The technology of execution has evolved over the centuries, with each innovation — the guillotine, the electric chair, lethal injection — arriving with promises that it will finally make the process of state-sponsored homicide humane. But another botched execution by lethal injection, this time in Oklahoma, shows again the emptiness of that promise.
On Tuesday evening, Oklahoma corrections officials attempted to execute Clayton Lockett with a novel combination of three injectable drugs. Instead of dying peacefully, Lockett went into convulsions, grimaced, spoke and struggled to leave the gurney to which he was strapped. After things started to go wrong, state officials lowered the blinds on the death chamber windows, obscuring what happened next. They said that one of Lockett’s veins "exploded," possibly making it more difficult for adequate amounts of the drugs to enter his bloodstream. After 43 minutes, he died of a heart attack.
This is not the first time — or even the first time this year — that a lethal injection failed to kill a convict humanely. In January, Ohio used a different mixture of drugs to kill Dennis McGuire. McGuire took 26 minutes to die, gasping for air for about half that time, witnesses reported.
We oppose the death penalty for several reasons. The possibility of executing innocent people is too real. Administering the penalty — which often includes special treatment in prison and years of legal proceedings to ensure due process — is too expensive. Then there is the simple ethical principle that advanced societies should not purposely take life except when absolutely necessary. Not everyone agrees with us on the last point. But most, we hope, agree that states who continue executing people must exact their punishment without inflicting unnecessary suffering and humiliation.
It has become harder for state officials to ensure that they honor that basic standard. Drug companies do not want to run afoul of European public opinion or governments by furnishing American states with drugs to execute people. U.S. doctors are similarly distancing themselves from the process. The result has been states cavalierly experimenting with new combinations of drugs sourced from unnamed manufacturers — in some horrifying cases, unsuccessfully.
"We do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues," President Obama said on Friday, announcing a federal review of execution practices. For her part, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) ordered a two-week delay of an execution the state had also scheduled for Tuesday and demanded an investigation into what went wrong. But two weeks hardly seems like enough time to fix a deeply flawed system — and to ensure that scenes like Tuesday’s will not recur.
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