Dead Man Walking

Last night, I asked a barista for a foamy macchiato. It took him so long to prepare my drink that I popped down to Heathrow airport, purchased a last-minute return flight to Nairobi, met a local farmer, harvested my very own coffee beans and made it back in time for X Factor. The barista still hadn’t finished making my coffee by this time. The roundabout contextual reason for describing this farce to you, is because it reminds me of the sickening recent execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood in Arizona, where a death row prisoner took over 1 hour and 40 minutes to die from his “lethal injection”. Please bear in mind that the US introduced lethal injections as they were supposed to be a “more humane” manner of doing away with a prisoner. A bit like pistol-whipping someone to death, as opposed to sticking them in a deep-fat fryer. The prolonged torture the prisoner endured took so farcically long that his lawyers had enough time to pop out and file an emergency appeal to save his life.

This gruesome execution has brought the subject of the death penalty in the US back to the fore. Technically, there should be absolutely no debate whatsoever on this: the death penalty is absolutely morally reprehensible, on a civil and legal scale. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the sacred US Constitution, so better to allow my friend, the 8th amendment of the US Constitution, do the talking for me. I quote:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”

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Now. Not too sure how they roll down in Arizona, but taking almost two hours to kill a prisoner absolutely violates the essence of cruel and unusual punishment. I’ve had slow-cooked beef that took less time to die. Joseph Wood’s botched execution is not the first example of such a botched hatchet job in the arena of the “humane” lethal injection – previously, Clayton Lockett died of subsequent heart complications after his lethal injection cocktail went odiously wrong. The reason lethal injection continues to malfunction is because the US drug of choice – pentobarbital – is now incredibly difficult to get hold of, as most of the EU has decided to boycott its sale, perfectly aware of its lethal consequences. This has led to the US improvising on experimental cocktail mixes, such as mixing midazolam with hydromorphone, death row inmates being used as lab rats.

Before the violin concerto begins to play too loud let’s not sing an ode to the recipients of these botched executions: they committed horrific crimes, depriving families of their loved ones and never gave those families an opportunity to live a full, contented life. However, one would expect more grace from the world’s self-declared greatest democracy. It is a vicious circle of moralistic cynicism and every single argument in favour of the death penalty can be decomposed fairly easily. The United States has been an example to the world on many subjects, but as the nation that brought us the medical glove, the band-aid bandage, the Post-It note and Vanilla Ice; it lets itself woefully down on capital punishment.

The countries the US most rails against for their undemocratic tyrannies: Iran, China, Afghanistan etc.. are countries that the US has more in common with than it would like. America has democratic structures that the other ‘less enlightened’ countries don’t possess: a powerful constitution, the Rule of Law, Due process, Habeus Corpus, and a Constitution that enshrines equal rights for all (in theory, and in practice if rich and white). It is therefore imperative that the US proves that it is far more sophisticated and refined than a common murderous thug that chooses to kill. How does the US set the example by killing in retort? Doesn’t violence beget violence? Further, there is something deeply uncomfortable about a legislature that embraces democracy, yet risks involving medical professionals in aiding and abetting state murder- in contravention of medical ethics: medical professionals can be forced to assist in executions, against their will.

On a pragmatic level, capital punishment in the US makes zero sense. These are the top 10 safest states in the US: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Hawaii, DC, Rhode Island, Iowa, Illinois, Connecticut and New York. Spot the odd one out in that list? New Hampshire is *technically the only state with the death penalty . On a statistical basis alone, the numbers do not justify the use of the death penalty. I do understand that the US is a land governed by the law of the dollar, so allow us to look at the economic argument – does it cost less to kill inmates off? Again, the answer is negative. Amnesty International has published an array of cost studies on this topic. Highlights include: a legislative audit carried out by Kansas that estimated that costs of a death penalty case are 70% higher than of a non-death penalty case. California currently spends over $135 million per year executing people – an alternative system could cost them just short of $12 million USD. The pre and post-trial costs of death penalty cases are cripplingly excessive, although this salient point often goes unmentioned in death penalty apologist circles.

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This is for my root canal, right?

So on an economic basis, capital punishment is impracticable. On a civil society basis, we have creditable evidence that a death penalty state will not automatically translate into a safer one. So what other theories can be visited? Well, the hilarious John Oliver recently alluded to this on his excellent show, and it is a theory that has binary merit: the death penalty is a principle that is disproportionately punitive towards blacks and ethnic minorities. Whereas in the past, the good ol’ KKK could just ride up, Daz-cleaned sheets all over their heads and perform a lynching…societies have advanced. There is a curious coincidence; one that no US politician wishes to publicly discuss: although African-Americans constitute over 50% of the homicide victims; over 75% of the victims involved in execution cases have been white. In fact, since 1976, just 15% of the cases resulting in executions have involved Afro-Americans. And then people wonder why some remain paranoid about 2Pac.

A rapid glance at the states that have committed the most executions since 1976, post-segregation reveals a sombre, but predictable pattern: if I told you that Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri and Alabama led the way in executions, would you blink an eye? If I then asked you for an ethnic composition of the death row inmates executed, would you be surprised to learn that over 60% were black? Can there be any viable explanation for this gaping disparity, because I have yet to hear a single one. I am also, yet to hear a single convincing argument for why it is permissible for private prison companies to actively lobby governments to put more people in jail. Take for example the Justice Policy Institute report of 2011 which stated that it “works to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences” – so we have here a dystopia where recidivism actually makes private prison companies money. So it is in the interests of the governments and Senators, who are effectively elected by big business interests, to hand out disproportionately punitive prison sentences and send young men to death row for as long as possible. By the by, Arizona (home of the botched lethal cocktail) was the first US state to put its whole prison system under private control.

Mind you, perhaps this rant is some crackpot commie theorizing bullsh*t diatribe. Still. If you want to know the true extent of the disparity that exists within America’s excellent but incredibly skewed justice system; someone ought to ask Trayvon Martin’s parents for their thoughts. A curious instance of an otherwise execution-happy state, content to display leniency: 50 years on from the Civil Rights Act, and the discussion has scarcely moved on it appears…

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