Stick It In

While I’ve always been opposed to the death penalty, I cannot say it has always been for lofty moral reasons.  I’m certainly not opposed to killing in self-defense, and there are absolutely a lot of people who will leave the world significantly improved once they are rotting away in a frequently defiled grave.  (That said, the list of people I would like to see kneel before la raccourcisseuse patriotique is topped by the likes of Henry Kissinger over garden-variety multiple murderers.)  But for many years, my objection to capital punishment was based on a theoretical and principled — some might say downright libertarian — belief that allowing the government to have the power of life and death over its citizens was a very bad idea.  Even today, I think I’m on pretty sound footing saying that I don’t think the state ought to be able to murder me, no matter how much a number of my fellow citizens might want it to.  Public opinion being the fickle thing that it is, one never knows when one might find one’s self on the wrong edge of that particular sword.

Nowadays, though, my objection to capital punishment has become far more rooted in practical matters.  Leaving aside all the ethical questions over how, why, whether, and when we should be able to take a convicted felon’s life, we seem to lack competence in  actually doing it once we have decided to do so.  Of all the hurdles that the death penalty must clear, surely the lowest must be “Is the person we are going to execute actually guilty of the crime for which they have been convicted?”; and yet, even that most basic question has been increasingly difficult to answer in the affirmative.  Since the death penalty was reinstated over forty years ago, 144 death row inmates have been exonerated — which, and let us be frank here because, this being a matter of law, the blunt meaning of certain information is often lost in a misty gauze of obfuscating legal language, means that they were completely and utterly innocent of the heinous crimes for which they were arrested, tried, convicted, and very nearly put to death.  While this is only a small portion of the total number of people on death rows, it is not a small number of innocent human lives, and life, after all, is what we proposed be taken from them.  Since life is the one quality than precludes any repayment once lost, this alarmingly high number has so spooked a number of state governors, ranging in locale from liberal Washington to conservative Illinois, to suspend the death penalty entirely until it can be determined that it is not, in fact, killing innocent people.

Of course, that’s not all — as many as 200 other inmates, whose ultimate fates rest entirely on the thankless effort of capital punishment opponents who are largely unpaid as the state has zero interest in uncovering its own mistakes, are believed to be likewise either entirely innocent, or innocent of the specific charges that sent them to the death house.  In far too many cases, the question before the jury is not “Did this person commit an act of murder, and if so, was it sufficiently heinous to justify execution?”, but “Were the authorities able to secure an easy conviction?”, “Did this person receive an inadequate legal defense?”, or “Was this person found to be scary and African-American by the correct number of police officers?”.  Race, class, and gender disparities in death row populations are egregious enough; add to them the innumerable legal and social barriers to finding a judge and jury who are genuinely impartial regarding the infliction of capital punishment, and it’s clear that the real surprise isn’t that so many death row prisoners are innocent, but that so many of them have been exonerated and freed.

Lately, we have been forced to contend with the further fact that not only are we incompetent at making sure the people we send to death row are actually guilty, but also, we suck at the physical task of executing them, even when we know they’re guilty.  Three months ago in Oklahoma, convicted killer Clayton Lockett, in the elegant phrasing of Dahlia Lithwick, was murdered in the process of being executed; the administration of the cocktail of drugs meant to end him was botched, and his heart exploded before the situation could be set right.  Last night, Arizona inmate Joseph Wood, too, found himself the victim of an incompetently mixed dose of death potions (at least, we assume they were incompetently mixed; in one of the most staggeringly undemocratic rulings in recent history, the Supreme Court has decided that the state does have the right to kill you, but it does not have the obligation to tell you how you’re going to die), and spent an agonizing two hours slowly gurgling to death on a steel gurney.  That this happened is less of a shock than the fact that it doesn’t happen more often, as many states are engaged in a ‘let’s just stick some shit in there until he dies’ experimental phase of the most allegedly humane form of execution.  (Jonah Goldberg, once again proving that he can be wrong about anything, recently tweeted his support for the notion that if you oppose all forms of the death penalty, your opinion on which forms are more or less humane has no value.)

In light of increasing evidence that, in addition to not being able to figure out who to execute or when to execute them, we also are unable to master the process of how to execute them, one is tempted to agree with the conservatives who argue that the government is simply no good at anything.  Oddly, though, the same people who think the Affordable Care Act should be revoked in its entirety because its website wasn’t ready on time, and who think that the SNAP program should be eliminated because there is a 1% fraud rate with food stamp disbursement, don’t seem to agree that it might be wise to rethink the death penalty just because we convict a bunch of innocent people and can’t seem to get the act of poisoning someone to death right.  To the contrary, they think we should be executing more people, guilt or innocence be damned, and if it hurts, good!  This is, of course, because they conceive of capital punishment in caveman terms and feel that watching a convicted criminal shake himself to pieces on a bad dose of chemicals has the same moral value as swatting a mosquito.  To them, we have a vengeance system, not a justice system; the idea that sticking someone full of toxic goop and watching the suffer to death places them on the same level as the Hillside Stranglers makes no sense to them, because they don’t think it’s what you do, it’s who you do it to.  They do not accept the reasoning that a code of laws is meant to reduce the overall amount of suffering in the world, not to double it so that it spreads around to the just and the unjust alike, and they do not credit the belief that the most notable effect of putting murderers to death is to create two dead bodies instead of one.

Unfortunately, they seem to be in the majority, as evidenced by the fact that America, alone among democracies, clings to the death penalty.  So nobody’s really concerned with what I think about our complete incompetence in its, well, execution.  So I’ll just suggest that if the budget-cutting hawks want someplace to start, they might want to consider shaving a quick billion by getting rid of this particular boondoggle before their turn their eyes to the NEA.

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