Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
It looks as if the practice of the death penalty is finally catching up with America. We must do better than this.
The botched April 29 execution of death row inmate Clayton Lockett, 38, in Oklahoma was gruesome, cruel and barbaric. The man died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the lethal drugs were administered. The morning of his execution he had refused to cooperate and had been subdued with a stun gun.
President Obama and the United Nations agree the execution was inhumane. The president called it “deeply troubling,” adding there are “significant problems” with the way death is administered, citing racial bias, uneven application and the fact that innocent people are sometimes put to death. A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the execution violated international law.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said, “Justice was served,” adding that the execution was lawfully carried out. Defensively, she added: “The people of Oklahoma do not have blood on their hands.”
If the governor believes that what happened to Lockett that day was justice, then what conception of justice is this, other than that of a lynch mob? It is no accident that the lion’s share of executions take place in the South, with its legacy of slavery, segregation and lynching.
For years, lethal injection was promoted as a painless and humane form of the ultimate punishment in an attempt to legitimize the form of execution — and the death penalty itself.
In years past, other forms of execution — such as hanging, the electric chair and the gas chamber — were touted as humane as well. Well, it turns out that lethal injection is not a painless form of punishment, which is beside the point.
America’s proponents of capital punishment are faced with a conundrum. The lethal injection chemicals are manufactured in Europe, and through an EU embargo, European pharmaceutical companies are refusing to sell their products to the states for use in executions. This has led some states to procure their poisons on the black market, administering executions with a lack of transparency and experimenting with untested, unapproved cocktails on human guinea pigs such as Clayton Lockett.
Obama said he will ask Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an analysis of the death penalty. The wisest course of action for the United States — the last death penalty outpost in the West — is to impose a moratorium on federal executions. Although such an action would not impact state executions, it would serve as a role model for the states to follow.
The alternative is inaction, which is not only unacceptable. It’s also immoral.
By David A. Love, a freelance writer in Philadelphia who has worked on the death penalty issue for years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright David A. Love