Those who support the death penalty ought to feel a special revulsion at botched executions, the latest being the almost two-hour ordeal Wednesday in Arizona. Indiana’s Department of Corrections is confident it can’t happen here, but wasn’t that the case in Arizona – and Oklahoma and Ohio – as well?
Whether double-murderer Joseph Wood suffered during the hour and 57 minutes between his injection and his death will never be known. It isn’t surprising that Debra Dietz, whose father and sister were Wood’s 1989 victims, said the prolonged execution in Phoenix was “nothing compared to what happened” when they were murdered.
Victims can speak of vengeance, and we all understand. But those entrusted with meting out punishment should aspire to a different standard. A nation founded on the rule of law must ensure that even the worst human beings are dealt with justly and humanely. For some, that precept does not exclude capital punishment. But the evident inability of some states to guarantee that executions cannot be carried out swiftly and smoothly should make everyone uncomfortable.
At the very least, the recent problems in three states should make other states reassess whether they can go forward with executions with confidence that nothing will go wrong.
The problem with lethal injections began when the manufacturers of the sedative Pentathol ceased production three years ago. That sent many states on a search for new drugs that could get the job done, “testing” them in real executions.
Indiana Department of Corrections spokesman Doug Garrison said Thursday he was not familiar with the details of the Arizona case, but that the event has not caused the DOC to reconsider its plan for carrying out executions. None is scheduled, he said, though “once the court sets an execution date, usually it will be within 30 days.” One inmate on Indiana’s death row, Michael Overstreet, who strangled Franklin College student Kelly Eckart to death in 1997, has almost exhausted his appeals, Garrison noted.
Indiana does not use Midazolam, the sedative used in Arizona, in its execution cocktail. Instead, it announced in May that it plans to administer Brevital, like Pentathol a barbiturate anesthetic, manufactured by Par Pharmaceutical Cos. Inc., of Woodcliff, N.J. But when Par learned of Indiana’s plan, it denounced it as “contrary to our mission” and pledged to work to make it unavailable to Indiana executioners in the future.
“That drug is used exactly for its intended purpose by the DOC,” Garrison said Thursday. “It’s a drug of the type which renders painless unconciousness.” The procedure “that has caused some people some concern is not what’s used in Indiana.”
Garrison’s expression of confidence seems sincere. But he acknowledges that Brevital hasn’t been used in an execution before.
Beyond that are the larger issues of whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent, and whether state-sanctioned killing is morally justified. As citizens of the only Western democracy that still allows the killing of prisoners, the United States could benefit from a re-examination of the entire concept.
As citizens of Indiana, we should ask Gov. Mike Pence to declare a moratorium on executions and lead a statewide conversation on whether they should be resumed, even if it can be guaranteed that they could be carried out effectively.