Death penalty becomes cruel and usual

James Alan Fox

July 27, 2014

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits punishments deemed to be cruel and unusual, a standard to which capital punishment does not rise, at least according to the U.S. Supreme Court. But with yet another botched execution, the third over the past six months, the cruelty is becoming pretty usual.

It was disturbing enough that the state of Arizona last week took nearly two hours to execute convicted double-murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood, during most of which time he appeared to witnesses to be gasping for breath and grunting in pain. To me, however, equally disturbing is how many people rejoiced over the poor excuse for justice.

One after another, USA TODAY readers celebrated the fact that Wood's death was anything but swift and painless.

One so-designated "Top Commenter" remarked that "The more pain the criminal feels the better." Another was anything but concerned about the mishap: "I really don't care if he suffered. I hope it hurt like hell. I hope his last moments were full of pain and terror." A simple post by a third online contributor reflected total satisfaction with the prolonged ritual, "Sounds like success to me!" Similar unsympathetic comments were posted on other news websites.

The struggle for Arizona, Ohio, Oklahoma, and other death penalty states in trying to identify the right mixture of drugs to perform lethal injections stems directly from the oppositional consensus concerning the American way of punishing murderers. Certain nations prohibit execution drugs to be exported to the U.S. Drug manufacturers, whose core mission is to promote health and healing, refuse to allow their products to be used for such nefarious purposes. Further complicating matters, medical professionals keep as much distance as possible from the procedure out of their ethical commitment to doing no harm. As a result, correctional officials are fumbling and bumbling to find the right solution.

Notwithstanding the disgraceful outpouring of joy over Wood's ordeal, in one respect I, too, was encouraged by the botched execution. As a longtime opponent of capital punishment, my sense of encouragement is radically different from the vengeance-minded folks who espoused their venomous views publicly.

Having witnessed a speedy and smoothly orchestrated execution by lethal injection, I am distressed when the death penalty is successfully carried out in a so-called "humane" fashion. I am concerned about relentless efforts to make the administration of capital punishment streamlined, straightforward, and simple. Although I do not wish pain and suffering upon anyone, it should never be easy to kill a person, even one convicted of a heinous crime. To the contrary, the execution ritual should be excruciating for everyone involved. Each time we take a life in the name of justice, the controversy over capital punishment should be at the forefront.

The focus of the debate should not, however, be about the most efficient means of putting a condemned murderer to death, but about whether we should be retaining the barbaric and archaic practice in the first place. By allowing executions to continue, even now when murder rates are low, the U.S. joins China, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan on the Top 5 List for executions, and earns distain from our peer nations throughout Europe and elsewhere.

Over the past decade, the arguments for capital punishment have shifted. Research has largely disputed the claim of deterrence, and various accounting analyses have demonstrated the high cost of the death penalty. As a consequence, death penalty advocacy has become less an issue of public safety and protecting society from dangerous criminals, and more about symbolism.

Not only are many Americans tolerant of death chamber mishaps, but some accept an occasional miscarriage of justice. As many as a third of those polled by Gallup favor capital punishment even while believing that an innocent person has been executed.

For them, a show of force against the criminal element is most important. For them, apparently, it doesn't completely matter which criminals we kill (even an occasional innocent is acceptable) or how we kill them (a measure of suffering is OK, too). They just have a visceral need for executing criminals to feel that good wins over evil.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is co-author of Extreme Killing and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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