Is the Death of Capital Punishment Nigh?
Thanks, Danielle and the entire Co-Op gang, for having me this month. I cannot promise to be the most uplifting blogger, as one of my primary areas of interest is cruel and unusual punishments, but perhaps I can provide some relief with my other interests—torts and law & science. Today, however, I’m starting with capital punishment.
In the wake of the botched Oklahoma execution, several people have asked me whether this will mark the beginning of capital punishment’s demise. The thought behind this sentiment seems to be that the horror of Clayton D. Lockett—the subject of the botched execution—writhing and clenching his teeth after he was injected with midazolam might convince the general public that capital punishment is just gruesome and no longer compatible with our sense of fairness and justice. While some observers might certainly find this to be the case, here in Texas—the death penalty capital—I’ve heard people express frustration that anyone has shown sympathy toward Lockett. “Why isn’t anyone talking about his victim?” they ask. “Why should we care that he suffered a few minutes of pain after what he did?” While I’ve tried to explain that the Supreme Court has drawn the line of constitutionality at offenders suffering from wanton infliction of pain, and that we should care about what happened in Oklahoma because it could possibly be considered unconstitutional, this legal argument seems to find little resonance with these questioners. And this sentiment of frustration doesn’t emanate from just Texans; I’ve heard the same thing from people all over the country. Still, the botched execution in Oklahoma—and other botched executions—have been successful in placing a spotlight on some of the problems with capital punishment today. Most of the recent concerns with executions stem from European countries’ refusal to provide death penalty states with certain drugs that have traditionally been used to carry out lethal injection. This has led to death penalty states turning elsewhere for drugs, such as compounding pharmacies, over which there is very little oversight, or using more readily available drugs, such as the medazoline that was used in Oklahoma. States’ new uses of drugs seem to be shrouded in secrecy or largely untested, leaving questions as to how reliable they are in carrying out executions and how much pain they may be causing in doing so. But do we really know how much pain lethal injection with the traditional three-drug cocktail (sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride) caused offenders? Just because most states used similar lethal injection cocktails does not necessarily mean that they were the most humane way to carry out the punishment. There does not seem to be a realistic way to objectively measure the pain involved in execution. In fact, one of the drugs used in the traditional three-drug cocktail for lethal injection—pancuronium bromide—was employed to mask the body’s struggle as it descends into death; pancuronium bromide is a paralytic that keeps the offender’s body from flailing and twitching involuntarily as the body is put to death. Paralyzing the offender in this way may make the execution more palatable for observers to watch. It may also mask any errors in sedating the offender before he is killed, as was argued in Baze v. Rees.
Taking a step back, the Supreme Court has never found a particular method of execution unconstitutional. Although the Court has been continuously chipping away at the death penalty, it has done this from the directions of scrutinizing the classes of offenders that may be executed, limiting which crimes may be punished with death, and examining the procedures necessary to sentence an offender to death. In prohibiting capital punishment in some of these circumstances, the Court has looked primarily at (1) objective indicia of a consensus against a particular punishment, and (2) the Court’s own “independent judgment.”
With respect to the first consideration—the “objective indicia”—thirty-two states (plus the federal government and U.S. military) have retained the death penalty. While this does not seem to suggest that a consensus has been formed against the punishment in the United States, the Supreme Court has found such a consensus on less evidence. In Graham v. Florida, for example, the Supreme Court found that a consensus existed against imposing a sentencing of life without the possibility of parole on juvenile non-homicide offenders despite the fact that thirty-nine jurisdictions permitted the punishment for that crime. In that case, the Court focused on the fact that the punishment was relatively rarely imposed in those jurisdictions. In other cases, the Court has said that the “consistency of the direction of change” makes a difference. In Atkins v. Virginia, for example, the Court found it telling that sixteen jurisdictions had moved to prohibit executing “mentally retarded” offenders in the decade or so before Atkins was decided. In comparison, six jurisdictions have abolished capital punishment within the last eight years.
With respect to the Court’s second indicator of the constitutionality of a punishment—its own independent judgment—the Court has primarily looked to the penological purposes of punishment. This is a somewhat unpredictable and malleable inquiry, however, and the Court has also looked to factors as varied as the reliability of the evidence presented in the trial court and the risk of wrongful execution.
One distinguishing characteristic of capital punishment more generally, though, is its enshrinement in the text of the Constitution. It’s mentioned no less that four times, by reference to capital crimes and depriving someone of his life. The Supreme Court has adopted an evolving interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, but it seems that the Court could find this textual aspect of the Constitution a difficult hurdle to overcome.