EDITORIALS: "State-Sponsored Horror in Oklahoma"
A recent New York Times editorial described the "horrific scene" of Clayton Lockett's botched execution and called on Oklahoma to "[follow] other governors and legislatures in banning executions, recognizing that the American administration of death does not function." The editors noted the Oklahoma Supreme Court's temporary halt to the execution and pointed to political pressure as a possible explanation for why the Court then allowed it to go forward: "[S]everal lawmakers threatened to impeach the justices, and Gov. Mary Fallin blindly ignored the warning signs and ordered the execution to proceed." The editorial stated, "Mr. Lockett’s ordeal, along with the botched deaths of other inmates around the country, showed there is no reliable and humane method of execution." The Times critiqued not only the secrecy surrounding the source of the lethal injection drugs used, but also the larger systemic problems of the death penalty, such as arbitrariness and wrongful convictions. They cited a new study that found over 4% of death-sentenced defendants are likely innocent. Noting the growing number of jurists and lawmakers who are calling for a moratorium on the death penalty because of its exceptional cost, the editorial concluded, "The 'exceptional cost' refers not just to dollars and cents. It refers to the moral diminishment of the United States when a man dies by the hasty hand of government, writhing in pain." Read the editorial below.
State-Sponsored Horror in Oklahoma
According to an eyewitness account by a reporter for The Tulsa World, Mr. Lockett tried to raise himself up, mumbled the word “man,” and was in obvious pain. Officials hastily closed the blinds on the chamber and told reporters that the execution had been stopped because of a “vein failure.” But at 7:06, the inmate was pronounced dead of a heart attack.
This horrific scene — the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment — should never have happened. The Oklahoma Supreme Court tried to stop it last week, concerned that the state refused to reveal the origin of the deadly cocktail. But several lawmakers threatened to impeach the justices, and Gov. Mary Fallin blindly ignored the warning signs and ordered the execution to proceed. (She said it was outside the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, which normally deals with civil matters.)
On Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after her employees tortured a man to death, Ms. Fallin suddenly showed an interest in execution procedures. She ordered an independent review of the injection protocol, halting further state killings until the investigation is complete.
She should have gone much further and followed other governors and legislatures in banning executions, recognizing that the American administration of death does not function. Mr. Lockett’s ordeal, along with the botched deaths of other inmates around the country, showed there is no reliable and humane method of execution. As Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon said in 2011: “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”
Seven states have put the death penalty on hold over the last five years because of issues of fairness or methods; another 11 states are debating the issue. Even in states where the death penalty is applied, the number of executions has fallen sharply since 2009. Republicans in Oklahoma seemed so eager to buck this tide that they ignored what happened during a January execution, when an inmate named Michael Lee Wilson said “I feel my whole body burning” just before the drugs killed him.
Many drug companies, fearful of political attack, have stopped supplying the means of execution, and states determined to inflict the maximum punishment have turned to questionable sources like compounding pharmacies for lethal chemicals. Oklahoma, among other states, won’t say where it is getting the drugs, leading one state judge to say “I do not think this is even a close call” that the execution procedures are unconstitutional.
The medieval mechanics of death, though, are hardly the only reason that states are abandoning the practice. There is growing evidence that capital sentences are handed out in an arbitrary and racially biased way, often to innocent victims. A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that more than 4 percent of all death-row defendants are innocent.
The authors reached that figure by extrapolating from the growing number of exonerations of death-row inmates. They accused Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court of miscalculating when he wrote in 2007 that convictions in American courts have only a 0.027 percent error rate. “That would be comforting, if true,” the study says. “In fact, the claim is silly.” Even more disturbing, the report says, is the stark reality for innocent people sentenced to death: most will never be exonerated.
Jurists and lawmakers are increasingly aware that an immediate moratorium on death is the only civilized response to this arbitrary cruelty. As Wallace Carson Jr., the former chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, put it recently, “the exceptional cost of death penalty cases and the seemingly haphazard selection of which cases deserve the death penalty outweigh any perceived public benefit of this sanction.”
The “exceptional cost” refers not just to dollars and cents. It refers to the moral diminishment of the United States when a man dies by the hasty hand of government, writhing in pain.