When Lethal Injection Becomes Torture

Yesterday, April 29, 2013, in the execution chamber of the Oklahoma state penitentiary in McAlester, OK, Clayton D. Lockett was put to death, or, better stated, tortured to death. His execution did not go according to plan and was horribly botched by the state prison officials in attendance resulting in agonizing pain and suffering at the hands of the state officials charged with the execution.  According to published reports, the State of Oklahoma was for the first time using a three drug “cocktail” in which the drugs to be administered were “midazolam” followed by “vecuronium bromide” and ending with “potassium chloride.”

Witnesses described Lockett as convulsing and writhing on the gurney, as well as struggling to speak, before officials blocked the witnesses from seeing anything else by pulling down the blinds to the execution chamber and announcing that there had been a “vein” failure. Lockett’s writhing in pain went on for some three minutes after the first drug was administered. In total he lasted 16 minutes without being pronounced dead, which precipitated the lowering of the blinds and a halting of the execution.

Bizarre as this set of facts may sound, it is not the first reported case of a botched execution by lethal injection. The case of Dennis McGuire in Ohio was widely reported after his execution in January, 2014 also involved his being able to speak after the administration of sedatives and his dying declaration that, “I feel my whole body burning…”  Or the case of Joseph Clark, also in Ohio, in which the execution was reported to have taken some 90 minutes during which, also after administration of sedating drugs, the condemned man was heard saying, “it don’t work. It don’t work.” And in yet another case of a botched execution, Angel Diaz in Florida agonized for 34 minutes and only succumbed after a second IV was inserted and drugs re-administered.  During this entire ordeal, according to published reports, Diaz continually appeared to mouth words.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Additionally, there is little doubt that the US government is bound by the general jus cogens principle of international law  that states unequivocally that torture is illegal. Torture is expressly prohibited in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948), The American Convention on Human Rights (ratified by the US in 1977), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by the US in 1992) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ratified by the US in 1990). The United States Government has certain legal obligations to ensure that they are not participating in activities that can be defined as torture. By experimenting with different drug combinations and refusing to divulge the exact drugs used at each execution the states are effectively using human beings as Guinea Pigs in the search for an effective means for bringing about death. Until the right drug combination is found more people will continue being tortured in the process.

There is no doubt that Clayton Lockett, Dennis McGuire, Joseph Clark and Angel Diaz were all tortured during their executions in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and universally recognized principles of international law.  The case of Clayton Lockett is just the latest indication that an immediate moratorium on all executions should be put in place until appropriate medical studies may be undertaken to ensure that those put to death are not tortured to death.

By:  Ivan E. Mercado

The Death Penalty: Does the Punishment Ever Fit the Crime?

“Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Albert Camus—”Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion & Death” (1956).

Lindsay June Sandifor, a 56-year-old British woman caught smuggling blocks of cocaine in her suitcase has been sentenced to death in Indonesia. Even though prosecutors in Bali had asked for a 15-year sentence, the panel of judges handed down the death penalty. Ms. Sandifor was arrested last May after she was found to have blocks of cocaine weighing 4.7 kilograms (10.4 pounds) in her suitcase when she arrived on the island of Bali.

At the trial, the grandmother from Gloucestershire, England, said she was smuggling the drugs to protect her son. She said one of her co-accused had threatened to kill him if she did not comply. However Indonesian police said she was at the centre of a drugs importing ring involving three other Britons and an Indian who have also been arrested.

Southeast Asian governments impose the toughest drug sanctions on the planet and many impose the death penalty for individuals convicted of drug trafficking. The death penalty for drug cases has received a great deal of criticism from people who think that the penalty does not fit the crime and amounts to a disproportionate sanction.

Meanwhile, in India, the clamor for death sentences for the culprits of the brutal Delhi gang rape, which resulted in the death of a 23-year-old victim and the severe beating of her male companion, grows stronger. The head of India’s rights panel this past Tuesday said death penalty in any case is against the universal declaration of human rights. “[The] death penalty in any case is against universal declaration of human rights,” National Human Rights Commission chairman KG Balakrishnan said. However, it seems by most accounts that a vast majority of the Indian people want the death penalty imposed on the assailants.

According to Amnesty International, the trend internationally is unmistakably moving toward abolition. Use of the death penalty worldwide has continued to shrink, and use of the death penalty has also been increasingly curtailed in international law. Since 1990, an average of three countries each year have abolished the death penalty, and today over two-thirds of the world’s nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice.

Clearly, there is ever more recognition that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to crime, and that the imposition of such a penalty is very costly to democratic governments that must provide for procedural due process protections in its imposition.  But, are there crimes that deserve the death penalty? Can we as a society agree as to what crimes deserve the penalty of death? If governments cannot reach a consensus on what crimes deserve the death penalty, should the death penalty be abolished?