There was never anything going for it, except political mileage and the desire for crude retribution. The putting to death of another human being by the legal sanction of a state has always been another way of justifying murder, effectively assassination by judicial fiat. Such policies remain terrifying features of a number of penal systems, designed to terrorise more than reform.
In the United States, the death penalty has been falling out of favour. The outgoing governor of Oregon Kate Brown announced on December 13 that she would commute all of the state’s 17 prisoners on death row. In terms of the sheer bloodiness of it all, the figure of 18 executions in six states comes across as one of the lowest in recent years.
The 2022 report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is merely another reminder as to why such cruelty should be ditched. It reads like a sadist’s dream and a humanitarian’s nightmare: over a third of executions this year were botched in the United States. “2022,” the report declares, “could be called ‘the year of the botched execution’.” To be more precise, seven of 20 execution attempts were bungled (“visibly problematic”, write the authors). Executions, it was found, were mostly concentrated in select jurisdictions – more than half in Oklahoma and Texas.
One particularly ghastly incident, in taking three hours, became the longest lethal injection in US history. The Alabama execution of Joe Nathan James took three hours, which, in the words of Reprieve US, was not just the longest in recorded US history in terms of lethal injection but “may even be the longest execution ever using any method.”
The conduct of the Alabama Department of Corrections proved to be a point of conjecture. Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in The Atlantic, noted the clumsy attempts by the executioners to gain access to a vein to deliver the lethal dose. The Department of Corrections told media witnesses that “nothing out of the ordinary” had taken place, a barely believable state of affairs that led to a private autopsy. Those with a taste for gallows humour might have understood an inadvertent frankness on the part of the ADC: there was nothing out of the ordinary about the inability of their staff to discharge their life-taking role.
Bruenig’s description is chastening. It conveys the blood sport spectatorship that such events entail, and the moral cant that implicates the entire penal establishment. “Something terrible had been done to James while he was strapped to a gurney behind closed doors without so much as a lawyer present to protest his treatment or an advocate to observe it, yet the state had insisted that nothing usual had taken place.”
The next two executions scheduled in the state were halted – call them foiled works in progress – given the inability of the amateur butchers to set an IV line. As is instinctive for politicians and bureaucrats when incompetence manifests, a review becomes the default position to obscure the obvious.
In November, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced a “top-to-bottom review” of the state’s execution procedures, one that should, by implication, have included her. In doing so, Ivey refused to accept “the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at Corrections or anyone in law enforcement, for that matter. I believe that legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.”
On the surface of it, the only hijacking taking place is by those in the penal system and law enforcement incapable of carrying out the most basic process of taking a human life. The state’s assassins are clearly not cut out for such dirty work. Ivey could only feel embarrassed that her staff had failed in putting on a good show. “I simply cannot, in good conscience, bring another victim’s family to Holman looking for justice, until I am confident that we can carry out the legal sentence.”
The report also paints a vast picture of gruesome incompetence, axiomatic in a killing system that outsources a medical process of execution to the medically untrained. In Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee and South Carolina, executions were delayed after officials proved unable to carry out execution protocols.
The spreadsheet death merchants in Idaho had slated the execution of Gerald Pizzuto, Jr. on December 15 without the drugs to complete it. The expiry of the death warrant was the culmination of a sordid legal circus involving the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole, the state’s obstinate sanguinary Governor Brad Little, and the court process.
In an unfolding of events that would have been a perfect theme for an absurdist drama, another execution did not take place in Oklahoma because the prisoner in question had not been transferred into the custody of the authorities.
Ghoulish accounts emerged in the case of all three of Arizona’s executions, “including the ‘surreal’ spectacle of a possibly innocent man assisting his executioners in finding a vein in which to inject the lethal chemicals.” Kindness and compassion, even towards the stupid, can have its drawbacks.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, had to see the silver lining in such blatant, administrative savagery. “All the indicators point to the continuing decline in capital punishment.” Indeed, the report is almost cheery in noting that a time of “incendiary political advertising that drove the public’s perception of rising crime to record highs” did not arrest the decline of public support for capital punishment and jury verdicts favouring the death penalty.
As the report’s introduction goes on to observe, “Defying conventional political wisdom, nearly every measure of change – from new death sentences imposed and executions conducted to public opinion polls and elections results – pointed to the continuing durability of the more than 20-year sustained decline of the death penalty in the United States.”
Mighty fine it is to be optimistic but residual atavism in the Land of the Free remains. The likes of Governor Ivey continue to search for more efficient executions, for the “sake of the victims and their families”. Misplaced, futile vengeance, coloured by politics, continues to play a role.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org