Stop pretending lethal injection is humane

Aaron Kolb
Aaron Kolb

Late last month, the American news media raised up its wrathful head and commenced the disembowelment of Clippers owner and all-around awful person Donald Sterling. While I find the misdeeds of a geriatric racist as interesting as the next guy, our collective outrage was misdirected last week. Everyone loves condemning bigots and making themselves feel oh-so righteous, but there were more important things to get mad about. Matters of life and death.

On Tuesday, April 29, an inmate in Oklahoma named Clayton Lockett was scheduled to die. He received a death sentence after being found guilty of murder in 1999. Prison officials strapped Mr. Lockett down and injected him with a drug meant to make him unconscious. When they later injected the two drugs that would take the inmate’s life, it became clear that something was wrong. After he was supposed to be unconscious, Mr. Lockett began writhing and mumbling. Officials stopped the execution and tried to take Mr. Lockett to a hospital. He died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the first drug was injected, apparently awake the whole time.


This was not a case of a tried-and-true procedure unexpectedly gone awry. Oklahoma was using an experimental cocktail of drugs for the first time to kill Mr. Lockett. There is a nationwide shortage of execution drugs, as companies are reluctant to be associated with lethal injections, so death rows are scrambling to find new combinations. In January, Ohio executed the convicted murderer Dennis McGuire with an untested blend of two chemicals. Mr. McGuire began to clench his fists and gasp for air, taking 26 minutes to die.

The specific blend of drugs used to kill Mr. Locket is unknown. So are the drugs’ sources. The names of compounding pharmacies that make the drugs are not disclosed to protect the companies’ reputations. Before his death, Mr. Locket and his lawyers fought for the right to know exactly what would be used to kill him. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that he did not have that right, and the execution was allowed to go ahead.

Lethal injection became the norm for executions in the US because it was supposedly gentler than other methods. Mr. Locket’s execution is one example of a death that was not at all humane, along with the 31 other botched lethal injections since 1973. Yet is lethal injection humane even when it goes smoothly?  It may be cushioned in legal jargon, but the act itself is no less than state-sanctioned murder. Forcibly taking the life of another human does not meet my definition of humanity.

Lethal injection makes the death penalty seem sterile and safe. It disguises the truth of what is happening, which is that our elected government is killing someone. If we are going to kill people as punishment, we might as well be honest about what is happening. My first choice would be to have the death penalty abolished, but if it’s here to stay I think the best method would be the old-fashioned way: a single bullet to the head. It’s bloody and violent and it’s absolutely clear about what is going on. If society can’t stomach the sight of blood, then I think we’d better think twice about executing people. At least a couple bullets will kill someone right away. The same can’t be said for lethal injection.

A study published this February by a University of Michigan Law School team estimated that of the 7,482 people sentenced to death since 1973, 306 were likely innocent. The number actually executed is far lower, at 1,368. Based on these numbers, there is a 4.1 percent chance that the next person executed might be innocent. The criminal justice system is run by people, and people make mistakes sometimes. But, death is final. The government can’t just say sorry and write a check. As long as there is a chance that an innocent person might be executed, the death penalty carries too much risk. If a murderer isn’t executed, but instead spends the rest of his life in jail, the victim’s family might experience a sense of incompleteness, but that is trivial compared to the risk of killing an innocent American.

Killing someone is not something to be taken lightly. The government choosing to end citizens’ lives should not be shrouded in secrecy using experimental procedures. If anything deserves the utmost public scrutiny and knowledge, it is the death penalty. If we can’t handle what we find, than it is time to abolish the death penalty.

 Aaron Kolb wants everyone to stop pretending that lethal injection is humane. Feedback can be sent to

In Brief:

This supposedly gentler method of execution is far from gentle.

Our elected government is killing someone; there should be more outrage about this.


There is too much of a chance that a condemned individual is innocent for the death penalty to take place.