Trigger Warning: This article graphically describes several botched executions and execution methods.
Controversial political topics have been constantly weaving their way in and out of the news. From the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision to legalizing marijuana, there is always a topic at hand that can be debated. Recently in the news, bills relating to the death penalty have been appearing in the headlines, with two major bills now approving firing squads in Utah and nitrogen hypoxia in Oklahoma for capital punishment.
Currently, 32 states, including those prosecuted by the U.S. government and military, carry the option of capital punishment. (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015) Each state has different rules and policies about the crimes that can carry the death sentence; for example in Missouri any sort of first degree murder is punishable by death, while in Virginia it’s only punishable in one of 15 different aggravating instances. Thus the laws about the death penalty are customized to each state’s preference, are very specific and are often debated or changed, with recent changes most interested in ensuring execution methods that are viable while remaining humane.
In 2014, four cases of capital punishment were cited to have malfunctions or issues during the procedure. These cases all used the most common method of execution in the U.S.: letal injection. However, many companies that once supplied the pharmaceuticals are now changing their mind, choosing to dissociate themselves with the death penalty. This has made the drug cocktail needed for lethal injection harder to obtain, and some states choosing to experiment with the drugs needed. (CSG, Lethal Injection Drug Shortage, March 2015) On March 4, Akorn Pharmaceuticals, a major manufacturer for two of the major drugs used in lethal injection, decided to block all sales to prisons, making access to these drugs as a method of execution even more difficult. This lack of supply has been cited as the cause for many botched executions.
Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer was a witness Joseph Wood’s execution, who was convicted for a double murder in Arizona. The state had implemented a new drug formula on Wood that took 15 doses and two hours for Wood to pass. Kiefer noted Wood’s seizure-like state during the process, citing at least 640 intense convolutions, and recalled thinking that Wood was not actually going to die as he stared at the horrified faces of law enforcement officials in the room. (NPR, “Botched Lethal Injection Executions Reignite Death Penalty Debate,” 1.6.2015)
Now, with the lack of necessary drugs and concern over botched executions, officials in Utah and Oklahoma have turned to other options for capital punishment. Utah has passed a law that allows for firing squads to be used if lethal injection drugs are not available at the time of execution, providing the state a fallback method. Officials such as Rep. Paul Ray (R-Utah) have claimed that the firing squad may also be a more humane form of execution because it ensures a more immediat death and therefore less suffering, in contrast to the botched execution Kiefer reported. (CBS News, “Utah governor OKs alternate form of capital punishment,” 3.25.15)
Utah Governor Gary Herbert has also made a public statement regarding his decision to sign the bill: “We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued. However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch.” Utah is now the second state to once again allow death by firing squad, the other being Oklahoma. (Mic, “Utah Has Officially Signed into Law the Most Inhumane Capital Punishment Ever,” 3.24.15)
Oklahoma has also passed a bill to permit nitrogen hypoxia as a secondary method for capital punishment if there is lack of drugs available for lethal injection. Michael Copeland, who previously served as the Assistant Attorney General of Palau and a criminal justice professor at East Central University, proposed this methodology claiming it as more humane. To cause hypoxia, or death by lack of oxygen, the offender would breathe pure nitrogen gas. (The Atlantic, Can Executions Be More Humane?, 3.20.15) Copeland claims that death by nitrogen hypoxia would be painless and has explained the process, stating, “[when] the switch to pure nitrogen occurs, he would simply lose consciousness about fifteen seconds after the switch was made. Approximately thirty seconds later, he would stop producing brain waves, and the heart would stop beating about two to three minutes after that.”
Still, Oklahoma has a reputation for botched executions, including the execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014 and more recent execution pf Charles Frederick Warner, who declared, “my body is on fire” during his execution, although no physical distress was observed. (CBS News, Oklahoma puts 1st inmate to death since botched execution, 1.25.15) The state’s lethal injection protocol is actually under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, and three scheduled executions in the state have been postponed. This investigation may be the reason that the state is looking for alternatives like firing squads and even the electric chair.
These new execution methods have sparked much debate over the death penalty and what is right and wrong about carrying it out. Many argue that no matter what method is used, employing capital punishment is wrong, unjust and immoral. Famed anti-death penalty advocate and nun Helen Prejean has made statements reminding that capital punishment is another term for murder, informing the public, “it is listed as ‘homicide’ on the deceased’s [prisoner’s] death certificate.” (The Salt Lake Tribune, “‘Dead Man Walking’ nun: Utah’s firing squad reveals brutality of capital punishment”, 3.24.15) Randy Garner, whose brother was executed by firing squad, has also spoken out against capital punishment: “When you take somebody and you tie them to a chair, put a hood over their head, and you shoot them from 25 feet with four rifles pointed at their heart, that’s pretty barbaric.”
But at the same time, many cannot forget that those sentenced to capital punishment are sentenced for a particular reason—they have committed a heinous crime that has most likely caused intense suffering. Joseph Wood received his punishment for killing his ex-girlfriend, Debbie Dietz, as well as her father. Wood was abusive to Dietz in their five-year relationship and had been documented in several domestic violence incidents. After Dietz attempted to get a protection order against Wood, he fatally shot her father to death in front of her before screaming profanities and fatally shooting her too. Dietz’s sister, who attended Wood’s execution, made a statement and claimed that she did not think Wood suffered through his execution. She stated, “You don’t know what excruciating is. Excruciating is seeing your dad lying in a pool of blood.” (Mirror, “The shocking murders that put botched execution inmate Joseph Wood on death row,” 7.24.14) Clearly, pain and sorrow are still felt by the victims’ family when Wood was finally executed 29 years after the murders. For many victims and family members, capital punishment is a form of closure, and for some, it also yields a sense of justice.
Kent Scheidegger, a top lawyer at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, has spent nearly 30 years dedicating his professional life to defending the death penalty. He identifies himself as a supporter of victims and believes that the death penalty may help deter crime. Scheidegger has served in the Air Force, earning his law degree while on active duty, and claims his support for capital punishment and military service come from the same core beliefs. (National Journal, “Mr. Death Penalty,” 9.6.2014) He has stated, “The death penalty serves three functions. First, for some crimes any lesser punishment is inadequate as a matter of basic justice…Second, an executed death sentence absolutely guarantees the killer will never kill again. A life sentence does not. There are many cases of people killed by murderers who were paroled, escaped, killed within prison or who arranged murders from within the prison…Third, I believe that an effective, enforced death penalty deters some murders.” Opponents of capital punishment have attacked Scheidegger for his opinions, particularly his view that the death penalty does not have to be painless has gained much attention. Nonetheless Schiedegger stands strong with his beliefs and will continue to be an ally for victims.
No matter what one’s stance is on the death penalty, it appears the controversy regarding this topic will not dissipate any time soon. In general, our legal system leaves a lot of questions regarding what is right and what is wrong. Is it proper to sentence someone to death? It is acceptable to sentence someone to life in prison? Should laws be so individualized by state? Like many other issues in politics, the answers to these questions most likely stem from personal beliefs and possibly one’s own association with the legal system. It will be interesting to see how these bills play out and affect other states decisions to alter their own laws.
—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.