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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

The Ultimate Punishment Part 4: A Humane Way To Kill

This is part 4 in a series that examines the death penalty in the United States of America. You can read the other posts here:

Lethal Injection

In January 2014, in Ohio, Dennis McGuire gasped, his stomach heaved violently and his fists clenched through 25 minutes of a botched execution. Horrified, an audience and a team of executioners watched a human being suffer before finally succumbing to the lethal cocktail of drugs.

In April 2014, in Oklahoma, a new combination of drugs shrouded in secrecy and untested was to be used on two death row inmates. The first of the 3 drugs was meant to knock the offender unconscious so he couldn’t feel the excruciating pain caused by the following drugs. The remaining two would ultimately kill him. Clayton D. Lockett was the first of the two death row inmates set to die and after searching for a vein for an hour, they administered the knock out drug. Assuming he was unconscious, they then injected the lethal doses and Lockett proceeded to writhe in visibly excruciating pain, clenching his teeth and struggling to lift his head for 43 minutes. It was so disturbing a sight, the execution team lowered the blinds so the witnesses could no longer see what was going on. The second man, Charles Warner, received a stay of execution after that.

In July 2014, in Arizona, it took Joseph R. Wood one hour and 40 minutes to die from his injection, appearing to suffer through that time. One witness counted 640 gasps from Joseph as he struggled in front of an audience for near two hours.

That was just 2014.

Lethal injection is the latest in a long line of execution methods. Each of the previous methods was left behind because we no longer saw them as “humane”. This is, of course, one of the most absurd conversations we’ve ever had as modern human beings.

The word, “humane” is defined as having or showing compassion or benevolence. You cannot apply that to a method of slaughter unless it is an act of mercy for which the victim has a profound and unchangeable desire. Under no circumstances can killing someone against their will ever be considered humane. If you’ve somehow convinced yourself of the opposite, well, I congratulate you on denial levels more impressive than a banana-munching Ray Comfort.

Describing any execution as humane is simply the attempt by the governing body and people involved in the execution to shrug off guilt, to appear less cruel than they actually are. Denying that is just a way to combat the cognitive dissonance that comes with describing an act of needless violence and slaughter as humane.

The first execution by lethal injection in the USA took place in 1982. It was introduced to combat two things: The painfulness of the procedure so as to be more “humane” and the horror that witnesses are subject to when watching an execution. Being as the willing and premeditated slaughter of a human being against their will can never be described as “humane”, this leaves us with only one real reason for the introduction of lethal injection: to ease the conscience of those involved. Pure, unadulterated, selfish reasons.

The one thing that is most often overlooked when studying the death penalty is the impact on the family of the offender. Killers, rapists, and violent offenders often have families just like yours or mine, with mothers who tried their best and fathers who worked hard to make ends meet. They have loving siblings and close-knit cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents who love and adore them, even though their loved one committed a heinous crime. These loved ones of the offender are innocent, law-abiding citizens. Sometimes they are elderly women, a sole survivor left of a family torn apart by crime just as significantly as the victim’s family was. These are innocent, hardworking men and women who have to prepare the very last thing they’ll utter to their loved one. They have to plan what to wear to their son or daughter’s execution. They have to lay awake nights fretting over the very possible likelihood that the execution does not go smoothly. They try to put out of their minds the idea that they may have to witness their child suffer in great pain as the victim’s family shouts awful things at him or her. These are innocent, loving people who didn’t choose to be related to a violent offender, and they feel every bit as much as the victim’s family does.

Take, for example, Harriet, a woman who was profiled in Grief, Loss, and Treatment for Death Row Families: Forgotten No More. Her son asked her to be a witness to his execution and without hesitation, she said yes. Able to put aside the horror she knew she would go through, she vowed to be there for her son, and she was. It was not easy.

When Harriet witnessed her son’s execution, she was mindful of the presence of the victim’s family members… She tried her best to focus all her attention on her son as she communicated her love for him through her eyes. While she was not permitted to speak, she mouthed, “I love you” to her son over and over. It was particularly challenging for her to maintain her focus on her son, however, with the victim’s family members calling out hateful messages to her son as he was being executed.

For a moment, put yourself in Harriet’s shoes. She tried desperately to filter out the loud declarations that the drugs were not painful enough, as she watched her son die. Picture yourself in that very same situation, in a room full of people foaming at the mouth with hatred for the person you love the most as you watch that person die. Just close your eyes, and try to empathize with this woman, who did nothing wrong, didn’t ask for this, and most certainly does not deserve it.

How about Laverne, whose son was executed 10 years after his conviction, with no regard for the fact that he was extremely mentally ill. She had been present at her son’s execution so he had someone who loved him there, but she said that witnessing her son die was overwhelming. She said her heart broke watching him die and she has been haunted by images of it ever since. She explained that no hour went by that she didn’t think about watching him die, or picture it in her mind. She’d stopped leaving her house. She had stopped answering her phone. She had stopped participating in life. She was profiled in the book, Hidden Victims: The Effects of the Death Penalty on Families of the Accused.

It’s also extremely easy to overlook the effects of executions on correctional officers, executioners and wardens. I’ll let them tell you in their own words.

Donald Cabana:

Ron McAndrew:

Jeanne Woodford:

Frank Thompson:

Jerry Givens:

Murder victims’ families also come out against the death penalty in significant numbers. To this end, a non-profit was founded, Murder Victims Families For Human Rights. This group is made up of the loved ones of those who have been taken from them by murder, and who feel that the gruesome display of an execution is an insult to their loved ones’ memories. They fight to abolish the death penalty, just as hard as those who have never lost a loved one to violent crime.

Witnessing a human being be killed is not something you walk away from unscathed. Even if you feel anger towards that person, even if you hate them more than you ever thought capable. While some victims’ families will witness an execution and walk away from it unable to admit that it made them uncomfortable, I don’t think the human condition allows for that, unless you’re as cold-blooded as the murderer himself. It affects every last person who witnesses it, from reporters and executioners, wardens and the offender’s family. To expect that the murder victim’s family will walk out of that room feeling good, is to be as gullible as human beings get.

The families of murder victims need care, they need compassion, they need to grieve. Witnessing the slaughter of a human being is not going to facilitate that, no matter how much they assert it will.

The last person an execution affects negatively is the medical personnel who are required by most death penalty states to be present for a lethal injection. More and more of these medical professionals are refusing to take part in executions as it directly conflicts with the oaths they took to help and not harm people. It violates, in every way possible, the medical profession’s ethics. Many states are experiencing turmoil in their death penalty system as it becomes harder and harder to find medical professionals willing to attend executions.

Both the American Medical Association and the American Board of Anesthesiologists have come out with statements against participation in lethal injections. The American Board of Anesthesiologists even voted to revoke the license of those men and women who have been found to assist in the execution of a human being.

The act of aiding in an execution defies the Hippocratic oath directly and leaves the medical personnel involved not only having to deal with taking a life but also having to grapple with the fact that it violates the ethics of their profession.

The death penalty is inhumane. It’s inhumane not just to the man or woman who is losing their life, but also to their innocent loved ones who certainly didn’t ask to have their world turned upside down by a violent crime. It’s inhumane to the men and women who go to work for 30-60 days prior to an execution, to prepare to kill a human being. It’s inhumane to the wardens and executioners who have to train their staff how to kill a person. It’s inhumane to the murder victims’ families who need positivity and compassion and time to grieve, rather than grisly scenes of death all over again. Finally, it’s inhumane to the men and women of the medical profession, who struggle to come to terms with their guilt over having to take a human life and the fact that the act defies the values of the very profession they are in.

There is no way you can ever make the case that lethal injection or any other form of execution is humane. It’s just simply not possible.

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This is part 4 in a series that examines the death penalty in the United States of America. You can read the other posts here:

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