Oklahoma’s failed Execution raises serious legal and moral questions.

April 30, 2014

As a former member of the ACLU National Board and one-time recipient of the Abolitionist of the Year award from the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, it is not possible to stand by silently after last night’s hideous mishandled execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma. The procedure used is an unspeakable offense against human dignity and out status as bears of teh image of God. You can read the grisly details on the link below and, if you look around, you will see that last night’s scheduled double execution was a political farce and an opportunity for an ambitious office holder to gain some sort of advantage.

Oklahoma Botches Clayton Lockett’s Execution.

I have developed an interest in Britain’s most famous executioner, Albert Pierrepoint. He came from a family of executioners and was personally responsible for over 200 hangings of German war criminals after WWII. There is a movie, “Pierrepoint: the Last Hangman” on YouTube that gives a generally accurate version of the Pierrepoint story. The most interesting aspect of this life is his devotion to the once ultra-secret English procedure of carrying out the death penalty. When Mr. Pierrepoint stepped into your death row cell, you already had less than a minute to live. Every time. This man lived in a fascinating and dark world.

One may wonder if hanging would be a better alternative for the American system. Two observations. Washington State horribly botched a hanging about 20 years ago and it scared the daylights out of everybody. Secondly, Pierrepoint’s execution journal contains the physical information of each condemned prisoner. Relying on personal memory, I do not believe there was a 200 lb man on the entire list. Modern Americans are quite a bit heavier than the Brits prior to 1954, when Pierrepoint did his last “job.”: The British chart of drops, and the executioner’s professional observations, are directed to a concern that the prisoner’s head not be ripped off (as apparently happened in Washington State). A professionally conducted hanging takes a lot of experience and a sharp eye. We are not up to that.

I do not want to be gross about this, but please note that ,when things got really nasty in the Oklahoma death chamber, the blinds were pulled down. In other words, the witnesses were prevented from performing the single task for which they were present. There are witnesses for a reason. The correction department said a lot when it chose to conceal the inmate’s death. If it is too inhumane to be viewed by witnesses, it is unconstitutional.

But what about the bible? Does not the holy scriptures demand the death penalty. There are two answers, “yes” and “no.” The demand to take the lives of killers is clear in the covenant between God and Noah. Even though the Creator did not demand the life of Cain in exchange for Able, things changed. Whether this demand for blood vengeance should be transferred into the New Testament may be an open question. I refer you to Stanley Hauerwas, now retired from Duke. I would not presume to state his argument here, but it is a good and measured bit of scholarship.

Here is what I do know. The Old Testament law demands there be no distinction in the administration of justice (Deut 16:19, Mal 2:8). The principle is even carried to the point that we may not favor the poor (Ex 23:3). This country is a very long way from these standards and has no business putting anybody to death.


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