Lethal injections are a strange balancing act; they combine the willingness to kill with the desire to do so nicely. It’s this latter half of the equation which leads states into trouble. How much consideration is owed to the man (executions being predominantly reserved for men of colour) declared more valuable dead than alive?
While most US states prefer lethal injection, external pressure has made them reconsider firing squads and electric chairs, alternatives once deemed inhumane. Just this week, Texas reported it was down to its last dose of pentobarbital, one of many states facing such shortages. Due to concerns raised by human rights activists, companies have stopped selling the traditional drugs to American prisons, leaving them to improvise their own killer concoctions as a substitute. However, the untested mixtures have led to botched executions in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Ohio. In one case, it took 15 “lethal” doses and two hours before an inmate was declared dead.
When faced with activist pressure, some companies reacted faster than others. Danish group Lundbeck said it was shocked that its drug, designed to treat epilepsy, was used in executions, but Hospira Inc., an American company, tried to move production to Italy to avoid domestic pressure, only to realize that they could face Italian legal challenges since the death penalty is outlawed there. After they stopped production, prisons were left considering the Indian black market or other ways just to get their fix.
As a solution, Oklahoma spent over $100 000 for a better death chamber — which sounds rather perverse. But this isn’t the first time a moral question has been met with technology. In 1988, a Delaware prison bought an execution machine designed to prevent operators from finding out who actually provided the lethal dose, giving them some modicum of comfort. The condemned are so incomprehensibly terrible that society can’t agree on what to do with them, yet those who support and perform lethal injections want to distance themselves given their discomfort.
With several executions scheduled for the coming weeks, and 3 000 more inmates on death row, states are racing to find a new drug cocktail, but perhaps a different response is warranted. Murderers, rapists, and kidnappers should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, but sparing them death is not necessarily an act of mercy. Life sentences provide an opportunity to correct miscarriages in justice, as people have been wrongfully put to death before.
Killing someone already serving a life sentence does not make our streets safer. It rarely gives closure to the victim’s family. It seems the only reason to continue capital punishment is to satisfy the public’s desire for vengeance when the true nature of executions are hidden from view. Notably, Oklahoma’s new death chamber features a smaller witness area, allowing only five media witnesses when they once allowed 12. A curtain is drawn around the condemned when something goes wrong, the audio feed cut. Public support for the death penalty has fallen after peaking in the mid-1990s, but has remained fairly consistent in this decade. But if the drug shortage doesn’t provoke supporters to reconsider their views, the alternative methods of execution might.