The taking of a life to punish taking a life is an idea whose time is not yet gone, but its years may be numbered. A low-key campaign against capital punishment is flourishing, led this time by lonely conservatives. Many of them are concerned about the inefficiency of state killing, if not the morality of it.
Capital punishment has been consistently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the constitutional prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” It’s difficult to see how the killing could be any more cruel or unusual than in a succession of botched executions this year among the several states. A Colombian drug lord could take lessons from Arizona in how to inflict cruel pain and unusual agony.
The executioners of Joseph Rudolph Wood, 55, were so long about it earlier this month — nearly two hours — that his lawyers had time to file an unusual emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-execution for relief on humanitarian grounds. “He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” his lawyers told the justices. “He is still alive.” The justices, perhaps eager to finally get away for their summer holiday, declined to stop it.
Wood began gasping shortly after the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone were administered. Witnesses said Wood’s mouth dropped open, his chest expanded dramatically and then contracted, and they counted 600 violent gasps over the next 90 minutes. The director of the state Department of Corrections said he “conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress.”
But a good time was clearly not had by all. What makes the Arizona execution particularly horrific is that it was the third such cruel and unusual botch job this year. Ohio put Dennis McGuire to death in January with a cocktail of new and untested drugs that, if not mixed properly, cause unimaginable pain. McGuire screamed that he felt as if his body was on fire, and death did not follow his gasping and writhing on a gurney for 25 minutes. The Ohio attorney general had argued earlier, when his lawyer tried to block the execution with the untested drugs, that the U.S. Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment but “you’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.”
In April, Oklahoma tried for an hour to execute Clayton Lockett, a murderer and a rapist, while he lay convulsing and writhing on a gurney, and never succeeded. He died of a heart attack while waiting for the state to get on with it.
The states complain that executing isn’t as easy as it used to be because drug manufacturers are no longer willing to participate. The European Union prohibits continental manufacturers from selling drugs for executions, and in America, the states have scurried to find alternatives, sometimes trading lethal recipes with each other. Tennessee grew frustrated with the search and has restored the electric chair, which is not an improvement. It often sets the doomed man on fire, leaving him a charred mess of smoking bones and blackened flesh. Several of the 32 states with statutory authority to execute no longer do.
Capital punishment has always been a popular way to punish heinous crimes, and most of those executed are heinous criminals, indeed. They may deserve what they get, but the coarsened public doesn’t. The distinction is easily lost. Retribution and revenge has enjoyed the sanction of both church and state through the centuries. A shipwrecked sailor in ancient times was thrown out of the sea by the storm and was relieved to see a gallows on the hillside. “Thank God!” he cried. “I’ve landed in a Christian country!”
In frontier America, hanging was nearly always done in public. Judge Isaac Parker’s busy gallows made Fort Smith famous. Families gathered on the courthouse lawn for a picnic with entertainment. In Colonial times, death was doled out not only for murder, but for adultery, arson and theft.
The state, perhaps recognizing the brutalizing effects of state killing on the public, slowly came to put death behind wraps. Even now, when executions descend from grim to gruesome, a warden will pull the curtain to shield witnesses from watching cruel and unusual death.
Polls show that 80 percent of Republicans favor the death penalty, but a small but expanding group of conservatives argue that fealty to authentic conservatism leads away from capital punishment. Some of the names, ranging from Jeb Bush to Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry, are surprising. The death penalty is as popular as ever with many conservatives, but methods of dealing death are not. Inefficiency inevitably costs money, and wasteful government inefficiency, after all, is not a conservative virtue.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.