Lethal Injection Is Pretty Much the Worst Way to Execute People. So Why Do We Use It?

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Lethal injection death chamber in prison, Huntsville, Texas, USA
Photo: David J Sams/Getty Images

Killing a human being turns out to be surpassingly hard to do.

This was made gruesomely apparent in Oklahoma last week, when the state tried to execute a convicted murderer named Clayton Lockett by injecting him with a new and secret mix of deadly chemicals. "Man," Lockett moaned, sixteen minutes after the injection and long after he was supposed to be dead, and he tried to get up, and began to writhe and jerk on the gurney until prison officials closed a curtain to keep the witnesses from seeing the rest of the episode. Alarm set in. The doctor on hand told state officials that Lockett had not received enough chemicals to kill him, but that there were no more chemicals on hand. There were debates over whether to take the prisoner to a hospital. Forty-three minutes after injection, Lockett had a massive heart attack (this was not part of the state's plan) and died.

Even under controlled circumstances like state executions — in which the executed has no freedom of movement, no ability to resist, in which the state is in complete control — human beings prove surprisingly resilient. Over the past century, 3 percent of hangings have been botched, and about 2 percent of electrocutions. More than 5 percent of gassings in state-operated gas chambers went awry. Lethal injections have become the most common mode of execution in the United States, but they are more error-prone still: 7 percent of them are botched. Which means that subsumed into the deep and difficult question of why we are executing prisoners at all is another question, more tangible but just as telling: Why are we killing them in the least effective way?

Lethal injection introduces a few particular complications. The drugs — chosen for their lethality — are not often used on human beings, and application is somewhat poorly understood. (Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones detailed some of these difficulties in a prescient piece published just before Oklahoma tried to execute Lockett last week.) States have had special trouble with condemned men who are obese, or heroin addicts or others on whom it is tricky to find a vein. Executions have been extremely prolonged because prison staff tied an arm strap too tightly, cutting off circulation and keeping drugs from moving throughout the body, or because it took an hour to find a vein; in 2009, the state of Ohio tried to execute a man named Romell Broom, and over the course of two hours officials stuck him 18 times in the legs and arms, unsuccessfully. At several points, Broom tried to help them, though that didn't work either. After two hours, the prison officials decided to regroup, and phoned the governor to ask him to delay the execution by a few days. He agreed. Then there were legal challenges about the ethics of condemning someone to a second execution after the state had failed to carry out the first. More than four years later, Broom is still on death row.

Which raises the question of why we ended up with this technology in the first place. Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst whose engaging history of botched executions (from which I drew the statistics above) is out this week, believes that legislators were chasing the appearance of a humane, dispassionate, and clinical means of execution without much sense of how to actually achieve it. "There was a lot of investment in the optics of execution," Sarat told me. He quotes early enthusiasts of the method describing it as "visually palatable." The desire to make capital punishment less macabre, less visually abhorrent, Sarat argues in his book, has helped spur each of the modern changes in execution method, from hanging to the gas chamber to electrocution to lethal injection.

If appearance is what you are after, lethal injection seems perfect. One of the drugs usually given is a paralytic, which renders the inmate unable to show pain. "The modern death chamber has come to resemble a hospital room," Sarat writes — the condemned prisoner is strapped to a gurney as an emergency medical patient would be, and the execution is carried out by medical personnel. The complications — obesity, vein obscurity — are medical complications. Oklahoma was the first state to install lethal injection as a technology of execution, and the legislators pushing the initiative spent significant time courting the state's medical association, which refused to participate. "The legitimacy of capital punishment depends upon the ability to say that what we are doing as a state is different and better than those we condemn," Sarat told me.

Capital punishment is declining. Seven states have abolished the death penalty in the past decade (there are now sixteen states without it); death sentences are being handed out at approximately one third the rate they were fifteen years ago; and executions are down significantly, too. Some experts think that capital punishment is on the way out, and perhaps they are right.

But in the meantime, efforts to improve the death penalty have an anomalous quality. There are echoes (in the push for lethal injection, and in the long history that precedes it) of the arguments that have been made during the last two presidential administrations for warfare conducted increasingly from a distance, through drones and missiles: That it will be more clinical, less risky, less macabre.

And yet as the horrifically botched execution of Clayton Lockett helped show, there are limits to how clinical, how risk-free. Killing a person is still an incredibly difficult to thing to do, and the nature of the act makes it both inherently grotesque and rife with the possibility for human error. That legislators consider the death penalty both necessary in principle and abhorrent in practice has meant that efforts to reform the techniques by which the state executes prisoners have led only to a prettification of capital punishment — an effort to make executions less gruesome as spectacles, less abhorrent to see. But this has left us with a system that is more error-prone and more likely to be painful to the prisoners than several of the systems that preceded it. And, as Clayton Lockett's survivors might testify, no more humane.