Wednesday, January 29, 2014

States look to old methods of executing inmates

Just what is a state supposed to do when its precious supply of drugs for its prescribed lethal cocktail runs out? What if they can't persuade a pharmacist who has no ethics to produce the drugs for the execution?

Lawmakers across the country are being forced to answer those questions. And some of them have come up with the idea of bringing back their old, barbaric means of killing inmates. Those methods include the electric chair, hanging, the gas chamber and the firing squad.

It is a mark of our race to the bottom as a society that anyone in a position of power would even contemplate bringing back methods of killing that were cast into the ash heap of history decades ago. Of course few folks are going to stand up and denounce such efforts because those convicted of capital murder don't have a big fan section. However, the way we treat those that we despise reveals an awful lot about ourselves.

The use of lethal injection as a means of murdering inmates rose out of the Supreme Court's abolition of the death penalty in the 1970's. States looked for a way to kill that didn't violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Lethal injection was relatively tame and appeared to be a somewhat sterile method that wouldn't raise anyone's ire if used.

But then something unexpected happened - the European-based manufacturers of the drugs used to kill placed export controls on their products and refused to sell to any entity involved in executions. States scrambled to find substitute drugs and pharmacists willing to be accessories to murder in exchange for a fee.
At least two recent executions are also raising concerns about the drugs' effectiveness. Last week, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die by injection, gasping repeatedly as he lay on a gurney with his mouth opening and closing. And on Jan. 9, Oklahoma inmate Michael Lee Wilson's final words were, "I feel my whole body burning."
The states that changed their protocols insisted that they were still human and that the inmate felt no pain during the process. Two executions this year have raised questions. In Oklahoma, Michael Lee Wilson's last words during his execution were that he could feel his body burning, Then, in Ohio, Dennis McGuire took almost 30 minutes to die and was visibly gasping for air during the process.

The new drug protocols were never tested for the purpose of killing people. The methods were instituted because someone swore up and down that the new drugs would work just as effectively as the old ones. No one knows if that's true. In states were compounding pharmacies are used to produce the drugs there are provisions in the law to keep the public from knowing where the drugs came from. The drugs are also not subject to any federal testing or regulation and so we have no idea whether they do what they are supposed to do in the manner in which they are supposed to do it.

More and more states have done away with their death penalties either because of the large number of exonerations that have taken place over the past decade or because no one was being sentenced to death. As each new state does away with its death penalty the process will become more and more unusual. As other states (primarily in the South) try to bring their gruesome tools of death back to life, the process will become more and more cruel.

And, lest anyone forget, violence against minorities and the powerless has long been a tool of social control in the South. There is a reason poverty rates are higher in the Deep South and minorities are disproportionately represented in prison. Your odds of getting the needle are still greatly enhanced south of the Mason-Dixon line if your skin is dark.

Attempts to bring back the old methods of execution are but another attempt at social control by a minority who sees their grip on power slipping.

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