Opinion: Lethal injection was once considered a “less barbaric” form of execution. It is now clear that this is inhumane.

Over forty years ago, in the first week of December 1982, the US executed its first prisoner by lethal injection. On December 7 of that year, six years after the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty, Charles Brooks Jr., convicted of murder, was executed in Huntsville, here in Texas. To date, 1,380 additional people have been executed by lethal injection, accounting for nearly 90 per cent of all executions on death row. Eight more Texans will be executed by injection in 2023.

Just a few days ago, on January 10, Robert Fratta, convicted of hiring two men to kill his ex-wife, was executed in the first execution in Texas in 2023. Drugs used in Texas have long expired, forcing convicts to undergo inhuman and painful executions. Texas courts have consistently dismissed all such prisoner claims, despite that state’s history of botched and painful executions, and have allowed Fratta’s execution to continue.

Since the Age of Reason, peoples have turned to science to quickly and relatively painlessly remove incorrigible criminals from society. Beginning in the eighteenth century, a whole field of technological innovation arose to give the governments of the world more enlightened ways of killing: Dr. Guillotin’s beheading machine was an improvement on random ax blows; The Spanish garrote interrupted prolonged strangulations, breaking the victims’ necks; and hanging tables, developed in England in the nineteenth century, allowed executioners to apply a precise amount of force to the victims’ necks, so that the ropes would immediately sever the spinal cords but leave the heads attached. Each innovation was aimed at modernizing performance.

The US has a similar story. Following persistent and ominous reports of botched hangings in New York State in the late nineteenth century, the New York legislature appointed a committee to study and recommend a more humane form of capital punishment. The committee collected testimonies from executioners, journalists, doctors, and others, and interviewed district attorneys, judges, and sheriffs. After considering all the proposals, the committee supported the proposal to administer a lethal dose of hydrocyanic acid (cyanide). However, medical professionals recommended electrocution, and in 1889 the Electric Executions Act was passed. On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler died as a result of the first electrocution. It was terribly poor quality, and the attending physician declared that it “should by no means be considered a step in civilization.” One of the electricians present called it a “decisive failure”.

Nearly a century later, lethal injection is again the subject of discussion. In 1973, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, compared execution by lethal injection to killing wounded animals. “As a former farmer and horse breeder, I know what it’s like to try to destroy a wounded horse by shooting it,” he said. “Now you call the vet and the vet gives an injection and the horse goes to sleep, that’s all. I myself wondered, maybe this is not part of our problem, maybe we should reconsider and see if there are now even more humane methods – a simple injection or a tranquilizer.

After nine years of no executions in the US from 1968 to 1976, a period that included a four-year moratorium imposed by the US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court allowed the return of the death penalty in its historical era. Gregg in. Georgia decision. The following year in Oklahoma, state officials dropped the electric chair and the idea of ​​paying $200,000 for a gas chamber in favor of lethal injection. Legislators reasoned that it would be cheaper and less gruesome, and that more juries would vote in favor of the death penalty if it were administered by injection. In 1982, Texas became the first state to execute death row inmates by lethal injection. Today, 22 other states use the method of execution, hailed by supporters as a technological advance, more humane and less barbaric than the electric chair, firing squad, and gas chamber. Most states used a mixture of intravenous drugs to carry out executions: typically one drug caused almost immediate loss of consciousness, a second caused paralysis, and a third caused cardiac arrest and death by cardiac arrest. The entire procedure without problems usually takes five to ten minutes.

But the history of lethal injections is a history of constant failure. There have been 75 failed lethal injections in the last forty years, and the problem has been particularly acute in the past year. A recently released report from the non-profit death penalty clearing house called 2022 “the year of the failed execution.” The report found that the number of executions in 2022 remained significantly lower than even a decade ago, when more than twice as many death row inmates were executed. (As public support for the death penalty has waned, the number of death sentences and executions has largely declined since the late 1990s.) But of the twenty execution attempts in 2022, seven were “clearly problematic”—cases where veins could not be found and repeatedly stabbed the prisoners, including two that were eventually abandoned.

When an execution fails, it’s far from humane: one death-row victim famously begged her lawyer from a gurney to investigate how he was “stabbed” during the trial to get an IV drip, and another victim in 2015 gasped. air more than six hundred times for almost two hours after the injection, before finally dying.

Moral apathy abounds in the US and Texas over the issue of the death penalty. According to a poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project, the majority of the country’s residents support the death penalty, as do 63 percent of Texans. Many Americans simply don’t care what happens to the convicts. The death penalty does not apply to them. But there is also a dangerous belief that compels the US to continue to use lethal injection: the idea that some violent criminals are “unworthy of life” and “subhuman.” Because of the agony, pain, and suffering that the condemned once inflicted on innocent victims, many Americans are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the suffering of the condemned themselves. State-sanctioned killing, which is often officially listed as “murder” on death certificates of convicted prisoners, is considered justified because the condemned are dehumanized.

It is probably too painful for Americans to accept the cruel and harsh reality that the use of the death penalty in this country is a continuation of the ideology that individuals and members of groups can be branded as something subhuman and killed with the full approval of the majority of citizens who have been socialized for decades and numb to unconditionally accept this ridiculous notion. The lethal injection is for those who kill. It has nothing to do with a “humane” death.

It is time to reflect on who we are as a people and whether we have the political and moral courage to end the historical barbarism in this country known as the death penalty.

Rick Halperin is Director of the Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University.

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