On the Death Penalty, A Question of Integrity


Two days ago, the state of Oklahoma revived arguments about the death penalty when it was forced to issue an emergency stay to a man just hours before his scheduled execution. The stay came after an earlier attempt to execute a different man had to be aborted when the vein into which the lethal cocktail was administered apparently ruptured.

The case highlights numerous contradictions at the heart of capital punishment in America. The initial report out of the chamber came by way of a reporter who was live-tweeting the event: “first execution botched, second execution stayed.” The inmate, on death row for rape and murder, was then transported to a hospital so he could be resuscitated. He died of a heart attack later that evening.

Every step along that sequence seems to contradict the last: Clayton Lockett was first strapped down so that his life could be extinguished by the state of Oklahoma, the execution was then stopped after it was concluded that he was in distress, and when he later died it came to be described as a “botched execution.” What is going on here?

What’s happening is simple: as Americans, we’ve lost the ability to face what we’re collectively doing. The list of methods used to execute people throughout the history of the United States is staggeringly varied. At first, an offender could be burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, or hanged from the neck. Then, prisoners were dispatched by firing squad, sent to the electric chair, or snuffed out in gas chambers. Today, the preferred method is lethal injection.

The evolution from one form of execution to the next has been partly driven by humanitarian concerns – at a certain point, for example, burning a man at the stake became morally unacceptable as cruel and unusual punishment. But it has also, however, been driven by a desire to sanitize death.

For years, there has been solid evidence that lethal injection is a problematic method of execution, but it has remained popular – in part because the pain and suffering it causes is largely out of sight, and so it doesn’t offend us. Similarly, decapitation is remarkably quick, effective, and painless – but it has never caught on in the United States, perhaps because it’s too untidy. As a people, we seem to be comfortable taking life, but not comfortable having to face reality of what we’re doing.

Thinking about this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a passage from the opening scene of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones:

The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

In the service of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’m a supporter of capital punishment – or, more to the point, I’m not morally opposed to the concept of capital punishment. I recognize that our current system has serious and disturbing flaws, but I would prefer to reform that system than to abolish it entirely.

Even so, I think our collective contradictions around the death penalty raise serious challenges. Simply put, if you’re not willing to face the reality of what you’re doing – taking a life – then you shouldn’t look for ways to make that easier for yourself. Integrity means being willing to either give a full-throated defense of your actions or to recognize that you’re standing, perhaps inevitably, on shaky ground. That sense of moral unease is supposed to be an important moral compass.

On the death penalty, a lot of people seem happier to apply an ethical balm. We’re willing to talk black and white about justice, as long as we’re not forced to face that reality. Frankly, we do the same thing elsewhere when we separate the ethics of meat consumption from the realities of factory farming, or the ethics of global trade from the moral consequences of that trade.

On Tuesday, Clayton Lockett was supposed to die for his horrible crime, and he did. Charles Warner, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 11-month-old girl, did not die. Who, I wonder, would be willing to call that justice?

* * * CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated that Clayton Lockett was transported to a hospital after his execution was stopped, but before his death. Instead, it appears that Lockett died in the execution chamber. Sorry.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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