Olivarius: Suffocating the death penalty

Culture Quotient

The international community is currently sanctioning a country for violating human rights. Sanctions are nothing new. What’s new is that the country being sanctioned is the United States.

The international community has banned the export of a dangerous and deadly substance to the U.S. It’s not cocaine or heroin, but sodium thiopental, a strong anesthetic normally used in surgery. But in 34 states, the substance is also used as the first shot in a tripartite “execution cocktail” — it anesthetizes a prisoner before they are injected with other drugs that stop their breathing and then their heart. Supplies of the drug have run essentially dry in the U.S. this year, as the only Food and Drug Administration-approved company to manufacture it in the nation, Illinois-based Hospira Inc., stopped production in January.

In a somewhat paradoxical saga, many states have looked overseas for the solution. They’ve had little luck: Italy makes it, but authorities there demanded assurances that it wouldn’t be used for capital punishment; Britain, Germany and India have banned exports of the drug to the U.S. The 139 countries that see capital punishment as a violation of human rights have, unsurprisingly, not supported our efforts to continue violating those same rights.

So this is a real pickle. How can the U.S. continue to execute people if it doesn’t have access to the only lethal drugs sanctioned by its own laws? Through loopholes, deviousness and ethical quagmire.

In January, the FDA announced that it would permit prison officials to import sodium thiopental from abroad (if they could get it), but it also said it would not vouch for the safety and purity of said thiopental. The FDA essentially said, “Do whatever you want, but we want nothing to do with it.”

Six inmates on death row from Arizona, California and Tennessee caught onto this absurdity in February and filed suit against the FDA in federal court. They say there is no promise that the drugs produced by foreign countries produce the same “painless” death our domestic, regulated versions do. Foreign thiopental might even cause a torturous death constituting “cruel and unusual punishment” banned under the Eighth Amendment.

The Drug Enforcement Administration seemed to follow the inmates’ logic this week and seized Tennessee’s and Kentucky’s supplies of sodium thiopental. According to The Associate Press, Kentucky obtained its supply of the drug, enough to carry out three executions, from CorrectHealth, a private Georgia correctional health company, at a cost of $2,262.83 for 18 grams. But it is unclear how CorrectHealth imported it, or where from. Last month, the DEA seized Georgia’s thiopental supply due to similar concerns.

All of this murkiness has caused some states to simply stop using sodium thiopental — but not capital punishment. Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio have simply substituted sodium thiopental with pentobarbital, a sedative often used to euthanize animals.

But this switch is not like switching from a PC to a Mac. The sole American manufacturer of the pentobarbital, Lundbeck Inc., opposes its use in human executions. And documents made public in a pending Texas lawsuit filed by two death row inmates earlier this year show that Rick Thaler, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, did not consult a single doctor or medical professional before he made the decision to switch drugs. Instead, he merely read an article online from Dr. Mark Dershwitz, one of the anesthesiologists Oklahoma hired to defend its use of pentobarbital in a court challenge.

Indeed, a report released last weekend by the ACLU, the ACLU of Texas and the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Law School concluded, “It is not exaggeration to say that Texas regulates the euthanasia of reptiles more strictly than the execution of human beings.”

This is the gross and corrupt nature of our capital punishment system — fraught with inequities, backdoor deals and opacity. States are denying prisoners their constitutional rights by switching drugs without any medical consultation (and against the express wishes of the company that produces it). Or they obtain drugs in legally murky ways from oversees so they can keep their executions on schedule.

Maybe Texas — which executes more prisoners than any other state, and has definitely executed at least one innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 — can afford to slow its pace of executions, even if it means giving its citizens more justice than a gecko.

Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

Comments

  • ignatz

    This is the gross and corrupt nature of our intelligentsia: Focused on protecting the convicted murderers, squeamish about inflicting any punishment that actually hurts, and tolerant of the very worst who walk among us.

  • River Tam

    Good. Let’s go back to firing squads.

    Also, Ms. Olivarius’s willful prevarication, that Cameron Todd Willingham was “definitely” innocent is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

  • graduate_student

    ^^^

    Idiots.

  • 18atyale

    Thank you to ignatz and River Tam. You have captured my sentiments exactly. I’m pretty sure those on death row are there for a reason. It’s time to get a taste of their own medicine. In fact, I hope it does leave a cruel and unusual aftertaste.

  • br2010

    I can’t believe there are still people who claim to be intelligent AND believe in capital punishment.

  • Goldie08

    Ted Bundy raped and slaughtered at least 35 young women – one was 12. Most were 17-19. Some estimate his total victim count at over 100. All young women, all raped. Some beheaded.

    I’m 99.9% opposed to the death penalty, but I wrack my brains to come up with a reason Ted Bundy should have been kept alive (he was put to death).

  • yale_eleven

    why are we even using anesthesia in the first place?

  • krebs

    “I’m pretty sure those on death row are there for a reason.”

    That’s the problem with the death penalty. You can at best be “pretty sure.” With Willingham, for instance, there is lots of reason to believe he was innocent. And though most on death row are indeed guilty, if you do research you will also expose yourself to cases involving plenty of reasonable doubt.

  • Standards

    This is funny, because I thought the penal system was meant to for reparation, deterrence, and rehabilitation.

    For crimes that can’t be repaired, and for criminals who can’t be rehabilitated, some extreme measures may be taken. Whether or not they should die is another debate, but should they die, why make it painful?

    I’m curious why uncivilized sadists like yale_eleven, River and ignatz take the suffering of another human being to somehow count as a repayment for some kind of wrong doing? Why should you, or anyone else, somehow be better off because another human being suffers? It’s ultimately cruel, inhuman, and brutal.

    We treat criminals humanely because humans should be treated humanely. I don’t even want to think of the cognitive dissonance necessary to think you can hold that what a criminal did was wrong, while advocating the same or worse be done to him.

    And if the death penalty, or suffering, should be to deter sever crimes (it is clear it doesn’t), that doesn’t change the fact that the *wrong* reason, the one’s you are advocating, is that you feel as if it is somehow just punishment, and they *deserve* to suffer, and that doling out suffering should somehow be the business of the state.

    It’s reprehensible in every way.

  • River Tam

    There are two objections to capital punishment in America:

    1. That we are putting innocent men to death.
    2. That there is something morally offensive about taking a life as punishment.

    The former is not really an objection to capital punishment in and of itself. I agree that we should not sentence innocent men to death. The system grants endless appeals to those who truly can introduce new evidence into the case.

    The latter is an interesting sidebar to reality. If capital punishment is state-sponsored murder, does that make imprisonment state-sponsored kidnapping?

  • River Tam

    graduatestudent, br2010:

    Good points.

  • Standards

    It’s pretty undeniable that innocent men have been executed, and posthumously been exonerated. Killing innocent people is pretty unavoidable, though I suppose so too is jailing innocent people.

    But River, the difference between jailing and killing is pretty substantial.

    Why are we putting away criminals to begin with? To rehabilitate them and protect citizens (and maybe deter future violence). Incarceration does this just fine. Why should we kill them?

    The problem isn’t with the “state sponsored” part. It’s the murder part.

  • graduate_student

    @River Tam:

    If you don’t want to be called an idiot, perhaps you should offer something more than sound and fury. Or was there a point to your rambling?

    >The former is not really an objection to capital punishment in and of itself.

    Since it is always possible to put an innocent person to death, it is indeed a categorical rejection of capital punishment; then again, such a position requires both a logical consistency and a commitment to intellectual honesty that is perhaps beyond your grasp (cf. “The fact that Cameron Todd Willingham was possibly guilty means that it was OK that he was executed, herp-derp!”).

    >The latter is an interesting sidebar to reality.

    That’s an interesting mixed metaphor.

    >If capital punishment is state-sponsored murder, does that make imprisonment state-sponsored kidnapping?

    That’s an interesting false analogy. Possibility of resurrection after wrongful execution: zero. (The Lord Jesus Christ excepted, of course.) Possibility of freedom after wrongful imprisonment: not zero. A wrong that can be reversed is better than a wrong that cannot be reversed.

    >Good. Let’s go back to firing squads.

    For a self-proclaimed conservative, you seem to lack any sense of Hamiltonian restraint: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” (Federalist No. 51). I must therefore consider your conservatism in more modern terms, i.e. timorous cruelty disguised as strength; the more you cry for blood and retribution, the more you reveal yourself to be a weakling, both intellectually and constitutionally (in every sense of the word).

    @ignant:

    >This is the gross and corrupt nature of our intelligentsia: Focused on protecting the convicted murderers, squeamish about inflicting any punishment that actually hurts, and tolerant of the very worst who walk among us.

    Utter stupidity befitting a loud-mouthed ignoramus. (I wonder, if you go to Yale, how you have discovered the unique ability to excise yourself from the “intelligentsia.”) Does the reach of this intelligentsia extend to such places as Rwanda and Nicaragua, where the death penalty has been abolished? How could we hope to emulate the moral fortitude and the strength of principle of places such as Belarus and Saudi Arabia, where it is still applied with vigor? Perhaps you could enlighten us as to where you have discovered this great and admirable courage to inflict suffering upon others? Dimwit.

  • jnewsham

    @graduate_student: That is a wonderful comment.

    @River Tam: I already know you don’t respect me at all, or many people at the YDN for that matter, but I respected you. Some of your posts, as vitriolic and barbed as they were, made me think, even if I didn’t necessarily respond to them. I’m somewhat vexed, though particularly after your first comment, in which you seemed to hold that a lack of evidence indicating Willingham’s innocence justified his homicide. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann

  • Branford73

    The best argument against the death penalty is the conviction error rate in my view. Some proponents complain about the cost of life without parole sentences, but I understand that the state costs of life imprisonment is less than the costs of capital punishment appeals. Janet Reno once said the only justification for the death penalty is vengeance.

    Still, I am not persuaded to oppose the death penalty categorically. My exhibit 1: Timothy McVeigh. Some murders are so heinous and the guilt so sure they merit death to the perpetrator. As the evidence against McVeigh was demonstrated I remember thinking the best punishment for him would have been to allow the families of the children he killed to have baseball bats and be locked in a room with McVeigh. Yeah, it was a vain fantasy that allowing bereaved family members their vengeance would ease their pain. A quick and painless execution was a reasonable alternative.

  • eli1

    Just bring back the chair…I’m pretty sure America still has electricity.

  • Jupiter

    Capital punishment is forbidden in cultures where it is believed that no matter how odious the conduct, no person entirely loses his or her humanity; Thus, capital punishment is murder and sinful. It is essentially a religious belief. It’s not really capable of the sort of analysis and rational *debate reflected in these posts.

  • The Anti-Yale

    We have more interest in the life of a Purdue chicken than we do of a prisoner possibly incorrectly convicted of murder.
    Weird.

  • graduate_student

    @Branford73:

    >Bud Welch found that he had a lot in common with the father of the man executed for killing 168 people — including Welch’s daughter Julie — in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “We both buried our children, in different ways and at different times, but from the same event,” he said during a program here Tuesday night.

    http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Oklahoma-City-victim-s-dad-speaks-against-death-1324422.php

    The idea that capital punishment brings relief to a victim’s loved ones is tenuous at best.

  • Branford73

    Bud Welch appears to be an exceptional person and currently president of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, a prominent anti-death penalty organization. I’m not unalterably in favor of the death penalty. Any broad based studies available on views of family members of murder victims?

  • graduate_student

    >Any broad based studies available on views of family members of murder victims?

    It’s possible, but it’s not really the point. The law should not be applied — certainly nothing so serious as death — in order to make people related in some way to the actual victim feel better. “Closure” is one of the most absurd arguments. If it were about closure, about the vindication felt in making suffer those who have caused suffering, then the law would not be so vigorously opposed to any kind of direct retribution, i.e. revenge murder, revenge rape, etc., even in the case of clear guilt. As “ignant” said above:

    >[Liberals, degenerates, perverts, libre-penseurs and free-masons are f]ocused on protecting the convicted murderers, squeamish about inflicting any punishment that actually hurts, and tolerant of the very worst who walk among us.

    Apparently the advocates of capital punishment are no better, because they would rather that (possibly innocent) men be euthanized behind closed doors than carry out the sentence themselves. To be perfectly honest, much like Welch, I can’t imagine how being responsible for a death, no matter how “just,” and certainly not one so violent as the ones gleefully fantasized about by River Tam and others, could make me feel any sense of closure. There is never any closure for a murder victim, just as there is never any closure for a victim of rape; anybody who says otherwise is a liar. Death, especially when it is willfully inflicted, is a terrible thing, and those who speak lightly of it are most often cowards. Keyboard-warriors like River Tam and ignant are exemplary in that regard.

  • Branford73

    > Any broad based studies available
    > on views of family members of murder
    > victims?
    >
    > It’s possible, but it’s not really the
    > point. The law should not be applied
    > — certainly nothing so serious as death — in order to make people
    > related in some way to the actual
    > victim feel better.

    Our criminal system in recent decades has allowed victim statements and testimony in the sentencing phase, so some consideration of the feelings of crime victims is recognized. This partly resulted from the remedies available in civil litigation being so inadequate to compensate for the survivors’ losses, especially when the perpetrator has no assets so that even the poor comfort of easing financial woes is not available. We find Welch’s views authoritative and powerful *because* of his feelings both about the death of his child and in reaction to McVeigh’s execution.

    I understand that deterrence doesn’t support the death penalty and neither does the cost of imprisonment arguments. I remain unconvinced by the “state has no right to kill” arguments, and for killers who are without any doubt guilty of inhumane murders and who have no remorse, like Bundy and McVeigh, I see little humanity in them worth preserving. I feel a smidge better when they are executed and I project that into multiple levels of emotional salve for surviving family members. If you told me a valid study showed that 75% of surviving family members were not comforted in any way by society’s exacting the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime, I might be convinced the death penalty serves no valid purpose.

  • krebs

    You say you are for the death penalty “for killers who are without any doubt guilty of inhumane murders and who have no remorse”

    I sympathize with this idea, yet the problem is that a guilty verdict does not admit such degrees. Despite the standard of “reasonable doubt,” plenty have been convicted when the evidence is not at all decisive. They sit on death row right alongside other cases that seem perfectly clear. Such innocent men are in an even worse position because, not being guilty, they naturally show no remorse. Then there are other cases in which individuals plead guilty to avoid the death penalty and in any future appeals this supposed admission of guilt is used against them. “Why,” prosecutors ask, “would anyone ever plead guilty to a crime they did not commit?” It sounds reasonable, but of course the reason they did so was precisely because they are told they will lose their case and get the chair and so must plead guilty to avoid the death penalty—to say nothing of those who falsely confess due to coercion.

    The justice system will never say, “We’re sentencing him to life in prison, but we’re not completely sure, so we won’t give him the death penalty.” And so it will always be applied to both those ironclad cases you mention and less certain ones. That’s why the penalty needs to be removed entirely.

  • Branford73

    > The justice system will never say,
    > “We’re sentencing him to life in
    > prison, but we’re not completely sure,
    > so we won’t give him the death
    > penalty.” And so it will always be
    > applied to both those ironclad cases
    > you mention and less certain ones.

    Why not? There’s no prohibition on placing a higher standard of proof to impose the death penalty. Sure, there’s wiggle room in “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but there’s no particular reason I’m aware of (OK, I’m over 30 years past my criminal law school classes) that a state could not require a jury to find guilt “beyond all doubt” before it can recommend death, subject to trial judge review, appellate court review, relaxed rules for post-trial after-discovered evidence, and executive clemency.

  • krebs

    Maybe your recommendation would make the justice system more just. I find it hard to believe that jurors would ever say, “Put him away for life, though we still have some doubts.” The large number of cases of wrongful convictions in the face of what many would consider “reasonable doubt” testifies to people’s willingness to declare certainty that hasn’t been earned. On the other hand, perhaps offering such a higher threshold would cause people to reconsider their certainty about the lower one.

  • YA2011LE

    LIBERALISM!!!!!!!!!!

  • graduate_student

    @Branford73: I have to agree with krebs. The fact that some cases are easily beyond all doubt does not mean that all cases are beyond all doubt; history abounds with human error even in the face of absolute certainty. The fact of human fallibility requires that we allow for the possibility of the reversal of sentences; execution provides for no such possibility. When the innocent are put to death, they receive no justice, and become footnotes in the history of capital punishment.

  • Jupiter

    I am a trial lawyer who has handled many serious criminal matters. Posts advocating the death penalty demonstrate little idea of the reality of these cases and how porous an understaffed and underfunded legal system can be, Or how incredibly presumptuous it is to stand on the sideline cheering for the death of another human being. And, since I undertook a liberal education before going to law school, I stand on the side of Goethe and St, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle that there is a human soul with a spark implanted by God or something God-like. Victims and their families don’t have the right to dictate death. They have the right to have the matter closed by a conviction so they can grieve their loss with a clear mind and clearer heart. The reason most states do not impose the death sentence is that it is too awful and too wretched a resolution of an already-appalling situation. And yes, sometimes the innocent are sentenced to death. That comes with the territory.

  • ignatz

    Actually, the reason most states do not impose the death penalty is what I posted last week: : “Focused on protecting the convicted murderers, squeamish about inflicting any punishment that actually hurts, and tolerant of the very worst who walk among us.” It’s just another symptom of the liberals’ unwillingness to acknowledge and confront evil. They simply can’t abide state-supported killing of any kind — unless, of course, it’s killing the very young (abortion) or killing the very old (assisted suicide), in which case it becomes a highly moral choice, deserving of government support.

  • RexMottram08

    Evil exists. People commit evil acts. Evil acts deserve punishment. The most heinously evil acts deserve the severe punishment of death.

    Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Guevara- deserve to die.

    Dahmer, Gacy, Bundy- deserve to die.

  • krebs

    Being “tolerant of the worst who walk among us” is not so bad. Sounds like Jesus. Being humble enough to know you can’t always be certain who the “worst” are is a pretty good trait. Mottram has to reach for extreme cases, but the death penalty is applied to many more than a handful of monsters. It’s easy to defend the theoretical execution of Hitler, much less so the actual execution of Cameron Todd Willingham or Damien Echols.