Humanism and the Death Penalty Is disapproval of capital punishment leading to more painful deaths?

The botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014, in Oklahoma was widely reported, and his painful death by lethal injection, supposedly one of the more humane methods of carrying out capital punishment, was met with strong condemnation. While witness accounts that Lockett spoke and thrashed on the gurney now seem to be exaggerated, the official timeline released by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections does indicate that his vein collapsed due to improper insertion, that he twitched and attempted to move his hands, and that he was not given a sufficient dosage of the drugs to efficiently cause death. The lethal injection process usually leads to death within 5 to 18 minutes. Lockett’s death took 43 minutes.

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison (CA).
As humanists, we may have a variety of opinions on the death penalty. However, I would hope that we can all be willing to look critically at the way in which many states carry out capital punishment and be willing to ask questions about the messages states are sending through their execution methods. The American Humanist Association, in a resolution adopted in 2000, restated its opposition to the death penalty on the grounds that it undermines the inherent worth and dignity of human beings and diminishes the ethical standing of governments that approve it. Lockett was denied his Eighth Amendment right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and the nature of the execution presents the state as unconcerned with human suffering. Though Lockett’s execution is receiving significant media attention, his is not the first case in which the administration of the death penalty has gone awry. In Florida, a man’s eyes remained open for several minutes after receiving the injection and his head moved, perhaps in pain. In Ohio, another man struggled and gasped for breath for ten minutes after having been administered the lethal injection drugs. Some will no doubt argue that these men, like Lockett, were murderers. They caused suffering not only to their victims but also to their victims’ family and friends. Why should they be spared a painful death when their actions brought so much to pain to others? This is an understandable position to take, considering the brutal crime of murder (and, in Lockett’s case, rape and torture as well). However, as humanists we hold that all people have an inherent worth simply because they are human. It follows that all people, even murderers, are entitled to be spared cruel and unusual punishment by the government. As humanists, we can use logic to understand that the suffering of a murderer cannot undo the past suffering and death of a victim, but we can also use compassion to empathize both with the victims of the crime and the person who committed the crime. Human suffering is still suffering, no matter the past actions of the person in pain. So why are people dying in distress from what is thought to be the most painless form of the death penalty? Many are blaming states’ increasing use of experimental drugs. European manufacturers no longer export drugs used in lethal injections because the European Union disapproves of the death penalty. The U.S. manufacturer of lethal injection drugs has ceased production due to international pressure against capital punishment. As a result, state prisons have been forced to find these drugs elsewhere and are turning to compounding pharmacies, which can create the drugs that they need but are not subject to FDA regulations. Adding to the lack of oversight are many states’ secrecy laws, allowing them to keep quiet about the suppliers of these drugs as well as the makeup of the drugs themselves. After increased pressure from the public, Oklahoma released information about the types of drugs used in Lockett’s execution. The first in a cocktail of three drugs was Midazolam, an anesthetic meant to sedate Lockett before the other two drugs were administered. This was the first time that Oklahoma used Midazolam as part of its lethal injection procedure, despite its problematic use in other executions, including the aforementioned botched executions in Florida and Ohio. In these instances, the dosage of Midazolam given to the inmates was too low to allow for a painless death. We don’t yet know if an inappropriate dose of Midazolam or something else caused Clayton Lockett to suffer in death. Indeed, we may never know. However, humanists should be concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding lethal injection when it is causing unnecessary suffering of human beings. By using untested drugs from potentially unreliable sources, states are indicating that they care more about carrying out the death penalty than a person’s right to a humane death. Because we aspire to the greater good of humanity and the advancement of human rights, we should be disturbed when states subject people to cruel and unusual punishment. And we should be willing to ask questions about what caused these painful deaths and commit ourselves to speaking out against this form of human suffering.Tags: , ,