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Before a stay granted by the state Supreme Court and a federal circuit court, the state of Arkansas planned to execute eight inmates on death row within 11 days this month.
The reasoning behind this state-sanctioned massacre was that one of the drugs used for lethal injection was about to expire and it has been increasingly difficult for states to find new stockpiles, mainly because the companies that manufacture these drugs refuse to sell them if they are to be used for execution.
The number of moral, ethical, economic and practical issues with capital punishment at this point are overwhelming. While I will highlight a few of those here, they all point to the same irrefutable conclusion – the death penalty needs to be abolished.
Of practical concern recently is the acquisition of the slate of drugs used for lethal injections. The supposedly humane method requires three types of drugs delivered in succession; a barbiturate of some sort to induce a coma-like state, a second drug to induce muscle paralysis and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
Until 2010, this procedure was standard across the country. However, drug manufacturers stopped making or selling pentobarbital, the barbiturate typically used in executions, and states began experimenting with other concoctions. Most of these have involved the drug midazolam, which also happens to be the drug in question for the Arkansas executions.
Since then, there have been at least five executions using midazolam where witnesses have described the inmate as heaving, gasping and writhing in obvious pain for upwards of an hour and 40 minutes before finally being declared dead. The idea of lethal injections as a painless, humane method akin to falling asleep forever simply does not mesh with reality.
I am not advocating sympathy for murderers, rapists or other human dregs who deservedly find themselves on death row. However, if we as a nation claim to be worldwide protectors and advocates of human rights, the use of untested execution methods that result in a clearly agonizing and prolonged death does little to further that image.
The shortage of these drugs has become so bad that several states are considering reviving older and more distasteful methods that haven’t been used in decades, such as the firing squads, gas chambers and electric chairs. These methods would likely result in a quicker death than the agonizing, hour-long suffocation inflicted by a botched lethal injections.
However, I doubt most people would want to see these methods revived for good reason. We don’t use them anymore because we as a society view them as inhumane, the same reason why we don’t hang people or behead them. We are better than that.
Qualms about the method are not the only problem with capital punishment. Foremost among these are the possibility of executing someone who was wrongfully convicted. Between 1973 and 2004, 117 former death-row inmates were exonerated of their crimes and freed, about 1.6 percent of all people sentenced to death in that period. In 2014, a study from Michigan State Law School concluded that “if all death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated.”
The idea that a single person could be put to death for a crime they did not commit is appalling. Sadly, it has happened many times in the history of our country. In 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter issued a posthumous, unconditional pardon to Joe Arridy, a Pueblo resident with an IQ of 46 and the mind of a toddler, who was falsely convicted of the brutal murder of a 15-year-old girl and executed by gas chamber in 1939.
The U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world that still uses capital punishment. In every year between 1991 and 2015, we had the lofty distinction of being in the top five countries worldwide for executions behind such stalwart defenders of human rights as China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. We are the only country in the Americas that has executed anyone in the last eight years.
The concept of justice is tough to pin down. As Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said of the executions that have now been indefinitely postponed, “There’s been a 25-year nightmare for the victims that had to deal with this, and now it’s time for justice to be carried out.”
Unfortunately, our justice system is far from infallible. As such, the potential for error is a real threat. In cases where any future pardon would be posthumous, the lesser justice of life imprisonment should surely be preferred over the permanent injustice of executing the wrong person.
Zane Womeldorph can be reached at letters@collegian and on twitter at @zwomeldo