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Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…life for a life?

(Published in The Malay Mail 14 May 2014)

Clayton Lockett’s botched execution in late April received worldwide condemnation. Horrified onlookers at the Oklahoma prison saw him writhe in pain for more than 40 minutes, or at least until the prison staff had the decency to draw the curtain to hide him from view.

If you insist on the death penalty, as America still does for people like Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, at least get the job done properly. “Torturing to death”, lawyer Madeline Cohen present at the execution said the process amounted to, is unacceptable.

Reading about the “untested” concoction of drugs used on the 38-year-old brought back memories of reports I filed on this issue while working for KPFT, a community radio station in Houston, Texas. I recall interviewing one chemist who told me certain lethal injection drugs used in Texas penitentiaries “wouldn’t be fit for use by vets on animals, let alone on humans”.

Why the prison used an untested drug to execute an inmate is testament to the growing movement against this barbaric practice. Sedatives like sodium thiopental, part of the three-drug concoction commonly used for lethal injections, are no longer freely available. Many pharmaceuticals have stopped their manufacture for fear of European sanctions. This leaves many prisons applying the death penalty (available in 32 American states) reliant on experimental drugs from unnamed suppliers.

Lockett should be punished for the brutal killing of 19-year-old Stephanie Neimen in 1999. But I don’t believe in like-for-like punishments — the old an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life principle — fashionable centuries back (and as prescribed in the Koran, Torah and the Bible).

We no longer pile into crowded town squares for our weekend’s entertainment of public floggings and hangings, because we no longer live in the dark ages. Most legal systems around the world have matured beyond knee-jerk vengeance, and have evolved more civilized methods of punishment.

Which leads me to the question of why America, a so-called “developed nation”, still applies the death penalty? Badly too, it seems. It’s not alone either: there are 57 other countries including China, North Korea, Belarus (the only European nation), Afghanistan and Malaysia (where “executions are carried out secretly, without prior or posthumous announcements” according to Amnesty International).

I can’t think of a punishment more miserable than a true life sentence — without parole — a mind-numbing Groundhog Day, everyday, removed from normal society and forced to reflect on your wrongdoing behind four walls.

There were two social reasons behind the US Supreme Court’s decision in 1976 (Gregg v Georgia) to reinstate the death penalty: it was an effective “deterrent” and appropriate “retribution” for egregious crimes. But a recent report by the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies has concluded that all existing studies on the deterrent theory and its impact on homicide rates are inconclusive.


Death row inmates Charles Warner (right) and Clayton Lockett are seen in a combination of pictures from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections dated June 29, 2011. — Reuters pic

I followed many Texas death row executions while living in Houston. While driving in this sprawling metropolis, I often found myself drawn to radio programs covering the days, hours, minutes before an execution, the majority of which were, alarmingly, of Hispanics or African-Americans. Interviews of close family members, many of whom genuinely believed in their loved ones’ innocence, were excruciatingly painful to listen to. As was the fallout from failed last minute attempts to delay executions.

Texas has the highest execution rates in America: averaging one every nine days. President George W. Bush shaped his no-nonsense tough guy image for his first presidential campaign on his record number of executions — 152 in five years — as Governor of Texas. Did this little trophy make it into “W’s” Presidential Library and Museum, Dallas?

One good outcome of Lockett’s bungled execution is that President Obama has just asked the US Attorney General to review the death penalty: “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.”

Better late than never. Unfortunately, it will be too late for the likes of other human guinea pigs who will run the untested lethal drug gauntlet.

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