The Cruel Truth of Execution Reform

On March 14, Okla. Attorney General Mike Hunter (R-Ok.) announced plans to begin using nitrogen gas as an alternative to lethal injection for executing death row inmates. Hunter asserted that, “[Nitrogen gas] is the safest, the best and the most effective method available and we’re moving forward.” This method is supposedly an improvement to other methods currently used in the United States. However, the constant effort to find a more humane way to end a life fails to answer a fundamental question: Who are these “improvements” really benefiting?

Asphyxiation by nitrogen gas follows widespread use of lethal injection, which is being called into question not only for its apparent lack of effectiveness but also for potentially being more painful than it was once touted to be. Of the 31 states with death penalty statutes, lethal injection has replaced the electric chair, firing squad, gas chamber and hanging as the ideal method for execution. Over time, all those methods have been deemed inhumane or outdated, but the search for a humane way to execute prisoners continues. But this search is ultimately self-serving: execution methods which appear to be quick and painless allow proponents of the death penalty to justify their actions, often without substantial improvement for the inmate being executed.

In response to a petition from a death row inmate in Alabama to be executed by firing squad, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that near-instant death by shooting is “comparatively painless.” Furthermore, death row prisoners may “find more dignity in an instantaneous death rather than prolonged torture on a medical gurney,” Sotomayor wrote.

While death by firing squad is actually the most effective and painless for the convicted, this method was deemed too gory for witnesses, as was its predecessor, the electric chair; early witnesses recount watching the body smoke and catch fire. A commonality between the decisions to discontinue the use of these various methods is complaints by the witnesses. American society’s focus on the comfort of the witnesses rather than that of the convicted has perpetuated the dehumanization of those on death row and caused a seemingly never-ending search for the best way to kill someone. The truth is, it doesn’t exist.

Emory University Assistant Professor of History Daniel LaChance cites this process as a “persistent dark optimism.” LaChance reminds us that, “execution by firing squad has the power to remind Americans of a simple truth that lethal injection has, for a long time, made it easy for them to forget: executions are acts of extreme, body-mutilating violence.” If this is true, the fact that lethal injection is used more often than firing squads, the government is more concerned with appearances of civility than the process’ humaneness.

Rather than continuing this cycle, society should face the root cause of why people are so driven to find a “humane” way to execute someone. A total of 55 percent of U.S. adults support the death penalty, but wouldn’t dream of watching it carried out. This internal discomfort with the idea of execution should play more of a role in Americans’ calculation of whether or not they support this policy. Perhaps this discomfort should be attributed to ending a life rather than just the mechanism through which death is achieved.

Consistent with the historical pattern, I predict nitrogen gas will soon be replaced with a new alternative that also claims to be “the safest, the best and the most effective method” of execution. If we are going to rely on capital punishment, we should stop framing its reform as driven by morality and comfort for the convicted. Proponents of the death penalty should recognize the severity of the practice and not attempt to lessen or reframe it as humane — ending a life by force is inherently inhumane. Rather than learning from our past, America’s devotion to moralizing the death penalty as a necessary form of punishment will doom us to repeat this cycle of violence and experimentation with human life.

Madison Stephens (21C) is from Little Rock, Ark.