Death’s machinery

| July 6, 2015

imagesEditorial by Greensboro News-Record, July 5, 2015.

In an unsettling 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court last week blessed a lethal cocktail that has resulted in gruesome suffering in some executions.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit by four inmates in Oklahoma (one of whom has since been put to death) that followed a series of incidents in which prisoners gasped, writhed and choked for long periods of time before death finally came.

The high court’s ruling was cold and logical: Condemned prisoners have to die somehow .

For lack of anything better, the court decreed, the sedative midazolam is approved for future use. Midazolam is supposed to induce loss of consciousness, so prisoners won’t feel pain when other drugs start to take hold, but there are serious doubts that it delivers as advertised.

No matter. “Because capital punishment is constitutional, there must be a constitutional means of carrying it out,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

But it was torture in itself to see some of the best legal minds in the nation arguing the art and science of state-sanctioned killing. (For the record, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett didn’t die for 43 minutes after his injection with the killer cocktail in 2014.)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out the absurdity of it all. “Petitioners contend that Oklahoma’s current protocol is a barbarous method of punishment — the chemical equivalent of being burned alive,” she wrote in a scathing dissent. “But under the court’s new rule, it would not matter whether the state intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death or actually burned at the stake.”

This case was not about capital punishment itself, but the high court couldn’t avoid the creeping shadows of that bigger issue. “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissent, “I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”

Breyer was referring to whether execution involves “cruel and unusual punishment,” which violates the Eighth Amendment. But there’s another layer of cruelty that involves innocent people who are sentenced to death by an imperfect and capricious system. And you don’t have to look far.

LaMonte Armstrong, a Greensboro man, was exonerated of the murder of an N.C. A&T professor in 2012 after serving 17 years in prison. More recently, Henry McCollum spent more than 30 years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. McCollum was 19 and his half-brother, Leon Brown, was 15 when they were wrongfully convicted in 1983 of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. They were freed in September and pardoned by Gov. Pat McCrory in June. Armstrong had been sentenced to life, but McCollum might well have been put to death by now — by lethal injection.

To be sure, the crimes involved in most capital cases are beyond reprehensible. In Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett raped and shot his 19-year-old victim and then ordered a friend to bury her alive. But mistakes do happen. Even worse, the pursuit of the death penalty in North Carolina is vigorous and expensive, even if the evidence is lacking. The Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina concluded in a new study that prosecutors have sought death sentences against an average of about two people per year since 1989 without ample evidence.

Waste. Carelessness. Flawed investigations. Inadequate legal representation. Overzealous prosecutors. A process rife with imperfections from the courtroom to the gurney and the needle. All ought to give us pause when demanding a life for a life.

Not only is the method of putting people to death obviously broken, but so is the system of justice that lands them on death’s doorstep in the first place.

Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

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  1. Johnny Hiott says:

    Who was the genius that decided hanging by the neck until dead was cruel and inhumane punishment ? It worked for a few hundred years and wasn’t cruel and inhumane then……Yes, the system is broken and until prosecutors once again direct their efforts towards justice instead of their conviction rates it will remain broken.