Tragic story of the death of an atheist »« Does Congress need fresh blood?

The effect of executions

Oklahoma is the state where the botched execution of Clayton Lockett brought the issue of capital punishment back into the spotlight. It turns out that that state is the most gung-ho when it comes to killing people, having the most executions per capita in the US (although Texas which comes in second has the greatest absolute number ) and taking an almost perverse pride in doing so.

Wade Goodwyn reports on the messy legal maneuvering before the Lockett execution, with the Oklahoma Supreme Court first issuing a stay because of a suit brought against the state because it kept secret the drugs that were used in the execution. But the state legislature threatened to impeach every single judge who voted for the stay and remarkably, within 48 hours, the court unanimously reversed itself, leading to the Lockett debacle. As a result of the furor over that execution, there is now a six-month moratorium on future executions in the state until they figure out what went wrong.

Public opinion in the US is still in favor of the death penalty with 55% supporting it, although it has been in a steady decline since 1996 when support reached a peak of 78%. It is only for just a couple of years around 1968 that opposition exceeded support by a tiny amount. You can see statistics on the death penalty in the US here.

Between 1968 and 1977 there was a moratorium on executions as the US Supreme Court found that existing methods of sentencing in the states were unconstitutional although they did not rule that the death penalty itself was. This resulted in the states modifying their death penalty statutes to make them complaint. The moratorium ended with the execution of Gary Gilmore by a firing squad in 1977 which garnered huge news coverage. Laura Sullivan reports that following the media circus that accompanied the Gilmore execution, it was Oklahoma that pioneered the use of the three drug cocktail for executions.

This process was created by a doctor and initially medical personnel were the ones who administered it but over time doctors and nurses have increasingly refused to participate in executions, leaving it to prison personnel to administer the drugs and they simply did not have the competence to do it properly and mistakes have become increasingly common. Furthermore, the act of cold-bloodedly killing another human being has taken a toll on the executioners, even if one was involved just peripherally or was an observer.

“This is not normal behavior for right-minded humans to engage in,” says Steve Martin, who participated in several executions in Texas in the 1980s. His job was to man the phones in case of a reprieve. He says the whole process is emotionally crippling.

He remembers a couple of times when the execution team couldn’t get the needles inserted properly.

“Boy, it just ratcheted up everything,” he says.

“People don’t realize,” he says, “you just killed somebody, and you’ve been a part of it, and it affects all of us.”

Carroll Pickett was the chaplain at 95 executions in Texas through the mid-1990s. He remembers one time when prison staff spent 40 minutes trying to find a vein until the inmate sat up and helped them. “Some of them would go outside and throw up,” he says.

Over time, Pickett says, the staff unraveled. “And these were some good, good men. Basically, they all left. Every one of them,” he says.

Pickett and Steve Martin both say the memories of every execution haunt them.

Which raises the question: Leaving aside the question of the morality of the state executing people, when everyone involved in implementing the death penalty seems to be diminished and even traumatized by it, why do we continue this practice?

Comments

  1. doublereed says

    There’s no real reason to keep doing it. Even without the trauma and such it’s just pointless. It’s just done because people are sadistic and don’t have any information about the practice.

    The death penalty has been going away in several ways over the years. Whether it’s logistics in securing the drugs, states slowly banning the practice, or states seeking to avoid death penalty suits for monetary reasons, the death penalty is dying away. Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Tennessee used to be execution heavy states but they didn’t execute anyone in 2013.

  2. machintelligence says

    Sorry to have to play devil’s advocate, but there are some people who are too dangerous to have around. Case in point: Ted Bundy.

    Facing murder charges in Colorado, he engineered two dramatic escapes and committed further assaults, including three murders, before his ultimate recapture in Florida in 1978. He received three death sentences in two separate trials for the Florida homicides

    From Wikipedia.

  3. A. Noyd says

    As a result of the furor over that execution, there is now a six-month moratorium on future executions in the state until they figure out what went wrong.

    What went wrong? More like what went worse than wrong, because even if no one fumbles the weapon of execution, killing people is wrong to begin with.

  4. Dunc says

    @3: So, your argument is that the state is too incompetent to keep a dangerous criminal behind bars, therefore we need to let it kill people instead? I’m not convinced that’s good reasoning.

  5. snoeman says

    I read about the toll that execution takes on the executioners, and then I see comments in local papers on stories about the death penalty, and I’m always struck by something. There’s always a percentage of commentators who make a big show of how much they don’t care if the person being executed suffers, and that they would gladly take part in the whole process. I see that and I wonder. Given the effects on the executioners that Mano links to above, I’m hoping that’s just the anonymous internet tough guy effect, and that those making the comments aren’t as callous, indifferent and bloodthirsty as it appears. Because if they really are that willing and really wouldn’t give it a second thought, that is a bit scary. It’s also unsettling because it doesn’t look like most of them have really thought through the implications of what that eagerness says about themselves.

  6. doublereed says

    @6 snoeman

    I don’t think anonymity/internet has much to do with it. I’ve spoken with plenty of people in person that have expressed such things. I just think people always want to “act tough” and jump at the opportunity where sadism is justified.

    Honestly, I don’t think they’ve thought it through at all. It’s an entirely gut reaction, with almost no thought process whatsoever. Bad justifications like “deterrent effect” or whatever is entirely post hoc. I haven’t had any conversations with pro-death penalty people who had done even the most basic research on it.

  7. Markovitch says

    Sorry to have to play devil’s advocate, but there are some people who are too dangerous to have around. Case in point: Ted Bundy.

    It’s not like it is difficult to imprison someone permanently. Countries that have banned the death penalty somehow manage to keep dangerous offenders locked up indefinitely. These people aren’t dark wizards or sith lords! Bundy escaped before he was convicted, so the death penalty has no bearing here. Once he was in a secure prison, he stayed there and could easily have been held until the end of time.

  8. snoeman says

    @7 doublereed

    I don’t think anonymity/internet has much to do with it. I’ve spoken with plenty of people in person that have expressed such things. I just think people always want to “act tough” and jump at the opportunity where sadism is justified.

    You could very well be right. My experience with such attitudes on the death penalty has been almost entirely online, as far as I can remember. It’s just that I don’t recall having a conversation of that nature with anyone in person. It’s not hard to imagine, though.

    Honestly, I don’t think they’ve thought it through at all. It’s an entirely gut reaction, with almost no thought process whatsoever.

    Yeah.

  9. says

    “And these were some good, good men. Basically, they all left. Every one of them,”

    “Good men” would never be involved in the first place, they would educate themselves about the history of executions. Those who were involved were uninformed, whether willingly or by indifference.

    The pro-killing argument is always based on a denial of facts:

    * sentences are applied unequally, usually based on skin tone
    * defendants in “capital cases” are given inadequate defense and fewer resources than other defendants
    * defendants and witnesses are often intimidated into coerced testimony and confessions
    * forensics labs and cops bend rules and falsify evidence to please prosecutors
    * courts race to reach a guilty verdict as quickly as possible to “give the victims justice”

    In the cases where getting it right matters most, no effort is spared to ensure they get it wrong.

  10. jamessweet says

    One of the ways in which humans greatly magnify their capability to do evil is by having somebody else do it. The consequences of the actions are disconnected from the decision-making process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>