The botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett has called our continued use of the death penalty in this country back into question. In many ways, the death penalty is an abhorrent attempt to sate an irrational cultural bloodlust, rooted in vengeance and barbarism and detached from data.
To be sure, Lockett was no angel. He was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting a young woman, Stephanie Neiman, and watching as accomplices buried her alive. And according to The Associated Press:
“In addition to the murder charge, Lockett was found guilty of conspiracy, first-degree burglary, three counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, three counts of forcible oral sodomy, four counts of first-degree rape, four counts of kidnapping and two counts of robbery by force and fear. The charges were after former convictions of two or more felonies, according to the court clerk’s office.”
Those sentenced to death have often, like Lockett, been convicted of heinous, nearly unspeakable crimes. But is state-sponsored eye-for-an-eye justice truly a mark of a civilized society? How do we not, as a culture, descend to the same depravity of the person who takes a life — or multiple lives — when, as citizens of a state or country, we, in turn, take the murderer’s life? Do our haphazard attempts to rid the world of evil imbue us with it?
Lockett’s execution was by all accounts a gruesome affair, as he gasped and writhed on the gurney, a vein collapsed and he suffered a heart attack. According to NewsOK:
“Lockett grimaced and tensed his body several times over a three-minute period before the execution was shielded from the press. After being declared unconscious 10 minutes into the process, Lockett spoke at three separate moments. The first two were inaudible, however the third time he spoke, Lockett said the word ‘man.’”
How does a death like this pass constitutional muster, with our guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishment,” even for a person convicted of administering cruel and unusual punishment?
When President Barack Obama was asked on Friday about the Oklahoma execution, he repeated his belief that capital punishment should be an option in some cases but pointed out that:
“The application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied. And this situation in Oklahoma I think just highlights some of the significant problems there.”
And not only are there application and misapplication issues, the death penalty is also a tremendous drain on resources.
Professor Jeffrey A. Fagan of Columbia Law School has argued that “even in states where prosecutors infrequently seek the death penalty, the price of obtaining convictions and executions ranges from $2.5 million to $5 million per case (in current dollars), compared to less than $1 million for each killer sentenced to life without parole.”
Our continued use of the death penalty does not put us in good company. According to a 2014 report from Amnesty International, “only nine countries have continuously executed in each of the past five years - Bangladesh, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, U.S.A. and Yemen.”
Unfortunately, the death penalty is part of this country’s blood memory, a memory we are having a hard time shaking. According to a morbidly fascinating chart published last week by Time magazine and derived from data collected by M. Watt Espy, John Ortiz Smykla and the Death Penalty Information Center, the United States has executed 15,717 people since 1700, most of them hanged. The peak year for executions was 1935 with nearly 200 people put to death, mostly by electrocution. In 2014, 20 people have been put to death, all by lethal injection.
Even steps toward remedying the problem with the death penalty raise questions. As Fagan put it, “As states across the country adopt reforms to reduce the pandemic of errors in capital punishment, we wonder whether such necessary and admirable efforts to avoid error and the horror of the execution of the innocent won’t — after many hundreds of millions of dollars of trying — burden the country with a death penalty that will be ineffective, unreasonably expensive and politically corrosive to the broader search for justice.”
We are standing on the graves of the executed, and it is not a morally elevated position.