If this won’t stop it, you’d think, nothing will. Tuesday’s ghoulishly botched execution in Oklahoma is but the latest in a string of such disasters that raise the issue of whether the small number of US states that actually apply the death penalty are even capable of carrying out this barbaric, low-tech ritual.
Lethal injection is supposed to be “humane”. Of the 32 states that have capital punishment on the books, all use lethal injection as their primary method (though a dozen still offer electric chair or gas chamber as an option).
Yet if any execution violated the US Constitution’s ban of “cruel and unusual punishment”, it was that of Clayton Lockett. He writhed and gasped when he was supposed to have been sedated. The execution was halted, but Lockett died in the execution chamber some 40 minutes after the procedure began, apparently of a heart attack. His lawyer described his ordeal as “torture”. The sheer incompetence is breathtaking. Vets put down animals painlessly. Not, however, Oklahoma’s executioners, when it comes to people.
Yes, the fiasco stemmed from the difficulties death-penalty states have in finding lethal drugs, now that some manufacturers are refusing to permit their products to be used. But the state’s embarrassment was compounded by a messy legal fight as lawyers for Lockett and another inmate Charles Warner (who was supposed to die two hours later) tried to block the execution on the grounds that the drugs being used by Oklahoma were untested.
The authorities ridiculed the ploy – querying the drugs was supposedly as ridiculous as a condemned inmate taking issue with the provenance of the power that fuelled the electric chair, or of the hangman’s rope. Tuesday’s proceedings have blown a huge hole in that argument. Oklahoma has granted Warner a 14-day stay, and the US Supreme Court may well be dragged into the argument.
But this doesn’t mean America is about to dispense with capital punishment. After all, if the Newtown slaughter of little schoolchildren in 2012 didn’t lead to tougher gun control, there’s no reason to suppose a few botched executions will end the death penalty – yet.
The trend however is pointing unequivocally in that direction. The number of US executions fell to 39 in 2013, down from a peak of 98 in 1999. Fewer death sentences are being handed down, death row populations are shrinking. Since 2007 six states have formally ended capital punishment, and a dozen more haven’t executed anyone in years. In 2013, only nine states put anyone to death.
Public support is at its lowest ebb in decades – just 55 per cent according to a 2013 Pew study – as the evidence piles up that the death penalty is applied unfairly, and that innocent people have been executed. Just this week came a new study, estimating that four per cent of capital sentences result from wrongful convictions. In other words 120 of the 3000 people on death row could be innocent.
Americans revere the law, but increasingly it’s clear the law isn’t infallible. The grisly debacle in Oklahoma has now challenged a second fundamental American assumption: that there’s no problem technology can’t solve, including that of a humane execution.
Just possibly, we’ve reached a turning point. “I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death,” the Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, once a supporter of capital punishment, famously declared in 1994. Yes, the machinery grinds on. But Oklahoma makes you wonder, for how much longer?