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The Overwhelming Evidence Against the Death Penalty

Arkansas' recent, gruesome executions are further proof that we'll never find a humane way to put people to death.

AFP/Getty Images

The continuing controversy surrounding America’s reliance on lethal injection for capital punishment was vividly on display in the four executions Arkansas carried out last week. Two of those executions were marked by serious problems. Last Monday, it took almost an hour to find a vein and complete the execution of Jack Jones. And a witness to Thursday night’s execution of Kenneth Williams said the condemned man was “coughing, convulsing, lurching, (and) jerking” after the administration of midazolam, which was supposed to make him unconscious and insensate.

But most commentary about those specific mishaps has ignored the fact that the difficulties with lethal injection can neither be attributed solely to the use or misuse of a single drug nor solved by any combination of drugs. Those problems are variations of the same problems that have beset every execution method that, over the last century and more, America has tried in the hopes of putting people to death in a safe, reliable, and humane manner.

Since the earliest recorded execution in the United States in 1608, our country has put to death approximately 16,000 men and women. Throughout most of that time, we relied on hanging to carry out executions. However, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day, the U.S. has sought new ways to impose death without unnecessary pain. The continuing search for an execution method that would prove unfailingly humane and civilized has successfully assuaged the sensibilities of the American public, but utterly failed to set capital punishment apart from the heinous crimes it is used to punish.

Through successive changes in methods of execution—from hanging to electrocution, gas chamber to lethal injection—the U.S. has struggled to make the practice of capital punishment appear peaceful and precise and transform execution from dramatic spectacle to a cool, bureaucratic operation. But this struggle has never borne fruit. In recent research, I and my collaborators examined all American executions from 1890-2010. We found that 3 percent of those executions were botched in one way or another.

Each of America’s methods of execution has come with its own distinctive set of problems which have, in time, fueled the search for alternatives.

Hanging was abandoned after a long record of blunders. When a hanging went wrong, instead of a quick severing of the spinal column, it resulted in the condemned either slowly strangling to death or being decapitated.

The two popular alternatives to the noose—the electric chair and the gas chamber—were advertised to be foolproof and much more reliable than hanging, but also had their share of problems. More than 4,000 people were put to death by electrocution. Approximately 2 percent of them were botched, some of them when the condemned caught on fire and filled the death chamber with smoke and the smell of burning flesh. The gas chamber, first used in 1922, proved to be even less reliable. More than 5 percent of executions in the gas chamber were botched when the gas did not produce rapid loss of consciousness and witnesses watched as the condemned suffered an agonizingly slow asphyxiation.

The firing squad, which has been used very infrequently as a method of execution, showed itself to be gory and troubling. Indeed, in one of its first uses, the condemned stiffened up in the chair in which he had been placed, which caused the bullets to miss his heart. He died 27 minutes later, having bled to death.

Lethal injection was adopted in 1977, with great fanfare, by the state of Oklahoma as its method of execution, and was first used in Texas in 1982. Two of its leading proponents, Oklahoma legislators Bill Wiseman and Bill Dawson, said that it offered an alternative to the “inhumanity, visceral brutality, and cost” of earlier methods. Here, again, practice betrayed the promise. In fact, executions by lethal injection are botched at a higher rate than any of the other methods employed since the late nineteenth century: 7 percent.

Over the last several years, several well-publicized botched lethal injections—in Oklahoma, Ohio, Arizona, Alabama, and now in Arkansas—have commanded the nation’s attention. Lethal injection is a complicated procedure, requiring a precise combination of skills in locating useable veins, setting intravenous injection lines, and administering the right dosages of lethal chemicals. Despite the clinical, hospital-like appearance of death by lethal injection, the condemned suffer dramatically from mishaps—even when it’s not apparent to witnesses. As Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan put it in an opinion two years ago, in such circumstances lethal injection can be “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

The history of botched executions in the United States shows that we have tried earnestly to find a technological magic bullet to put people to death without turning it into a gruesome spectacle. It also shows that we haven’t succeeded in this regard and that we’re unlikely to do so in the future. Given more than two centuries of ghastly, overwhelming evidence, it is time to stop fooling ourselves and renounce capital punishment for good.