The group throwing the biggest wrench into lethal injections is not who you think it is.
The debate concerning lethal injections and the death penalty in the United States was rekindled when the Wednesday execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona took an hour and 58 minutes to complete. Under normal circumstances, death by lethal injection takes less than 10 minutes to occur.
Wood, who was convicted for the 1989 murders of his former girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Eugene, was injected with an untested concoction of drugs which, according to Michael Kiefer of the Arizona Republic, left Wood breathing and seemingly gasping for air at least 660 times.
In practical terms, Wood’s death took more than twice as long as the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, which sparked international outcry about the continued use of lethal injection in the U.S.
Lockett’s execution has been compared to torture. After being declared unconscious, Lockett rose his head, spoke, and twitched and convulsed on the injection table, attempting at one point to rise from the table. A blowout of the intravenous feed prevented the full allotment of the drug cocktail from being introduced, and despite the execution being halted 33 minutes after it began, Lockett would eventually die of a heart attack.
While Wood’s death was less gruesome in some respects than Lockett’s, it still begs interesting questions on putting a medical procedure in the hands of non-medical professionals. An independent autopsy of Lockett showed that the IV never fully entered his veins and, instead, the execution chemicals were pumped into his muscles.
More pressing, these botched executions have prompted many to reconsider the role of executions in the U.S. and the nation’s obligations to the victims and the condemned.
In 2011, facing pressure from activist groups, the manufacturers of sodium thiopental — also known as pentobarbital, an essential chemical in lethal injection preparations that renders the injectee unconscious within 30 seconds and suppresses respiration, leading to death — blocked shipment of the drugs to U.S. prisons. As participation in executions would be construed as a violation of the Geneva Promise and would lead to doctors being shunned from the medical community, successive procedures to replace the non-available drugs were drafted without medical consultation.
In the case of Clayton Lockett, Oklahoma substituted an untested mixture of midazolam, a seizure medication; vecuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent; and potassium chloride, a salt that can cause cardiac arrest in high doses. The state bought the drugs under high levels of secrecy — using petty cash to make the transaction untraceable, refusing to disclose where the drugs came from or how they were obtained, and not even revealing the combination in which the drugs would be used. Despite a stay from the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, threats of impeachment of the court’s justices and heavy pressure from Gov. Mary Fallin forced the execution to proceed.
“The states are being secretive of their drugs and all that are involved, so there’s not a vetting or an examination beforehand of what they are going to do,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told MintPress News. “If there was, experts would be likely to tell them where they are making mistakes. But, because this is a secret, they are running this experiment on living human beings without the expertise of medical community to assure the execution goes well.”
Some have argued whether it even makes sense to disguise executions as precise medical procedures.
“Sure, firing squads can be messy,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on July 21 in regards to a request to order a stay of execution for Wood, “but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”
Considerations such as the botched executions of Wood and Lockett have led many to question the “comfort” and emotional reprieve lethal injection provides for a society shy of public displays of institutionalized violence, but still seeking death as a penalty for the harshest of crimes.
“Crazy as it may seem, comfort has always played a role in capital punishment in the U.S.,” said Benjamin Cole, assistant professor for the Management Systems Department at Fordham University, to MintPress. “Not only the comfort of the criminals being executed, but also the comfort of the observers of the execution.”
“Without doubt, beheading is one of the least painful and most effective ways to execute someone. Unlike with the recently botched lethal injection executions, there is no ambiguity as to whether the criminal is dead, and there is no delay in that determination. Unfortunately, beheading also is one of the more grotesque ways to execute someone, and leaves observers sick to their stomach. Families of victims cannot feel a sense of solace if they are mentally scarred by the event. The comfort of the observers has always been one of the primary reasons societies switch execution methods.”
A large part of the reasoning behind the current use of the death penalty is the notion of a “silent” or “civil” execution. This notion is based on the idea that the person ruled to die for his or her crimes received a fair trial and due access to appeal. The mechanisms and decision-making involved in the execution are part of the public record, the execution is conducted before witnesses and the press, and the actual killing of the condemned is performed in the most humanistic method possible. In doing this, the actual execution gains legitimacy as “the will of the people.”
In large part, a state’s willingness to not disclose to the public the methodology of its executions violates the perceived understanding about how executions happen in this country.
“The situation with executions in this country shows a pulling back from something more basic: our democracy itself,” added Dieter. “That the government should be allowed to spend the taxpayers’ money, make decisions, hire experts, etc., without anyone being allowed to check or know — not the courts, not the defendants, not the press — is really unprecedented. The government is supposed to be open to the public, it’s the ‘people’s business,’ and not some separate authority that can operate apart from the people.”
In increasing numbers, states are considering options other than lethal injection for executions. Tennessee has passed a law making the electric chair an option for executions should lethal injection become unavailable, while Wyoming and Utah both have legislation pending that would allow the use of firing squads.
The question of secrecy, however, remains an issue that is likely to grow in severity as other states likely experiment with means to supply their lethal injections. Ultimately, this situation will likely be resolved via intervention through the courts or Congress. However, as Cole pointed out, there is another aspect to this discussion: the notion that businesses, on their own, took the initiative to take a stance against executions.
“This discussion is happening now because the producers of these drugs have engaged in what we call humanistic business practices,” said Cole. “Normally, we think that businesses are simply profit-seeking machines. But in this case, the producers of these drugs have said, ‘We don’t want that blood money.’ As a company, one’s values determines not just how you will make money, but how you will not make money. And for these producers, they determined that they would not make money from the death of human beings.
“That’s remarkable! We are seeing for-profit firms walking away from one of the largest markets in the world for their products. And that is what is causing all these states to go searching for alternatives and to be forced to experiment on their condemned prisoners like guinea pigs.”