‘Humane’ death no longer guaranteed
Alternatives to lethal injection raise moral concerns
Published: Sunday, February 2, 2014
Updated: Sunday, February 2, 2014 15:02
With the supply of drugs traditionally used for lethal injection running dangerously low across the United States, the search for alternatives has yielded contentious results. The call for reassessing the nation’s position on capital punishment has been renewed, with two ideologically divided camps staking their ground.
With the nation at odds, and the two sides so incommensurably poised, we now need unified, federal regulation.
Lethal injection has become the predominant method for capital punishment in the 32 states now allowing the progressively more controversial sentence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The drugs traditionally used for the process have fallen into short supply in U.S. prisons.
The shortages follow more resolute opposition to capital punishment in the European Union. Italian and Danish manufacturers of sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, respectively, have ceased shipping to U.S. prisons due to their opposition to the death penalty. The European parliament has exacted political pressure on pharmaceuticals to limit trade of the drugs to U.S. prisons.
As international norms increasingly bear on U.S. domestic penal policy through these trade restrictions, the question must be asked: How long will the United States remain recalcitrant to shifting expectations of developed nations?
For capital punishment or opposed, the United States must actively interrogate its dedication to the punishment for those accused of the most vile and barbarous crimes.
The nation remains staunchly divided on how to proceed. The divergence on this issue has been captured by the various responses to the drug shortage, as some states have responded by exploring controversial alternatives.
January included calls by Missouri and Wyoming republicans to reinstate firing squads as the “humane” and “most economical solution,” according to Rick Brattin (R-Mo.). In tandem have been a series of unprecedented executions.
Jan. 9, Oklahoma man Michael Lee Wilson, 38, was put to death with a cocktail of drugs; his last words were “I feel my whole body burning,” spurring some to claim he had a painful death. Wilson was convicted of brutally beating a co-worker to death.
Jan. 16, Ohio man Dennis McGuire was injected with a previously untested combination of drugs. What followed was nearly a 25-minute death. Those present reported loud snorting and convulsing during the process. McGuire was convicted of raping and murdering a recently married pregnant woman.
Jan. 29, following an unsuccessful appeal for a stay of the execution that went to the United States Supreme Court, Missouri executed Herbert Smulls by injection of pentobarbital produced in an unregulated compounding pharmacy, an increasingly common way to procure drugs no longer available from Europe. The purity and potency of the drug has been questioned. Smulls, 56, was convicted of murder after a 1991 robbery.
Murderers, rapists – these are among the worst of this nation’s criminals. Those convicted deserve our harshest penalty, but whether that should be execution is debatable. Currently the United States and Japan are the only developed countries that retain the policy.
But untested drugs, firing squads – these methods of administering the punishment are unconscionable, or in the case of the former, potentially unconstitutional.
It remains irrefutable that there are criminals who have proved themselves capable of actions far too heinous for society. In light of shifting global norms on the morality and legality of executing these individuals, we as a nation must assess our position, and do so united.
A federal position administering capital punishment is necessary to eliminate such controversial variation across the states and the risks this variation poses for those convicted. A conviction to death is not a conviction to unnecessary pain and suffering in the process.
Beyond this, as capital punishment becomes increasingly unusual in the context of developed nations, we must assess if it can be administered in a way that is not also cruel.