Lethal Injection on Trial

No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing

By: Alice Kim

The machinery of death was halted last month in California, Florida and Maryland because of growing concerns about the inhumanity of lethal injection. Within a span of just a few days in December, a federal judge ruled that California’s current method of lethal injection violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment; Florida Governor Jeb Bush enacted a moratorium and set up a commission to examine the state’s execution protocol; and Maryland’s Supreme Court shut down its execution chamber to hold public hearings on lethal injection.

Hearings held last September examining California’s lethal injection protocol revealed that the last six of the state’s executions—including the high profile execution of Stanley Tookie Williams – likely suffered torturous deaths. Consequently, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel concluded that the state’s method of execution was broken. Fogel called for the state to make sweeping changes in their protocol to ensure safeguards from “unconscionable” pain and suffering before executions can resume there.

In Florida, Bush suspended executions following the gruesome execution of Angel Nieves Diaz, which took half an hour—more than twice as long as it was supposed to. “It seemed like Angel Nieves Diaz would never die, “ wrote Associated Press reporter Ron Word, who has witnessed more than 50 executions in Florida.

The lethal chemicals that were injected into Diaz’s arms, missed his veins and bled into the tissue instead, leaving foot long chemical burns on both arms. Far from being sedated and painlessly brought to his death, Diaz suffered for twenty-four long minutes after the chemicals were injected, grimacing and squirming, blinking his eyes and struggling to breathe.

In Maryland, the state’s highest court ruled that Maryland’s procedures for lethal injection were adopted without sufficient legislative oversight. Executions are on hold until new procedures are adopted. Moreover, the ruling may require the state to hold public hearings on the issue. In and of itself, though this may be a narrow court ruling, as a recent Washington Post editorial put it, “The Maryland court action is therefore an opportunity for a much broader discussion of the utility, justice, necessity and morality of capital punishment.”

These rulings come as executions continue a long-term decline. Nationally, there were fewer executions (53 people were put to death) last year than in any in the past decade. The number of death sentences imposed by juries also continued to decline last year.

This is a welcome trend in capital punishment. As 2006 came to a close, executions were on hold in ten out of 38 states that still have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Lawsuits challenging lethal injection are pending in other states. And in early January, 2007, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission issued a report recommending abolition of the state’s death penalty.

As lethal injections comes under increasing scrutiny, activists can and should insist that there’s simply ‘no right way to do the wrong thing.’

“The fight over lethal injection could very well mark the beginning of the end of the death penalty,” said Marlene Martin, CEDP national director.

Abolitionists should seize the opportunity for a broader discussion about the injustices of the death penalty and push for an end to capital punishment.