Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about executions in American since the botched lethal injection in Oklahoma two weeks ago. Mother Jones published an interesting piece yesterday on the incompetents and ethically challenged individuals who actually oversee or admininster the deadly chemicals. But for background on how this came to be, here’s an excerpt from my recent e-book on the history of, and current debate over, capital punishment in the United States, Dead Reckoning.
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In 1982, Texas prisoner Charles Brooks became the first person executed by a mixture of sodium thiopental, pavulon and potassium chloride—the so-called lethal injection. The dream of an anesthesized execution, proposed by G.W. Peck in 1847, was finally realized, if in a quite different form.
As the death penalty moratorium of the 1970s ended, many states began to pick up the needle. The British had rejected lethal injections in the 1950s feeling it was an undignified way to die—preferring hanging instead. But growing discomfort with the aesthetics of gassing and electrocution promoted a slow changeover in the United States. California governor Ronald Reagan likened lethal injections to putting an injured horse out of his misery—”the horse goes to sleep—that’s it…”
The preference for lethal injection can be explained by its apparent ease, cleanliness and relative lack of drama. It is almost clinical, familiar to anyone who has ever visited a hospital: there are IV lines, gurneys, a doctor, technicians, prescription drugs. Sedation is the word. “They put you out,” a victims’ right advocate in Tennessee explains, “but in this case you never wake up.” A Baptist chaplain in Texas who has witnessed almost forty executions calls it “as humane as any form of death you can find. Basically, they go to sleep….”
The sleep metaphor suggests that the execution is merciful, peaceful, for the prisoner’s own good, as well as society’s—like having compassion for a favorite old dog who has turned rabid. An ACLU leader in Ohio charges that it is an attempt to sanitize or “pretty up” the process, to “make a practice that is absolutely barbaric somehow more palatable to the public.” This has been a historical process, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC, “There’s been a keen interest in keeping up with the state of technology,” he explains. “People want execution to look modern and antiseptic.”
After witnessing an execution by needle in Missouri, writer Christopher Hitchens observed that this method “is supposed to be more tranquil and predictable and benign than the various forms of burning, shooting, strangling and gassing that in the past have squeezed themselves through the ‘cruel and unusual’ rubric. It looks and feels—to the outsider at least—more like a banal medical procedure” but “this medicalized ‘putting down’ is designed to leach the drama and agony out of the business; to transform it into a form of therapy for society and ‘closure’…” Indeed, in contrast to electrocution, Hollywood movies climaxing with a lethal injection are rare (Dead Man Walking being a prominent exception).
Whether death by needle is easier for the executed is an open question, but surely it is easier for the executioners. “By wrapping punishment in a therapeutic cloak, the whole process leading to that final moment feels less aversive to those who are required to participate and is therefore more bearable,” observes Dr. Jerome D. Gorman.