Maria Oswalt via Unplash
First proposed in the 1800’s, but not put into widespread use until queasiness towards the electric chair had reached a fever pitch, lethal injection was promoted as a humane and medically sound way to carry out capital punishment. With the lack of proper and effective anesthetic barbiturates, lethal injection’s sterile appearance gives way to intense internal suffering.
Furthermore, as Death Penalty Information Center details, “it is unclear what consideration was given to the selection of execution personnel, the skills they needed and the training they might require.” Such unclear guidelines for personnel performing a complicated medical procedure, combined with the ineffective barbiturates, creates a cruel, unusual and unconstitutional experience for the individual. Capital punishment exacerbates the racial and economic injustices within our legal system and proves itself to be no integral part of making communities safer. Capital punishment is excessive in its finality. There is a clear need to abolish lethal injection, and beyond that there is a greater issue of abolishing capital punishment.
Along with a lack of proper pharmaceuticals, the presence of incompetent staff can exacerbate the painfulness of the procedure. The drugs used in executions are intravenous drugs, meaning the needle must be inserted into the vein in order to be effective. Due to the nature of lethal injection, experienced and qualified medical professionals are unable to be involved in the execution process, as the Hippocratic Oath bars them from participating. This lack of medical personnel can lead to “incorrect dosages” and “improperly placed needles,” which all can prolong or extenuate the painfulness of the procedure, as detailed in the Washington Post’s coverage of the continuous mishandling of lethal injections.
In the case of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, he was subject to multiple insertions of the needle containing midazolam, with the medic being without the tape to secure the needle and attempting to insert it through a vein on his groin, despite having too thin of a needle. Both of these items worked in tandem to allow the midazolam to seep into the flesh, rather than the vein.
This was discovered after the paralytic was administered. Nearly cognizant, Lockett began to writhe on the gurney, making similar motions to what one would experience during a seizure. The execution was halted after the staff noted Lockett’s consciousness, but, unfortunately, he passed away by means of a massive heart attack. As seen in Lockett’s case a lack of understanding the how-to regarding the insertion of intravenous drugs into a patient’s veins and a lack of proper medical supplies, specific to each individual, as each prisoner may have different requirements, leads to an unbelievably cruel experience where an inmate has the possibility of having a needle inserted in them several times. Such circumstances prolong an inmate’s dread and anticipation regarding their own death and exacerbate their own death, as the drugs and inadequate supplies can culminate in suffocation whilst still retaining consciousness or inflict heart attacks.
Beyond the need to abolish lethal injection lies the crux of the issue, removing the death penalty as a form of punishment. As stated earlier, the death penalty exacerbates already existing racial and economic prejudices within the legal system. It is punishment that is assigned in a discriminatory fashion, with fluctuating use depending on irrelevant characteristics that suggest nothing about the severity of the crime. It is applied disproportionately to defendants who are people of color and whose victims are white, with 49% of homicide victims being white and, since 1976, 77% of capital homicide cases involve a white victim, and roughly 90% of the defendants on death row were without the means to afford a lawyer when charged, according the ACLU. With the existing leeway and fluctuation surrounding the charge of capital punishment it is irresponsible to continue its use. The finality of the punishment also strips defendants of the ability to reap the benefits of the advancements of forensic technology and new leads in their respective cases that may exonerate them. When working towards a more equitable society, barbaric punishments such as the death penalty cannot persist. Attempting to find so-called work-arounds to find humane forms of such punishment will fail because of the inherent barbaric nature of the punishment.
America’s current criminal justice system was founded on slavery, so there is need to examine aspects of the system considered impartial before continuing to employ such a tactic, particularly when individual’s lives are at risk. Furthermore, a large portion of defendants on death row could not afford a lawyer when originally sentenced, and considering the influential impact competent counsel can provide, it becomes a similar system to cash bail, wherein the negative weight of the system is being unfairly placed on poor individuals. Also, when looking at how systematic oppression disenfranchises entire groups of people, Black individuals have historically been unable to procure wealth, resulting in 21% of Black families living in poverty according to the National Alliance to End Poverty.
This creates a system where Black individuals are more likely to be present on death row, due to their extenuating physical characteristics influencing their sentencing, and being unable to afford the proper counsel. It is crucial to accept the racial prejudices and the too intense finality of capital punishment and the failure, regardless of the clinical appearance, of lethal injection and recognize that this form of punishment cannot coexist with equity.
Alexis Stakem is a first-year Social Work major. AS996397@wcupa.edu