Three recent events provide an occasion to consider our use of capital punishment in the United States.
On May 27, Nebraska became the 19th state to abolish the death penalty.
This doesn’t signal a philosophical move to the left as much as indicate Nebraska’s frustration with the legal challenges and costs associated with capital punishment, as well as the difficulties that many states are having with obtaining the drugs required for lethal injection.
Nebraska’s rejection of the death penalty coincides with the publication of “Cruel and Unusual?” in the current Atlantic. Writer Jeffrey Stern details the ordeal of Clayton Lockett, a rapist and murderer who was executed by the state of Oklahoma on April 29, 2014.
In every way, Lockett’s execution was botched — it’s hard to think of a better description. After an incompetent administration of an unproven execution drug, Lockett writhed on the gurney, struggling against the restraints in an effort to free himself. He rolled his head and tried to speak, illustrating how hard the human body fights to stay alive.
While officials struggled with whether to halt the execution and attempt to revive Lockett, he finally died, an hour and a half after the execution began. Clearly, his death violated the Constitution.
On May 15, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, was sentenced to death, sparking a discussion about which is the greater punishment, execution or life in prison for a 21-year-old, who could be facing 50 or 60 years in solitary confinement.
These three events portray just how complicated and confused our attitudes toward capital punishment are; it’s hard to think of another American practice that is attended by more ambivalence, uncertainty and inconsistency than the death penalty.
Most Americans still support capital punishment, but according to the Pew Research Center support has fallen sharply in the past two decades, from 78 percent in favor in 1996 to 55 percent in 2013. Support falls even more when potential jurors are permitted to impose “life without parole.”
Ambiguities are inevitable. If James Holmes, the Aurora theater shooter currently being tried in Colorado, had committed his crime — which was as cruel and grisly as Tsarnaev’s — in any of 19 other American states, he wouldn’t be subject to the death penalty, at all.
Further, we’ve never figured out a way to administer the death penalty equitably among the rich and poor, among women and men and among the white and minorities. Worst of all, we’ve never dealt squarely with the death penalty’s irrevocability. That we have executed innocent citizens is undeniable, and as long as we continue to execute, we’ll continue to make irreparable mistakes. Sorting all this out seems impossible.
An anecdote exemplifies the confusion and ambiguity: A decade ago, I went to a local church on a drizzly Friday night to hear an address by Helen Prejean, the death penalty opponent whose book was made into the film “Dead Man Walking.” I assumed that she would be preaching to the choir, and mostly she was.
But as soon as Prejean finished describing her uncompromising opposition to the death penalty and invited questions, a young woman in the row directly behind me stood up and faced the audience. She displayed a picture of her sister, who had been one of at least five victims of a serial killer, who was still alive on death row.
She described graphically the inexplicable torture that the killer used to murder her sister, administering an uncomfortable jolt to the convictions against the death penalty shared by many in the audience.
But there’s the dilemma in stark contrast: Every instinct compels us to give her sister’s killer precisely the treatment that he gave his victim. But we can’t give him what he truly deserves without compromising our most enlightened principles.
So we imagine that the death penalty will give us a pale version of justice when, in fact, it pulls us toward a confused brutality. The death penalty isn’t about the executed; it’s about who we are.