Thursday, August 21, 2014

Punishment ("Gruesome Spectacles" by Austin Sarat)

On April 29 of this year, Clayton Lockett was led into the execution chamber of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary to be executed. The breadth and brutality of his crimes were undeniable--kidnapping, rape, forcible sodomy, assault and battery, and murder, all committed against a 19-year-old woman named Stephanie Neiman--and his execution on that night, which was done through lethal injection, marked the end to almost 14 years of Lockett sitting on death row. After he was strapped to the gurney, the penitentiary staff attempted to find viable veins in both of Lockett's arms but could not; instead, they inserted a single IVs into his groin, which they then covered from view. Lockett was then injected with a cocktail of drugs that had never been used in an execution before; in fact, the names of the drugs being used, as well as the amounts of each, had been kept secret from the public, including Lockett's own lawyer. Ten minutes after the execution began, Lockett was declared unconscious. Soon after that, Lockett began to speak, move, and breathe heavily. Unbeknownst to the penitentiary staff, the IV needle had never entered Lockett's vein, and the unidentified drugs were seeping into his tissue instead of directly entering his bloodstream. This continued for another half-hour, until Lockett suffered the heart attack that finally killed him.

The following day, Stanford University released Gruesome Spectacles, a short but concise history of botched executions in America between 1890 and 2010. This coincidence lends itself easily to commentary, and it's tempting to remark on how prescient it would have been had Austin Sarat's book been published even a few weeks earlier. But the truly noteworthy aspect of this coincidence is that there is no coincidence:  the death penalty in America is such a flawed and dangerous practice, and executions are botched with such staggering consistency, that any book on the subject would have inevitably arrived within weeks or even days of such an example. In fact, Sarat concludes Gruesome Spectacles with a thirty-page chronological index of all "botched" executions in those 115 years--a number totaling more than 250 men and women who suffered burned flesh, misplaced IVs, strangulation, dislodged syringes, repeated jolts of electricity, drunken executioners, incompetent medical staff, and even decapitation. These failings persisted regardless of method--hanging, electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection--and in compiling examples of such horrifying outcomes into a comprehensive and readable book, Sarat hopes to expose the reality of the death penalty and how we use it.

Some may read Sarat's book, not to mention the extensive index and any mention of "suffering" on the part of these men and women, as misdirected liberal pity or the recasting of perpetrators--the murderers, the kidnappers, the rapists--as victims. In fact, in the aftermath of Lockett's botched execution, voices rose in support of the Oklahoma penitentiary and capital punishment in general, announcing that Lockett's suffering in no way matched that of his victim--one of the few undeniable truths of the situation--and that those lamenting what had happened were turning a murderer into a martyr. In their own way, these voices were arguing that those who commit the most heinous acts should not be given any comfort, some even going so far as to say Lockett and those like him deserve the pain they receive. These sentiments are easy to understand, especially when expressed by victims' families and friends, as well as those who've suffered under similar crimes, but substituting emotional impulses for ethical clarity undermines the very foundation of the American judicial system, not to mention our own collective morality.

When we execute a criminal, regardless of the severity of their crimes, we are submitting to the very same ideologies that drive those criminals--namely, that committing violence against someone is justifiable. It is preposterous to think that killing someone will demonstrate to the rest of American society that killing is wrong--a sort of strange American doublethink that, as statistics demonstrate, does not actually reduce criminal behavior. If we followed this logic, courts would also order the homes of those convicted of arson to be burned, those convicted of raped to themselves be raped, and so on. But we do not follow this logic, and the reason is because it's not logical. By using the death penalty as a punishment, we are acknowledging our own inability to address the causes of crime, and instead we remove the effects by ending lives.*

At the same time, we believe that no one should endure "cruel and unusual punishment," even though the Supreme Court has steadfastly refused to define the criteria with which we might assess whether a form of capital punishment is either cruel or unusual. To most people, the idea of strapping someone to an electrified wooden chair, placing a damp sponge on top of their head, and pulling a switch, all in full view of an assembled audience, would seem both cruel and unusual, as would injecting unspecified poisons into a man's groin or gassing them in a room designed and built specifically for that purpose. Similarly, our entire judicial system operates on the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, often by a judge or jury, and yet the flaws in that system have been exposed to us over and over again. Since 1973, more than one hundred death-row inmates have been released from prison following the introduction of new evidence, recanted witness testimony, or DNA testing--innocent people who might have been executed for crimes they did not commit, and by a system of punishment prone to torturous failings.

When we advocate for capital punishment, we do so without ever acknowledging the flaws inherent in America's courts and prisons, both of which succeed only when those entrusted to run them are infallible and without prejudice--an impossible expectation for any system. And when we accept the execution of a man or woman, regardless of their guilt, we debase our own morality until we are level with those who commit the very crimes we claim to abhor. We declare that capital punishment is the natural end for those who commit the worst of crimes--that it is the final, ultimate step toward justice fulfilled--and yet we refuse to ensure that the men and women being executed are actually guilty, that we're not personifying the worst aspects of human nature in a foolish and futile attempt to change human nature, that we're not confusing justice with revenge.

In addition to the 30-page index, Sarat also includes a one-page statistical summary of which methods led to the most botched executions between 1890 and 2010. And while the overall picture is somewhat surprising--for instance, there is no relation between an increase in the use of a particular method and the number of those executions that are botched--the most startling realization is that, according to the data, there is one form of capital punishment that had a flawless record during those 115 years, one that Sarat never discusses in the short entirety of his book:  the firing squad. Of the 68 people who were executed in this manner, every single one was killed outright and without apparent error. Which makes you wonder why proponents of the death penalty refuse to support and utilize a method that is, in a perverse way, so efficient and so practical. (After all, the cost of a half-dozen bullets compared to surging electricity, gas, or drugs more than undermines the statistical arguments about the cost of capital punishment compared to lifetime incarcerations.)

The truth of why is also the truth of capital punishment:  besides being the most effective method, at least according to the statistics, firing squads expose the hypocritical nature of capital punishment by coming closer than all other methods to staging what looks and feels like actual murder. With electric chairs, a switch is flipped, and the man or woman being executed dies far from others; with a hanging, they fall through a trap door and have their necks broken by a rope while those who tightened the noose and pulled the lever are out of frame. Similarly, with lethal injections and gas chambers, the penitentiary staff are given distance, allowed to stand back and hand over responsibility to buttons, tubes, and needles. All four of these methods are unnatural, requiring special tools and locations constructed especially for these events--a gallows, an electrified chair, chambers, and so on. But a firing squad is direct, naked, and universal:  a small group of men load guns, aim them, and fire. There are no switches or catheters, and the execution takes place in the open, without gurneys or specialized rooms. And when you consider that many of those who were executed by firing squad were condemned to death because of crimes committed in much the same manner--with guns, close up, against strangers--it blurs the line between crime and justice to the point where you're left with only one conclusion about the nature of capital punishment, the truth of what the death penalty really is.

*Throughout Sarat's book, we are offered condensed biographies of men and women who have been executed by various methods over the last 125 years, and in reading them a common thread soon emerges:  troublesome personal experiences. This includes abusive relationships, persistent drug use, or unaddressed psychological problems. If elected officials were looking for ways in which criminal activity could be decreased, addressing these pressing social issues--poverty, the lack of a good education, drug abuse, readily available mental health screenings--would be a much more effective route than using capital punishment as a supposed deterrent, which is reactive rather than proactive and much more appealing to a scared constituency.