A gurney used for executions in California, the Oklahoma viewing room shares many features. courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma shows pattern of cruel executions

After six years of hiatus from public executions, Oklahoma attempted to restart their program to disastrous effects.

On Oct. 28, the State of Oklahoma executed John Marion Grant, condemned to death in 1999 for the murder of a prison cafeteria worker. His death is the state’s first use of capital punishment since 2015 after botching two executions consecutively. The Department of Corrections seemingly learned nothing in this time, botching the recent execution, with Grant vomiting and convulsing for 15 minutes before dying.

The two 2015 executions that led to the death penalty’s suspension were both horrifically botched. Officials called for a stoppage during Clayton Lockett’s execution, the first of the two, as Lockett clung to life, though eventually dying 43 minutes into the procedure. In the second execution, officials gave Charles Warner potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride. Warner said “My body is on fire” during the execution. Richard Glossip, the next man awaiting execution, was mere hours away from the same procedure when the state realized they had obtained the same wrong drug. Mary Fallin, Oklahoma’s governor at the time, assured the people the drugs were “medically interchangeable,” as if government-sanctioned killing was a routine medical procedure.

Grant, like Lockett and Warner, received a three-drug combination for his lethal injection containing midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. The first drug is a sedative used to reduce anxiety and induce sleep, the second a paralytic to prevent movement and potassium chloride stops the heart. Midazolam has repeatedly failed to induce a fully comatose state, including the previous two botched executions in Oklahoma.

America’s previous death drug of choice, Pentobarbital, became unavailable after a Dutch company came under fire for supplying it. This apparently gave no pause to the Federal Government, who rushed to less-regulated compound pharmacies to get their chemicals. Once even these shady pharmacies were prevented from selling the drug, would-be headsmen have created experimental cocktails, using the condemned as lab rats.

The second drug, vecuronium bromide, is ultimately unnecessary for the execution. All it does is paralyze the recipient—doing nothing to prevent pain for the victim or contributing to their death. Rather, it makes the victim immobile, thus appearing to not be in pain for the viewers. We can all feel a little better about ourselves if the man strapped to the gurney slowly dying doesn’t seem to be too distressed. Only when the paralytic fails do we consider the execution as botched, but there’s no reason to believe all of the dozens of motionless executions were without pain.

Of course, most Americans don’t see this gruesome process, nor do they want to. Surely no well-adjusted person could justify the brutality that repeatedly occurs in Oklahoma’s execution chamber, but that doesn’t stop the widespread support the death penalty has in our state. The death penalty offers a false sense of justice in response to horrific crimes; a simple life sentence just doesn’t have the cathartic punch killing does. When genuine analysis and prevention of violent behavior is off the table, execution is the only fulfilling option.

The recent history of capital punishment in Oklahoma illustrates a disturbing trend. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections repeatedly neglects any serious analysis of their procedures or reconciliation with previous failings. Maybe there haven’t been any real failings; the brutality and negligence are part of one’s restitution to society and the spectacle of capital punishment. When the disgusting treatment of death row inmates is so systemic, it is blatantly “cruel and unusual.”

A common rationalization for the death penalty points out the cost of keeping someone in jail, seeing execution as the cheaper option. However, studies consistently show the opposite; the immense amount of bureaucratic and legal processes an execution requires ends up making it more costly than a life sentence. Similarly, some argue that practicing the death penalty can reduce crime by detering potential criminals, but the facts don’t support this argument, with FBI crime reports not showing lesser rates of murder in death penalty states compared to states not practicing it.

Sadly, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has already confirmed it will not change its execution protocols. The world is no safer when someone is put to death instead of kept in prison. Really, underneath economic or safety-focused arguments lies a desire to wreak revenge and exert power. The criminal justice system, ideally an institution for rehabilitation, panders to the desires of the most bloodthirsty among us. Any humane government should hold fast to principles of forgiveness and mercy rather than give in to violent whims. There is never closure or justice in capital punishment; only death and despair.

Post Author: Justin Klopfer