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Botched execution in Oklahoma shows flaws with capital punishment


The bizarre death Tuesday of a prisoner in Oklahoma has once again put the value and effectiveness of capital punishment in the spotlight.

Clayton Lockett, 38, reacted violently after the drugs used for lethal injection were administered. The execution was halted by Oklahoma Corrections Director Robert Patton, who said vein failure prevented the drugs from acting as intended.

Mr. Lockett struggled for more than 40 minutes before succumbing to a heart attack. State officials postponed the execution of inmate Charles Warner, which was scheduled for later that day, while they investigate what happened to Mr. Lockett.

Witnesses observed the ordeal with Mr. Lockett for about 3 minutes before officials closed a curtain. This is unfortunate. If states are going to take the irreversible measure of ending people’s lives for the sake of justice, witnesses should be allowed to view the full implications no matter how bad they make the process appear.

Mr. Lockett was convicted of the horrific 1999 death of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman. He reportedly shot her and watched two other people bury her alive.

Such unfathomable disregard for human life is bound to compel many people to downplay the seriousness of Tuesday’s botched execution.

“What difference does it make how he died?” some have already asked. “He was convicted and sentenced to death row.”

This response, however, overlooks what role capital punishment is supposed to play in our criminal justice system and how we should approach it. Corrections departments could encourage death row inmates to kill each other and save the expenses of providing the means of execution.

But since penal officials act in the name of “the people,” how we carry out capital punishment is a reflection of our values. The U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” and Americans have debated how to interpret those words since they were written.

What we know for certain is that we have no right to implement a death sentence that conveys barbarism in any way. Callously dismissing how convicted prisoners die in the name of justice is to stoop to the warped mindset of the killer.

Among all forms of capital punishment, lethal injection is believed to be one of the most humane. The drugs used are intended to anesthetize prisoners before thwarting their breathing and stopping their hearts. Many people would want their lives to end so peacefully.

But companies in the United States and Europe have refused to make some of the drugs available for lethal injections, specifically those used to render the inmate unconscious. This has resulted in a shortage of these drugs, forcing prison officials in different states to find substitutes.

Opponents of the death penalty have said this practice results in states relying on untested drugs from less-regulated companies. Not much is known about how a new three-drug protocol affects inmates undergoing lethal injection or where these drugs are produced.

While Oklahoma officials administered this new drug combination to Mr. Lockett, there is no evidence as of yet that it had anything to do with his death. State officials said a vein in his body collapsed, causing a heart attack.

However, this episode adds another layer of doubt on how we administer capital punishment in this country. It compelled Oklahoma officials to postpone another execution, and it should give us pause to consider if any form of capital punishment can avoid being classified as “cruel and unusual.”

Proponents of the death penalty have said that as long as the convicted inmate dies, they are not all that concerned with the manner in which the death occurs. But our Constitution demands such attention to these details. Given Tuesday’s incident, it’s looking more like our options for killing people in a way that abides by our supreme law are running out.

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