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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Crisp: U.S. has choice in death penalty

By John Crisp
Published: September 26, 2023, 6:01am

You wouldn’t think that it would be that hard to kill someone.

History indicates that we’ve always been good at it. It took only one generation before Cain killed Abel in a fit of jealousy over divine approbation. Murder had been invented and we’ve never looked back.

In fact, we’ve only gotten better at killing. Cain must have used a club or rock on Abel, but in modern times our killing capacity has gone ballistic — literally. We’ve invented efficient firearms that push the annual death toll in America to near 50,000 victims.

But if we’re so good at killing, why do the states that use capital punishment have a hard time putting people to death? We have a term for it — botched executions — and it’s not hard to find examples.

Sometimes prison officials are unable to properly insert needles into the veins of the condemned. In 2018, an Alabama execution team searched for nearly three hours for a vein in Doyle Hamm’s body. It had to give up before Hamm’s death warrant expired but not before puncturing him at least 11 times in his arms, ankles, legs and groin.

Sometimes mistakes are made: In 2015, Charles Warner took 18 minutes to die after Oklahoma officials used the wrong drug. Warner’s last words: “My body is on fire.”

Sometimes nearly everything goes wrong. In 2014, Oklahoma officials worked for 51 minutes to find a suitable vein in Clayton Lockett’s arms, legs, feet and groin. After the lethal drugs were administered Lockett reportedly regained consciousness, writhed in pain, moaned and struggled before he finally died.

If I described the crimes of Hamm, Warner and Lockett, any compassion you might feel for them could dissipate. You might argue that they deserve any suffering the state happens to administer. But there are two problems with that view:

First, the Constitution proscribes punishment that is cruel and unusual. Whatever those terms mean, we can’t administer punishments that don’t pass that test.

Second, even if the Constitution didn’t prohibit cruel punishments, whether or not we use them says a lot about who we are.

In America, capital punishment resides in an ambiguous no-man’s land between citizens who think that putting anyone to death is inhumane, no matter how unspeakable his crimes, and others who believe that the power of the state must be backed up by the threat of death for the purposes of punishment, retribution and deterrence.

Our ambivalence about capital punishment has put us in an awkward place: We continue to use it, but attempts to make it more palatable have been unsuccessful.

The last public execution in America was in Owensboro, Ky., in 1936. After a three-hour trial and four and a half minutes of jury deliberation, Rainey Bethea, a 26-year-old Black man, was convicted of rape and sentenced to be hanged. A crowd of 20,000 traveled to Owensboro, filling up hotels and camping near the gallows, enjoying picnics and alcohol. Reportedly, things got rowdy.

But once the trap dropped, Bethea was dead and 20,000 witnessed American justice at work.

Which suggests two alternatives for resolving the dilemma of capital punishment:

First, let’s not quibble over methods. Lethal injection appears to be more about our feelings than about concern for the condemned, and the evidence that it’s more humane than, say, a firing squad is sketchy. Further, there’s a brutal honesty about public executions; they provide a stark confrontation with the consequences of the laws we enact.

On the other hand, we could abolish capital punishment, as all other developed Western countries have done. There’s little evidence that it deters crime, our attempts to sanitize it are largely unsuccessful and it’s inevitable that sometimes we execute innocent people.

Ultimately, capital punishment isn’t about what criminals deserve; it’s about who we are.

Either we live in a country that’s willing to use state power to execute its citizens, even if brutal and inhumane measures are required. Or we don’t. There’s no middle ground.