The apparently torturous execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last week probably won’t change many minds on the death penalty — especially in Oklahoma.
The real argument against capital punishment doesn’t stand or fall on the skill of the executioners. It rests on principle – the principle that a government shouldn’t be in the business of killing chained prisoners. That’s where we’re at.
Others honestly argue that some crimes are of such depravity that justice can’t be satisfied short of the ultimate penalty. The question finally boils down to convictions about humanity, retribution and the role of the state.
What happened to Lockett mainly makes us happy we live in Washington.
The death penalty here has been temporarily suspended by Gov. Jay Inslee, which has given Washingtonians an opportunity to take a step back and do a gut check on it.
Capital punishment already was a rarity in this state long before Inslee arrived in Olympia. We can be proud of our reluctance to execute any but the most depraved.
Oklahoma has the opposite impulse. There, as in Texas and Florida, execution is disturbingly routine.
Lockett’s long, bad death on the gurney does not add up to a condemnation of the death penalty throughout the United States. It’s just as easily an argument for improving Oklahoma’s approach to lethal injection.
Texas seems to have figured out how to kill condemned killers quite efficiently with a single drug, pentobarbital. If a botched execution indicts capital punishment, Texas is answering with a good defense.
In any case, Lockett is the last convict who would elicit sympathy from capital punishment supporters. Nobody is arguing that he’s innocent, and the crimes he stands convicted of include robbing a woman and ordering his accomplices to bury her alive. Lockett might easily have received the death penalty in Washington.
The bigger issue is the number of condemnations some Southern and Southwestern states churn out. Oklahoma, Texas and Florida have sentenced many hundreds of men to death – an enthusiasm that greatly heightens the risk that an innocent convict could be executed.
States eager to execute people are typically far less eager to provide them with an effective defense. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, recently noted that 34 of Florida’s death-row inmates have failed to meet the federal deadline for appealing their sentences since 1996. That’s an indicator of poor legal representation.
Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of whether a state should put anyone to death when the alternative is life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Compared to that question, the ugliness of Lockett’s death is a sideshow.