On July 21, 2014, Arizona convicted murderer John Rudolph Woods became the fourth condemned inmate this year to die in a “botched” lethal injection execution in this country. He spent 90 minutes gasping for air every 10 seconds or so, reportedly gasping up to a total of 600 total times. Witnesses described the execution as “torture” and, in fact, his attorneys filed motions during the execution attempt trying to stop it.
Earlier this year Oklahoma botched the executions of Clayton Lockett and Michael Lee Wilson; it took nearly 45 minutes for Lockett to die. And it took nearly 30 minutes last January for the State of Ohio to execute Dennis McClure. These four “botched” executions—all of which can reasonably be called acts of torture—prompted Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jerry Kozinski to call for a return to the firing squad as the preferred method of execution after Woods’s execution. Judge Kozinski feels the firing squad is a more humane, and perhaps a more honest, method of execution than lethal injection.
“Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it….Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood,” says the Judge.
There is no humane way to execute someone. Every time a model “humane method” of delivering death has visited itself upon the community of man, it has proven to be a horrendous disaster. In 1789, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested that execution by a blade was a more humane method of execution to torture (burning at the stake, etc.) and the firing squad—the two common methods of execution in France before the guillotine was used in 1792. We quickly learned that the brain in a severed head continues to function until blood loss produces unconsciousness and death follows. In a word, the brain is still alive after the blade slices it from the body. How many seconds or minutes it actually survives remains a debatable question to this day. It is estimated that nearly 17,000 people were guillotined in France during an eleven month period between 1793 and 1794 known as the Reign of Terror. It is estimated that another 20,000 people were guillotined by the Nazis during World War II.
The electric chair was introduced to the American execution stage on August 6, 1890 when the State of New York electrocuted convicted murderer William Kemmler in the Auburn State Prison. This “humane” method of execution was turned to after New York lawmakers witnessed the decapitation of a man during a public hanging—the most popular method of execution in America at the time. And of course Kemmler’s execution was a fiasco. Only 700 volts of electricity had passed through his body before the electricity failed, some 17 seconds into the execution. But that was enough to burn his clothing and char his body. A second charge of slightly more than 1,000 volts of electricity was then administered for two minutes which did even more damage. An autopsy revealed the electrode attached to Kemmler’s back had burned through his spine and his internal organs were blackened like charcoal.
The love affair with electricity as a “humane” method of execution didn’t last long. The State of Nevada in 1924 introduced probably the most inhumane method of execution as a “humane” alternative to the rope and electricity: the gas chamber. The first person executed in the gas chamber was a Chinese immigrant who was left in the gas-filled chamber for 30 minutes before being pronounced dead. That was only the beginning of the horrors the gas chamber would inflict upon the condemned in the nation’s execution process.
And it was the horrors of botched executions by electricity and gas that introduced the nation to lethal injection—a process of producing death through a cocktail of three lethal drugs: a barbiturate called thiopental to anesthetize the inmate, a paralytic drug called pancuronium bromide to render the inmate motionless, and potassium chloride to suffocate the inmate’s heart. This method of execution was created by a forensic pathologist in Oklahoma in 1977 and adopted by the state legislature that year. In December 1982, the State of Texas became the first state to execute a person through lethal injection when it put Charles Brooks to death.
Professor Michael L. Radelet, University of Colorado, is an expert on botched lethal injection executions; he has compiled a list of 45 of them which have, unfortunately, been carried out in this country since 1982. And, not surprisingly, Texas, which by far has executed more people during that time frame than any other state, leads the nation with10 of those botched executions.
Austin Sarat is a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College. He also knows a lot about botched executions. In his book “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty,”
Sarat found that between 1890 and 2010, there were 8,776 executions carried in the United States, of which 276 were described as “botched”—decapitations by hanging, hangings carried out twice because the rope broke, and one inmate put in the electric chair twice after the first attempt failed to kill him a year earlier. Some electric chair executions resulted in the inmate being set on fire or horribly burned, while some executions by the gas chamber took up to 20 minutes to kill, forcing at least one inmate to slam his own head into a pole behind the seat in an effort to knock himself out.
With 85, hanging produced the most botched executions followed by electrocution with 84 and lethal injection rounding out the top three methods with 75. The gas chamber produced a paltry 32 botched executions while the firing squad scored none. Two states still allow for firing squad executions under certain circumstances: Oklahoma and Utah. The latter state has carried out at least 50 firing squad executions since capital punishment was enacted in Utah in 1850. Only two could be considered problematic—one in 1879 and the other in 1951. Neither would warrant the term “botched execution.”
Ironically, the first post-Furman execution was carried out in Utah on January 17, 1977 when Gary Gilmore immortalized these three words, “let’s do it.”
Judge Kozinski, thus, makes a valid argument that the firing squad should be the preferred method of execution in this country. It is certainly more humane than its “humane alternative” lethal injection, as it was marketed in the pro-death penalty arena in the late 1970s. Let’s be honest, in modern, civilized societies, state sponsored executions are considered cruel and unusual punishment. They should be considered such here in the United States. But, if we must do this inhumane act, we should be honest and brave enough to face the reality of what we are doing, which is, in reality, homicide.