The botched executions of death row inmates in Oklahoma and Ohio this year show that there is no “clean” or dignified way to kill someone, according to several Catholic critics of the death penalty.
“To subject a person to this is just absurd. I can’t even wrap my brain around it. Why are we doing this?” said Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty.
Death by lethal injection is becoming more problematic because several pharmaceutical companies in recent years have stopped producing or selling drugs that were traditionally used to carry out executions. As a result, states are scrambling for other sources, including compound pharmacies that are not regulated by the federal government.
The use of compound pharmacies has raised concerns about the quality of the drugs now used in executions and whether those drugs are responsible for inflicting excruciating pain and suffering on condemned inmates.
On April 29, Clayton Lockett, an Oklahoma man convicted of murder, rape and kidnapping, writhed in pain, clenched his teeth and strained to lift his head after being injected with a previously unused combination of three drugs. Officials halted the execution after about 20 minutes, but Lockett later died from a heart attack, according to several published reports.
Three months earlier, another Oklahoma inmate, Michael Lee Wilson, said he felt his “whole body burning” when he was executed by lethal injection in January. Meanwhile, an Ohio man, Dennis McGuire, gasped for breath for more than 10 minutes when he also was executed by lethal injection that same month.
“These things have come to light to show just how unsavory this whole process is. It’s really pretty atrocious,” said Rita Linhardt, a senior staff associate with the Missouri Catholic Conference.
“We’ve had lethal injection executions in this country for 32 years now, and they have only gotten worse. We’ve seen a level of human experimentation with lethal injection that we’ve never before seen,” said Deborah W. Denno, a Fordham University law professor.
Scrutinizing the pharmacies and their products is difficult because at least a dozen states have passed laws to not only conceal the exact drugs used in executions, but also the pharmacies that supply them.
“A lack of transparency as to the source of lethal drugs used in state executions is, indeed, problematic, as it can weaken accountability for manufacturers and state officials,” Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City told Our Sunday Visitor.
Charles C. Camosy, a Fordham University theology professor, told OSV that the secrecy clauses are emblematic of the many institutional and structural evils that are “hidden away” because society does not want to honestly face what is happening.
“We see this with abortion. We see this with violations of human dignity in the labor that produces many products in our consumer culture. And, not surprisingly, we now see this in the death penalty,” he said.
The laws’ secrecy clauses have prompted several legal challenges across the country. In Missouri, a consortium of media organizations has filed a lawsuit alleging that the state’s Department of Corrections is violating the state Sunshine Law by refusing to release information about the “composition, concentration, source and quality of drugs” used to execute inmates.
“It’s a very secretive process. Only the Department of Corrections really knows what’s going on,” Linhardt told OSV.
In Georgia, a death row inmate also challenged that state’s law that shrouds lethal injection drugs in secrecy. On May 19, however, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling that upheld the law’s constitutionality. In its 5-2 vote, the state appeals court shrugged off concerns that the drugs could be tainted or cause unexpected side effects. The court also said that secrecy was necessary to protect the providing pharmacy and its workers from harassment and retaliation. However, one of the dissenting Georgia appellate judges said the law violated inmates’ due process rights, and warned that it could put Georgia on a path to experiencing the same “macabre results” that occurred in Lockett’s execution.
While individual state courts hear challenges to their respective laws, Denno told OSV that the U.S. Supreme Court may have to revisit the issue as to whether the current system of procuring lethal injection drugs violates the Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In 2008, the high court said Kentucky’s lethal injection protocols did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but Denno noted that the death penalty landscape has shifted considerably in the past six years. Because of the ever-changing sources of the drugs, lethal injection protocols now differ from state to state, even from one execution to another in the same state.
“Because of the drug shortages, the states have to get ahold of whatever drugs they can get their hands on,” Denno said.
The Connecticut Department of Corrections told the Associated Press in late May that it was having difficulty obtaining lethal drugs even while it had 11 inmates on death row. A few days earlier, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law allowing the state to use the electric chair if it could not obtain drugs for lethal injection.
“This has really brought to the forefront that there isn’t a clean way to kill anyone, nor should there ever be,” Clifton said. “Killing is killing,”
Analyzing the recent lethal injection issues in light of the Catholic moral tradition, E. Christian Brugger, a moral theology professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, told OSV that he saw no ethical basis to require states to disclose the pharmacies that provide lethal drugs.
However, Brugger, the author of “Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition,” said that drugs used in lethal injections should be revealed and that states must guarantee the public that the manufacturers and drugs meet certain standards for quality and efficacy.
“In principle, confidentiality is not problematic, but the regulation of the drugs should meet strict requirements to make sure they do what they are supposed to do,” Brugger said.
The Catholic Church’s developing teaching on capital punishment, though, would seem to make moot the question of whether today’s lethal injection protocols are ethical or constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In past centuries, the Church affirmed the state’s right to use the death penalty as the most severe form of retributive punishment.
But St. John Paul II recast the death penalty as a matter of self defense in that it should only be used when penal systems cannot protect society from violent individuals. Given today’s advanced prisons and technology, the conditions for the death penalty ever being justly used would seem to be almost nonexistent according to the Church’s new understanding.
“Certainly, we want to protect society from those who would break the law, but when it is possible to render someone who has committed a major crime incapable of inflicting further harm without resorting to lethal measures, state officials would be wise to pursue that option,” said Archbishop Coakley, who added: “And truthfully, that possibility exists in more cases than not.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.