Clayton Lockett: The torturous death of one convict at the hands of an American state refreshes and distils the case for repeal



It is not out of a desire to generate pity for Clayton Lockett – a murderer executed in Oklahoma on Tuesday - that we relate the precise circumstances of his death. The 38-year-old lost most of his claim on human sympathy the night in 1999 he raped one woman then shot another, aged 19, before burying her alive. Yet who cannot feel that the state of Oklahoma has demeaned itself, the American justice system, and perhaps even the higher ideals of civilization in this case.

Most lethal injections take effect in under 10 minutes. Lockett’s took 43. He writhed on the gurney, clenched his jaw, and spoke three times. A second execution due to follow directly afterwards has now been postponed. It should not happen altogether. Because although Lockett’s prolonged death is extraordinary in its gruesomeness, it merely draws out the degradation that attends every single execution carried out under the guise of law and order. Never in recent years has the ugly face of the death penalty been so exposed.

Defenders present two arguments in favour of its continuance, one satisfying in emotion but not in logic, the other failing on both these counts.

First, some say, the families of victims lay claim to a good case for ultimate revenge. But that need not compel the state to carry out their wishes; life without parole provides justice and does not require government to assume the role of arbiter over life and death. To take on such supreme responsibility jars with a court system that is sometimes fallible. 144 death-row inmates have, for example, been exonerated in the last forty years, and doubts remain over the guilt of three more who walked the green mile.

Second, there is the claim that the death penalty acts as a deterrent. Studies offer no corroboration, while the 18 US states that have abolished the death penalty record lower crime rates than the 32 in which it remains.

Recent hold-ups on death row have rested more on practice than principle - in particular the difficulty of procuring the necessary chemicals for a lethal injection. European drug-makers that used to export sodium thiopental – one of three substances in a cocktail – have shut off supply, fearful of a regulatory backlash from the EU. Lockett’s execution was delayed after his attorneys launched a suit to uncover details of the substitute drugs that would, this week, kill him only at terrible length.

The convict was “tortured to death”, said one lawyer. And the horrified reaction to it may see further decline in US-wide support for the death sentence, which has been dropping for decades to its current rate of 55 per cent. The eventual, inevitable repeal of this relic will more likely be driven by Congress than the Supreme Court – which some argue should rule it unconstitutional. Public opinion is turning against a form of justice that is both extremely costly (locking up inmates for life is cheaper) and racially contentious (the murder of black or brown people rarely brings a death sentence). Meanwhile politicians with national ambition are increasingly willing to side with the abolitionists against a majority – as UK lawmakers did half a century ago.

The crimes committed by death-row inmates are uniquely barbaric. But America will become a more civilised country the day it lets go of a punishment that draws barbarism closer, in an attempt to push it away.

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