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These Prisoners Will Need To Choose How They’ll Be Killed

About the new bill signed in South Carolina, and why the death penalty will never be ethical.

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

Around a month ago, I came across a post on social media that mentioned how South Carolina is allowing death row inmates to choose their method of execution—either electrocution by the electric chair or get shot at by a firing squad.

What?

I wasn’t even aware that those two options still existed today. I thought that they stopped using electric chairs and other methods of execution after lethal injection drugs—the supposedly more “humane” way of killing someone—became available.

And it’s true that there has been a great decline in the use of other methods. The first use of lethal injection in the United States was in 1982 with the execution of convicted murderer, Charles Brooks, Jr., and it has become the most widely used method since. The Death Penalty Information Center’s data shows that in the U.S., since 1976, there has been:

  • 1363 executions by lethal injection
  • 163 by electrocution
  • 11 by lethal gas
  • 3 by hanging
  • and 3 by firing squad.

So it’s true that other methods are not carried out as much as lethal injection, but it’s an available option in some states—as I would find out after doing some research and finding this recent article from NPR:

“Death row executions by firing squad can now be carried out in South Carolina.”

In 2021, a bill was signed in South Carolina that would require death row inmates to choose whether to be electrocuted or shot at, if lethal injection is not available.

Just to give you an idea of what happens to the prisoner during these executions, here’s how U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan described the execution by electric chair:

“The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire….Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.”

Imagine needing to make the choice—between getting killed by extremely high voltages of electricity, skin burning with fire and eyes popping out of its sockets, or having the heart rupture and lungs break apart by bullets and being left to bleed to death.

I don’t think either one of those sound appealing, to say the least.

And because these methods—such as one that would have a person’s flesh “sound like bacon frying”—are in absolutely no way moral, lethal injection is the primary method used in all states where the death penalty is still legal.

But as I’ve mentioned earlier, there will be instances when a death row inmate in South Carolina will need to make a choice between the two horrific ways of being killed. This is if the drugs used in lethal injection are not available.

Why would it be difficult for a state to obtain these drugs?

The Shortage Of Lethal Injection Drugs

Well, pharmaceutical companies have “blocked their drugs from being used in executions. I mean, they are supposed to be making drugs to save people’s lives—not end them. Pfizer has stated on their website:

We make our products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, we strongly object to the use of our products as lethal injections for capital punishment.

There has been a shortage of lethal injection drugs since around 2010. And it’s not just suppliers in the U.S. who are refusing to sell their drugs for executions—companies from other countries around the world have also stopped supplying them.

With this shortage, some states turned to other sources—such as compounding pharmacies—to get hold of the drugs for injection. However, these drugs are often “experimental” and not FDA approved. Some states also adopted new lethal injection protocols. These include using substitutes for certain drugs, or replacing the usual three-drug combination with single-drug injections.

As a result, there have been many botched executions. In 2014, midazolam was used as a substitute for the first drug during Clayton Lockett’s execution in Oklahoma. He was visibly in pain and groaning. He died 43 minutes after the process was halted. Although, officials say that the botched execution was due to not being able to place the intravenous line correctly.

The wrong drug—potassium acetate, instead of potassium chlorine—was used for Charles Warner’s execution in 2015, also in Oklahoma. After this was revealed, it led to questions about the state’s ability to carry out executions. In addition, the first drug Warner received was also midazolam. After being administered the first drug, he said, “My body is on fire.”

After these series of botched executions, Oklahoma went on a six-year pause.

Similar instances have happened in other states, too. In 2016, Ronald Bert Smith, Jr. was being executed in Alabama by lethal injection and was given midazolam as well. After the drugs were administered, he was “struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist.”

These are just a few examples of the numerous botched executions in several states across the country.

With these incidences along with—and as a consequence of—the shortage of lethal injection drugs, states were faced with the pressure to use alternative methods, especially since many executions were already delayed.

And so we have states like South Carolina, who spent almost a year and $53,600 in establishing new procedures and facilities to carry out executions by firing squad. Renovations at the Broad River Correctional Institution include the installation of bullet-resistant glass, as well as a chair equipped with restraints.

Okay—but really, is letting inmates choose how they die really that much better? Is it more ethical?

Because none of these methods are humane—not even lethal injection. There is no way for people to 100% ensure that any method of execution will be painless and that the prisoner will not be suffering. It’s not like we can conduct experiments on actual people test them out.

And even if we do find a truly pain-free method of killing someone, does that make it justifiable? Is it ethical to kill someone who has committed serious crimes?

Is Capital Punishment Morally Justified?

Of course, this is a very controversial topic. Some people argue that because the person has committed murder and has taken someone else’s life, they themselves deserve to die. The death penalty is the only way to do justice. In an article by Dr. Edward Feser and Dr. Joseph M. Bessette, they explain why they believe that the death penalty is morally correct:

“As these facts and a wealth of other data show, we reserve the death penalty in the United States for the most heinous murders and the most brutal and conscienceless murderers… the capital punishment system is a filter that selects the worst of the worst… to sentence killers like those described above to less than death would fail to do justice because the penalty — presumably a long period in prison — would be grossly disproportionate to the heinousness of the crime.”

I can see why people would agree with that point of view. However, it can also be argued that intentionally killing someone, under any circumstance, can never be morally justified because it is still murder—it “violates the right to life” and the right “not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.” Ramesh Ponnuru stated in “The Wrong Way to Fight the Death Penalty”:

“The government does not need to kill any of these people to keep everyone else safe from them. That’s reason enough, in my view, not to do it. To act with the precise intent to cause someone’s death, rather than to protect others from his aggression, is immoral.”

This argument also makes sense to me. I mean, what gives the government the right to take away another person’s life? Why does anyone have the power to decide who lives and who dies? If you execute a person because they have intentionally killed another person, aren’t you doing the exact deed that you claim to condemn?

There are reasons to support either side of this discussion, and I understand the arguments from both perspectives.

Despite this, I still strongly believe that the death penalty should be abolished.

Innocent People On Death Row

More than 4% of death row inmates in the U.S. are likely innocent—that’s one in every 25 people convicted. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 416 exonerations for murder were recorded just between the years 1989 and 2012. With so many wrongful convictions, there is always a chance that an innocent person could be executed.

Carlton Michael Gary is just one of the many people who have been wrongfully sentenced to death. He was charged with the rapes and murders of three women, as well as the raping of half a dozen others. The eye-witness testimony was unreliable, since—later revealed in a police statement withheld during the trial — the woman who identified that Gary was the person who raped her was asleep in a dark bedroom when assaulted, and she was not able to describe her attacker to the police. Furthermore, none of the DNA testing of semen were able to draw any connections to Gary. A lot of the physical evidence proving that Gary was not the one who committed the crimes were also withheld from his defense team for 20 years.

With so much doubt about his conviction and evidence pointing towards his innocence, Gary was still executed in 2018.

No innocent person should be convicted of a crime they did not commit, let alone be put to death for it.

Killing an innocent person is never ethical.

But this is what can happen if the death penalty exists. There’s always a chance that an innocent person can die for something that they didn’t do.

There are innocent people on death row right now who are about to be killed if the government does not do something to stop it.

Melissa Lucio is scheduled to be executed in Texas on April 27th, 2022. Lucio was convicted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter—a crime she did not commit. Her daughter Mariah’s death was due to injuries suffered after accidentally falling down a flight of stairs, and she died two days after the fatal accident.

Melissa Lucio behind glass at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
Melissa Lucio at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas. Credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Innocence Project (Source: The Innocence Project)

The aggressive police interrogation happened two hours after her daughter’s death, and it went on for more than 5 hours. Lucio maintained her innocence, until she made a false confession so that the interrogation would end. There is no evidence that Lucio has abused any of her children and no physical evidence to prove that she committed a crime.

Learn more about Melissa Lucio’s story and how you can help. You can also sign the petition to stop her execution.

Check out The Innocence Project to learn about other cases of wrongful convictions and support their mission to “free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone.”

The Death Penalty Is Never Ethical

27 states in the U.S. still have capital punishment. But there’s too much that can go wrong—with botched executions and wrongful convictions that should never happen. The whole concept of capital punishment is very controversial.

The death penalty will never be carried out ethically, because there is always a chance of something going wrong.

There are other ways in which we can prevent crimes—the death penalty is not it.

Want to read more by A.X.? Feel free to check out my article “War Benefits No One”— about the impact of war on people’s lives and the lengths to which people go to survive, as presented in ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ by Bertolt Brecht.

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Articles covering all the topics I love (too many to list). No niches, no headings… just writing and sharing.

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A.X. Bates

A.X. Bates

Words can make a difference. Theatre student writing poems about life, society, and coffee. @axybates on Instagram and Twitter.

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