Friday, May 2, 2014

The Growing Controversy Around the Death Penalty


Other than the tiny island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, the US is now the only country in the Western Hemisphere that executes its citizens.  This week the death penalty is back in the news after a botched execution in Oklahoma.

In the United States about 58% of Americans say they favor the death penalty according to a 2012 Gallup poll.   The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia case that the death penalty does not violate the 8th Amendment's guarantee that all American's are free from cruel and unusual punishment -as long as the punishment isn't cruel.  Americans may point to Saudi Arabia's beheading of prisoners, Iran's hanging of gay teens, and China's harvesting of executed prisoners' organs as barbaric, but unlike almost all of Europe and the rest of the Americas where the death penalty has been stopped or abolished, Americans still support the death penalty as long as it is nice and peaceful.  It's fine if the government kills a convicted criminal when they give him a final meal, shoot him up with drugs, and the condemned just doesn't wake up from a peaceful slumber.

But now the European manufacturers of the drugs formerly used for lethal injections have cut off America's execution industry.  So states are scrambling to find alternatives whose less than peaceful outcomes are making Americans squeamish.  In January Ohio tried a new lethal injection cocktail to execute Dennis McGuire.  It took him more than 20 minutes to die as he writhed strapped to a bed wheezing and gasping for air in "agony and terror" according to his children who are now suing Ohio for torturing their father to death.

This January Oklahoma also executed Michael Lee Wilson whose final words were that his entire body was on fire -something the supposed drug cocktail used should not have produced.  The cocktail Oklahoma uses is supposed to put a prisoner to sleep before the final drug shuts down the prisoner's heart.  This final drug, however, is known to create an excruciating burning if a person is not unconscious.

This week Oklahoma again botched an execution.  Instead of peacefully falling into eternal sleep to pay for what admittedly were horrific crimes, Clayton Lockett writhed in agony for 40 minutes while one of his veins exploded.  The executioners stopped the execution but then Lockett died of a heart attack.  At least some accounts say his heart literally EXPLODED in his chest.  Unable to find a suitable vein in an arm or leg, the drugs were administered through Lockett's groin.  

Now these botched executions are adding fuel to the debate around the death penalty.  Will public opinion and the American courts continue to support the death penalty if America grows squeamish about the government executing citizens whose lives end in agony?  If convicted of a crime, would you rather be guillotined?  shot?  or writhe in pain for 40 minutes strapped to a gurney?  

If you commit murder in the US, data show you are more likely to be executed if you are male and black.  Is this fair?

Also, where you are convicted of a capital offense in the United States, however, will dictate if a) you will receive the death penalty, b) if it will likely be carried out, and c) how it will be carried out.  Is this fair?

By far you are most likely to be executed in the United States' execution capital per capita:  Oklahoma.  Since 1976 Oklahoma has executed 1 Oklahoman for ever 36,000 residents.  When Danish drug manufacturers cut off selling the drug most commonly used for lethal injection in the US because of its use in executions, Oklahoma and other states shifted to finding other lethal injectables.  The state even went so far as to try to hide what drugs it is using and who is making these drugs.  It is likely more lawsuits and more debate will be forthcoming on this issue.

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