We Can't Forget the Consequences of America's Death Penalty Battle

December 10th 2016

Willie Burnley Jr.

When Ronald B. Smith was convicted in 1995 of murdering convenience store clerk Casey Wilson in a robbery attempt, an Alabama jury recommended that he be sentenced to life in prison without parole. But the judge in the case, using an override power now only available in Alabama, sentenced Smith to death.

On Thursday, Smith was executed in a manner that likely violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The drug that was supposed to render him unconscious for his lethal cocktail, midazolam, clearly did not have its intended effect.

For the next 13 minutes Smith struggled for breath, heaved, and coughed on the execution table, according to those that were there, with no attempts to halt the procedure.

This is not the first time that midazolam has been ineffective.

In Arizona and Ohio, two of the few states that use midazolam, the use of the drug has created botched executions. Within a year of its initial use for capital punishment in 2013, it was deemed problematic in a third of executions. The Supreme Court delayed executions in Oklahoma using the drug in 2015 after both the state and lawyers representing three inmates on death row asked for the temporary stay.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow a similar execution to proceed, implied the court’s failure to uphold the Constitution, saying:

“Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished. But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death. I hope that our failure to act today does not portend our unwillingness to consider these questions.”

Advocates against the death penalty point to botched executions like Smith’s and more than 100 death row exonerations as evidence that the practice is, among other things, too flawed to be carried out.

While proponents of the death penalty believe that it can serve as a powerful deterrent to would-be criminals and a source of justice to their victims or their victims’ families, others aren't so sure.

In addition to the District of Columbia, 19 states have banned the death penalty. Some groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, consider the entire practice to violate the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel” punishment and note that it is more costly - and sometimes more permanent - than life in prison.

Groups like Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have argued that the money wasted on capital punishment should be spent on preventative and restorative justice solutions such as investments in early childhood education, mental health programs, drug courts, and counseling for the family of victims. Such tactics come out of the belief that justice cannot be taken through violent revenge, but only gained through reducing the conditions that led to violence or the harm caused by violence.