what ever you could possibly have meant by comparing a guy writhing in agony strapped to a bed to a cumshot…

                  1. And rolling, and rolling, and rolling.

                    Jerk’s going to jerk.

                    1. I know you’re probably eager to finish law school and start taking on clients of your very own, but I think fluffy is perfectly capable of speaking for himself.

          3. I think you are missing the point, PM. The same question occurred to me. I don’t know if there is a legal requirement for witnesses, but I always figured that the point of having witnesses was to have some people besides those performing the execution there to witness what goes on. In which case, closing the curtains when it gets ugly really defeats the whole point of having witnesses.
            Maybe I’m wrong about why the witnesses are there. But as they are called “witnesses” and not “spectators” it makes sense that they are there to bear witness to whatever happens, not to take in a spectacle.

            1. “I think you are missing the point, PM.”

              I addressed this at 8:32

            2. And if fluffy had said what you just did instead of taking a snarky dig at the witnesses by suggesting that closing the curtain cheated them out of their blood lust, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. There was no need to shut the witnesses out to cover the state’s incompetence.

        2. “Also, is there a legal requirement for a certain number of witnesses?”

          In many states, yes.
          http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=96440

          “If so, wouldn’t this then affect the legality of the execution (as the witness hadn’t actually witnessed everything)?”

          That’s a good question.

          1. Thankyou Bo, very informative.

  2. 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.

    Everyone knows the head remains alive for a few seconds after it’s separated from the neck, and a firing squad is simply too Ernesto Guevara. I think the most humane way to execute a prisoner is to place him under VA care.

    1. I think the most humane way to execute a prisoner is to place him under VA care.

      Shit, at least the botched lethal injection only took a couple hours. The VA is more like life in prison.

    2. Even though the head remains alive for a few seconds with the guillotine, wouldn’t that be preferable to 43 minutes of suffocating? I agree with you on the firing squads though; the human element makes it a bit too hit-or-miss…

  3. Even a principled absolutist is gonna have a hard time holding this guy’s alleged agony up as a reason to abolish the death penalty.

    You want,to engender sympathy? Find a sympathetic victim.

    1. Yeah, I would think they would do better pointing out the various people convicted and sentenced to death where later evidence either exonerated them or cast serious doubt on their actual guilt. The fact that it is too damn easy for the government to wrongly convict people is the reason I oppose the death penalty. And I think pointing that out is the strongest argument against it.

      1. Well, they managed to slow down executions even more, so thrre’s that.

      2. I find this to be the only valid argument against the death penalty for these type of cases.

  4. In short, the pharmaceutical boycott of US executioners seems to have made lethal injection non-viable as a humane form of killing.

    What’s the next move?

    1. What’s the next move?

      For proponents of the death penalty, they’ve already made it. Many are calling for the return of Ol Sparky, the gas chamber, hangings and firing squads. And as far as I’m concerned those means were more humane than the anxiety,leading up to an injection where the life is more slowly sapped from a conscious and thinking human being.

      1. The gas chamber was probably the most horrid way to go, in my opinion. How long can you hold your breath?

        All of these methods have significant anxiety leading up to someone putting a hood over your head.

        As to injection, a proper cocktail involves about 4 seconds of conciousness. “Count back from 99”. Too bad those cocktails keep getting fucked with by ‘humane’ people.

    2. “Humane form of killing” is an oxymoron.

      If they wanted to mitigate the pain the person being state murdered feels, a massive OD of heroin would do it.

      But that would mess with the narrative that the state owns your body and thus you’re not allowed to put unapproved chemicals in it that might hinder your ability to generate cash the state can then confiscate in part.

      1. “Humane form of killing” is an oxymoron.

        I don’t think it is. Or at the very least there’s a very wide scale of inhumaneness onto which various methods of killing may fall. We take such things into account when judging the heinousness of a murder and even in the treatment of animals. If I were having to pick my manner of death there’s certainly some methods I’d vastly prefer to others.

      2. Humane form of killing” is an oxymoron.

        Not in a relative manner. Also, if no form of killing can be humane, why would we allow people to assist in suicides?

    3. Execution by elephant. Elephants are reusable and they work for peanuts, literally.

      Dude comes in, lays on ground, elephant steps on head/torso, end of.

      Hose off elephants feet, give elephant treat, wait for next scumbag to finally exhaust his 20 years or moronic appeals.

  5. 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.

    probably makes me a horrible person, but I don’t really give a shit about the first. Someone like Lockett forfeited worry over that by his own actions. And I’m okay with the latter. If capital punishment is not suitable for people like him or Ted Bundy or Tim McVeigh, then it is useless.

    1. Death penalty should be reserved for super crazy killers who have either multiple murders to their credit or a single painful tortuous type killing. Either way the standard should be beyond “beyond reasonable doubt”, no circumstantial stuff, etc…and it should be exceedingly rare. Structured this way it is not really punishment, just disposal of the human equivalent of a mad dog.

  6. the firing squad or the guillotine … were abandoned not because they were too painful but because they were too bloody.

    Well, the blood *could* be cleanly removed by reverse injection.

    1. Count Dracula is on it.

  7. I think an exploding head collar like in that Schwarzeneggar movie would be humane.

  8. A murdering thief gets murdered by murdering thieves. Say that 5 times fast.

  9. Those guys do not seem to have a clue.

    http://www.WentAnon.Tk

  10. Executions of murderers is nothing but justice, medical or not. We should bring back the guillotine and put it out in public. Our society needs that kind of harsh reality shown. We should not be hiding justice away as if it were shameful. It is not.

    1. If we bring back the guillotine, then we need to have a system to see who will benefit from the quickenins.

  11. No society can be truly civilized without a proper death penalty.

  12. It’s pretty funny reading the comments of “libertarians” who think it’s just dandy to give the power to kill an occasionally innocent (see http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki…..Willingham) person. Yep, that’s limited government alright!

    1. A limited government kills less people than total state government, but you already knew that AMSOC. The people you admire were experts at mass executions.

    2. I love it when totalitarian scum come to my website to tell me how to run my philosophy.

      I guess it would be better if all these murderers were sent to the canadian shield to dig up mineral resources and subsequently die of ‘natural causes’, somewhat like they do in every socialist run hell-hole on Earth, right Stalinist?

    3. I don’t see much of a difference between the power to kill and the power to imprison people for life, in particular the US prison system; they are both deeply disturbing exercises of state violence.

      I think socialists and progressives just like to make state violence seem more legitimate by making it less overtly bloody. That’s why socialist states like to cart people away into “camps”, often for “reeducation”. It makes the state appear benign, benevolent, and rational, but it’s really just another form of death penalty, and one that is even more insidious because there is neither appeal nor public outrage.

  13. A very evil man died horribly, so maybe there is such thing as Karma. OUTSTANDING!

  14. *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 would say justice was done*

    Hey, liberal, don’t forget that he and his accomplices also raped her and another victim.

    I don’t give a good god-d@mn how long it took this scumbag to die.

  15. This whole drug-induced death penalty business could easily be resolved by simply using a hyperbaric (airtight) chamber and using CO2, Helium or any other Oxygen displacing material to put these criminals “to sleep.” Quick, clean, painless and perfect!

    1. CO2 is painful and helium is expensive. Nitrogen is probably the best choice; people use it for suicide because it is quit, painless, not distressing, and easy to get. That’s something everybody should know, because the alternative often is prolonged suffering in medical facilities as a revenue generator.

  16. Some people need to die. Whether you support anarchy, or a limited government. A free society, commit’s less murder than a controlled society.I would prefer no killing, or coercion whatsoever. However a Free society, and a utopian society are incompatible.

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