WITH secrecy and uncertainty surrounding the supply of lethal injection drugs, executions have become little more than ghastly experiments. The last one came three weeks ago, when the state of Oklahoma executed John Marion Grant, 60, for the murder of a prison cafeteria worker.
Witnesses reported Grant jerked, or convulsed, nearly two dozens times over several minutes, as vomit spurted from his mouth and spilled down his neck. With a straight face, Oklahoma prison officials said the execution went off without a hitch.
Grant’s execution, however, is far from the worst example of a lethal injection execution gone wrong. Over the past two decades, executioners have struggled for an hour or more to find a usable vein. They’ve punctured organs, collapsed arteries, and dragged on this grisly procedure for more than an hour, as prisoners writhed.
Reliability and efficiency are not likely to improve, as lethal injections face ongoing problems with consistency and quality control. On Thursday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt rightly granted clemency to Julius Jones, several hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection for a 1999 murder he says he did not commit.
The inevitably of more botched executions is reason enough to stay future executions nationwide, and for Pennsylvania and 26 other capital punishment states to abolish their death-penalty statutes.
Execution drugs obscured
Citing moral objections, drug manufacturers have, for more than a decade, refused to supply corrections departments with drugs used in executions.
The nationwide shortage of drugs used in lethal injections has forced states, in a haphazard scramble, to use inadequately tested drugs or multi-drug cocktails, or buy drugs from so-called specialty, or compounding, pharmacies operating with little federal oversight.
Ironically, the shortage of the sedation drug midazolam used in lethal injections also affects hospitals. They need it to treat illnesses, including COVID-19, and save lives.
Making matters worse, executioners with inadequate medical training work without national standards, and the secrecy shrouding where and how states procure lethal injection drugs, has made executions even dicier. States have, recklessly, shielded such information from the public by exempting it from their open-records laws.
Lethal injections, properly performed, require the skills to access veins, monitor drugs, calculate proper doses, and make on-the-spot corrections. That takes medical training and supervision. But states must, in general, forgo such safeguards; participating in executions violates medical ethics.
Numerous problems, no benefits
To be sure, capital punishment today is less sadistic than the ancient executions that shock modern sensibilities: Slowly roasting a victim to death inside a flaming bronze mental bull, cutting off body parts before slicing the body in half and leaving the condemned to die in indescribable pain, crucifixion, being eaten alive by rats, and literally skinning a person alive, slice by slice, to name a few.
In the last 200 years, states and the federal government have attempted to adapt capital punishment to the standards of the U.S. Constitution, national norms, and modern sensibilities, using hangings, firing squads, lethal gas, lethal injection, or electrocution. Even so, botched procedures have marred them all, including burning flesh at electrocutions, strangulations at hangings, and errant bullets from firing squads that prolonged death.
Lethal injection in the early 1980s, like the electric chair almost a century before it, was touted as a humane, and cheap, way to execute people. After the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, lethal injection became the method-of-choice for U.S. executions.
Blunders and missteps, however, continue to mock efforts to carry out capital punishment in a humane way.
Author Austin Sarat of Amherst College has argued lethal injections have recorded higher rates of botched executions, roughly 7 percent, than have other methods used in capital punishment. The Death Penalty Information Center has reported 19 botched lethal injection executions since 2000.
With three executions since 1976, Pennsylvania has spent $1 billion on securing and defending death-penalty convictions, former Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported last year.
If botched lethal injection executions were the only problem facing capital punishment, and the practice produced tangible and widely shared benefits, maybe the gains would justify the enormous legal costs and needless suffering exacted by the atrocity of state-sponsored killings.
Ongoing constitutional challenges, procedural problems, and death row exonerations, however, continue to underscore the practical and moral flaws of capital punishment. What’s more, no credible evidence shows, or even suggests, the practice deters murder or violent crime.
Aside from the grave moral questions surrounding the death penalty, the grisly experiment that lethal injection has become is another sign the costs, liabilities, and problems of capital punishment far outweigh any perceived benefit.