Death penalty crisis reveals macabre options still open in US

Abolished in New Mexico, but legally open in other states. Shelka04

American exceptionalism on the death penalty is at it again, and this time we have truly outdone ourselves: we tortured someone to death. Last month, the Ohio execution of Denis McGuire using untested death penalty drugs lasted 26 minutes – that’s longer than any execution on Ohio’s books in the past 15 years.

One account describes him as experiencing “repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling, and arching his back, appearing to writhe in pain”. Yet the death penalty in America lives on.

What gives? Maybe lethal injections. Over the past several years, Big Pharma has steadfastly refused to sell death penalty drugs to American prisons, or even to distributors who don’t agree to its terms. As a result, bloodthirsty states have been smuggling the drugs, borrowing from other states, and making new deadly concoctions of their own (and the pressure is now also on to name the small compounding pharmacies making these drugs). And we all know how the last option is working out. That’s Ohio. It’s tantamount to a crisis.

Here in the United States, Ohio’s lethal injection snafu has led to calls for a moratorium on executions and the abolition of the death penalty. And maybe that’s what will ultimately give – the death penalty itself. Six states – Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey and most recently Maryland – have abolished the death penalty in the past six years. We haven’t seen that sort of abolition fervour in over 50 years.

But I’m not so optimistic. The other thing that Ohio’s desperation to execute has brought are calls to move to another form of execution.

A dance macabre

Some have called for a return to the firing squad. This isn’t as historical as it sounds. Utah is famous for this execution method. Death penalty aficionados will recall Gary Gilmore was killed this way in 1977 and Utah resurrected this method for the first time in 14 years when it executed Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.

Oklahoma authorises this method too. It’s cheap and effective. And since most of the shooters have blanks (the shooters don’t know who is shooting blanks and who isn’t), everyone involved is somehow absolved of responsibility for taking another human being’s life.

Others have called for a return to death by electrocution. My state, Virginia, allows for death by electrocution as an alternative to lethal injection if an inmate chooses it, and at least half a dozen other death penalty states do as well. Most famous for this method of execution is Florida. Anyone remember when a man caught fire during his execution in Florida’s “Old Sparky” in 1997. Experts came to the conclusion that it was “possible he experienced pain”.

Not to leave any execution method out, New Hampshire and Washington State still authorise death by hanging, although it has been decades since anyone has been executed this way. The last public hanging was Rainey Bethea in Virginia in the 1930s, and it was apparently so gruesome to watch that the immediate result was a move to outlaw public executions. But hanging in private happened as recently as 1996 in Delaware.

Last but not least, some are calling for a return to death by gas chamber, which is still on the books in four states (and was a preferred method of execution in Nazi Germany, let the record reflect). It is known for inflicting a slow and painful death.

Each of these moves would take America from a more civilised execution method to less civilised execution method. But my own feelings about that are mixed. Lethal injection is so civilised that it has been viewed much like putting down a cat – an unfortunate happenstance, but the best we could do. It misses the violence that is inherent in taking another human being’s life.

Not so with these other execution methods. They are bloody, brutal, macabre and utterly uncivilised. But then again, so is the death penalty. They would just make us deal with it.