Botched Execution Calls Death Penalty to Account

It is being called a “botched execution,” the failure to send Clayton Lockett gently off into the good night, to borrow from Dylan Thomas. But in the end Lockett died, so justice has been served – at least according to the convoluted logic that drives our penal system.

I am being sarcastic, of course. There was no justice in what happened April 29 in Oklahoma. The woman Lockett was convicted of killing – of shooting and then burying her alive, according to the press reports – is still dead. There is still a family left in a state of permanent grief, a community scarred by the crime, a state wondering what happened in the execution room.

And what happened in that Oklahoma death chamber was particularly brutal.

According to the Associated Press, Lockett “writhed, clenched his teeth and appeared to struggle against the restraints holding him to a gurney.” It got so bad that the “blinds eventually were lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber.”

The failures in Oklahoma are now being used to call other attempted executions into question. If this case means executions in other states can be delayed or, better, canceled, and the death penalty tossed on the scrap heap of history, that is a good thing.

But it should not have come to this. The failure in Oklahoma was pre-ordained by the very nature of capital punishment and it is time we stop fooling ourselves about the death penalty. We need to admit to ourselves as a society, as a nation, what exactly the death penalty is and is not.

What it is not is a deterrent, as the numbers show. The average murder rate in states with the death penalty is higher than in those without, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. And states that have eliminated the death penalty, like my home state of New Jersey, have seen little change in their rates since the last year that capital punishment was still in place.

I am not saying that eliminating the death penalty will lower murder rates; what I am saying, however, is that there appears to be almost no correlation between punishment and crime.

What it is not is fair, unbiased or clinically administered. There remains both a racial and class component to who faces death – usually a person of color or a person who is poor. And, more significantly, we are more likely to send someone to the execution chamber, if he or she has been convicted of killing a white victim or someone with means.

And it is both a crapshoot – we can never be 100% sure of a person’s guilt, even when a confession has been won – and absolutely final. Once we have snuffed out a life, we cannot call for a do-over – even if new evidence ultimately comes to light.

The death penalty, ultimately, is nothing more than a blunt instrument of revenge and a remnant of an earlier time. It is an act of extreme violence given the patina of legitimacy through the imprimatur of the state.

At its heart, the execution is just the taking of a life. It doesn’t matter how we do it – through a firing squad, the electric chair, hanging or by a three-drug cocktail that is supposed to send its victims to dreamy sleep – it is premeditated murder, as Albert Camus has written. It is scheduled, planned out, rehearsed. We have protocols (which do not work) designed to ensure its efficiency, guidelines (which do not work) to ensure that only the worst of the worst and only the guiltiest are subject to its brutality.

These guidelines are meant to make us – the people in whose name the state takes action – feel less like killers. We are civilized. Our hands are clean.

They are not, of course. The hands that pull the lever on the trap door of the gallows are our hands. The hands that pull the triggers in the firing squad or flick the switch for the gas chamber or electric chair are our hands. We are the ones who injected Clayton Lockett with the three-drug cocktail, even if we were not present at the time. We sanctioned his execution. We signed his death warrant. We paid for the drugs. We clamored for his death. How does that make us any better than him?

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter @newspoet41; Margot Ford McMillen took the week off for farm duties.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2014

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