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A capital idea: not for the squeamish

| Thursday, September 11, 2014

Convicted murderer Clayton Lockett took 40 minutes to die when he was executed by lethal injection in April of 2014. Just 14 minutes into the procedure, the ostensibly sedated murderer attempted to rise from his gurney and speak audibly. Just months later, the execution of Joseph Wood took nearly two hours.  During his death, Wood is recorded to have gasped nearly 600 times.

In both cases, the states responsible for the executions were using an experimental sedative called Midazolam. This drug has become the go-to for lethal injections as more “traditional” execution drugs like Pentobarbital have been pulled from the market by conscientious manufacturers. Yet Midazolam’s track record at sedation is obviously spotty. Lethal injection, once touted as painless and easy death, is quickly proving to be anything but.

The debate surrounding the death penalty in America has many ethical, religious, and constitutional components. While we will hopefully one day achieve consensus on whether or not our country ought to practice capital punishment, this will clearly not happen anytime soon. In the meantime, death row inmates will keep dying. Therefore, regardless of your stance on the death penalty, it’s imperative that we have a conversation about the methods used to kill the condemned.

On paper, the current cocktail of lethal injection drugs sounds like an excellent method of execution — the condemned criminal is gently sedated while his vital functions are powered down one by one. But differing rates of metabolism, clogged needles and a host of other problems have resulted in a high rate of botched executions, about 7.1%, according to Amherst’s Austin Sarat. Clearly, a better procedure is needed, and the answer can be found in the only method with a zero percent botch rate — the firing squad.

Consider the advantages of shooting a prisoner full of lead instead of potassium chloride. Because death by gunshot relies on physically traumatizing the body’s vital systems rather than chemically shutting them off, issues of toxin resistance or body composition are rendered moot. Any convict shot half a dozen times at close range will die quickly, with far less opportunity for the anguish seen in the deaths of Lockett and Wood. For example, consider the execution of Utah’s Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was pronounced dead only two minutes after being shot in 2010. Can it really be argued that he suffered more than those whose deaths took hours?

Additionally, participation in a firing squad requires none of the special training needed to handle or administer killer drugs — anyone competent enough to operate a rifle could be eligible to serve out the execution. Whereas lethal injection depends on many complex mechanisms, both artificial and organic, to work as intended, the probability of a rifle malfunction is slim.

It’s also unlikely that ammunition or arms manufacturers will raise moral objections to their products being used to take life. After all, many of these companies already advertise weapons to both police and civilians for use on criminals. Even if these companies do try to boycott the death penalty, police departments doubtless have sufficient stockpiles of weaponry to carry out all necessary executions for the foreseeable future. As a result, the justice system will not be forced to use “experimental bullets,” as they’ve had to do with Midazolam.

The squeamish, of course, will object that the firing squad is too gruesome a death to be used in a civilized society. Given the agony evidently suffered by victims of lethal injection, that case is becoming increasingly more difficult to make. Moreover, the practical result of both execution methods is the same — a dead convict. The firing squad even provides the same diffuse responsibility associated with lethal injection.  Just as only one of the technicians sending drugs down the condemned’s IV tube actually administers a fatal dose, one man on the firing squad can be given a blank round or a dummy bullet. As an execution tool, the rifle need be no more psychologically traumatizing than the needle. And considering the fate of the man on death row are the sensibilities of the headsmen really a priority?

Of course, it’s possible to argue that our society ought not to execute criminals at all. Such a position is certainly worthy of consideration and vigorous debate. But if we can’t agree on that, can we at least agree that we shouldn’t torture criminals to death?

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