Last week’s tragically botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma has brought the issue of the death penalty and its inhumanity back into the light. After a long legal battle over obtaining the chemicals to be used in the execution (with the state refusing to explain where they bought the lethal drugs for fear of retribution against the manufacturer), this execution was already controversial enough. In the end, it was to get much worse. The doctors had difficulty finding a vein to inject Lockett with the drugs, and ended up using one in his groin; they proceeded to cover the area with a cloth to protect his modesty (as if that matters when one is being executed by the authorities), and consequently failed to notice that the vein had collapsed, pumping poison into Lockett’s muscles rather than his bloodstream. The execution was officially called off, but it was too late: Lockett died agonizingly of a heart attack as his body reacted to the chemicals, rather than slowly and peacefully being sedated and dying in his sleep, as was the plan.
Much of the focus in news stories around this has been on the procedural aspects of the case, with Oklahoman authorities closing the curtains on the public viewing gallery when things started to go wrong, and doctors apparently telling spectators Lockett was unconscious when he could still clearly be seen struggling. All of these things need to be investigated, for sure, but the biggest issue here should be that of the continued existence of the death penalty itself.
The US is one of the only developed nations on earth to retain the death penalty. The last execution in the UK was in 1964, Canada and Australia abolished the death penalty in the 1970s, while some places including Italy, Portugal, and Venezuela abolished it as early as the 19th century. Meanwhile, although some US states do not use the death penalty, the US as a whole is fifth on the list of countries that execute their own citizens (on 2012 statistics), behind only China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. They may well drop down to sixth in the table this year, due to the huge numbers of executions of political leaders currently being orchestrated in Egypt – but this is not really the sort of company that a supposedly enlightened nation like America should be keeping.
So why does the US continue to maintain this barbaric practice that puts it in the same league as some of the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’ countries? It seems to me to be the pervasive fear of the poor and the ‘other’ in American society that keeps the public support for the death penalty going. Americans of all social castes are constantly being told by the media and politicians that other people are out to get them, to take what they have and to do terrible things to them. They live in a continuous state of fear that every person they see who is different from them is a potential threat – black people, Muslims, the poor – and they want to use the death penalty as a way of deterring those individuals from attacking them (although there is very little evidence that executions work as a deterrent to crime).
The death penalty overwhelmingly targets the poor and exploited of America – people who are in desperate situations already, and find their situation getting worse and worse until something extreme happens. Rather than punishing them with the ultimate vengeance, it’s time to start addressing the socio-economic conditions that make people poor and keep them poor. And it’s time to abolish the death penalty and show that we can be civilized human beings, even to those who have committed terrible crimes.
Article prepared by John Wish