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“A Relic Of Frontier Barbarism:” The Case Of Scott Panetti — And The True Meaning Of ‘Cruel And Unusual’

So what does “cruel and unusual” mean?

I once asked that of a law professor. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, but I figured there had to be some technical definition I, as a layperson, was missing. I mean, from where I sit, it’s pretty “cruel and unusual” to execute someone, but to judge from the 1,392 executions of the last 38 years, that isn’t the case.

Scott Panetti almost became number 1,393 last week, but within hours of his scheduled lethal injection, he was reprieved by a federal judge. The court said it needs more time to consider the issues his case raises.

In a rational place, it would not be news that Panetti was not killed. In a rational place, they would understand that state-sanctioned execution is a relic of frontier barbarism that leaves us all wet with the blood of the damned. In a rational place, they would say there’s something especially repugnant about applying that grisly sanction to the mentally ill, like Panetti.

But Panetti doesn’t live in a rational place. He lives in America. Worse, he lives in Texas.

They love their executions in Rick Perry’s kingdom. Since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group, that state has killed almost 520 people. That’s nearly five times more than the next bloodiest state, Oklahoma, with 111.

There is no question Panetti deserves punishment. In 1992, he shot his estranged wife’s parents to death as she and the couple’s daughter looked on. He held them both hostage before releasing them unharmed.

But there is also no question that Panetti, 56, suffers from severe mental illness. At his trial, in which he was somehow, bizarrely, allowed to represent himself, he wore a purple cowboy suit with a 10-gallon hat and summoned a personality he called “Sarge” to explain what happened on the fateful day. His witness list included 200 people. Among them: John F. Kennedy, the pope, Anne Bancroft and Jesus Christ.

The state contends that Panetti, who was off his meds at the time of the killing, is faking it. During a 2004 hearing, the county sheriff called him “the best actor there is.” In its most recent filings, Texas accuses him of “grossly exaggerating” his symptoms.

If it’s an act, it’s been going on a long time. His attorneys say Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia 14 years before the shootings and was hospitalized 13 times between 1978 and 1991. Now a court decides on his life or death.

It’s a pregnant decision in a country where, apparently, it isn’t “cruel and unusual” to preside, as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did, over the execution of a man so profoundly impaired that he saved the pie from his last meal to eat later. Or to let a man gasp and snort for almost two hours as a lethal injection very slowly killed him, as happened in Arizona. Or to set a man on fire, as has happened at least twice in Florida’s electric chair. Or to execute people for crimes committed when they were children. Or to send innocent people to death row. Or to choose whom to execute based on color of killer, color of victim, gender, geography and class.

So what, exactly, might be too cruel and unusual for us to allow? The professor could not answer. Which, of course, is an answer.

As flawed and broken as our system of death is, we continue to embrace the puritanical morality of eye for eye and blood for blood. Most of the western world has left this savagery behind, but we insist on it, leaving us isolated from our national peers, those nations whose values are most like ours, but looming large among the outlaw likes of Somalia and Iran.

Now we are debating whether to kill a man so addled he tried to subpoena Jesus. And that leads to a conclusion as painful as it is unavoidable:

What’s “cruel and unusual” is us.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, December 8, 2014

December 10, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Death Penalty, Mental Illness | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It’s Not About Them, It’s About Us”: Guillotine Revival Movement Gains Momentum

When things began to go terribly wrong with Clayton Lockett’s execution in Oklahoma the other day—when instead of drifting gently off into unconsciousness and death, Lockett began to moan and buck on the gurney—one of the first things the officials did was lower the blinds over the window through which observers peered into the death chamber. Because after all, people shouldn’t have to witness a man suffer as the state is killing him, right?

Lockett’s execution was hardly the first botched one we’ve had, particularly with lethal injection, a process prison officials seem extraordinarily incompetent at implementing properly. But for whatever reason, it has brought about a more substantial debate about the death penalty than we’ve had in some time. And as part of that, it looks like my semi-serious advocacy for the return of the guillotine is finally gaining momentum. It already has endorsements from Conor Friedersdorf and Sonny Bunch, with more sure to follow.

Frankly, I’ve never bought the argument that the death penalty violates the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Unusual, maybe—it has become not just unusual but unheard of in democratic countries (the nations with the highest number of executions last year were, in order, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. of A.). But cruel? It seems that spending your life in prison is far worse than being executed. Though Lockett was in obvious pain for three-quarters of an hour before he finally expired, that pain couldn’t possibly match the extended agony endured by the tens of thousands of people we put in solitary confinement, where the lack of human contact literally drives them insane.

But back to our execution methods. It does seem that as the killing techniques have evolved, what we’ve called more “humane” methods are not about minimizing the suffering of the condemned, but about minimizing the gruesomeness of the spectacle, so that we can perform the execution without feeling like barbarians. It’s not about them, it’s about us. We did away with the firing squad in favor of the electric chair, even though the latter involves a lot more suffering, and why? Well, it involves just pulling a switch instead of actually pulling a trigger and sending a bullet hurtling toward a man’s heart. And there’s no blood splatter on the walls.

But the electric chair is pretty awful to watch—the body convulsing in obvious torment and all that—so we went to lethal injection. And despite the fact that we’re perfectly capable of knocking people out before surgery and gently putting a beloved pet to sleep, the geniuses who run our prisons can’t seem to do it without putting the condemned through substantial pain.

So if you recoil from the idea of the guillotine, ask yourself why. It’s fast, foolproof, and essentially painless. If you were going to be executed, wouldn’t it be near the top of your list for ways to go? You can’t argue that Clayton Lockett would have met a crueler end had his head been lopped off than what he actually went through. We could even come up with a more contemporary version, like a fast-moving saw blade that separates your brain from your body in a fraction of a second.

The visceral objection you have to that thought is not about the suffering of the one being executed, it’s about how you’d feel watching it. The guillotine, with its blood and severed head, would make us feel uncomfortable about what we’re doing when the state executes someone in our name. It would make us feel barbaric. As well it should.

If we’re going to keep the death penalty, we should be honest about what it’s for. It isn’t for deterrence, and it isn’t for justice. It’s for vengeance. We can try to make it “humane,” and we can draw the blinds when the truth of it comes uncomfortably close the surface. But that won’t change what it is.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 2, 2014

May 4, 2014 Posted by | Capital Punishment, Death Penalty | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Even Pretend?”: There’s No Humane Way To Carry Out The Death Penalty

No one who supports the death penalty should have the slightest problem with the way Clayton Lockett died.

Lockett, a convicted murderer, spent 43 minutes in apparent agony Tuesday night as the state of Oklahoma tried to execute him by injecting an untested cocktail of drugs. Instead of quickly losing consciousness, he writhed in obvious distress and attempted to speak. Witnesses described what they saw as horrific.

Prison authorities halted the procedure — they were going to revive Lockett so they could kill him at a later date, presumably in a more aesthetically pleasing manner — but the condemned man suffered a heart attack and died.

The state postponed a second execution that had been scheduled for the same night, but I wonder why. We fool ourselves if we think there is a “humane” way to way to kill someone. Sure, the second inmate, Charles Warner, probably would have suffered an equally agonizing death. But isn’t this the whole point?

When I read about the crimes Lockett committed, I wish I could support capital punishment. When I read about what Warner did, I want to strangle him with my own hands. But revenge is not the same thing as justice, and karmic retribution is not a power I trust government to exercise. The death penalty has no place in a civilized society.

Lockett raped, brutalized and murdered a 19-year-old woman who had graduated from high school just two weeks earlier, shooting her and then burying her alive. Lockett and his accomplices also beat and robbed a 23-year-old man and raped an 18-year-old woman. The crimes took place in 1999; Lockett has been awaiting execution since 2000.

Warner, the other man who was to die in the Oklahoma execution chamber Tuesday, was convicted in 1999 of raping and murdering an 11-month-old child who was the daughter of his live-in girlfriend. The baby suffered unspeakable abuse.

The question is not whether Lockett and Warner deserve to die; clearly they do, as far as I’m concerned. The question is whether our society, acting through the instrument of government, should kill them. I believe there is no way to impose capital punishment without betraying the moral standards that our justice system is theoretically designed to uphold. Put simply, when we murder we become murderers.

Perhaps the most powerful argument against the death penalty is that it is irreversible. Sometimes, judges and juries make honest mistakes and innocent people may be condemned to death. Some studies have shown an apparent racial bias in the way capital punishment is meted out, with blacks who kill whites more likely than other defendants to end up on death row.

Put all this aside for the moment and assume that both Lockett and Warner committed those heinous crimes and that each was convicted in a scrupulously fair trial. The judgment of the state of Oklahoma is that both men must die. How, then, are they to be killed?

What about a public beheading, like in Saudi Arabia? No one would seriously suggest such a thing. Yet a razor-sharp sword surely would have been less agonizing — or at least much quicker — than the drugs injected into Lockett’s bloodstream.

The general idea of lethal injection is to give the condemned a powerful sedative followed by one or more lethal agents. But the sole manufacturer of one of the commonly used drugs stopped making it in 2011. Drug makers in Europe, where the death penalty is considered barbaric, refuse to export drugs to the United States for use in executions. As a result, there have been shortages. Oklahoma was using a new, unproven cocktail to kill Lockett.

Reportedly, Lockett’s vein “blew” shortly after the execution began, meaning that he was not getting the full doses. But his was hardly the first lethal injection execution in which the condemned showed visible signs of great pain.

I would argue that there’s no reason to believe lethal injection is a more humane way to end a life than electrocution, poison gas, hanging, firing squad or even guillotine. Of course, we’ll never know. We can tell ourselves any story we want about how quickly and painlessly death arrived, and the one person who could prove us wrong will never speak again.

But why even pretend? Clayton Lockett was a bad man. Those who believe it was right to kill him have no reason to be ashamed of the way he died — and no right to look away.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 1, 2014

May 2, 2014 Posted by | Capital Punishment, Death Penalty | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Could This Prompt A Rush On Executions?”: Texas Running Low On Lethal Injection Drug But Confident It Won’t Miss A Beat

Texas already leads the nation in carrying out executions, having killed 11 inmates so far this year. The state’s Department of Criminal Justice announced this week, however, that state supplies of the sedative pentobarbital, used in the three-drug lethal injection cocktail, were running low and remaining supplies would expire by September. Like other states, Texas switched to pentobarbital when supplies of another sedative regularly used in the lethal cocktail were cut off. Now the situation is repeating with this sedative.

However, as the Guardian noted, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Jason Clark, expressed confidence that it would be able to continue to carry out executions. “Alternate sources of pentobarbital are possible, or an alternate drug,” he said.

When Georgia faced a similar predicament earlier this year, with its limited supplies of lethal drugs nearing expiration, a troubling situation arose in which the state attempted to rush through a spate of executions. As I noted in February, state prosecutors pushed aggressively to overturn the stay of execution granted intellectually disabled death row inmate Warren Hill (although the stay remains) and reportedly executed 38-year-old Andrew Allen Cook (on death row since 1995 for the murder of two college students) in the hurry prompted by drug shortages.

With 300 inmates currently on Texas death row, attempts to speed up executions before pentobarbital supplies expire would be of grave concern to human rights advocates. It is of some hope, however, that more and more death penalty states are under a stranglehold from companies and authorities around the world refusing to provide drugs used in executions.

 

By: Natasha Lennard, Salon, August 2, 2013

August 3, 2013 Posted by | Death Penalty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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