Magazine article The Christian Century

Instruments of Death

Magazine article The Christian Century

Instruments of Death

Article excerpt

AMERICANS' SUPPORT for capital punishment has waned for a number of reasons: concern that wrongfully convicted persons may be executed; doubts that the death penalty acts as a deterrent; worries about economic and racial biases in capital cases; and concerns about the financial costs involved.

The focus has shifted recently to the methods of execution. In July, it took nearly two hours for Arizona inmate Joseph Woods to die by lethal injection, and observers repeatedly heard him gasp for air. In late April, Oklahoma prison officials had to stop the process of killing Clayton Lockett by lethal injection because of "vein failure." Lockett was observed writhing and trying to speak 14 minutes into the process, and he died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began. At an execution in Ohio in January, Dennis McGuire appeared to gasp for breath several times during the 25 minutes it took for an untested two-drug cocktail to cause his death.

Though the Constitution, according to the Supreme Court, does not prohibit capital punishment, the Eighth Amendment rules out cruel and unusual punishment. Some means of execution seem to be exactly that.

For the federal government and the 32 states that have the death penalty, lethal injection has come to be the primary means of execution. It is, for many people, the most humane. However, because pharmaceutical companies and European nations are increasingly opposed to providing the drugs used in capital punishment, officials are finding it more difficult to administer lethal injections.

In response, a number of states may go back to what Dan Barry in the New York Times has called "retro-style" solutions--the use of firing squads and the electric chair. In May, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that allows for electrocution if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. In Utah, state legislator Paul Ray has proposed reintroducing execution by firing squad, saying it is "probably the most humane way to kill somebody" given that the "prisoner dies instantly" and "there's no suffering." Fordham University law professor Deborah W. Denno, an expert on the death penalty, has said that a firing squad is "the most humane procedure."

Some people may not care about the method for putting an offender to death. Indeed, some may exclaim, "Let them suffer!" Those who murdered someone's loved one, some argue, should be made to suffer just like the victim. Yet executing an offender--whatever level of suffering is involved in the death--cannot make up for what he has done.

My own reflections on capital punishment began 30 years ago when, at the age of 19,1 became one of the youngest corrections officers at the maximum-security jail in Clearwater, Florida. My mother and stepfather were patrol deputies for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. When I graduated from high school, I had in mind a career in law, and they suggested that I apply for a job with the sheriffs department while I worked my way through college. For four years I was assigned to various jobs, including booking new arrestees, monitoring inmates from a control room, and doing guard duty in a tower.

Although at the time I more or less supported capital punishment, I recall feeling uncomfortable when one of my fellow officers proudly announced that his dream job would be pulling the lever on "Old Sparky," the electric chair at the state prison in Starke.

That remark surfaced in my mind this past spring when I was teaching an ethics course for staff at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, where executions are carried out, in Missouri. Two offenders were executed during the weeks our class met.

Like Ohio, Oklahoma, and other states, Missouri has encountered problems with lethal injection. It has used a fairly standard protocol involving three different drugs injected one after the other. The first one injected is sodium thiopental, an anesthetic meant to make the prisoner unconscious. …

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