Utah has decided to bring back the firing squad. This decision was motivated by a shortage of lethal injection drugs, whose European manufacturers refuse to sell them to U.S. prison officials for the executions.
It’s no surprise that European drug companies aren’t on board with the whole execution thing: the only country in Europe still executing people is Belarus (2 people were executed in Europe last year). In contrast, the only countries that use the death penalty more than the U.S. are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and China. Woof.
The death penalty is on the decline nationwide; 2014 had the smallest number of execution in 20 years with 39 people executed, and fewer death sentences were handed down as well. Changing public sentiment may be guiding the shift. One widely shared concern relates to the alarming rate of false convictions: 150 people on death row have been exonerated nationwide, and the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 1 in 25 death row inmates are likely innocent.
But some experts believe that the decline is largely due to unavailability of lethal injection drugs, which became a significant issue for prison officials in 2011 when the European Commission blocked exports of all known lethal injection drugs with the explicit purpose of “abolishing the death penalty worldwide.”
So what to think about Utah’s archaic “solution” to the shortage? Sister Helen Prejean, human rights leader and anti-death penalty activist, thinks it’s a good thing. “I think the firing squad is more honest in a way and transparent, that you’re actually killing a person,” she opined. “You’re going to see the blood dripping from the chair. I think, in a way, it’s more transparent. I think it’s going to help end it quicker.”
I agree that lethal injection seems to put an incongruously “humane” face on killing a person. But I worry that we’ve simply gone too far down the road of dehumanization to be much moved by watching someone get shot to death and bleed onto the floor.
Corrections officers, prison administrators, and even prison medical personnel have witnessed (and caused) incredible pain and suffering, both physical and mental, to people in their custody and dismissed it as faked, provoked, or deserved. A couple of weeks ago Missouri executed a 74-year-old man with severe brain damage for goodness’ sake. And, like every other problem associated with the criminal justice system, this is some racist shit: death sentences are more likely to be given to Black offenders, and they’re most likely when the victim was white.
Like Sister Prejean, I hope that this alarming move on Utah’s part will serve as a well-needed wake up call, but until we recognize the people we’re killing as people, I’m skeptical that society will be “up in arms” about it.
I’m not sure how much better lethal injection is in the final analysis. Certainly, the method by which the person is executed is humane relative to how it used to be done. Nobody could argue that it’s far more savage to decapitate somebody with a machete or stone them to death (a form of torture, according to the UN) than it is to administer a cocktail of lethal chemicals intravenously (which normally causes very little pain), but still it comes across as degrading and inhumane in it’s own special way to me.
The prisoner is lead from his cell on death row, accompanied by a priest who recites prayers. He is escorted into a sterile “death chamber” and strapped to a gurney facing a viewing window blocked off by curtains. The curtains open up and facing an audience composed of his family, friends and his victim’s family members, he is given a chance to say his last words before he is executed. To me, there’s an element of spectacle/pageantry associated with the whole process that makes it come across as barbaric. It’s like you said, these are people we are putting to death.
I would agree with Prejean in some sense, in that, from a pragmatic perspective, this is a “good” thing (even if it’s not a moral thing.) to the extent that it advances the cause of the ultimate abolition of the death penalty. It’s hard to deny that most people have a strong aversion (a “gag reflex”) to blood and gore and violence, after all. I would certainly agree that we’ve become desensitized as a society, but not so much so that must of us can’t appreciate the perversity of strapping somebody to a chair and executing them by using them as live “target practice”.
Under those circumstances, we can’t hide behind a quasi-“humane” veneer to make ourselves feel justified about what we’re doing, and the death penalty is exposed for what it is: a product of the animalistic desire for retribution, with all of the attending ugliness of retribution.