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​HARRINGTON: Make execution look like what it is

The death penalty should be carried out in ways which fully demonstrate its injustice

On Apr. 2, my fellow Opinion columnist Jared Fogel advocated for lethal injection to remain the primary means of capital punishment. He feared a Supreme Court decision in Glossip v. Gross on the constitutionality of certain drug cocktails and decreased availability of lethal injection drugs would lead more states to turn to the firing squad, a method Fogel considers “inhumane and immoral.” This assumes lethal injection is a morally superior form of capital punishment. It is not. The firing squad is likely more humane, despite its gruesome appearance. Also, removing the medical theater from capital punishment will help people realize they are uncomfortable with the death penalty.

When discussing the ethics of capital punishment, I find it necessary to discriminate between the ethics of choosing to give someone the death penalty and the ethics of how the execution is carried out. Fogel implies he disagrees with the death penalty. As do I. Yet one can still seek to have an inherently immoral act to be carried out in a more ethical way. Many see this distinction as foolish, however. Pope Francis said, “There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of 'getting it right.’” To The New York Times editorial board, “The early years of the 21st century will stand out as a peculiar period during which otherwise reasonable people hotly debated how to kill other people while inflicting the least amount of constitutionally acceptable pain.” While macabre, the discussion is worth having.

Fogel and I both seek to apply values to the state choice of execution techniques. However, Fogel prioritizes the feelings of the American public, a factor I believe should be disregarded wholesale. The people responding to the polls Fogel relies on (in which 53 percent of people consider the firing squad “cruel and unusual” while only 18 percent consider lethal injection to be so) are not choosing their own preference if sitting on death row. Rather, they merely consider how they would prefer the state to kill people (who are not themselves). From this mindset, it is obvious to endorse what appears to be a medical procedure (perhaps akin to watching their pet be “put down”) over “barbaric” death by firing squad Utah signed into law Mar. 23.

What appears to the American public to be “inhumane” or “cruel and unusual” does not align with reality. Despite the firing squad’s offense to the American public’s sensibilities, we can see it is equivalent, if not morally superior to, lethal injection on moral grounds. While lethal injection may seem professionalized, its procedure has been repeatedly adjusted by necessity: starting in 2010, drug companies refused to supply sodium thiopental for the injections; the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia banned the import of non-FDA regulated sodium thiopental; a compounding pharmacists’ board discouraged its members from compounding drugs for the injections. Thus, the three-drug method declared constitutional in the 2008 Baze vs. Rees is no longer attainable. Texas has since been using pentobarbital for its executions, but amid fears it would run out before an Apr. 9 execution, it considered altering its protocol to allow for new drugs to be used. In high doses, a large variety of chemicals could administer a lethal injection. However, we as a nation should not rely on yet-untested drugs for executions.

Use of the firing squad avoids the cruel and unusual testing of experimental poisoning strategies on prisoners. While the relative pain between the two methods has not been studied, a key benefit of the firing squad for the prisoner is its speed. The time measurements are debated, but the Utah bill sponsor claimed, “You reach death obviously in three to five seconds.” By contrast the behavior of Clayton Lockett during his 43-minute long execution has raised fears that the sedative midazolam may be rendered ineffective by the subsequent paralytic drug injected. Thus, the inmate may be remaining conscious while paralyzed. A quick (albeit bloodier) execution avoids such a chance of prolonged pain.

Historically, death by firing squad has also prioritized the conscience of the shooters by distributing blank (bullet-free) rounds in one of the shooter’s guns. This convention is ridiculous. If a police officer volunteers to be a part of a firing squad to kill a prisoner (and Utah has always seen such an abundance of volunteers it feels the need to give priority to those from where the crime happened,) he should have to live his life knowing that he fired a bullet that killed someone.

The combined forces of suppliers restricting access to drugs for lethal injections and the chance of experimental protocols being declared unconstitutional in Glossip v. Gross provides a unique window for the end of the death penalty. Currently, 63 percent of Americans support executing murderers. I doubt this rate will survive amidst this gruesome public discussion of various ways the state can kill people, especially if Americans must become accustomed to viewing executions as a bullet to the heart instead of an injection into a vein will likely decrease this number. Making death look more like death is the answer.

Elaine Harrington is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at