Another botched execution. This one in Oklahoma where witnesses described an "agonizing scene" in which over the course of 43 minutes, Clayton Lockett writhed, convulsed and struggled to speak before his heart "essentially exploded." Earlier this year, on January 16, 2014, Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio, a fifteen minute exercise in torture during which McGuire gasped and choked before dying.
The phrase "botched execution" should be removed from the lexicon. Webster's defines "botch" in relatively innocuous terms such as "bungle," "foul up" and "repair ineptly." There is nothing innocuous about what the director of the ACLU in Oklahoma described as "human science experiments" -- experiments that can only be described as torture.
These latest horrors stem from the use of untested and unregulated lethal injection drugs, and the secrecy surrounding how and from whom these drugs are obtained. As detailed in an important New York Times op-ed, presciently titled Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths, after an American pharmaceutical firm stopped making thiopental, the anesthetic used for executions, and federal courts barred the importation of the drug from overseas, states began substituting pentobarbital. But with the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital refusing to allow the drug to be used for executions, states started obtaining it from compounding pharmacies, "which mix small batches of drugs to order, and whose products are not approved by the F.D.A." Other states, like Ohio and Oklahoma, are going with other untried drugs, such as midazolam.
The grisly results, not at all surprising given the lack of oversight and appalling lack of scientific or medical review, are morally repulsive.
The "feckless" justices on the Supreme Court, as The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen, describes them, long ago should have "stop[ped] the madness caused by the current generation of lethal-injection secrecy" and "establish[ed] standards that would require states like Oklahoma to share basic information about the drugs used to kill prisoners." And lower court state and federal judges should have demanded more through review of the issues raised by the use of new, untested lethal drug combinations.
But, the execution protocol is just the last of the many levels in the capital punishment process -- the machinery of death, as Justice Harry Blackmun put it -- in which the inevitability of human error and human frailties cause unfairness, unreliability and cruelty. Police, trial lawyers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, appellate lawyers, appellate judges and executioners are all capable of bias and discrimination, errors in judgment and honest mistakes. So many variables lead to so many instances of wrongful conviction, arbitrary and unjust sentence and ultimately, agonizing scenes of torture.
"Evolving standards of decency" is a phrase used in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to analyze whether a given practice is cruel and unusual. The Supreme Court has so far refused to find that capital punishment offends "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Meanwhile, the high court continues to allow execution after execution to go forward, more concerned with finality and swift punishment than justice and decency. Indeed, Andrew Cohen notes, just few months ago, Justice Scalia, during oral argument in Hall v. Florida, lamented the slow pace of executions in this country.
The notion of "evolving standards of decency" has always struck me as optimistic; as an acknowledgment that, while we may not be there yet, some day our society will evolve to the point where the death penalty will be unacceptable. Unfortunately, with state officials still clamoring for vengeance and the Supreme Court as the arbiter of our evolution, we still have a long way to go.