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In Evolution Of Execution Methods, Botched Procedures Remain

May 3, 2014
Originally published on May 3, 2014 4:27 pm

In Oklahoma, a botched execution resulted from a relatively new combination of lethal injection drugs. Ohio, Missouri, and Florida are all struggling to find alternatives to traditional drugs. Austin Sarat of Amherst College explains the evolution of execution methods in the U.S.

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From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. An execution is never a pretty scene, but what happened in Oklahoma this week was especially disturbing for witnesses. Clayton Lockett, a convicted murdered sentenced to die by lethal injection died of a heart attack 40 minutes after lethal drugs were administered. During the execution, witnesses said Lockett was kicking and tried to lift his head.

The governor of Oklahoma has indefinitely postponed executions and ordered an investigation of what went wrong. Yesterday, President Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to look into problems with how the death penalty is applied. Austin Sarat studies the death penalty and recently published a study looking back at hundreds of executions over more than a century. Austin Sarat, welcome to the program.

AUSTIN SARAT: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

RATH: So you've written about the evolution of execution methods in the U.S. And each method over time was supposed to be better than the last in terms of doing the job as quickly and painlessly has possible. Based on everything, all the data you've looked at, is that true?

SARAT: No, alas, it is not. Actually, if you look at the execution methods used over the course of the 20th century, we've moved from hanging, and then developed electrocution, and then lethal gas and most recently lethal injection. And with the invention or application of each of these new technologies, the same claims are made. Over the course of the 20th century, about 3 percent of American executions were botched. And a botched execution is an execution that doesn't follow a standard operating procedure or the explicit protocol that's supposed to govern the execution.

And perhaps most surprisingly of all, at least surprising to me, the highest rate of mishaps in executions are for lethal injections. So lethal injections, the botching rate is 7 percent.

RATH: So when we're talking about, you know, we're calling them botched executions, like what people witnessed in Oklahoma this week, lethal injection has a worse track record than hanging.

SARAT: It does. And to some extent that's not surprising because lethal injection is actually quite a complicated procedure. It requires some level of medical expertise and it requires obviously that you have the right drugs and the right chemicals. So it's a complicated procedure. And we shouldn't be surprised that it has a relatively high rate of failure.

RATH: Well, considering all that, why do you think there's this perception in the courts that lethal injection is more humane?

SARAT: Well, it seems to me that the American death penalty is caught up in a kind of contradiction. We use the death penalty because we want a certain kind of harsh justice. We want, in using the death penalty, to express our revulsion and condemnation against the criminal and about the crime that he has committed.

At the same time, we as a society are committed to the idea that we'll be better than those that we condemn. And that's expressed I think most clearly in the Eighth Amendment's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. That commits us to a kind of restraint to ensuring that when we use capital punishment we impose no more pain than is necessary.

The promise of lethal injection, of course, is that it looks clean. It looks sterile. It looks like a hospital procedure. That really explains why we turn to lethal injection.

RATH: You recently wrote a - it was a pretty gruesome book obviously, cataloging the hundreds of botched executions in American history. Why did you write it?

SARAT: I was interested in seeing what I could learn about the particular and distinctive ways in which the American death penalty has been tied up with a kind of romance of technology. The story of the American death penalty in the 20th century is a story about belief in scientific progress as we move from hanging to electrocution, and electrocution to gas, and gas to lethal injection. At each turn there's been a belief that technology would do the job for us. And I was interested in seeing how this faith in technology would play out in the context of capital cases.

So it's a book that tries to tell these different stories and bring them together and help Americans address the following question: Is 3 percent an acceptable error rate in the context of the death penalty?

RATH: Austin Sarat studies the death penalty at Amherst College. Austin, thank you.

SARAT: Thank you.

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