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Push Button Death - The Modern Myth of Capital Punishment

13/05/2014 10:28 BST | Updated 12/07/2014 10:59 BST

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has described Clayton Lockett's, gasping, writhing demise after his bungled execution as her State having lawfully carried out a sentence of death.

In a transparent piece of political posturing, she offers little beyond attempts at moral equivalence and references to Lockett's heinous crimes as justification for an execution procedure that bore scant comparison to the organised and clinical process that the Oklahoma Department Of Corrections claims to carry out. Doubts remain about the legality, not to mention the morality, of continuing with such procedures that by most reasonable people's standards would easily fit the description of 'cruel and unusual'.

The scenes of confusion and panic that replaced the supposedly methodical administration of a lethal injection served as stark revelation as to just how disorganised and self deluded supporters of this barbaric process are, and how easily the sheen of respectability can be knocked off the grisly task of ending the life of a healthy human being.

Despite Governor Fallin's blasé dismissal of the whole sorry episode, a litany of errors and mishandling prior to the botched execution has slowly emerged from official sources.

The experimental drugs combination used was apparently concocted by a local laboratory to a generic recipe, after drugs manufacturers refused to supply their products for the execution process.

The technician (not a doctor) charged with finding an accessible vein for the injection site, singularly failed to do so, amid some speculation that injuries sustained earlier in the day, after Lockett was tasered, made the task all the more difficult. Ultimately the only vein found to be suitable was in the groin, adding a further dimension of humiliation into the proceedings. This vein then apparently collapsed after the drugs were pumped in too fast.

Comparisons with other executions where the same drugs were used has revealed that the dosage was in any case far too low. The second injection that was intended to begin the process of shutting down the respiratory system instead leaked out of the injection site and into surrounding tissue. The execution was hastily aborted when it was discovered that no other injection sites were available and insufficient supplies of drugs remained to finish the job.

This isn't the first time an execution has been messed up and we know it won't be the last. The history of such events stretches back as far as Thomas Cromwell and beyond. But it's a far cry from the modern, painless process that US death penalty advocates have the tried to portray down the years.

This sanitised, removed attitude towards capital punishment has long been at odds with reality and it sadly takes high profile botch jobs like this to prove the point. Successive execution methods have sought to divorce the sensitivities of citizens and politicians from the act of ending a human life with liberal applications of industrial quantities of cognitive dissonance.

Driven by this need to separate the crime of murder from the act of state sanctioned killing, there's an almost pathological desperation to establish some kind of benign intent in the act. In turn this has inspired a morbid compulsion to press increasingly complicated technological or medical processes into methods of execution.

In keeping with much of US society, the idea of a push-button solution to capital crime is seen as the zenith of a modern justice system. Yet with each iteration the method evolves to become just as pre-meditated as the crime it's meant to atone for. The justification for every convoluted contrivance of death is ultimately undermined by the paradox of it's own existence.

Within developed societies, taking a life in cold blood is not an acceptable thing for any sane, properly socialised person to do. Moreover, asking the very people charged in part with protecting those morays to carry out such a task is almost as cruel as subjecting their victims to years of uncertain acceptance of their imminent demise. This is why so many of those involved with administering the death penalty, either as prison officials, legal or spiritual advisers, or even the executioners themselves often become some of the most staunch abolitionists.

The principle that is always upheld is that, no matter what the condemned may have done, they deserve to be shown more respect than they may have offered to their victims. But the sad fact is that often this is not the case, frequently to the delight of those who feel execution should be as unpleasant as possible.

In a way there's more honesty in countries where the convicted felon is taken straight from the courtroom and shot with no further ceremony. But in societies where progressive justice must be seen to be demonstrated, there's a natural reluctance to move so swiftly or brutally.

This disconnect between principle and performance is a function born of our empathy, our understanding of how precious life is to us and our reluctance to end it. But it's the condemned who bear the brunt of this ideological vacillation

Convicts spend long years on death row while a penal system, at odds with itself, wrangles with it's collective conscience until the day of reckoning can no longer be postponed or appealed against. Then rather than use methods as seemingly crude a rope or a bullet, they tie the condemned person to whichever latest contraption has been created to do the job no single person wants full responsibility for.

It seems that this process, along with more and more elaborate means of death, is intended to demonstrate the seriousness with which the judiciary takes the concept of ending a life. But the electric chair, the gas chamber and now the lethal injection are all eventually undone by their own ingenuity, the weaknesses of human fallibility and the strength of the will to live. No amount of propriety, principled nicety, or arms length intellectualisation can fully prepare either side of this fatal bargain for the stark reality of the task.

This dilemma demonstrates an innate understanding that, no matter how we dress it up, taking a life in such a calculated way is wrong, and the more a society does it, the less it can lay claim to enlightened humanitarian values.

Governor Fallin's comments not only deny that reality, they condemn many more inmates to a degrading and unpleasant death, more otherwise blameless families to the knowledge that a loved one has suffered terribly, and more life affirming people to the knowledge that they've been involved in someone's untimely and difficult death.

Execution by whatever method can't ever be free of such unintended consequences, and denying their impact on the death penalty debate merely amplifies the suffering that the original crime began.