Capital Punishment: Two wrongs don’t make a right

“But secondly you say ‘society must exact vengeance, and society must punish’. Wrong on both counts. Vengeance comes from the individual and punishment from God.” 
Victor Hugo, The Last Day of a Condemned Man

The United States. 2014. 21st century. Capital punishment still exists in full fervor in 32 out of 50 states. Shocking. Cruel and unusual.

On April 29th 2014 in the state of Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett, a death row inmate died after suffering a heart attack due to a failed execution of a lethal injection. That’s not all. He was administered an untested mixture, a ‘cocktail’ so to speak, of drugs previously untested for executions in the United States. The execution was halted but Lockett died 43 minutes after that fact, during which time he went through excruciating pain, convulsed, tried to rise from the execution table fourteen times. In short, a nightmare was in progress.

The reason behind what is now commonly called a ‘botched execution’ is that many European companies which provide a necessary drug known as propofol (largely used as a sedative and anesthetic) for the lethal cocktail have ceased to provide it for purposes of lethal injections, as the European Union is staunchly against the death penalty. The EU has enacted strict export controls on a number of drugs. The European Commission announced in December that it wanted to ensure none were being sold for use in “capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

In the past, the United States had practiced executions with the use of the electric chair (in states such as Virginia) and even by firing squad. What was shockingly surprising after the mess and embarrassment of Lockett’s botched execution was that instead of reviewing and contemplating the cruelty of the death penalty, some states have simply chosen to use older, now outdated execution methods, i.e. the electric chair and firing squads.

Lethal injections have in previous years been the more ‘popular’ method as it was considered a more ‘humane form of executing death row inmates. The question is: is there anything ‘humane’ about killing a human being, no matter what his crime is and no matter how guilty he is? It is baffling to even think that anyone with a sane mind could see anything humane in the execution of another human being.

Not to mention that it is common practice in a US execution to allow members of the victims’ families to sit in and watch the spectacle, as apparently this process provides some sort of catharsis and closure to the family members and loved ones of the victim. No, this is not medieval Europe when public executions were probably one of the biggest sources of entertainment for the masses. This is the United States in 2014. Enough said?

A very interesting and heart wrenching article recently published by a human rights lawyer aptly pointed out that while the United States is at it, why not widely nationally televise executions for the entire country to witness? Where does this madness end? Where do the US draw the line, if at all? What does it say about a society and its core values when it can condone the willful killing of human beings and join together to actually witness it to achieve a sense of relief and closure? In countries where the death penalty has been abolished, do families of victims not manage to deal with their grief? There is no more reason for Americans to actually physically witness the killing of the person who has caused their family harm and for the American society to extract justice in doing so any more than in Europe for instance.

Granted, we are not talking about the execution of an innocent person with regards to Lockett. He was accused of kidnapping, beating and burying alive a young woman. Such atrocious crimes should obviously never go unpunished and thank goodness the perpetrator was caught. However, the quintessential question which arises with regards to the matter of capital punishment is this: is it the least bit moral, logical, humane or even normal to murder a human being who has murdered or committed any other crime? Do two wrongs make a right?

The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments, including torture. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause also applies to the states. A great deal has been said about the Eighth Amendment following Lockett’s execution. However, has it thus far been applied? Not really.

There is absolutely no doubt that “cruel and unusual” only begins to describe what the death penalty entails. There is no morality or dignity in a form of justice, or lack of it, which finds any legality or normality in murdering human beings in the pretext of obtaining that justice.

By Sabria Chowdhury Balland 

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a Professor of English and French. She is also a columnist for US and European political and legal issues.

Twitter: @SabriaBalland

Photograph by Les Haines, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

You must be logged in to post a comment