The Death Penalty: A Case Study of State-Funded Slaughter

In the UK, the death penalty was banned in 1965. Now a distant memory of a more brutal past, it rightly remains relegated to the pages of history books.

However, in many countries across the world, including the United States of America – a nation that prides itself on its supposed forward-thinking nature – capital punishment is still a possible ruling in a court of law. Currently 32 states of the USA still implement the death penalty, tainting more than half the 50 states on the Star-Spangled Banner.

In light of this, it is hard not to question how the self-proclaimed leader of the ‘free world’ can still carry out such a seemingly archaic form of punishment.

However, the death penalty is widely thought to be losing support across the United States, and for good reason. The recent execution in Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett on April 29th caught particular media attention and brought new scrutiny to the often mismanaged executions that are too common across the USA, causing many to question the ethics of the death penalty.

According to an article published by Time Magazine, Lockett was “injected with an untested blend of drugs obtained from an undisclosed source” and was confirmed to be unconscious by a physician, “only to then start moving his body, rolling his head from side to side and mumbling”.

Further describing the deadly torment experienced by Lockett, his attorney Dean Sanderford stated: “the writhing and twitching just got stronger and more violent. It looked like he was trying to lift his whole upper body off the table…he was mumbling things that were clearly words…his eyes opened at one point. It was the most gruesome spectacle I’ve ever seen in my life.”

After this harrowing ordeal from the cocktail of drugs, Lockett eventually died due to a heart attack after 25 minutes.

This execution was the state of Oklahoma’s first time using a new 3-drug mixture. Yes, while it is undeniable that these convicted criminals have done awful crimes and deserve punishment, it surely does not assign them the fate of a human guinea pig, as the government seems to play a version of Russian roulette with the drugs cabinet.

Alarmingly, Lockett’s suffering is not an uncommon occurrence – in fact, the USA has a history of morally questionable executions. According to a recent study by researcher Professor Austin Sarat, 7% of executions by lethal injection between 1890 and 2010 were botched, with the term “botched” alluding to executioners “depart[ing] from the official legal protocol or standard procedure – which can result in a prolonged or painful death”. With lethal injection often described as the most humane method of capital punishment, one has to question the ethical compass of these states if this inhumanely painful demise is a very possible side effect.

In reaction to the execution, Oklahoma recently announced that it plans to offer more training to staff and increase the prisoner’s sedative dosage by 5 times, whilst also intriguingly reducing media presence at executions from 12 witnesses to 5. One has to wonder whether the state has pondered if a complete abolition of the death penalty is the glaringly ‘right’ thing to do, rather than small alterations in the hope of what is effectively a more efficient slaughter.

The proposal for a decreased number of journalists allowed present is an interesting twist. Capital punishment is visibly shrouded in secrecy, as scandal and backlash are a constant threat. As Lockett’s execution began to go wrong, it is reported the curtain was lowered so witnesses could no longer see, while the audio feed was cut too.

Similarly, capital punishment is so shrouded in shame that even the drug companies themselves refuse to be associated with it, concerned by the possible backlash or boycott they could suffer. European pharmaceutical companies have banned the US from using their drugs in executions, causing a chaotic clambering for new drugs by prison officials and often blind experimentation with those acquired.

US public defender Dale Baich, who frequently represents death row inmates, recently drew light on this secrecy: “The prisoners still do not have access to information about the source of the drugs, the qualifications of the executioners, or how the state came up with the different drug combinations.”

President Barack Obama has publicly commented on Clayton Lockett’s botched execution, describing it as “deeply disturbing”, and calling for a review into the application of the death penalty in the USA. While this provides hope for change, the fight to completely ban the death penalty is still very much ongoing – although it is becoming something seemingly ever closer to our grasp.

James Pidduck


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