Death Penalty: The Morality of Actuality

death penaltyLet’s start with something simple. Have you ever had your apartment broken into or your moped stolen? Earlier this semester my laptop was taken. It was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. I wished terrible things upon the person who took such an integral part of my life. Now, consider the feeling of rage and helplessness you had after losing a material object and how magnified it would be if you lost a loved one in a horrifying manner; to a truly egregious crime. Only then can you being to even possibly understand why the parents of Stephanie Neiman wanted nothing less but the death penalty for Clayton Lockett. And the man who was scheduled to be executed after him “was convicted of raping and killing an 11-month-old girl”, can you imagine a more disgusting crime? Why these men were convicted of the death penalty or even why they deserved it is not being questioned, as they clearly committed horrendous crimes, but the practicality and morality of the practice is. It’s difficult to be objective on an emotional subject (especially in the midst of a botched execution) but I think it’s important, now more than ever, to see why the death penalty must go. Despite being morally vindicating; the death penalty system is impractical, expensive, ineffective, broken, and a crime against humanity

The death penalty, brought over by the British, is a long standing American tradition. Technically termed capital punishment, it is the process by which an individual is put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime. Currently 32 states have capital punishment as an option for crimes where death or murder occurs. The standard practice for execution is lethal injection in which “a sequence of three shots are delivered via intravenous drips inserted in each arm.” The first shot, called sodium thiopental, induces a state of unconsciousness so deep (by suppressing the central nervous system) that pain is theoretically undetectable by the inmate. The second shot, called pancuronium bromide, is a muscle relaxant that results in complete muscle paralysis. This keeps the inmate from twitching when the third shot is administered as organ failure induces uncontrollable muscle spasms. The final shot, called potassium chloride, stops the heart from beating by “flooding the heart with charged particles that interrupt its electrical signaling.” While the final shot is technically meant to be the kill shot, all 3 shots are administered at a dosage that is lethal ensuring that if something goes wrong the end result will assuredly be death. Lethal injection is the preferred method of execution. In 2008 a Supreme Court ruling determined that it doesn’t violate the 8th amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment as it doesn’t present “substantial risk of serious harm.” And “if administered as intended, the procedure will result in a painless death.” As the New Yorker accurately puts it, “death is required, but harm is forbidden. Clear?”

This process reveals America’s inherent problem with the death penalty. We struggle to maintain humanity while simultaneously killing another human being. This turns out to be a tricky endeavor. As a nation that prides itself on our moral superiority, we feel valid in punishing those who deviate from that ideal. However, we don’t want to be presented with the stark reality that in approving the death penalty we keep company with nations such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. As the Washington Post states, “this is not our crowd.” Adam Liptak, from the New York Times, reported that the state of Texas consulted a veterinarian before adapting the current 3 shot practice. They discovered a single dose of a barbiturate (drug#1) would overdosed and kill an inmate. “It was very safe, very effective and very cheap. The problem is the state feared that the public would think we are treating people the same way that we’re treating animals. They was afraid of a hue and cry.” What’s interesting is that the current 3 shot protocol has a higher chance for error, resulting in excruciating pain for the inmate and violating the 8th amendment, than the simple 1 shot process shut down by the state. The difference is that in the current process the inmate would show no discernible signs of discomfort due to muscle paralysis. In other words, the comfort of the public is put before that of the inmates. What does that say about our underlying acceptance with this practice?

According to Jonathan Groner, the trauma medical director of Children’s Hospital in Columbus, “one of the great ironies about capital punishment when you look at it historically is that when executions appear to be more humane, the application of the death penalty becomes less humane.” What does that mean? Experts on capital punishment agree that death my firing squad is swifter and less painful than death by lethal injection but can you imagine the outrage if we killed inmates by shooting them? Despite it receiving equal marks in a 1993 study in terms of pain levels with lethal injection, and having an exponentially lower risk of failure, states still shy away from this method as it portrays an image of “brutality.” When death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner asked to be executed by firing squad instead of lethal injection in 2010, the media was outraged that this method was still legal and the state quickly removed the option from its constitution. But I honestly can’t say that I blame Ronnie. Clayton Lockett is not the first botched lethal injection and, from the looks of it, certainly not the last.

Lethal injection was approved in 2008 because if administered correctly, it was quick and painless. The problem is that, in reality, correctly administering lethal injection is becoming more and more difficult. Doctors, nurses and now anesthesiologist are banned from participating or assisting in capital punishment. This assures that medical professions with the knowledge required to insert needles and administer drugs correctly and effectively will not be present. Additionally, and far more concerning, is that the drugs required to perform lethal injection are becoming increasing hard to supply. In 2008 the EU announced a worldwide abolition of the death penalty. “Since that declaration, the U.K., Germany, and other countries have erected regulatory barriers to prevent pharmaceutical companies from exporting sodium thiopental to the United States. Hospira, the only remaining U.S. manufacturer of the drug, announced in January [2011] that it would stop making it after Italy nixed the company’s plans to open a manufacturing plant there.” States are now faced with the issue of attempting to find the drug when there are no legal means of production. Instead of altering the drugs or method used for execution, states have reportedly resorted to “illegally purchasing the drug from a company that operated out of the back of a driving school in London.” Illegal forms of sodium thiopental (drug #3) combined with improper medical care is what caused the botched execution of Clayton Lockett. According to a statement released by the state of Oklahoma the needle was incorrectly inserted causing the vein to collapse and the drugs “had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out or both.” This led to Lockett being in agony for 43 minutes before he eventually died from a heart attack. While lethal injection may in theory be a humane method of execution, even the inventor of this method is now highly critical of its practical application.

Despite issues with carrying out the final verdict, capital punishment still holds the majority approval in the American public. Even at a record low, the death penalty has a solid 55% approval rating. Many believe the ultimate punishment is a deterrent and helps prevent violent crimes from happening. Further, they believe that violent crimes are on the rise (due to increased media coverage) and capital punishment will help put this to a stop. This is simply not the case. Countless studies have shown no correlation between decreases in violent crimes and the death penalty being an option for punishment. For example if you look at New York “their homicide decline has continued before the capital-punishment statute, through the capital-punishment statute, and after the capital-punishment statute was repealed.” In fact, states with the death penalty have higher rates of violent crimes then states without. Rather, research shows that criminals are more concerned with being caught than considering the consequences afterwards.  Therefore it would make sense that we invest out money into the police force and preventing these crimes from ever taking place. Instead, we invest in capital punishment.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, studies have “uniformly and conservatively shown that a death-penalty trial costs $1 million more than one in which prosecutors seek life without parole.” Even more staggering is that is costs $100,000 more per year to house a death row inmate than it does a general population prisoner. Hence, in many states the issue of the death penalty has been centered not on morality but on cost. Legislators are faced with keeping public schools open vs trying one death row case. In Washington, “criminal justice costs consume 80% of the county budgets” and in New Jersey, “taxpayers spent more than a quarter-billion dollars on a capital punishment system that, over 23 years, executed no one.”  According to Paula Mitchell from the US court of appeals “you get a lot more for your public safely dollar if you can resolve outstanding homicide cases.”  So why is it then that states can afford to house 3029 death row inmates but not keep its police force at its current staffing levels? Even if you are a supporter of the death penalty, it’s hard to deny these costs are out of control.

In the end though, what it ultimately comes down to the simple fact that vengeance is enticing. Despite all the evidence against the death penalty system, America holds dearly to Hammurabi’s law of an eye for an eye. “There are some crimes for which anything less is just a travesty” says Kent Scheidegger, director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. Am I here to deny that justice is not sweet? Absolutely not. However, I’m here to say that it’s simply not practical and moreover the actuality of it inhumane. While it’s nice to think that we can create a system where executions are painless and effective, that is not the world we live in. Executions are continually botched, extremely expensive, and not effective at deterring criminals. Do we as a nation really need to feel moral vindicated so badly that we are willing to ignore the problems the death penalty system faces? Do we really want to stand in front of the world and side with Saudi Arabia and China on human rights issues? If you want to support the death penalty these are all questions you should be able to answer. If this article succeeded in placing even a seed of doubt in your mind, then the death penalty should be abolished as human lives are at stake. My heart goes on to the family of Stephanie Neiman but that doesn’t persuade me to approve the killing of another human being.


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