In Pennsylvania, we exact punishment on murderers in a rudimentary way — through killing them ourselves. As long as the law has been applied equally and with judiciousness, our courts say this is acceptable. The problem is that the law is not applied equally or with judiciousness. Nor does the death penalty deter murderers from killing others. And it doesn’t save us money.
Clayton Lockett was found guilty by an Oklahoma jury for participating in the kidnapping of three people, a man and two women, including 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, on June 3, 1999. With the help of two accomplices, Lockett “beat the victims [and] raped the other woman,” wrote Matt Pearce for the Los Angeles Times and “then took all three outside of town … where [victim] Neiman was shot twice and buried alive as she gasped for air.” Before her tragic murder, Pearce wrote that Neiman “played saxophone, loved her truck and spoke her mind.”
Officials executed Lockett in Oklahoma in April for participating in her murder.
The only problem with this situation is that Lockett didn’t seem to die humanely as required under the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Instead, some three minutes into his execution Clayton Lockett “struggled violently, groaned and writhed” according to a report from Katie Fretland for The Guardian, “lifting his shoulder and head from the gurney.”
After about 16 minutes into the fracas, prison officials apparently realized things were going awry and closed the blinds separating the viewers from the execution chamber. He repeatedly squirmed and expressed pain and discomfort. Eventually, Lockett suffered a massive heart attack and died just under 45 minutes into the miserable grotesquerie.
It seems that officials botched the execution of Lockett.
Oklahoma Corrections department spokesman Jerry Massie told The Guardian that an experimental new cocktail of lethal injections were used by prison officials. It appears a vein “blew.” This likely means that the chemicals broke through the vein in Lockett’s arm where they were injected, seeping into his system unevenly and slowly, leading to a seemingly painful death.
The punishment shouldn’t always fit the crime
A day before Lockett’s torturous death, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed a death warrant for John Lewis Jordan, a convicted murderer who shot Philadelphia police officer Chuck Cassidy dead during a robbery of a Dunkin’ Donuts in 2009. Jordan is slated to die in June.
The last person legally executed in Pennsylvania was Philadelphian Gary Heidnik, in 1999. Heidnik was notorious for his “House of Horrors,” wherein he kept several women hostage for years and repeatedly raped and tortured them. He also forced his victims to torture each other in various fashions. Upon his death, Heidnik made no statements. He allegedly wished to die.
These men demonstrated a disregard for the emotions and lives of other human beings to an unsettling degree. In some cases, particularly Heidnik’s, they also demonstrated a gruesome pleasure in the anguish of others.
If you only judge these men based upon their crimes, these men appear to be different than you are or I am. And, we have reached a societal consensus that these men don’t deserve to live among us. In some states this means miserable confinement for the rest of their lives. In other states, such as Pennsylvania, this means being executed by the state after lengthy, and costly, judicial proceedings.
The former, life imprisonment, is an exercise in practical, commonsense mercy; the latter is an exercise in vengeful human will. Certainly, while we may want to torture these men, we respect our Constitution’s edict prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, it’s not natural for us to execute others as a wrathful measure.
More to the point, if the universe accepted our perverse human fascination with vengeance, these men would spontaneously die as painfully and tragically as their victims with no assistance from us.
However, the universe is not fascinated by vengeance, and neither is the U.S. Constitution.
Still, by legal tradition, juries found these men guilty of heinous acts. They were or are murderers. And, in Pennsylvania, we exact punishment on murderers in a rudimentary way — through killing them ourselves. As long as the law has been applied equally and with judiciousness, our courts say this is acceptable.
The problem is that the law is not applied equally or with judiciousness. Nor does the death penalty deter murderers from killing others. And it doesn’t save us money.
The death penalty costs us dearly
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) says that since 1973, over 140 individuals “have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.” This means that, at a bare minimum, the United States planned on killing over 140 innocent human beings for crimes they did not, apparently, commit. Here in Pennsylvania, we have nearly 200 people on death row including convicted cop killer Lewis Jordan.
In Jordan’s case, we are as certain as we can be of his guilt thanks to witnesses and security camera footage of his crime. We don’t know precisely what was going through his mind during his odious foray into antisocial violence, but we as a society have ground rules that limit free exercise.
If you want to enjoy the rich benefits of American citizenship, you must consent to limits on your freedom — including not killing or robbing each other. And our courts determine culpability and personal responsibility to gauge what exact penalty the criminal should face.
In some cases, this means finding that the accused is mentally ill. In other cases, this means finding that the person did not intend to kill someone but demonstrated a callous disregard for human life that led to the death.
Typically, the death penalty is reserved for a whole other category of crime that stems from malicious intent. Given that a lot of “convicted murderers” have been exonerated, we can be sure that our criminal proceedings are nowhere near wholly truthful.
Most experts don’t think the death penalty even deters anyone from committing murder. The DPIC reports that 88 percent of “former and present presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies” flatly “reject the notion that that death penalty” deters murder at all.
It doesn’t save money, either. The Palm Beach Post reported in 2000 that enforcing Florida’s death penalty and dealing with all its appeals costs the state $51 million a year more than what it would cost to imprison all first-degree murderers sentenced to life in prison without parole. Since 1976, the DPIC say this equates to $24 million per execution in Florida.
This leaves only one justifiable reason to continue the practice: Wrath.
This capricious practice is flatly rejected by the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and the Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. Both groups advocate for the repeal of the death penalty and express disturbance at America’s preoccupation with vengeance — and for good reason.
American society is obsessed with punitive vengeance, and it is killing us. This biblical enforcement creates an endless positive feedback loop of violence begetting pain begetting violence. It will not stop until we’ve had enough or until it destroys us. We see the ramifications of our perverse, whimsical obsession with wrath when we observe that America accounts for 25 percent of the world’s inmates, yet we have only 5 percent of the world’s population within our borders.
Surely, we have killed innocent people for crimes they did not commit. We disproportionately execute African-Americans when compared to whites. The DPIC reports that jurors in seemingly liberal enclave Washington state are “three times more likely to recommend” execution for African-Americans convicted of murder than whites in similar cases. Also, we disproportionately kill poor people over rich people for the same crimes, according to Death Penalty Focus. The organization says, “Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys” and that “appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases.”
This makes the law completely meaningless. And it makes the law a tool of tyrannical violence instead of a guarantor of rights for victims.
We as a society have no right to behave like the murderers we sentence. We as a society have no right to force the universe to our wills to exact primitive justice on other human beings who are just the same as we are save for a few key experiential differences.
As painful as it is, we must recognize that the death penalty does nothing but cost us — extra money, extra misery, extra pain, and extra violence.
It’s time to stop this barbarism.