A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Capital Punishment Watch, Cont'd--UPDATED

Last night marked another horrific chapter in our nation's practice of capital punishment. In Oklahoma, two executions were scheduled for last night, following a new three-drug protocol. The first drug administered was midazolam, already used as part of a botched execution in Florida. (see my previous post on this topic for pharmacologic details and links.)

About 10 minutes into the first execution, 38-year old Clayton Lockett was declared unconscious by a physician.  According to CNN, Lockett sat up and tried to speak 16 minutes into his execution. He was seen to be writhing or convulsing on the gurney, and about 20 minutes into the process, his vein "exploded," executioners said, causing them to halt the process. At that point, guards closed the windows so the witnesses could no longer see what was happening. 43 minutes into the process, Lockett apparetly suffered a massive heart attack and died. 

The legal battle centered around a prisoner's right to know the source of the drugs to be used to execute him or her. A stay on Lockett's execution was lifted last week when a judge ruled that there was no such right. After last night's experience, executions are again on hold in OK for at least 2 weeks.

The plan was to render Lockett unconscious with midazolam, then stop his breathing (and all muscular activity) with the paralytic drug vercuronium bromide, then stop his heart with potassium chloride.

What could have gone wrong? Of course, I wasn't there, and can't speak with certainty, but here are two possibilities. 

Benzodiazepines like midazolam can rarely have paradoxical effects: a drug that usually renders one deeply sedated and relaxed, and has anti-convulsant properties, can cause agitation, anxiety, aggression, talkativeness, rage, violent behavior, and delirium, often states not recalled by the patient upon recovery. The midazolam dose used for sedation is much lower than that used for execution, but since Mr. Lockett's vein "exploded," it's unclear what dose he actually received, or, from the information given, what his actual state of consciousness was. The effects of midazolam can be reversed with Flumazenil, (a benzodiazepine-receptor antagonist) but did the executioner have a reversal agent on hand? Reversal of midazolam with Flumazenil can cause seizures. When the execution was stopped, efforts were made to resuscitate Lockett, but details aren't clear.

The other possibility is more troubling. According to protocol, after the victim is declared unconscious executioners begin injecting the second two drugs. According to OK Department of Corrections director Robert Patton, the second two drugs were being administered when Lockett began to sit up and attempt to speak. Clearly the paralytic vercuronium had no effect. But what about the potassium bromide?

Potassium chloride is the drug in this cocktail used to stop the heart. It is an acceptable drug for animal euthanasia ONLY in anesthetized animals, and is condemned as inhumane otherwise because of the pain associated with stopping the heart of a conscious animal

Did Lockett experience paradoxical excitation from midazolam, and then suffer a heart attack? Or did OK somehow manage to kill a more-or-less conscious Lockett with the effect of potassium chloride alone, a death condemned by veterinarians as too cruel for livestock? 

And when will the US finally come to its senses and stop capital punishment? The moral case against capital punishment is clear. But even if it were morally right for the state to kill its prisoners, it's becoming clearer and clearer that it just can't be done competently.

UPDATE--well, it just gets worse. This from OK department of Corrections timeline, reported in the NYTimes. Apparently after nearly an hour of hunting for a vein, the phlebotomist wound up placing a single line in Lockett's femoral vein. It is standard procedure to have two patent IV's for executions, in case one line blows. (IV catheters can go wrong in a couple ways. Most commonly, the catheter slips out of the vein or was never properly placed to start with--certainly possible in the femoral vein, a deeper and trickier vein to securely place a line in than the usual arm, hand or leg. Veins can rupture, but a slipped or misplaced catheter seems more likely.) For modesty, the injection site was covered when the injection was made. Once Lockett seemed unconscious, the second two drugs were injected, drugs which can be painful if injected outside a vein. Lockett woke up. The executioners apparently DIDN'T HAVE ENOUGH DRUGS to complete the process, given the leakage of the first dose, even if they could have found a vein. How can this be true, since a second execution was scheduled for the same night?? And how lacking in basic medical foresight.

This is more than botched--it's a disgrace, a travesty of grand proportion. Utterly, utterly incompetent. 

About the Author

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Is there a moral duty to conduct one's work competently, at least when there are grave consequences to another if the work is not done competently?  Surely a doctor is thought to have such a duty, and I would have thought also a soldier.  At least within the profession, it is the belief of engineers that we are so bound - hence the tradition of the ring in Canadian engineering (widely, though not universaly, extended now in the US, also).


Since Furman v. Georgia (1972) it has been our law that "punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity."  (Jusice Brennan for the Court).   Distinguishing the severity of punishment from the manner of it application is a distinction, when death is the outcome of the punishment, we cannot sustain: we do not permit drawing-and-quartering or burning at the stake.


Mark L

Perhaps this will remind Christians why they're supposed to be against the death penalty:

As horrible as the condemned man’s crimes were—they were horrible (robbery, kidnapping, rape, and murder) and should not be downplayed or forgotten—JP II was nevertheless correct in Evangelium Vitae when he stated that capital punishment is morally wrong except in cases of “absolute necessity,” with that term limited to mean “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” With the improvements that have been made in penal systems to protect society at large, JP II believed that absolute necessity “cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Of course, his comments on capital punishment were part of an encyclical with an overarching theme that life itself is a gospel (“good news”) that must be cherished and respected because of its “incomparable worth” and even when that priceless gift is abused by another human being. The perpetrator should be punished for his transgression (life without parole, for example), of course, and while there may be a primal eye-for-an-eye satisfaction for some in the use of capital punishment, state-sanctioned termination of life to punish someone for terminating another life seems a very imperfect lesson plan for imparting respect for human life in general.        

This is clearly cruel and unusual punishment, and he should have had a chance to argue this in court.

One would hope that bishops in death penalty states would prohibit Catholics from participating in the practice and excommunicate any who do. 

Even a sentence of "life without parole" is inconsistent with any sense of rehabilitation. Any system of criminal justice that does not provide every criminal with some path to rehabilitation effectively denies the freedom that each mentally competent person has to reform and repent. And if a person is deemed to be beyond mental competency, then he or she is beyond experiencing any penal restriction as a consequence of his or her crime. The EU has  rightly abolished  "life without parole" sentences. So should we.

When the execution was stopped, efforts were made to resuscitate Lockett, but details aren't clear.

My God in heaven. They tried to resuscitate him so they could what? Try it again? Talk about cruel and unusual punishment. 


I've been thinking about life without parole as well. Criminality decreases with age, so the justification for imprisoning the average convict goes down as they get older. I understand not wanting the person who is being sentenced to be able to be free again, but that person won't exist twenty years from now. We should let our parole boards make new evaluations about how dangerous they are in the future.

Jean, those were my thoughts, too.  It makes absolutely no sense to attempt to resuscitate someone you're trying to kill.


As horrible as the condemned man’s crimes were—they were horrible (robbery, kidnapping, rape, and murder) and should not be downplayed or forgotten

We read the gruesome details of Clayton Lockett's execution and in fairness and justice, we should similarly hear the crime that led up to it.

In the Summer of 1999, Clayton Lockett and two accomplices, including a man named Shawn Mathis, were burglarizing a home when they were interrupted by 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman as she dropped off her friend who happened to live there. Neiman put up a fight when Lockett attempted to grab the keys to her new Chevy pickup truck. So the men beat her, wrapped her arms, mouth and legs with duct tape and then Lockett and his cohorts beat up Neiman’s friend, as well as another resident of the home and that person’s 9-month-old child.

It gets worse.

Neiman and her friends were abducted and driven out to a remote country road. Lockett and his victims waited while Mathis chipped away at the ground, digging a small grave along the road. Neiman was placed in the ditch and Lockett shot her with a sawed off shotgun. But she survived and began pleading for her life. Another shot, but this time the gun jammed. A third shot hit its target.


But Stephanie Neiman was still alive. So Lockett and Mathis buried her anyway. Alive.

One last thing: don’t forget Stephanie Neiman. The reason Lockett chose to bury her alive was because she bravely told him that if she were to be set free she would call the police. For that, she was killed and under circumstances arguably more harrowing than Lockett’s

I'm against the death penalty but I don't know about abolishing life without parole.  Not everyone is capable of being rehabilitated, and I don't hink being older would necessarily make someone harmless.

That's why it is still a life sentence. If someone continues to pose a threat to society, the parole board can deny parole.

Re: George D.'s comment on the heinous and cruel nature of Lockett and Mathis' crime, I don't think that Christian opposition to the death penalty is based on feeling that those accused of such crimes don't deserve their punishment. If in fact they are really guilty as charged, of course they have earned death, and whatever sufferings that go along with it. Christian opposition is more based on our not having the authority over life and death, that this belongs to God.  "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay', says the Lord." In life and in death we belong to God. (I wish we would think more seriously about that when it comes to war.) Then here is he question of what we do to ourselves as a society by by state sponsored premeditated killing, which often seems arbitrary in the way it is applied. And God desires the salvation of everyone, and there is at least the chance of repentance and conversion with life in prison. However I think Crystal is right that it is irresponsible to assume that someone is harmless to society and commute a sentence of  life without parole.

Lots of people will say he got what he deserved -- the lex talionis.

But note that when we practice the lex talionis we become as evil as those we punish.

An eye for an eye -- a man knocks out someone's eye -- so I in turn coldly, legally, inhumanly blind him in return. Who is the greater criminal here?

Biblical fundamentalism battening on Genesis 9 (Who sheds man's blood, by man let his blood be shed) is one of the foundations of the tenacity of capital punishment in the USA. Another is revenge-thinking, bolstered by victim impact statements.

Oh, I see what you mean - a life sentence can be imposed but if the person is rehabilitated they can be paroled, while life without chance of parole is instead a kind of eternal punishment that doesn't take into account that the person might change for the better.

All this makes me think about God's version of life without parole ... hell  :(

I put the victims story here just to put the entire incident in context. It is easy to fall into a sentimentalized oppostion to the death penalty (and I am opposed) if we do not keep front and centre the underlying acts that gave rise to it. However, like the author of the piece I linked to, I am ambivalent in my reaction to this execution given the underlying facts. 

At issue is the demands of justice and here there are no easy answers either. The purpose of punishment in Catholic thought is to redrress the disorder caused by the offence. This is difficult and challenging and requires much prayer and discernment. Sometimes legislators guide the process and legislators are elected by the people. Thus, if a state wishes to remove the death penalty, it needs to reflect the consensus of people. And referring to those who support the death penalty as driven by revenge and being fundamentalistic is naive, simplistic, and a charicature. 

Jospeh is dead wrong about victim-impact statements. They are information that helps guide the judge in sentencing. They are part of the consideration and an important part. Additionally, there are diversion programs, and alternative justice programs that Crown Attorney's can use to handle people charged of less serious offences. So for example, sometimes simple assault can be diverted away from the criminal justice system but here, the victim, has to be in agreement. 

There is the restorative justice movement which, in some models, includes the accused directly meeting with victims so that they can all share how this action affected them and then together the circle comes up with an appropriate resolution

This includes such things as sentencing circles and is often an alternative to incarceration.

ISTM that there is one benefit of life without parole over a 20 year sentence:  life without parole would probably  serve as a deterrent, at least in some cases, whereas 20 years (or possible rehabilitation) might not.  In other words, someone might consider 20 years in jail worth it to be rid of a hated spouse or boss, but that person might not choose do it if the sure effect would be life imprisonment.

I speak as a European, that is, as a member of a society that has abolished capital punishment and never regretted it. 

When Europeans hear Americans say things like "Death is the backbone of American justice", they shiver.

US prison chaplains are heard complaining that the entire penal system is awash in vengefulness and in a mythology of "closure." But such voices go unheard.

The very high murder rate in the USA may seem to make capital punishment necessary, but from the European perspective they are two sides of the same coin. 


These were exceptionally cruel crimes, there is no question, but imposing an exceptionally cruel death on the perpetrator takes us down the road of being no better than the criminals we seek to punish.  What makes these crimes shocking to us is the very fact that most of us could not imagine inflicting this kind of suffering on anyone -- if we justify the circumstances of Lockett's execution as "just" given what he did, we are entering his dark world, not defending the one we wish to live in, where people would never do something so utterly debased.

And that's apart from the fact that the death penalty is applied in an unequal, sometimes arbitrary manner, based on race, class, access to good lawyers, the identity of the victim (black on white crime gets much harsher penalties than any other combination) and according to the whims of political opportunism.  The sight of Mary Fallin wearing a cross sent shivers up my spine.  Why would I ever go to the same church she does? 

A brief response to those of you who are disposed to think either that the death penalty is sometimes appropriate, or that sometimes a sentence of life without parole is fitting.

First, about the deeath penalty. Albet Camus, in "The Rebel" talks vigorously opposes what he calls "rational murder," the killing of a human being that rests upon some theory, e.g., societal benefit, ridding a society of some institutionalized serious injustice, etc. Camus is thinking particularly of Soviet and Nazi crimes perpetrated in the name of some ideology. He is not talking about self-defense, but does say that even in the case of justified self-defense somethingterrible has occurred even if it is not immpra;. By extension, I would grant the right of self-defense but would insist that any "theory," any legal prohibitions  of murder, treason, or any other category of capital offenses that would permit the death penalty is tantamount to what Camus alls rational murder. In my view, any killing of a person who poses no proximate threat to the life or basic well-being of another person is not justifiable by any set of purported rational norms.

With regard to sentences of life inprisonment without parole, I would maintain that they are not necessary to insure public safety. Even if they have some deterrent effect, that benefit comes at too high a price. Its price is the denial of the fundamental dignity of the criminal as a child of God and a morally responsible agent who is capable of repentance and reform.

In both of these matters, we would do well to pay close attention to the Kantian conception of the kidn of autonomy that we are obligated to acknowledge that each person is endowed with. It is not for us to decide that a person ever loses his or her right to respect for his or her fundamental humanity. Life in prison without parole is, so far as I can see, wholly incompatibl with recogniziing this dignity..

Good for you, Bernard.  But how would you convince someone who does not share your religious convictions?

Just want to comment that I'm appreciating this excellent discussion.  

If I may attempt to connect a couple of comments and then branch into a topic that I hope doesn't digress too far from the death penalty: George notes, "if a state wishes to remove the death penalty, it needs to reflect the consensus of people."  And Katherine stated, "Then there is the question of what we do to ourselves as a society by by state sponsored premeditated killing, which often seems arbitrary in the way it is applied."  

Katherine's phrase "state sponsored premeditated killing" may encompass more than the death penalty, and her comment made me think of the drone strikes that are intended to kill alleged terrorists and sometimes, we are told, also result in "collateral damage", i.e. others are also wounded or killed.  I can think of a number of problems with this regime of state-sponsored assassinations, but what I'd like to focus on here is the lack of transparency and accountability.  Perhaps I am incorrect about this, but my perception is that an executive-ordered hit on a terrorist lacks the due process protections that are built into state-sponsored executions for criminal offenses.  Even with all of the appeals hurdles that must be cleared in order to administer the death penalty in the US, we are left with a distressing lack of certainty that we've got things right, and in fact it's well-known that many convicted denizens of death row have later been freed.  (Although perhaps that fact actually is an argument in favor of the appeals process?)

At any rate, I don't think a President needs to clear those hurdles when he contemplates executing an alleged terrorist.  Does he even need to go to any court, even a secretly convened court, to obtain permission for a drone strike?  What are the evidential standards that must be met before an executive order is issued?  I don't think these things are well-understood by the American public - they're certainly not understood by me - and I do see that as a problem.  This program is being carried out in our name, and I don't think we're on top of it.  It leaves me morally queasy, to say the least.

(I happened to watch parts of "Zero Dark Thirty" yesterday, and so terrorist-hunting is top of mind for me.  It's a gripping film that doesn't glamorize the war on terror nor shy away from the moral quandaries.)


In both of these matters, we would do well to pay close attention to the Kantian conception of the kidn of autonomy that we are obligated to acknowledge that each person is endowed with. It is not for us to decide that a person ever loses his or her right to respect for his or her fundamental humanity. Life in prison without parole is, so far as I can see, wholly incompatibl with recogniziing this dignity..

Bernard - I am not sure that I disagree with you, and in fact I've often said that I'd be a terrible judge because I wouldn't have the heart to sentence convicted criminals to long stretches in prison.  But, if I may play devil's advocate: you seem to be saying that there is something about the nature of imprisonment that is incompatible with fundamental human dignity.  If this is so, then it's difficult to see how any imprisonment for any length of time can be justified.

The US and most/all other societies have 'degrees' of prison: minimum-security, medium-security, maximum-security, et al.  If a person sentenced to life without parole were given progressively less  severe degrees of imprisonment as he aged, would that ameliorate your concerns?



In death penalty states, as in organized crime families, the willingness to kill is a prerequisite for office. No one can be elected governor here without pretending to look forward eagerly to executing a whole bunch of bad guys. "I am for the electric bleachers!" one otherwise sensibe state senator once  proclaimed. On another hand, we have elected governors whose tax returns reflect a near  aversion to charitable giving. Charity is optional, killing is not.

Usually (not always) successful candidates for the top offices are beyond being suckered by the cant about deterence and closure. I wonder if the effort to make capital punishment as painless as possible owes more to the qualms of the chief executives -- regardless of how much blood lust they exhibit while running -- than to the Constitution's bar on cruel and unusual punishment. I mean, if you want efficiency and certainty the firing squad and the guillotine will deliver it more surely than drug cocktails.

As Lisa's post makes clear, we don't know what we are doing with our drugs, and I am wondering if we are doing it that way not to spare the person being executed from pain but to spare the responsible officials.



Jim P. let me try to respond to you. As I see it, there are many respectable reasons for punishing criminal conduct. But both the ultimate objective of doing so is the rehabilitation of the criminal and the consequent reincorporation of him or her into society as a full-fledged citizen. In practice, this rehabilitation may not in fact take place and the criminal may still be subject to some sanctions for the duration of his or her life. For example, sexual predators may have to suffer some restrictions because we have no other good way to insure the safety of our young. But the sentence of life in prison without parole is so extreme that it makes a mockery of the notion of rehabilitation. The separation from society that prison effects is so extreme that, unless it has a clearly specified terminal date, it is practically impossible to square with respect for the prisoner's dignity. I know that there are cases where some prisoneers who are neever eligivle for parole have still transformed themselves itnto quite admirable persons, but it would stretch credulity to suggest that the imposition of the sentence of life without parole either was intendede to foster their conversion or was a positive encouragement for them to reform.

Let me add to my earlier remarks, that I cannot see howsupport for sentences of life without parole are consistent witl the persistent Biblical injunction for mercy toward those who offend us, no matter how grievous the offense.

I hope that this is clarifying. I'm convinced of all this, but no one has told me that I am infallible about this or anything else.

George D, do you know how odd the following sounds: "Thus, if a state wishes to remove the death penalty, it needs to reflect the consensus of people."

Not "impose" but "remove."  So the "default" position is, the death penalty is normative; the burden lies with those seeking to "remove" it. 

I would say this in response: in order for the death penalty to be just it must reflect the consensus of society in such a way that it can be justly applied.  I live in a state where the same offense is a lot less like to result in the death penalty in some communities than others.  And I mean: almost never, where I live, and quite frequently elsewhere.  Thus, even within a single state, the application of the death penalty varies a lot by geography, and that geography reflects the lack of consensus among state citizens about the propriety of the death penalty.  This is, itself, a form of signficant inequity, and it is particularly stark in my state that this inequality results in gross racial disparities in the application of the death penalty.

Ann Olivier,

Humans have trouble understanding rare events. The probability of punishment has a much larger effect on than the severity. This is especially true for people with poor impulse control who are most likely to commit crimes. There may be a few cases on the margin where someone might be deterred by the difference between a 20 year sentence and a life sentence, but that marginal benefit isn't worth the cost of imprisoning a large number of relatively harmless seniors.

Jim P. ==

About drone strikes --  ISTM that ultimately they are a question of what I would call vigilante justice, "taking the law into your own hands", protecting yourself when th extant laws do not provide adequtely for self-defense or when there are no extant laws covering the issues.

I'm not sure whether or not use of drones are justified.  As I see it there is no hope of protecting ourselves surely from the promised aggression of the islamist terrorists who see the U.S. as "the great Satan".  Yes, this assumes that someone (we, in this case) can know what the relevant moral factors are.  But ALL morality assumes that the moral agents ar capale of knowing wha the relevant moral factors are.

Here's a thought experiment to examplify the kind of dilemma I'm thinking of.  It's a Western movie plot in which a town is terrorized by a gang of outlaws who live just over he hill.  Let's say the sheriff has been killed by the gang, and a new one has yet to be elected.  None of the local men have enough courage to act against the gang members.  A stranger comes to town who has enough courage to engage the gang.  He takes the law into his own hands, inspiring some locals tto join him, and in a shoot out they rid the town of the gang by shooting them all.  Was that organized murder?  I say no, that there are times whe, if th extant law does no protect you, you may take the law in your own hands.  The, as I see it, is the basis of th right to self defense, which is, of course, the basis of all laws which defend one person from another.

This is problably an example for another thread -- but the *principless/question at issue* are all the same:  1)  what is the *moral basis* for self-defense?  and 2) *when* may one act to defend onself if there is no adequate legal protection? 

"The probability of punishment has a much larger effect on than the severity"

Ryan --

How do you know this?  How was this proven?  I'd be glad to think it's true, but I'd need some conclusive evidence.

I think the majority will sooner accept elimination of the death penalty if there is still life without parole, at least in the case of sociopathic cold blooded murder.

I wonder why people commit some crimes.  It's said that we are all capable of doing bad things, but from a psychological point of view, I don't think all people do have the same capacity for crime. I mean, there are people who are sociopaths, psychopaths, without empathy, and I'm not sure how or if empathy can be effectively taught to an adult ... could a person who can bury someone alive for no better reason than they were in his way ever be a safe person to be around? 

Not arguing for the death penalty, but jail time.

To Crystal:  perhaps they can be retrained as CEOs and released into Wall Street.



So the "default" position is, the death penalty is normative; the burden lies with those seeking to "remove" it.

Yes, that is true but it reflects history and modern societies, including the Catholic church's approach to the question. Historically the death penalty has been normative. Capital punishment was even legal in Vatican City between 1929 and 1969 and people were executed in the papal states!

Removing the death penalty as a form of punishment for crimes is a new phenomenon. It is one that I support, but the tide of history for millenia, has been in its application. Canada did not abolish capital punishment until 1976.

George D.,

Any penalty must be capable of fair application for it to be normative, even the death penalty.  That has been the rule of law in the U.S. since the beginning, for any penalty.  (Of course, our entire history is "relatively recent" so maybe you find that unpersuasive).

Flogging was normative "until recently," (and is still practiced in some countries, like Singapore), and the the death penalty was "normative" relatively recently even for relatively minor (property) infractions (in Great Britain). 

"Relatively recently" is the same as saying nothing.  It won't be "relatively" recent, presumably, until another 1000 years passes, and then we can say that there is some material part of recorded history in which a lot of countries don't impose the death penalty.  

In countries we consider to be our peers, the death penalty has been abolished for decades. 

Flogging was normative "until recently," (and is still practiced in some countries, like Singapore), and the the death penalty was "normative" relatively recently even for relatively minor (property) infractions (in Great Britain). 

I don't know how I'd find this out, but I have a supposition that, whereas the death penalty still enjoys broad support in the US, flogging does not.  And yet many Americans support waterboarding terrorism suspects.  To me this all seems pretty incoherent.  But then, I find the need to administer the death penalty humanely to be pretty incoherent, too.


Ann Olivier,

Here is a short summary.

There is also an intrinsic trade-off between severity and certainty in any system that aspires to be just. The more severe the punishment, the more procedural protections we want to make sure we get things right, which adds uncertainty and delay to the punishment. The death penalty is a good example of this. 


That is why I reject the popular conception of Hell. Creating such a Hell is worse than any crime a human can commit.

Yes, the whole idea of hell is problematic, at least for me.

I am absolutely against the death penalty. I am unequivocally against torture.  I find it baffling when I encounter others who share my beliefs on these issues but will support the right to an abortion. I've heard the arguments, but I fail to follow the logic. 

Ryan --

Thanks.  Very interesting. It brings up the point not mentioned here yet that longer sentences sometimes servve only to school the inmates in criminality.   But if punishment doesn't work outside of prison, as one study concludes,  that would seem to make it imperative to get the bad guys into prison. 

I'd still like a lot more studies of what has what consequences.  And it seems to me that not enough attention has been paid to the effects of murder on the family of the victims.  

Yes, I think I'm somewhat more conservative about prison than most here (though I'm definitely against capital punishment and for rehabilitation for the lesser crimes).  But maybe that's because, against the odds and unlike other liberals I know, I have known 5people who have been murdered and another who was probably murdered.  They were all middle class to rich folks.  Two were murdered by strangers off the street, and in the other cases the murderers haven't been caught.  I inevitably keep thinking that *something* must be done, at least for the sake of the families that survive. 

I think perhaps for many people the torture and execution of a person is very different than the abortion of an embryo or early fetus (88+% of abortions occur before the end of the 12th week).

Whether you are for or against the death penalty in principle, you have to be aghast at the way in which it is applied in the US: a significant percentage of the condemned are innocent; race is a major factor to the conviction; very large amounts of money are spent in the legal process; and the executions themselves are done in a way that defies sense.

It is not a functional society that first floods the place with guns and then deals with high crime by  executing a few people who look like they might be hardened criminals. Talk about respect for life!

I cannot say that I am viscerally against the death penalty. When Saddam Hussein was executed, at the same time as I was disgusted by the sight of celebrations, there was still a feeling of grim justice. I have a special place in my ranking of crimes for political leaders who use their official position to abuse and kill large numbers of people subjected to their authority. Those are criminals for which I find it hard to feel sympathy, and their continued existence would keep alive worries that some conspiracy at some point might bring them back to power.Those, not the sick serial-killers, are the extreme cases that put in question my commitment against the death penalty.

Otherwise I am against the death penalty, but the opposition is not emotional but rational. I am convinced that the life of every single person is a gift from God even if in some individual cases it can be hard to see that emotionally.

I agree on the issue of inconsistent and spotty application of the death penalty in many jurisdictions. The OJ trial, for example, should have been a death penalty case given the criteria in the state of Californa (pre-meditated and more than one victim) but it wasn't; not do to his race but celebrity and defence. Possibly because of an evaluation of the evidence too but had it not been celebrity, it would have been tried differently.

But inconsistent applicaton of justice is a problem throughout the continuum of the entire criminal justice system. In Canada, for example there is concern from some that the jails are becoming the latest transitional housing facilities for people with mental illness and addictions. Instead of funding community mental health interventions and harm reduction interventions, as well as enhancing restorative justice as a means to rehabilitate and address offences, we are starting to see the emergence of "super-jails". That is troubling to me.

I just think energies are better spent on judicial reform in these areas as they impact more people. Capital punishment is dramatic and emotional and the cases harrowing. And, as I said, while I am opposed, in many of these cases, I am ambivalent when I read the underlying facts. 

But on the broader point of reform of practices and alternative paths to justice, I am a supporter.


In my heart i can't help but feel some people deserve the death penalty.I know i don't believe in the lethal injection medicalization  of killing someone. A firing squad where the person is not treated like a sick animal, but like an upright person responsible for his/her actions seems justified .Punishment, vengence ,retaliation has its place in the human heart ,and therefore has to be chanelled appropriately.The death penalty for certain pre-meditated horrific murders satisfies this cry for justice,i think. However i know that this goes aginst my christian faith. So i am happy to defer to the teachings of the church on this matter and remain silent rather then defend execuctions [except for here, now].One thing i do follow my conscience about is life in prison without parole; that I believe is inhuman and should be abolished.No one should have to live out their lives as unfree subjects.Could you hold the key to someone's freedom and face them day in and day out,year in,year out and deny them freedom,i ask? I could not. Could you shoot someone as revenge for having brutalily murdered[a child ,say?] ,i ask? i think ,i could,though i don't really know if i could.The idea that a person could torture and murder a person then one day walk free is apalling and so is the idea of locking someone up forever in prison.Forfeiting your life as punishment for a cold blooded taking of a life  is justice, i think.Life in prison without parole dehumanizes the prisoner and the guard.Humans are not meant to live chained.That's inhuman.Righteous anger,revenge ,puncishment has its place, i believe. But if the church teaching is NO- then i'll remain silent on the matter.I'll get what's coming to me,if Jesus judges me harshly for feeling this way ,I guess. 

This AP story that appeared in my local newspaper yesterday reports that defendants of death row convicts are using this Oklahoma incident in their appeals.  Headline: "Botched execution could slam brakes on death penalty"


If punishment ,retaliation, vengeance is wrong then with todays technology,there is no reason to have prisons at all. Today people can be monitored electronically and being a prison guard could entail simply monitoring people via cameras as they go about freely in their homes, and on the streets. No matter the crime; a murderer, rapist, mass murderer, etc. could theoretically commit the most horrific crime and then go about their lives freely as society's safety is assured by  monitoring.So-is punishment justified,ever, or not?Let's get real here.

On the topic of drone assassinations, this Steven Chapman column from yesterday criticizes the federal government's lack of transparency in the program.  Headline: "Secrets and lies of Obama's drone war"

I just wonder if  "transparency" could ever excuse executions on the basis that one person, the president, is judge, jury (with his advisors), court of appeals and executioner. We wisely separate those functions in our criminal justice system and similarly separate the various functions of our war-making apparatus. So what is there about the technology of drones which makes it prudent to give all power and authority to a single individual, provided only that the one individual, wearing a PR hat, tell us what he has been doing whenever he sees fit to tell us?

Consider a hard-working couple with two kids.  The father is shot dead in front of  his house, and the mother, who is not terribly bright, has to raise the kids alone on a meagre salary.   It seems to me that if a community is rich enough to afford rehabilitation for the murderer that it is also has obligations to those individuals whose lives have been shattered by the failure to police the streets.

Now let's move forward 10 years.  Those two children are now on drugs.  The older one kills someone in a robbery for dope.  Does the community owe him rehabilitation?  There's a terrible irony in such cases -- the reason the kid needs rehab is because his dad was murdered.  

ISTM that the community has the obligation to get to the *root causes* of kids on dope who murder, and that is 1) lack of education and 2) lack of opportunity.  And we're the ones responsible that that.  So ultimately, who is responsible for all the killing and all the need for rehabilitation?  Sure, the killers.  But they aren't the only ones who have failed.

The difficulty with drones is the way we blur the line between war and our criminal justice system. Against a uniformed army whom we're at war with, there wouldn't be any problem. The drone wouldn't be any different than a bomber. Instead of this clear threat, we are opposing a loose grouping of organizations without clear memberships who are unable to surrender. This makes civilian casualties very likely, creates problems with the sovreignty of other nations, and normalizes a set of rules (the laws of war) that were intended to be used on in extraordinary circumstances. I would move the drones into the Air Force and focus our counterterrorism efforts in conventional law enforcement.

Consider a hard-working couple with two kids.  The father is shot dead in front of  his house, and the mother, who is not terribly bright, has to raise the kids alone on a meagre salary.   It seems to me that if a community is rich enough to afford rehabilitation for the murderer that it is also has obligations to those individuals whose lives have been shattered by the failure to police the streets.

Rose-Ellen Caminer,

Our new technologies only monitor. They can aid verification that someone is complying with certain terms, but if someone strongly wants to commit a crime, the best it can do is tell us that they are not complying.

There also is an issue of deterance. While I don't believe life without parole or the death penalty have that much greater deterant effect than a twenty year sentence, going to prison is a big difference from house arrest.

One thing that seems to be missed by many commentors, or maybe its just assumed, is that wherever one stands on capital punishment, there is no question at all that in the United States one cannot torture someone to death.  That is what happened in this case. No matter what the crime, our Constitution outlaws torture as a form of punishment.   And the Governor acted disgracefully over-ruling the State Supreme Court.  this effort was esensially a "science experiement" where the state of Oklahoma had no idea whether its drug mixture would work or not.  A similar mixture had been used only 1 time before, but with a signifcantly higher dosage of the intial drug.  And the attempt to revive the prisoner, talk about barbaric. 

One final note on the life without parole argument.  At some point this can be a punishment without any effect.  In a community near me there is currently a large fight going on against a proposal by the state to open a facility for prisoners who are too elderly or too infirmed to remain in a regular prison.  A significant propotion of these cases involve people with dementia.  What, pray tell, is the value of keeping a sickly, demented elderly individual in prison other than to say we did it?  At some point it no longer serves any purpose, other than perhaps vengence. 


Another problem with drones, istm, is the impossibility of surrender. Some guy condemns you without judge, jury, separation of these roles, or any transparent legal process, and then one day you're walking down the street and are hit by a missile. In addition to the substantial "collateral damage," (dead innocents,) there's no way you can put your hands up and be taken prisoner. Sometimes this is true in war, (bombing raids, e.g.,) but generally if a person surrenders they must be taken prisoner, not killed.

So if the Taliban gets hold of a drone, and sends it to destroy a drone operator's shack in Arizona or wherever, taking out a few civilians on the side, will we consider that just and legal? 


In case anyone might be interested in what the codemned man did, see


But be warned:  It is grusome in the extreme.


are you suggesting that horror at the man's crimes may have caused the executioners to torture him on purpose?

Then they should be sued.

Bob Schwatz,

It is well established that Lockett was a bad guy and deserving of punishment.  But torture has never been part of our tradition no matter what the person had done.  Over our history a number of very bad people have been sentenced to death and never, ever has torture been acceptable.  One can dispute whether capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but not whether the state is permitted to torture a criminal before or during the carrying out of the sentence.  It is simply not allowed. 

Bob, like I said, the crimes were exceptionally cruel.  It's hard even to read about them let alone look at graphic evidence.  But endorsing or even requiring the same level of cruelty in return just lowers our moral authority to impose punishment of any kind.  It's also extremely bad for the people imposing the penalty, because while it might be emotionally satisfying to sit here typing about how this guy deserved what he got, normal people, good people, would be traumatized at the thought that they had actually inflicted this kind of torment. That's what makes them good and normal, and not cruel or unusual.  Even executioners in the middle ages used to ask their victims for forgiveness. 

Torture is wrong not only because of what it does to the victim but because of what it does to the torturer.  Animals kill quickly, while a torturer, drawing agony out, reduces himself to something even less than a beastl. 

Hi - I know this thread has been dormant for a while, and the topic has fallen off the first page of dotCom, but I saw this article and want to refer it to anyone who may still be checking.  It appeared at  Headline: "Death penalty in America: How the push to abolish capital punishment has made lethal injection less safe."


Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment