The death penalty itself is cruel and unusual

The death penalty itself is cruel and unusual

This past week, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced the state’s plan to use nitrogen inhalation for its executions, marking the first time that a state is utilizing gas inhalation as its primary method of execution. This is the first major movement on Oklahoma’s capital punishment program since 2015, following numerous botched executions and increased judicial scrutiny.

Oklahoma is now carrying the torch in our nation’s quest to find the best way to end a person’s life. This method is untested. The next death row inmate in line will be the first case study, as policymakers and corrections officers watch his or her life extinguished before their very eyes.

Capital punishment is not a medical procedure. It is not a science. You cannot run medical trials on the procedures and drugs designed to kill healthy persons. We have opted to use death row inmates as guinea pigs, documenting their deaths so we can better execute the next in-line. 

Lethal injection was supposed to be the answer. A clean and scientific death that does not even approach “cruel and unusual.” Yet, the past decade has erased that facade. In 2014, the state of Ohio executed Dennis McGuire using an untested drug cocktail after supplies of its primary drug had expired. It took 26 minutes before McGuire was pronounced dead, with the priest who gave McGuire his last rites describing his death “like a fish lying along the shore puffing for that one gasp of air that would allow it to breathe.”

Faced with dwindling supplies of execution drugs, states have opted to explore what drug combinations and execution methods are most effective, essentially legalizing torture in order to achieve their goals. While capital punishment was once viewed as a humane medical procedure, it can now be likened to a serial killer searching for his niche.

This reckless attitude toward capital punishment has led to detrimental effects within the medical community as well. Drug manufacturers, fearful that state corrections departments will use their drugs for executions, have restricted their availability. Hospira ceased manufacture of sodium thiopental, a common anesthetic, because of the drug’s use in executions, thus making the drug unavailable domestically. E.U. regulators threatened to halt manufacture of propofol, another common anesthetic used in the United States, after the state of Missouri deceptively obtained twenty vials of propofol for its corrections department. Twenty vials put millions at risk.

Missouri is not the only state to illegally obtain these drugs. Hospira was the only manufacturer approved by the FDA to produce sodium thiopental; any states importing the drug were doing so illegally. DEA agents have raided prisons in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, seizing illegally obtained supplies of sodium thiopental. Our corrections departments and attorney generals are operating in the shadows, skirting the very laws they have sworn to uphold in order to satisfy their affinity for capital punishment.

Looking beyond the moral implications, there is no sound or rational argument to be made in support of capital punishment. From a justice perspective, America’s judicial system is not infallible, even when a defendant’s life is at stake. Since 1973, 144 defendants sentenced to death have been exonerated. Yet, a statistical analysis of death penalty cases has estimated the rate of erroneous convictions is much higher, around 4 percent. To put that into perspective, approximately 120 of the 3,000 inmates currently on death row could be innocent.

From a deterrence perspective, it is difficult to track the effect of capital punishment on violent crime and homicide rates, given the numerous factors that impact crime. But the studies that have been conducted show that capital punishment has little to no effect on homicide rates. This conclusion makes sense. Most homicides are crimes of passion, rather than the result of premeditation. Even with premeditated homicides, criminals are more worried about being caught, and less so about what happens after they are caught.

We choose lethal injection because it satisfies our desire for “justice.” Firing squads and electric chairs present us with too much gore or visible agony. We want to satisfy our internal bloodlust, without any actual blood getting in the way. Lethal injection is “cleaner.” The image of doctors in white lab coats administering a carefully crafted medical drug does not quite afflict the squeamish like the sight of a prisoner, blindfolded and tied up, being ripped apart by gunfire.

But shiny needles and clean scrubs divert our eyes away from the reality that we are inflicting what can only be deemed as “cruel and unusual punishment” upon death row inmates. If recent botched lethal injections are any indication, these procedures are becoming less like a scientific procedure and more like a gambling addiction. Oklahoma’s shift to nitrogen inhalation is simply another roll of the dice.

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly. 

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