Friday, August 22, 2014

Botched executions have been around as long as the death penalty

An execution in Oklahoma took an extra-horrifying turn on Tuesday:

What was supposed to be the first of two executions here Tuesday night was halted when the prisoner, Clayton D. Lockett, began to twitch and gasp after he had already been declared unconscious and called out "man" and "something’s wrong," according to witnesses....

A doctor started to administer the first drug, a sedative intended to knock the man out, at 6:23. Ten minutes later, the doctor said that Mr. Lockett was unconscious, and started to administer the next two drugs, a paralytic and one intended to make the heart stop.

At that point, witnesses said, things began to go awry. Mr. Lockett’s body moved, his foot shook, and he mumbled, witnesses said.

At 6 :37, he tried to rise and exhaled loudly. At that point, prison officials pulled a curtain in front of the witnesses and the doctor discovered a "vein failure," Mr. Patton said.

At 7:06 p.m.... Mr. Lockett died of a heart attack.

This is typically referred to as a "botched" execution. In this particular case, Oklahoma was using an untested combination of drugs to kill the prisoner — which the state was experimenting with after European drug manufacturers stopped selling pentobarbital and sodium thiopental for lethal injections in the US.

It's not the first time an execution dragged on because of the new drugs being used for lethal injections. In January, Ohio tried to execute a man with an untested cocktail — and it took 24 minutes for him to die. "[Dennis] McGuire started struggling and gasping loudly for air," NPR reported, "making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes."

And the history goes back even further than that. As Amherst law professor Austin Sarat documents in his new book, Gruesome Spectacles, executions gone horribly wrong have been a mainstay in the US for as long as the death penalty has been around.

By Sarat's calculations, 3 percent of all executions between 1890 and 2010 have been "botched" (that is, they didn't go according to protocol). That includes electric chairs catching on fire and hangings that led to decapitations. And, in fact, these "botched" executions have become even more common with the advent of lethal injections — about 7 percent have gone awry.

"Over the course of the last 125 years we have actively tried to find new ways to impose death without unnecessary pain, and to transform execution from dramatic spectacle to cool, bureaucratic operation.," Sarat wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed. "My research shows that we have fallen far short of attaining this aspiration."

The backstory to Oklahoma's latest execution has all sorts of twists and turns, including Europe's refusal to sell lethal-injection drugs and Oklahoma's new secrecy laws to evade public scrutiny (see Max Fisher's piece here). But a mishandled execution isn't anything new — it's been a regular feature of the death penalty for at least a century.

Further reading: Here's an earlier study by Sarat and his co-authors looking at "botched" executions between 1890 and 1920. They also scrutinize the press coverage at the time: "[T]he narratives were both sensational and what we called ‘recuperative' — reporters consistently made the point that, despite the gruesomeness of the proceedings, the inmates didn't suffer, that justice was done. There was little criticism of the process or questioning of the death penalty itself."

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