To the State of Ohio, Dennis McGuire was a human guinea pig — the first inmate executed using an experimental mix of poisons cobbled together because the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals used in older, proven cocktails refuse to continue supplying them for anti-medical purposes. For 25 agonizing minutes, McGuire thrashed against his restraints, choked and gasped for air before finally succumbing to death. “He started making all these horrible, horrible noises, and at that point, that’s when I covered my eyes and my ears,” said his daughter Amber McGuire, who witnessed the state killing at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, near Lucasville.
Unsurprisingly, the family of the woman McGuire raped and murdered was unmoved by McGuire’s suffering. “As I recall the events preceding her death, forcing her from the car, attempting to rape her vaginally, sodomizing her, choking her, stabbing her, I know she suffered terror and pain. He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her,” said a statement issued by Joy Stewart’s survivors.
Ohio doesn’t have an awesome track record with killing killers. In 2009, the state unsuccessfully tried to kill Romell Broom — who did his best to help his would-be executioners. “For more than two hours,” reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “the team attempted to insert two shunts into a vein of the compliant Broom, who tried several times to assist his executioners by shifting positions, rubbing his arm and pointing out possible usable veins…At one point, Broom, 53, lay back on his bed, covered his face with his hands, and cried. Another time, while sitting up, he was seen grimacing as the execution team appeared to seek a vein around his ankles.”
In 2007 prison staff tried to find a usable vein in the arms of an obese inmate, Christopher Newton, for nearly two hours. “The execution team stuck him at least 10 times with needles to get in place the shunts where the needles are injected” before finally managing to kill him, according to the AP.
Given the finality of capital punishment, proof that one innocent person has ever been executed is enough for me to find the practice abhorrent. The fact, is numerous innocents have died in American death chambers.
Most of the world agrees. Only 21 out of the world’s 195 nations carried out any executions last year.
But I keep coming back to the angry statement issued by Joy Stewart’s survivors. They have every right to their rage. If some monster took away someone I loved like that, I would want to kill him too.
But I would want to do it myself.
Assuming that the guilt of death row prisoners like Dennis McGuire could be ascertained with absolute certainty — which is impossible in 100% of capital cases — I would be fine if Stewart’s grieving relatives shot him or garroted or beat him to death. Whatever makes them feel better.
Revenge is fine. Routine murder is not.
I can’t get past the gruesome bureaucratic spectacle of government workers executing people like McGuire (or trying to execute people like Broom) bloodlessly, motivated solely by a paycheck. As a society, we shouldn’t demand that state workers expose themselves to psychic trauma. As a system of justice, the death penalty is dishonest because it masks its true purpose: vengeance.
The purpose certainly isn’t deterrence. Year after year, states with capital punishment have significantly higher murder rates than those without it.
Some countries — nations most people would not look up to — nevertheless manage an interesting compromise: the authorities carry out the death penalty, but only if the aggrieved parties agree to it. In some executions carried out under Sharia law in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan under Taliban control, the crimes are read out to a crowd of witnesses. Judges ask the victim’s family whether they want the execution carried out or, instead, prefer to offer mercy. (Mercy can vary between outright release to a harsh punishment short of death, for example, an amputation. In a surprising number of cases, families choose forced labor on their farms.)
Here in the United States, on the other hand, executions are often carried out against the wishes of the victims’ families. What’s the point of that?
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