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Capital Punishment Is Defined

Capital Punishment is defined as the execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of an extreme criminal offense. It has been a controversial topic within the United States for the past few decades as people question whether the state has the right to kill human beings. The methods of capital punishment in the United States have been carried out through the following methods: execution, electrocution, lethal injection, firing squad and hanging. For decades, lethal injection has maintained the title as the most favorable method of execution. This was due to the public’s common belief that such drug protocol led to the most humane killing process. This view began to be challenged in 2011 when the United States lost its distributor of the drug used in the lethal injection protocol. In consequence, the United States entered into a dilemma, as we no longer had a source of the drug necessary to carry out the lethal injection protocol. This left our nation to search for new drug methods in order to continue to carry out executions using lethal injection. Since 2011, no reliable alternative protocol has been generated – leaving our country unable to find an appropriate drug to be administered for a human lethal injection method. This has not stopped states to use lethal injection methods to continue to execute criminals sentenced to death. However, the current drug methods being used on inmates are untested, unreliable and dangerous. This makes it critical that lethal injection should be suspended until a successful protocol is discovered.

Lethal injection as practiced in the United States for years is a three drug protocol. The first drug administered is sodium thiopental. This is used to induce the unconsciousness and to put the inmate to sleep. It is vital to the protocol, for this unconsciousness prevents the recipient from enduring the intense pain caused by the other drugs that are administered (Harrison). The second two drugs function to actually cause the death of the convicted prisoner. The first drug, pancuronium bromide, acts as a paralyzing agent. The second potassium chloride, stops the heart and causes the actual death. This method of execution was established in the 1970’s and became routine. Prior to this, other practices such as hanging were commonly used but began to be replaced by new practices that were deemed to be more humane (Salk 287). Lethal injection quickly gained favor in the public eye as it built on the reputation of being painless. Dr. Austin Sarat, an Amherst political science professor in describing the reasons behind the creation of such injections explained,, “The hope [was] that lethal injection was the final frontier, the final solution to the desire of Americans to both having the death penalty and also finding a method of execution that was safe, reliable, and humane”. People used lethal injection’s “humane” reputation to justify and make palatable judicial killings by the state (LeGraw).

The humane reputation that lethal injection carried began to shift as the United States reached a shortage in sodium thiopental. The United States’ supply of sodium thiopental was Hospira Inc.. Hospira continued to manufacture sodium thiopental until 2009. After this, the company stopped producing the drug and the United States was forced to seek the drug elsewhere – with foreign companies being the only source of the drug. Initially, the United States found a new source for the drug in the European Union (EU) for a short time. This source only lasted for a short time and in 2011 the EU announced an embargo on the exportation of the sodium thiopental. The death penalty is banned in all 27 states within the European Union. Because of this, the European Union instituted strict guidelines against the participation of all EU countries in any part of the death penalty in foreign countries. The executive arm of the EU commented, “We want to ensure no drugs exported from the union were for use in capital punishment, torture, or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment”. The EU did not want to play a role in the executions in the United States. This shortage of sodium thiopental led to many difficulties and is the epicenter to the increase in botched executions in the United States. The immediate consequences of the lack of a source for sodium thiopental were evident as a search for a new lethal injection protocol began. Prisons began creating and experimenting with new drug combinations that were even potentially illegal (Sanburn). Such drugs combinations are unregulated and unapproved. They ultimately are chemical combinations that have yet to be tested; deeming them to be unreliable, dangerous, and possibly illegal. The lack of restrictions on these drugs were shocking as untrained people, with lack of medical knowledge, were able to create and experiment using these drug cocktails on convicted inmates leading executions that did not go according to plan. Such botched executions have become so bad that trained, licensed, medical professionals have decided to not partake in lethal injection as they feel it goes against the Hippocratic oath they took while becoming doctors. Medical professionals Robert Truog and Troyen Brennan consider involvement in the current lethal injection process as a violation of medical ethics and concluded that physician participation in lethal injection goes against this medical oath to “do no harm”. Members of the American Nurses’ Association agrees with Truog and Brennan as they believe, “a physician’s participation in an execution does nothing to promote the moral community of medicine” (LeGraw 409). The decrease in medical professionals that are willing to partake in these executions added to the conditions that increase the numbers of botched executions. The lack of doctors and scientists taking part in finding new drug protocols leads to conditions in which more untrained professionals are beginning to experiment with unknown chemicals. The only way to discover whether these new methods are going to be successful or not is through experimental use in real life executions. This has essentially made these inmates, sentenced to execution, equivalent to the role of a “guinea pig”. This reality is very troubling, as humans being used as test subjects is beyond immoral.

The number of these experiences is overwhelming. It is challenging to accept that these horrific events have not only been occurring within the last seven years, and that they are continuing to occur today. The story of Clayton Lockett illustrates the gruesome reality of the torturous deaths occurring through the unchecked protocol for lethal injection. Lockett was sentenced to execution through lethal injection in consequence of the murdering of a young female. He was administered an experimental drug, in place of sodium thiopental, that had not been used before. Like all lethal injection executions, the goal of his death was to be painless and effortless on the basis of the constitutional ban against cruel and inhumane punishment. Fifteen minutes into the procedure, after receiving the fist drug which was supposed to put him to sleep, Lockett came out of sedation. Immediately he began twitching and screaming in agony as he experienced what he described as, “his veins on fire”. He was conscious throughout the administration of the second two painful, death-inducing drugs. His experience became so agonizing that the viewing room blinds had to be shut. The sight was too traumatic for the audience to witness. Lockett met his death after 43 minutes, not because of the success of the protocol, but because of a heart attack in result of the torture. It was concluded by his lawyer that, he had effectively been tortured to death. Lockett is only one example of the many results of the failing current protocol. In 2014, Ohio sentenced Dennis McGuire to execution by lethal injection after he raped and murdered a 22 year old female, Joy Stewart, and her unborn child. Prior to the execution, Stewart’s family explained that McGuire’s death would be more humane than the torture and brutal death their daughter endured. Little did they know, McGuire was too, doomed to a torturous encounter (Pilkington). It was planned to use the combination of the sedative midazolam and the pain medication hydromorphone, as a replacement for sodium thiopental. An anaesthesiologist told a court that such drug protocol will cause the recipient to be awake and therefore in a state of “agony and horror” through the feeling of a suffocating death, but state officials ignored this warning and went ahead with the administration of the drug cocktail. Witnesses of McGuire’s death recalled seeing, “repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling, and arching of his back”. They described himi to be, “writhing in pain”. David Weisel, an associate professor of anaesthesia at Harvard Medical school and an expert witness for McGuire’s defense attorneys was frustrated that the state of Ohio went ahead with the execution without considering the likely risks of torture. Waisel stated, “Initially I was angry, because I told them this would happen. Now I’m very sad about this. I’m also horrified and aghast: This was totally unnecessary” (Pilkington).

Taken together, all these cases have made me come to the conclusion that the current protocol for lethal injection is unconstitutional. Our country is built off of the structure of the constitution and follows the word of law laid out in the constitution and its amendments. The constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment and further requires that a legal execution is one that does not inflict pain. When first instituted, execution by lethal injection was deemed constitutional as the recipient was asleep and unconscious throughout the procedure. In the current state of lethal injection in our country, what previously kept the process constitutional is no longer existent as the United States does not have access to the drug that made this possible. The stories of botched executions prove the torturous deaths carried out by the State that are occurring in our nation. The agony lethal injection recipients are put through illustrates the cruel and unusual punishment created through lethal injection. Ultimately, concerns about the constitutionality of capital punishment are parallel to concerns about the protection of human beings as subjects. If states are not able to ensure that their lethal injection protocols being used are humane, then such protocols should not be utilized.

Former United States Attorney General, Eric Holder publicly proposed during his time in office that the Supreme Court declare a moratorium on the death penalty on the basis of lethal injection’s botched executions. He stated, “I think fundamental questions about the death penalty need to be asked. And among them, the Supreme Court’s determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur. From my perspective, I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court made that determination would be appropriate” (Reilly). Holder told The Marshall Project, “I think that the issue is made real when you look at some of the things that have happened in the states over the last year or so, where you had these botched executions, where you had an inability to get the appropriate drug. Holder sees the failing of the current protocol, and the lack of a solution. And because of this, he strongly believes a moratorium should be put in place. It shows how immense the current protocol is through the fact that someone of high authority in our nation is speaking against it. We cannot continue to use inmates placed on death row as test subjects for unknown, harmful drugs. Placing emotions aside, one should recognize the need for a suspension of the death penalty on the basis of its unconstitutionality.

A moratorium needs to be placed on lethal injection in our nation until a successful, humane, protocol is found. With all things considered, there is no denying that there is a flaw in our current execution system. Many people are on the fence about where they stand on the issue of capital punishment. These painful, traumatizing, botched executions brought forth through untested drug cocktails need to be brought to the attention of our nation. We cannot continue to ignore the apparent shift in the previously humane lethal injection. I am not arguing for a complete abolishment of the system itself, what I am pushing towards is the acknowledgement of the failure of the current protocol as unconstitutional in the eyes of the law. We can not stand as a nation that purposefully puts our citizens through a torturous death. These horrific executions should have been stopped years ago. We cannot let this go on any longer. Our morals as a nation go against such actions. Finding a successful replacement for sodium thiopental will be the answer to the issue of the botched executions. The issue has become so surreal that people of power are also suggesting a moratorium.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.