Precipice

BY JOE BALSON

“…no more right to the information they requested than if they were being executed in the electric chair, they would have no right to know whether OG&E or PSO were providing the electricity; if they were being hanged, they would have no right to know whether it be cotton or nylon rope; or if they were being executed by firing squad, they would have no right to know whether it be by Winchester or Remington ammunition,”

Justice Taylor Steven

On 29th April 2014, Clayton Lockett was executed by the state of Oklahoma. Mr. Lockett was to be executed by lethal injection but in fact succumbed to a heart attack 43 minutes after the initial injection. During this time his lawyer, who was observing, stated that Clayton began to struggle and attempt to speak. This is not the first incidence of an inmate in America taking an inordinate amount of time to die by lethal injection. In Ohio in January 2014 Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to pass from lethal injection, during which he is said to have struggled for air, made choking sounds and clutched his fists, the week before a judge granting the execution stated that “You’re not entitled to a pain-free execution”.

Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, another inmate who was scheduled to be executed but had his execution postponed, appealed to the Oklahoman courts requesting the information about the drugs to be used in their injections and about the companies that produce them. This request was refused by Justice Taylor Steven (mentioned above), but not after much political wrangling by the state senate and Governor Mary Fallin. Governor Fallin carried out an executive order forcing the executions to go ahead after the State Supreme Court had ordered a stay while they deliberated. The court backed down after Governor Fallin’s executive order and threats made by Representative Mike Christian to impeach the court justices.

How have these agonising deaths of the inmates, who had professed their guilt, been caused? The lethal injections used by the states have had to be adapted after European Commission Regulation (EC) No 1236/2005 added two major ingredients, in use within these injections, to the list of banned trade goods. Many European pharmaceutical companies produce two of the needed ingredients (pentobarbital and sodium thiopental) for the injections. Once word spread that they sold these goods to America for this purpose, however, many stopped shipping voluntarily before the ban was put in place.

A fear arose in some American states that if people were to know which companies provided drugs for lethal injections then they would be targeted. States like Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri have thus passed a law banning the release of information related to the production and distribution of compounds used in lethal injections. Yet an associated press investigation found that these laws had very little real world use and no police investigations were ongoing concerning the targeting of production facilities.

The Guardian, the Associated Press and three Missouri newspapers have brought a legal suit against the state of Missouri and the secrecy that surrounds the execution of inmates. On average one prisoner is executed every month in the state and with the expanded ‘black hood law’, as it is morbidly referred to, no one is allowed to know which pharmacies produced and supplied the chemicals used to take the life of a fellow human being.

A European voice will not sway the minds of American lawmakers, I fear, on the notion of the abolition of the death penalty. The very least we can do for those that our handed this entirely vengeful penance is allow them to face their end with transparency and to limit any pain they may suffer during their execution. Tacitly allowing the torturous death of inmates does not bring justice, it brings American lawmakers only to the level of the cruel murderers that they wish to kill.

Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner were refused the right to know what would be injected into their bodies to end their lives. To know whether the products had been procured illegally, to know who they were produced by and to know how they would die. The denied information would have given Mr. Lockett the ability to face his end with greater clarity and would give the public greater understanding of what is happening and perhaps the agency to change the situation so that others do not lie on the precipice of life and death for 43 minutes.

With regards to the larger picture, I do not support the death penalty on a multitude of levels. Being an atheist, the lack of an afterlife makes it appear to me, in a possibly vindictive or malicious way, that it is an easy way out for crimes that do not deserve an escape. Though this is callous and an instant reaction that needs to be tempered with reason, for what are we as a society without the ability to look past raw emotions and challenge our own preconceptions before passing judgement. The next reason is cold and logical; it costs far more to try and sentence a person to death than it is to life imprisonment. In California alone, the state spent over $4 billion in trying, sentencing and carrying out executions between 1978 and 2012. The same study that provided that data argued that if sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, the state would save $170 million a year. If we are to remove emotion, the death penalty is not a prudent expenditure of government finances. Finally, we as a society must rise above our base instinct of an eye for an eye and I believe that while incarceration is fair punishment, redemption must be attempted.

Though these criminals have committed grievous crimes and deserve no sympathy for their incarceration, it is to the betterment of society that we treat our worst with greater care than they treated others. For how are we supposed to exhort the rights of humanity and basic dignity abroad, to the countries that deny it to their citizens, when we block dignity from the deaths of those who we punish at home. We cannot simply wave away the protestations and feelings of those we imbue the notion of evil, for they are human, regardless of past offences. An enlightened society must temper its bloodlust and seek to redeem those who on the surface may appear irredeemable. If we rely on the sword to deal justice then all of us will surely fall upon it in time. While these criminals may not have shown mercy to their victims, only suffering, it is the task of society and law to prove that our actions are greater than theirs. That we will not debase ourselves and sink to their level of vileness, that even when we punish those worst amongst us we will not let their actions drag us down, but will make our actions drag them up.

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