This week, the state of Oklahoma put a man named Clayton Lockett to death, after months of legal wrangling. As you may have heard, it did not go well. The fiasco may not change our fetish for state-sanctioned executions, but at the very least it should change our approach to capital punishment. No more injections that hide behind a screen of modern medicine — bring back the the firing squads, the gallows, and the guillotine.
Some background: European chemical manufacturers have stopped selling lethal injection drugs to the U.S., so Oklahoma came up with its own jerry-rigged cocktail. That sparked a long-running legal battle between Lockett and another prisoner and the state, which refused to disclose the source of its new drugs. It turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis last week, when the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay of execution so it could examine the legality of the state's secret injection law.
In response, Gov. Mary Fallin (R) announced that she was directing the state executive to carry out the executions anyway, and a Republican member of the state legislature introduced impeachment proceedings against the Supreme Court members. Eventually, in a brave stand for the whole rule of law thing, the court backed down and rescinded its order.
Using an experimental death cocktail obtained in secret by a pack of cartoonishly reactionary incompetents, the execution went about as well as anyone could have expected. According to this gruesomely riveting eyewitness account, Lockett was flopping around and moaning and convulsing in obvious agony. He tried to get up and even got a few words out. After more than 30 minutes, his heart finally gave out and he died.
Americans may cherish violent state punishment, but they sure are prissy and cowardly when it comes to facing the reality of that preference. If it's really so necessary for a person to be put to death for certain crimes, then let's stare that fact square in the face.
Advocates of lethal injection (which is now by far the most common way to execute people) originally argued that it was a more reliable and humane way to kill someone than previous, more primitive methods. We now know that the opposite is true. Lethal injections are botched at a rate of 7 percent, more than any other method and over twice the average.
The Lockett disaster ought to permanently put to bed the idea that injections reduce pain. Since the typical death cocktail tends to prize speed over anesthetic effect, there were serious questions about the pain inflicted by the standard mixtures even before Oklahoma broke bad and seemingly cooked its own batch.
Judge Stephen Reinhart once wrote that "hanging is incompatible with society's evolving standards of decency." I say that when it comes to capital punishment, those standards are a crock. People are simply unnerved by the thought of someone's body being broken by force. Much better to keep the violence invisible, to mask the pain with sedatives, and to pretend it's all part of some medical procedure.
I, for one, would rather be hanged than go through the torture Lockett endured. His death was the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment, and it's one of the many reasons lethal injections should be abolished immediately as a moral stain on the country, not to mention a source of growing horror and disgust among our cohort nations.
I imagine the torture-apologist wing of the conservative movement would be wholeheartedly in favor of returning to more overtly violent executions. Sarah Palin could be its spokesperson.
But the big, muddled middle of America isn't quite ready to see itself that way. Many might support the death penalty in the abstract, but not in its details, not if it involves driving bits of metal through the bodies of the condemned, snapping their necks, or slicing their heads off. If that does make you recoil, then perhaps it's time to consider not killing them at all.