Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) first made national headlines last fall when she announced that the Oklahoma National Guard would refuse to provide spousal benefits to all married couples, straight or gay, in order to avoid having to recognize any same-sex couples, as required by federal law. (She later changed her mind.) She popped up again a couple of weeks ago when she signed legislation banning any Oklahoma city from increasing the minimum wage.
Now she’s back in the news as Oklahoma’s version of Madame Defarge. Fallin’s so fond of executions she set a new ghoulish record by scheduling two of them, back to back, two hours apart, on the same night. Only one problem: Her state goons botched the first one so badly she was forced to postpone the second.
Over time, governments have experimented with various forms of the death penalty — from Madame Defarge’s guillotine, to hanging, to the firing squad, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and now lethal injection — searching for a more “humane” method of execution that would permit state officials to boast: Yes, we killed him, but we did so in the kindest and least painful way possible. But all in vain. Centuries of so-called “progress” could not have produced a more barbaric form of torture than Oklahoma meted out on April 29.
According to reporters for Associated Press, present at the execution, prison officials began by injecting Clayton D. Lockett, the first death penalty candidate, with a drug intended to render him unconscious and incapable of feeling any pain. Ten minutes later he was declared unconscious and they began injecting two more drugs: one to paralyze his organs, the other to stop his heart. But shortly, Lockett began writhing, breathing heavily, clenching his teeth, groaning out loud and trying to lift his head from the pillow. Officials quickly lowered the blinds to spare witnesses the gruesome scene. Twenty minutes later, Lockett, 38, died of a heart attack.
Immediately, Fallin, who ordered the executions, called for an investigation into what went wrong, while at the same time repeating her strong support for the death penalty and rescheduling the execution of Charles Warner for May 13. As if 12 more days could fix the problem. Fallin’s not only dumb, she’s blind. She can’t see what’s staring her in the face: the fact that Oklahoma’s botched execution proves that, no matter how administered, even if sugar-coated with lethal injection, the death penalty is nothing but “cruel and unusual punishment,” and therefore in direct violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
Oklahoma’s case was complicated by the fact that so many pharmaceutical manufacturers now refuse to allow their drugs to be used in lethal injections, so the state had to experiment with a new lethal cocktail of its own design. When greedy drug companies have higher moral standards over executions than the government, you know you’re in trouble. But that’s not the only problem with the death penalty.
Nobody argues it’s a deterrent to serious crime anymore. The murder rate is just as high in death-penalty states as in states where it’s banned. The maximum punishment’s never applied evenly nationwide: it all depends on where you live, how much money you have, and, especially what color you are. In Oklahoma, for example, 40 percent of prisoners on death row are black, though blacks are only 4 percent of the state’s population. Nor can anyone any longer argue that the death penalty is necessary to prevent a criminal from committing another serious crime. Life in prison without parole solves that problem.
And, of course, the most serious flaw in the death penalty is that once you make a mistake you can never correct it. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 140 prisoners have been released from death row since 1973 because evidence has surfaced proving their innocence. Nobody knows how many innocent people have been executed. That’s why 141 countries and 18 states have banned the death penalty. Because it’s wrong, and trying to make it seem less cruel will never make it right.
We owe it to ourselves to abolish the death penalty. Austin Sarat, author of “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty,” just published, reminds us who the death penalty is really all about: “At the end of the day, how we punish says as much about us as about those we punish.”
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.