John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” Takes a Satirical Look at Lethal Injection

Sometimes you need a joke about a cute but very angry desert rain frog to prepare an unsuspecting audience for a serious discussion of lethal-injection executions in the United States. That was the approach undertaken by Last Week Tonight, the satirical weekly HBO comedy-news show hosted by John Oliver, as Oliver addressed the deadly serious issue of lethal injection in the show’s May 5, 2019 episode. Oliver called the death penalty “a wrong, bad thing the government should not be able to do,” but said that whether you are against the death penalty or not, the evidence graphically demonstrates that lethal injection is a “horrifying” way to carry it out.

In the twenty-minute segment, Oliver outlined several of the reasons he opposes the death penalty, including wrongful convictions, lack of deterrent effect, and cost. “There’s actually no proof it has an effect on bringing down crime, [and] it’s technically more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life,” he explained, citing DPIC’s 2009 report, Smart on Crime, for data on the cost of capital punishment. “According to one study, around 4% of people sentenced to death are actually innocent, which in itself, should give us pause about the whole enterprise,” he added.

Oliver devoted most of the segment to discussion of the problems and controversy surrounding the use of lethal injection. “Let’s start with the idea that it’s medical, that is more than a bit of a stretch, because lethal injections aren’t performed by medical personnel for a pretty obvious reason,” Oliver said, quoting death-penalty researcher Michael Radelet, who said, “It violates ethical codes for physicians to be involved.” Recounting the history of lethal injection, Oliver explained that the formula was invented by an Oklahoma medical examiner who called himself “an expert in dead bodies, but not an expert in getting them that way.” Oliver described him as “just an enthusiast with a can-do attitude for killing people.” He also criticized an expert witness who has testified in support of the use of midazolam for several death-penalty states. Dr. Roswell Lee Evans, Oliver said, has been a key witness for six states, but he has never conducted any research on any kind of anesthetic. Dr. Evans presented 150 pages of printouts from drugs.com in his 300-page expert report for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Incredibly, in our desire to find a more humane method, we’ve ended up letting amateurs both invent and administer a form of unpredictable torture,” Oliver said.

He went on to describe how the use of midazolam has created new problems with lethal injection, as it does not adequately anesthetize prisoners before a suffocating paralytic and a profoundly painful heart-stopping drug are administered. “You could be fully aware, feel like you’re suffocating, but unable to move or communicate while fire is about to be injected into your veins. And this somehow qualifies as more humane than an electric chair, which seems pretty debatable at best,” he summarized. Oliver concluded with a repudiation of lethal injection as a sanitized, humane execution method: “If the thing that’s making you comfortable with lethal injection is that it’s humane, it isn’t. Because the fundamental fact to understand about lethal injection is, it is a show. It is designed not to minimize the pain of people being executed, but to maximize the comfort of those who want to support the death penalty without confronting the reality of it, which is that it’s violent and it’s brutal, and it’s never going to be anything other than that.”

(John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, HBO, May 5, 2019; Ryan Reed, John Oliver on Horrific, Inhumane Reality of Lethal Injections, Rolling Stone, May 6, 2019; Dream McClinton, John Oliver on lethal injections: ‘horrifying’ and ‘unpredictable’, The Guardian, May 6, 2019.) (Warning: contains sexual content and explicit language.) See Lethal Injection.