Prison authorities in Oklahoma botched an execution last week. The Internet is aflame and All Decent People are aghast.
And it’s mostly a load of horseshit.
Mr. Clayton Lockett was found guilty of murder in 2000 for raping, shooting and burying a woman alive. He had a jury trial. He had appeals in both the Oklahoma state court system and the federal system. He presented various challenges through the time-honored – even sacred – writ of habeas corpus.
Lockett lost all those cases.
And so, he was set to die by lethal injection. In Oklahoma, the state uses a series of three drugs, midazolam (sedative; render unconscious), vecuronium chloride (paralytic; stop respiration); and potassium chloride (stops the heart) as its “execution cocktail.” These medications are administered intravenously through a little plastic catheter which is threaded into a vein.
In Lockett’s case,the IV infiltrated or “blew,” that is, rather than going into the vein, a lot of the medication escaped under the skin. The state executioners hadn’t inserted a second IV, which was darn poor planning. The execution was supposed to take less than 10 min. and it actually took around 45 min. Lockett mumbled that something was wrong, tried to rise (“writhed,” according to one witness), and ultimately died of a heart attack.
The news has been full of state officials swearing that they did everything they could to send Mr. Lockett peacefully on his way and lots of other folks who swear that Lockett’s death was equivalent to being drawn and quartered.
(“Drawn and quartered” is a phrase bandied about these days by people who have no idea what it is. In short, it involves slow torture and really gruesome abuse leading to death.)
At the outset, let me say a few words about the death penalty. As a rule, I really don’t like it. Much of the general antipathy to the death penalty is moral in origin, which is fine. Perhaps I’m a lousy Christian, but the moral thing is not what puts me off the most.
There are three reasons I have problems with the death penalty and the first is by far the most prominent:
You cannot trust the courts.
Maybe that makes me a bad lawyer and a bad citizen.
But it’s still true.
Starting in law school and ever since, often I have concocted little hypotheticals in my mind about cases. For death cases, there is a perfect storm that’s possible.
Juries are drawn from that pitiful pool of talent called Humanity. The other players are drawn from even a smaller and more pitiful pool, the members of Humanity who have gone to law school. All of these people are somewhere between brilliant and stupid; humble and arrogant; and compassionate and immensely harsh.
If you get just the wrong mix, you may kill an innocent person. And that’s guaranteed to happen sooner or later. There have been a number of outright exonerations of people on death row when evidence was re-examined using modern science.
In other words, we have officially whacked a few innocent people.
A second thing to consider is that prison often is subjectively worse in the eyes of the convict than a death sentence. Lots of media types and political whores talk about coddling criminals in nice, soft prisons. That’s total bullshit. Prisons are horrible places. Inmates have absolutely zero privacy, near zero protection from harm at the hands of other inmates, lousy low-bidder medical care (much worse than Medicare or Medicaid) and for lifers, virtually no hope of seeing sunlight other than through bars ever again. It’s not at all unusual that a criminal who is given a long prison sentence will commit suicide rather than serve the sentence. Maybe a life sentence is not intended to be cruel, but that’s the effect. We don’t have to bemoan that fact but neither should we ignore it.
Finally, it’s way cheaper to house criminals than to kill them. Executions soak up tons and tons of tax dollars. Governments can keep prisoners housed and secure from the outside world for about $4 an hour. The appointed lawyers who are qualified to work on death cases make something between $60 and $150 an hour. Add to that prosecutors, judges and all the support staffs, and the cost of the death case leaves the cost of prison in the dust.
Now I can hear Bubba the Intellectual saying that we give criminals too many opportunities for appeal. Well, it’s back to Concern #1. Mistakes are certain to happen. It would be immoral and unjust not to have cases completely reviewed.
Nevertheless, I’m still okay with the death penalty being available. Why? That’s entirely personal: I have met a very few defendants who really needed to be totally and permanently excised from the Body of Humanity. I’m just fine with with wishing them luck on their way to the Happy Hunting Ground. I hope that God forgives them and lets them have an eternal life which is better than anything they had on Earth. I’m also totally fine with them being gone from Earth.
A jury and a dozen + judges have agreed that Lockett met the criteria for a trip to execution. It’s possible they were all wrong in this case. But that’s not the way to bet. There is such a thing as a white raven. But there just aren’t too many of them.
John Wayne Gacy? Ted Bundy? Jeffrey Dahmer? Adios, amigos.
So Mr. Lockett took his reluctant walk to the execution chamber. In 45 min., he was dead. I suppose “botched” means that his death was not instantaneous and not totally peaceful.
Our goal in capital cases should be that the death of the convict is quick and limited in pain. There are those who are big on the “eye for an eye” thing but that’s neither just nor justified. Gov. Dukakis’s campaign flamed out when he was asked if he would support execution for someone who killed his wife. He made an academic, even foppish, response. As lots of people later pointed out, a much better response would have been something like, “Hell yes I want him executed. I’ll do it personally and with a dull knife personally. And that’s why we have to have dispassionate and responsible juries and judges so we can be sure that criminal punishment is not based upon inevitable irrationality but upon fixed standards of justice.”
(Just so we don’t blame it all on that, remember that when Gov. Dukakis drove that tank with a silly grin on his face, he made an equally egregious boner.)
But, but, but – there’s another seldom acknowledged reason that people get all lathered up about methods of execution. Is this the Land of the Free? Beats me. It seems it’s getting to be the Home of the Sissies.
Oh, and the moral hypocrites.
Even those who love the death penalty are, by and large, not willing to participate directly. Which is okay. Those are hard things to do and not many people are emotionally qualified. Also, most of the public wants a bit of salve for the collective conscience by making executions not just quick and painless, but sanitary. No blood. No mess. People want a Charles-Foster-Kane-passing-away with “Rosebud” on his lips, the candle gently blown out.
Isn’t reality a bitch?
There are groups among the readers of these Dispatches who know death in some of it’s really gruesome forms. First among them are military combat veterans, most of whom have seen death, injury and destruction up close and personal. 10% of the annual federal budget goes for veterans benefits and programs. I don’t begrudge those folks one dime.
Then there are the public service workers (police/fire/EMS) and the entire medical community. They know this one really hard fact: Death is ugly. Often death is slow. Often death is painful.
I think tonight of some deaths I have attended. There are a lot of those folks who would have traded the hand they were dealt for a “botched” Oklahoma execution in a heartbeat.
The way those people died was not fair to them. They were dealt a bad hand, and it’s just not fair. In life, Lockett likely was dealt a pretty bad hand. Toward the end, he got caught slipping aces out of his sleeve. That he got a short term medically induced death just is not this great tragedy. Those who suggest that he was punished in some way beyond what life, fate and/or random chance punishes most people are living in a fantasy world.
All that being said, there is a better way to execute people. If we as a society want to stick to drugs, there are lots and lots of drugs and drug combinations out there that seem to work well by accident among illegal drug users. Maybe this multi-drug cocktail idea used by governments is mostly smoke and mirrors to make it look all neat, abstract and terribly scientific.
Even so, the way society does executions today still has a lot of macabre ceremony to it, something like the Black Mass. There are optional visits from clergy who provide pastoral but not corporeal support. There is a last meal, the menu always reported breathlessly in the press for death-tittilated voyeurs, like little boys sneaking a look at a skin magazine. There is a solemn march to the death chamber, the insertion of the IV, the reading of the death warrant, the solemn “Do you have any last words?,” and then the prayerful nod of the warden to the people behind the curtain to press the gaily colored switches of Doom.
They might as well shake rattles and chant a little.
Oh, the better way!
There is a German word for a very simple concept, genickschuss. (Ge-NEEK-shooss). It is a simple protocol. The executioner puts a pistol to the base of the convict’s skull with an upward trajectory and pulls the trigger. It doesn’t take a large round, and it doesn’t even necessarily make a whole lot of mess. It is instantaneous, so much so that it is painless.
I doubt we’ll ever get the guts or the honesty to dispatch people in this kind but direct manner. We do so love to fiddle with trivialities.