Death Penalty in the USA: Execution without Suffering, a Way to Relieve the Executioner

In April, the agonizing death of the condemned American Clayton Lockett, the result of an experimental new lethal injection procedure, opened the debate about “humane” execution. Is it to soothe the conscience of the executioner? This is what Mugambi Jouet, a legal expert who has assisted in the defense of those condemned to death in the United States, believes.

The indignation brought about by the agony of the condemned Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma revives a long, historical debate in the United States about the “humane” manner of executing prisoners.

Before lethal injection became the method of choice for killing the condemned, American society had resorted to hanging, gunfire, the electric chair and even the gas chamber.

The evolution towards a “pain-free” method of execution is often perceived to be a sign of progress. American society thus seems more and more preoccupied by the well-being of its prisoners.

More of a Good Conscience than Empathy

In reality, the search for a painless method of execution isn’t driven by any empathy for those condemned to death. Rather, this research reflects an attempt to alleviate the troubled conscience evoked by the fact of killing a human being in cold blood. To tone down the process of execution by resorting to the lethal injection — often imagined to be compassionate euthanasia — is a step that those in favor of the death penalty carry out for their own moral comfort.

To “soften” the killing of prisoners diminishes the [bad] conscience of the executioners, as Austin Sarat demonstrated in his book, “When the State Kills.” Every defender of the death penalty indirectly becomes an executioner in a democratic state enforcing this punishment. These circumstances account for the outcry provoked by Lockett’s “failed” execution and the demand that from now on executions be carried out in a “humane” manner.

Lockett’s ordeal seems to have been precipitated by the use of non-compliant chemicals, due in part to the fact that European countries do not allow their laboratories to provide the products [used for lethal injection] to American prisons. Reforms in the United States are currently aimed at rectifying this impediment without actually reconsidering capital punishment.

Among the Defenders of the Death Penalty, How Many of Them Would Manage to Cope with It?

The supporters of the death penalty want the state to execute the condemned on their behalf without actually having to deal with the act. These supporters would not themselves be capable of attaching a human being to a stretcher and injecting poison in his veins until his death. Confronting them with this reality could create reservations among those who conceptualize the death penalty in an abstract and idealized way.

In his “Letter on the Blind,” Denis Diderot wrote that “our virtues depend on our manner of feeling” and that “many people would have less trouble killing a person at a distance, where they would only see them as large as a swallow, than cutting the throat of a bull with their own hands.”*

Likewise, the vigorous supporters of the death penalty might have doubts if they were forced to execute someone themselves.

Nevertheless, history suggests that under certain circumstances, the majority of people are capable of killing in cold blood. We know that the genocides of World War II, Bosnia and Rwanda were extraordinary atrocities committed, largely, by ordinary people. It is therefore possible that many supporters of the death penalty in the United States and elsewhere are capable of killing prisoners themselves, especially as the modern methods of execution have been “softened” to reduce troubling the executioners’ consciences.

The United States, the Sole Western Democracy to Practice Capital Punishment

The United States is among the countries that execute the most prisoners, along with authoritarian governments including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. No other Western democracy resorts to the death penalty anymore, which as of now has been abolished in theory or in practice in more than two-thirds of countries globally.

Eighteen of the 50 American states have nevertheless abolished that which [former] Supreme Court Judge Harry Blackmun named “the machinery of death” during the case of Callins v. Collins.

However, the opposition to the death penalty in America is principally based on problems related to its application, such as the risk of executing innocents or racial discrimination. On the other hand, opposition to the death penalty in the majority of other countries is largely anchored in the belief that it’s a fundamental violation of human rights, because each execution harms human dignity.

Research on methods of “humane” execution continues in America. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical when a state claims that a prisoner must be executed because his life has absolutely no value — and this state simultaneously declares to be very concerned by the fact of inflicting suffering on the condemned.

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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