The Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s right to use lethal injection for capital punishment this past month, despite the fact that most of the Western world abandoned capital punishment long ago. This ruling shows that in at least one respect, America is failing to cross the threshold into becoming a sensible society.
As a whole, capital punishment is more damaging than helpful. Although countless politicians, activists and everyday citizens have come up with arguments against capital punishment, perhaps the best condensed reasoning against capital punishment came in the form of an editorial published in the New York Times on May 7, 2008.
“Many defendants lack adequate legal representation at their trials, race distorts who is sentenced to death for what crimes and juries are ‘death qualified’—jurors with moral objections to the death penalty are removed,” read the editorial.
Capital punishment is faulty because of how imbalanced the American justice system can be. For instance, poverty and crime often go hand in hand. Consequently, poverty-ridden areas often have high levels of offenses, and the death penalty is often chosen as an appropriate response.
According to the U.S. Census, nearly one-fifth of residents in Oakland, California live below the poverty line, largely living in close quarters and highly condensed areas. Not surprisingly, Oakland consistently ranks among the cities with the top 10 worst crime rates in the nation, including the sixth-highest murder rate in 2007.
As the death penalty is still practiced in California, those found guilty of murder in Oakland are potential subjects for execution. Yet in areas that yield virtually no economic or social influence, investigations can get thrown together and rushed through. Subsequently, the death penalty can fall on someone who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In regards to race, sentencing statistics point to unfair biases that have yet to be completely weeded out of the American justice system. In addition to Oakland, Atlanta, Georgia and New Orleans, Louisiana have some of the highest crime rates in the nation. Both states also have a disproportionate number of African-Americans who commit violent crimes and are sentenced to death. Consequently, it is easy for some members of white society to target African-Americans based on these high-profile examples.
Similarly, disqualifying jurors for stating that they are morally opposed to the death penalty increases the probability of pro-death penalty jurors serving at a given trial. Subsequently, the punishment suggested by the jury may not fit the crime as well as one selected by a more balanced jury.
Regardless of the crime a person commits, he or she is human and should be treated as such. However, according to Nina Totenberg for National Public Radio, those given lethal injections are treated not only as less than humans, but less than animals.
“Death penalty opponents note that the cocktail used for executions today was long ago abandoned by an American veterinary association for use in killing animals because it was deemed unnecessarily cruel,” Totenberg said.
Totenberg went on to mention three drugs used in lethal injections—sodium thiopental, pancuronium and potassium chloride. Prisoners are given sodium thiopental to numb their senses, rendering them unconscious. Next, pancuronium is injected to stop the twitching. Lastly, potassium chloride is administered to stop the flow of blood from the heart.
The problem is that because the pancuronium is administered immediately after the sodium thiopental, it is unclear whether the appropriate dosage of sodium thiopental was used, as the pancuronium essentially paralyzes the prisoners. When a less than appropriate amount of sodium thiopental is administered, it can leave the prisoners with their senses of touch intact, allowing them to feel the slow and painful process of their bodies shutting down over the course of roughly 10 minutes.
Capital punishment has proven to be a flawed system because of how those sentenced to death are chosen. Furthermore, the fact that a form of capital punishment exists in the United States that is arguably both cruel and unusual shows that in addition to being insufficient in its selection process, it is also inadequate in practice.
Daniel Johnson is a third-year literary journalism and film and media studies double-major. He can be reached at email@example.com