Death Penalty: The Issue of Cruel and Unusual Punishments

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You are sitting in a chair, waiting, about to be executed. You’re innocent, but that doesn’t matter now. You’re injected with a needle, which has a dangerous mixture of illegal drugs. You feel like fire is shooting through your veins, but you’re unable to speak or scream. An hour and a half later, you finally die. This scenario may sound like a horrific fantasy, but for many people, it was all too true. Many problems hinder the United States’ death penalty system, including botched executions, questionable purchases of drugs, and innocent people being sentenced to death. These problems have led people to wonder whether or not the government should continue with capital punishment. Some people do not see these criticisms as legitimate critiques of the death penalty and insist that it’s an effective punishment. However, because of the multitude of serious problems plaguing it, it’s clear that capital punishment must be put to an end.

Over time there have been many different methods used to execute people, but all of them have been filled with problems. The first example is hanging: the intended effect of hanging was to quickly sever the person’s spinal column, but many hangings didn’t go as planned. When a hanging was botched, the person was instead strangled by the noose until they died, or in more extreme cases, decapitated. Electrocutions also proved to be a complete failure. In one case a man bled from the mouth and chest, with the blood on his chest spreading, “to about the size of a dinner plate”. Another botched electrocution involved a man’s clothes and flesh being burned, but he didn’t die. He was electrocuted again but was still alive. The state’s governor refused to grant him clemency, and the man finally died on the third electrocution. The gas chamber was another disaster, with some people slowly choking until they died; approximately five percent of gas chamber executions were botched in this way. The firing squad also found a way to be a horrific event when the bullets missed the person’s heart. The person would be forced to sit there while they slowly bled out and died. It is immediately apparent that these events are unacceptable, especially because they’re not just isolated incidents, but instead repeated events. The government seemed to agree, phasing out these methods over time, but unfortunately, the newest method is no different.

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In addition to the older methods of execution not working, the newest method, lethal injection, comes with its own set of problems. Firstly, lethal injections fail more than any other method since the 1800s, with them being botched seven percent of the time. That may not seem like a big deal until you consider what happens during a botched lethal injection. When someone is given the injection, one of the drugs is typically a paralytic, which stops the person from moving, speaking, or doing anything else physically. This is one of the biggest problems with lethal injection, as the person could be in torturous pain, but would be unable to do anything about it. Sometimes, the paralytic fails, giving us insight into how somebody feels during a lethal injection. One example is a man named Kenneth Williams, who began, “coughing, convulsing, lurching, (and) jerking,” when he was injected with the drugs. Another instance of a botched lethal injection is the execution of Dennis McGuire, who took twenty-six minutes to kill (over three times the normal duration) and was choking and unable to breathe during that time. Lethal injections have also led to other health problems, as evidenced by the failed execution of Clayton D. Lockett, who died an hour after the drugs were administered due to him having a heart attack that was caused by the drugs. Some executions have even lasted over two hours, long enough for the person to require a bathroom break. While it is not known what exactly the people who are being executed are feeling, the evidence that is available points to the sensation being similar to, “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive,” as described by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. The Bill of Rights gives people protection from, “cruel and unusual punishments,” and this clearly falls into that category. The fact that the government continues to execute people while knowing how much suffering it could cause is distasteful. The government should not be allowed to torture people due to its negligence and disregard for the well-being of its citizens.

Additionally, the source and legality of these dangerous drugs are in itself questionable. It is known that three states paid Harris Pharma, which is, “run by a man with no pharmaceutical background,” for sodium thiopental to be used in their lethal injections. The government should not purchase drugs from an ignominious company for any reason; it is dangerous and unnecessarily puts people at a greater risk of a botched execution. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the drug is actually illegal, and the FDA has banned the government from importing it. The states know exactly what they are doing, as evidenced by the fact that approximately fourteen states have, “secrecy laws,” which prevent the public from knowing where the government gets its drugs. If the government was buying the drugs through legal and trustworthy sources, there would be no need to have these laws in place. The fact that many states have these laws shows that there is a systemic problem with how these drugs are obtained. If the government used better products to execute people, many accidental tortures could have been avoided.

In spite of the overwhelming amount of evidence, many people do not understand the problems with the cruel and unusual punishment of the death penalty, with 55% of the country supporting it as of 2017 (“US Public Support…”). One popular argument in defense of the punishment is that it deters people from committing crimes and is therefore worth the aforementioned risks. This claim is simply untrue, as states that carry out executions, “have homicide rates 48-101% higher,” than states that do not use capital punishment. This not only disproves the causation between the death penalty and less crime, but it actually establishes a correlation between higher crime rates and capital punishment is used, completely refuting this argument. Another claim that is thrown around by death penalty advocates is that capital punishment is cheaper than life in prison without parole due to the government having to pay for necessities like food for a shorter period of time. This is another incorrect argument. Take the California death penalty system as an example: the system costs over $144 million each year, not including the price of just keeping the person in jail. Once you factor in the $250 million per execution and additional federal costs for defending the inmates in court, as well as any money that may be lost as a result of the FDA intercepting illegal drug imports, it becomes clear that the death penalty is inconceivably more expensive than just keeping the criminal locked up for life.

Lastly, the most substantial problem with the death penalty is the execution of innocent people. While the exact number of innocent people who were given the death penalty is impossible to ascertain, it is estimated that 4.1% of people given the death penalty from 1973 to 2004 were actually innocent. With 1,320 people being executed since 1977, an intolerable number of people would have been killed even though they did nothing wrong. The question that remains is that if the death penalty continues, how do we stop innocent people from being killed? The answer, quite frankly, is that we can’t. While DNA evidence is a great way to exonerate some people, it isn’t used frequently in homicide cases that don’t include rape, meaning that it won’t help in the majority of cases. Additionally, racial bias plays a role in wrongful convictions. For example, black people in Philadelphia are 3.9 times more likely to receive the death penalty for a similar crime than those who aren’t black. There is no reasonable way to prevent this due to the fact that people who hold these biases will maintain them no matter what the facts say. The concern that innocent people are given the death penalty isn’t just speculation: one of every seven people on death row has later been exonerated. While innocent people being exonerated seems like good news, it is very worrying that they were on death row in the first place, as not every innocent person there will be exonerated after the fact. Overall, the execution of innocent people is impossible to stop unless the death penalty itself is ended.

Ultimately, the death penalty is marred by a number of grave problems. The government doesn't care about the source or legality of the drugs it uses, which could lead to more botched executions. Executions are already botched at a much too frequent rate, leading to people being put through extreme suffering. Problems like racial bias and general human error lead to innocent people being executed, which shouldn’t be allowed to happen under any circumstances. Additionally, the death penalty doesn't deter crime, is extremely expensive, and is a very slow process. It’s clear that capital punishment needs a taste of its own medicine, and must be put to death.   

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