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The Year of the Botched Execution

There was never anything going for it, except political mileage and the desire for crude retribution. The putting to death of another human being by the legal sanction of a state has always been another way of justifying murder, effectively assassination by judicial fiat. Such policies remain terrifying features of a number of penal systems, designed to terrorise more than reform.

In the United States, the death penalty has been falling out of favour. The outgoing governor of Oregon Kate Brown announced on December 13 that she would commute all of the state’s 17 prisoners on death row. In terms of the sheer bloodiness of it all, the figure of 18 executions in six states comes across as one of the lowest in recent years.

The 2022 report by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is merely another reminder as to why such cruelty should be ditched. It reads like a sadist’s dream and a humanitarian’s nightmare: over a third of executions this year were botched in the United States. “2022,” the report declares, “could be called ‘the year of the botched execution’.” To be more precise, seven of 20 execution attempts were bungled (“visibly problematic”, write the authors). Executions, it was found, were mostly concentrated in select jurisdictions – more than half in Oklahoma and Texas.

One particularly ghastly incident, in taking three hours, became the longest lethal injection in US history. The Alabama execution of Joe Nathan James took three hours, which, in the words of Reprieve US, was not just the longest in recorded US history in terms of lethal injection but “may even be the longest execution ever using any method.”

 

 

The conduct of the Alabama Department of Corrections proved to be a point of conjecture. Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in The Atlantic, noted the clumsy attempts by the executioners to gain access to a vein to deliver the lethal dose. The Department of Corrections told media witnesses that “nothing out of the ordinary” had taken place, a barely believable state of affairs that led to a private autopsy. Those with a taste for gallows humour might have understood an inadvertent frankness on the part of the ADC: there was nothing out of the ordinary about the inability of their staff to discharge their life-taking role.

Bruenig’s description is chastening. It conveys the blood sport spectatorship that such events entail, and the moral cant that implicates the entire penal establishment. “Something terrible had been done to James while he was strapped to a gurney behind closed doors without so much as a lawyer present to protest his treatment or an advocate to observe it, yet the state had insisted that nothing usual had taken place.”

The next two executions scheduled in the state were halted – call them foiled works in progress – given the inability of the amateur butchers to set an IV line. As is instinctive for politicians and bureaucrats when incompetence manifests, a review becomes the default position to obscure the obvious.

In November, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced a “top-to-bottom review” of the state’s execution procedures, one that should, by implication, have included her. In doing so, Ivey refused to accept “the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at Corrections or anyone in law enforcement, for that matter. I believe that legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.”

On the surface of it, the only hijacking taking place is by those in the penal system and law enforcement incapable of carrying out the most basic process of taking a human life. The state’s assassins are clearly not cut out for such dirty work. Ivey could only feel embarrassed that her staff had failed in putting on a good show. “I simply cannot, in good conscience, bring another victim’s family to Holman looking for justice, until I am confident that we can carry out the legal sentence.”

The report also paints a vast picture of gruesome incompetence, axiomatic in a killing system that outsources a medical process of execution to the medically untrained. In Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee and South Carolina, executions were delayed after officials proved unable to carry out execution protocols.

The spreadsheet death merchants in Idaho had slated the execution of Gerald Pizzuto, Jr. on December 15 without the drugs to complete it. The expiry of the death warrant was the culmination of a sordid legal circus involving the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole, the state’s obstinate sanguinary Governor Brad Little, and the court process.

In an unfolding of events that would have been a perfect theme for an absurdist drama, another execution did not take place in Oklahoma because the prisoner in question had not been transferred into the custody of the authorities.

Ghoulish accounts emerged in the case of all three of Arizona’s executions, “including the ‘surreal’ spectacle of a possibly innocent man assisting his executioners in finding a vein in which to inject the lethal chemicals.” Kindness and compassion, even towards the stupid, can have its drawbacks.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, had to see the silver lining in such blatant, administrative savagery. “All the indicators point to the continuing decline in capital punishment.” Indeed, the report is almost cheery in noting that a time of “incendiary political advertising that drove the public’s perception of rising crime to record highs” did not arrest the decline of public support for capital punishment and jury verdicts favouring the death penalty.

As the report’s introduction goes on to observe, “Defying conventional political wisdom, nearly every measure of change – from new death sentences imposed and executions conducted to public opinion polls and elections results – pointed to the continuing durability of the more than 20-year sustained decline of the death penalty in the United States.”

Mighty fine it is to be optimistic but residual atavism in the Land of the Free remains. The likes of Governor Ivey continue to search for more efficient executions, for the “sake of the victims and their families.” Misplaced, futile vengeance, coloured by politics, continues to play a role.

 

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17 comments

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  1. Baby Jewels

    Still in the dark ages.

  2. Cool Pete

    I was 11 when Barlow and Chambers were executed in Malaysia. Even then, I was opposed to the death penalty. Botched executions by the US were documented in Nuremberg, on October 16, 1946. Whilst not many people would have been sympathetic to Hans Frank and the other nine, the fact that the executions were botched shows they showed as little humanity as those they executed. An experienced executioner (okay, I’m not one) would have seen that you have to know the weight of the condemned man in his clothes, to calculate the length of the drop. Hermann Goering, while he cheated the hangman with a cyanide pill, was a big man and Julius Streicher a little man, and would have probably said, “The heaviest man would hang first and the lightest last,” and had numbers on the ropes to say, “Okay, Goering, 1, weight, length of drop,” and made sure that the gallows platform was high enough to ensure a neck breaking drop and the trapdoor wide enough that he didn’t belt his head on the way down. In Streicher’s case, he went down kicking, and an experienced executioner would have, once he reached the foot of the steps, and been asked his name, and replied, “Julius Streicher,” would have had him walk up the steps, bound his wrists and when he reached the circle on the trapdoor, bound his ankles, pulled the hood down over his head and adjusted the rope, and he’d have fallen through. And rather than some taking 24 minutes to expire, their necks would have been broken at C2-3, and no heartbeat recorded after around 4-5 minutes.
    One of the great ironies of execution in the US is that the evil bastard who occupied the White House for four years, had a developmentally challenged woman executed as one of his last acts of his time there, yet lawmakers of the same bent as that evil bastard gnash their teeth at the thought of women with unwanted pregnancies want to abort them, even going as far as imprisoning doctors for not reimplanting an ectopic pregnancy, and declaring that women who fall pregnant due to rape or incest, rather than carrying an unwanted or unplanned fetus as the result of a crime are instead carrying “a gift from God!” A baby who is wanted is a gift from God, a fetus conceived due to a rape is not!

  3. Michael Taylor

    AC,

    Terry Mills wrote about the Murdoch media. Perhaps, for some context, you’d like to comment about state-controlled media in Russian and China.

    John Lord wrote about Morrison and Trump. Perhaps, for some context, you’d like to comment about Xi and Putin.

    Mark Buckley wrote about the damage Morrison has done to his party. Perhaps, for some context, you’d like to comment on the damage Xi and Putin have done to theirs.

    Lucy Hamilton wrote about …

    Rossleigh wrote about …

    2353NM wrote about …

    UniSA wrote about …

    Jane Salmon wrote about …

    Andrew Klein wrote about …

    Just think of all the contexts you’ve lost the opportunity to comment on.

    Oh, that’s right, your dislike of Dr Binoy has made you twisted and bitter. Binoy is clearly living rent free in your head.

    Your bias is showing, which is crystal clear. Aren’t you embarrassed that your hypocrisy is on full display?

    Actually, don’t bother. I’m not in the mood for another display of your self-righteousness.

  4. Anthony Judge

    The call for context evokes the need for an historical perspective. When were “botched elections” a typical feature of those countries now righteously laying claim to the moral high ground? In which countries would that be within living memory? When were executions as proportionately numerous as in China today — to say nothing of floggings, stonings and amputations? Would such punishment have been justified with the same language as that cited in the case of the USA? How about the “befooting” so widely achieved by anti-personnel mines in contrast to “beheading” (https://bit.ly/3hy8j82)? The rapid erosion of collective memory is clearly vital to enabling morality of a higher order. Unfortunately extraterrestrials may favour a longer time scale — if encountered.

  5. Michael Taylor

    Thank you, Anthony, for showing AC how to comment on an issue without attacking anyone. Great comment, btw.

    AC – from what I’ve observed over many years – was no doubt building up to a full-on attack on the author. He has history.

  6. Michael Taylor

    Cool Pete, I enjoyed your comment too.

  7. GL

    AC’s now very uncomfortable obsession with Binoy and Russia and China, amongst other things, has come home to roost if Michael now feels he has to moderate any further comments. Not before time.

  8. Phil Pryor

    Childish, ineffective, obsessive, defective, biassed, impulsive, seething, opaque, worthless comments are not of any use, no. Let us all comment politely.., informing, displaying, enlightening, adding, expanding, illustrating. No sulking, hiding, sniping…and I’m talking to me first, and in my name.

  9. mugsey

    We are a cruel, sadistic species and it’s time to investigate precisely, psychologically why…

    And could I add that Dr Binoy is a wonderful political observer and writer.

  10. Fred

    MT: Clearly I’ve missed the point, but how is ‘And for some context… China- “thousands”” ultra insulting to/disrespectful of the author? Dr Kampmark has written about the barbaric practices employed in state murder in the US. Yes, executions are not good and the matter deserves ventilation but taken in context to the link supplied by AC and applying the Pareto principle there are other countries that need to be called out first. Given the number of states in the US that have banned abortions under all circumstances, it is a fair bet that many more lives will be lost due to problematic births and suicide than 20 or so executions each year.

  11. Michael Taylor

    Fred, you have missed the point.

    I wasn’t being disrespectful to Dr Binoy. I have a great deal of respect for him.

    I was challenging AC as to why he always has a go at Binoy. He snipes him at every opportunity, and I was pointing out his hypocrisy, ie, he targets Binoy and only Binoy.

    Whatever Binoy writes about, AC jumps in to question why he’s writing about this and not writing about that. He only does it on Binoy’s articles and does whatever possible to change the debate to something he wants discussed.

  12. New England Cocky

    MT: One of the most chilling accounts about American executions is the John Gresham novel, ”The Chamber”. I did NOT want to read it, and could not put it down. Certainly it confirmed my opinion that America continues in dire times as their democracy comes under organised attack by self-interest groups, especially the wealthy.

  13. James

    Without State-sanctioned Execution Squads, where else would the psycho-sadists involved in the process find an outlet for legalized murder?
    3 hours to kill someone with a lethal substance? Sounds like it is deliberate torture to prove some hell-bent point. Good luck with your karma.

  14. Michael Taylor

    NEC, I read a number of years ago – 15 years at a guess – that 17% of African Americans who have suffered the fate of the death penalty in the USA are later proven to be innocent.

  15. leefe

    Michael:
    Given the inherent racial bias in the USA legal system, I’m surprised it’s so low a percentage.

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