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Bring Back The Firing Squad

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

By Max B.

This summer, after a long appeals process, the federal government executed a prisoner for the first time in 17 years, representing a reversal of the Bush and Obama Administrations’ policy of not carrying out federal executions despite the continued existence of the federal death penalty. Capital punishment is similarly in limbo in 17 states, where it is still on the books but moratoria (some legal, others de facto) on executions are in place, leading to massive backlogs of prisoners on death rows with more criminals being sentenced to death but none being executed. In California, where the last prisoner was executed in 2006, the number of death row inmates increased by 28% between 2000 and 2018. Even states that do not have policies against executing death-row prisoners do so infrequently. On Texas’ death row, the country’s most active, it takes an average of almost 11 years to execute a death row inmate. One of the primary causes of these rampant backlogs and delays is the ongoing litigation regarding lethal injection, the means of execution in every state where capital punishment is still legal. Many death row prisoners’ lawyers prolong their clients’ appeals process by years, arguing that lethal injection is “cruel and unusual,” and thus unconstitutional. 

They aren’t wrong: lethal injection often causes unnecessary and prolonged pain for the inmate during their execution. Between 1890 and 2010, over 7% of executions carried out by lethal injection were “botched,” meaning that a failure in the process led to unacceptable suffering on the inmate’s part. It is not difficult to understand why lethal injections, which became prevalent in the late 20th century, so often go wrong. If just one of the three steps in the process goes awry, the inmate could die slowly and treacherously. The first drug administered in a lethal injection is an anesthetic rendering the inmate unconscious. Then, they are given a paralytic, and after that, a dose of potassium chloride to stop their heart. If the anesthetic doesn’t work properly, the paralytic suffocates the inmate, rendering them unable to breath move or speak, and the third drug feels like fire being poured through their veins. This Dantean ordeal is exactly what happened to Clayton Lockett, an Oklahoma death row inmate, on the night of April 29th, 2014. 

In 2010, the production of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic most commonly used in executions, ended, and many departments of corrections began using pentobarbital as a replacement. Months later, however, the manufacturer of pentobarbital banned its use in executions. Unable to access their first or even second choice of anesthetic, prisons resorted to a weaker sedative known as midazolam. Midazolam puts patients to sleep, but does not usually prevent them from feeling pain. When used as an anesthetic (as opposed to merely a sedative), midazolam is typically combined with another drug to fully prevent the patient from feeling pain. However, some medical experts argued that if midazolam were to be used in a high enough dosage, an additional anesthetic would not be necessary. Clayton Lockett was among those prisoners executed with midazolam as the sole anesthetic; when Lockett’s executioners improperly inserted an IV line into his groin, most of the midazolam he received entered his tissue rather than his bloodstream, leading him to effectively receive an insufficient dose. Lockett continued to feel pain even after he became unconscious and paralyzed, a period that lasted for 42 minutes until his death.

Clayton Lockett’s cruel and unusual death is not an anomaly. To reiterate, more than 7% of executions conducted by lethal injection are botched, making it much more prone to unacceptable failures than any other method of execution. For what it’s worth: lethal injection isn’t even convenient. The scarcity of sodium thiopental has led state departments of corrections to go to great lengths to acquire the drug from dubious sources at great cost, and sometimes under false pretenses. Before executing Clayton Lockett with midazolam, Oklahoma tried to acquire pentobarbital for $50,000 through a secretive process that allowed them to shield their search from the public view. Nebraska, in one case, lied to an Indian pharmaceutical company, telling its CEO that the sodium thiopental it was purchasing for an execution would be used for surgeries in Zambia, an utterly ridiculous assertion. The high cost of lethal injection goes far beyond the drugs themselves. In many cases, states must go to great lengths fending off appeals alleging that lethal injection is “cruel and unusual.” The ensuing litigation incurs hefty legal costs and necessitates long delays, compelling the states to keep more death row inmates in prison, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year for each inmate. In Maryland, for example, taxpayers pay $37 million for each execution the state carries out by lethal injection. Lethal injections involve hassle on the part of prison officials to procure the drugs, endless appeals processes, and most importantly, immense suffering when things go wrong, as they do far too often. So why, then, do we keep executing prisoners by lethal injection?

The allure of lethal injection to corrections departments fundamentally lies in its dishonesty. The medical appearance of the process — the surgical precision and the lack of any equipment that appears overtly fatal — serves to obscure the gravity of the government’s killing its own citizens. Somehow, we are supposed to feel that lethal injection is humane simply because it appears more like euthenasia than murder. The sanitization of the execution process makes us feel better about ourselves, but it does nothing to ease the prisoner’s pain. However, there is an alternative that is less painful, cheaper, and more honest with regards to the inescapable brutality of capital punishment.

Since 1890, there has not been a single botched execution by firing squad in the United States. Because the firing squad is not nearly as convoluted as lethal injection, there are simply fewer opportunities for things to go wrong. With a firing squad, the means of execution are easy to procure and the inmate’s death is instant and painless. Additionally, the gravitas of the execution is in no way concealed. If we are to execute criminals in the United States, isn’t this the least cruel way to do so? 

While I am not convinced of the death penalty’s morality or efficacy as a deterrent to crime, the issue of how we execute prisoners is entirely divorced from that of whether we should do so at all. In no corner of American politics is there the belief that we ought to torture people to death; however, on far too many occasions, we have done just that in an attempt to soften the appearance of capital punishment. Through its sanitization of something so gruesome, lethal injection helps us conveniently forget that we are killing people.

If, as a society, we are comfortable with the death penalty, warts and all, then we should at least carry it out in an honest manner, rather than sanitizing the act through the convolution of lethal injection. Let us do away with the lies, and bring in the guns and marksmen. If the public does not have the stomach to see inmates shot in broad daylight, then we ought to question why we’re in the business of killing them at all. However, if we can manage to stomach firing squads, they will at least be more humane to the inmates, cheaper for the state, and will bring the requisite dignity and gravitas to the institution of capital punishment. 

Photo Credit: Bloomberg


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