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placeholder September 22, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
Letters from Readers

Fatally flawed: How America kills its criminals

Rev. Gerald D. Coleman, SS

"Never repay injury with injury... I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12:17-21) The "sense of faith of the faithful" (sensus fidei fidelis) does not agree. Sixty-four percent of people, Catholics included, favor capital punishment. Writing for The Wire.com, Arit John comments, "Most people don't care if convicted murderers suffer. In fact, some prefer it that way."

How we treat criminals says a lot about us as a society. We need to administer justice with due consideration for the victims of crime. Capital punishment, however, erodes our sense of the innate dignity of every human person.

Those who support the death penalty primarily see it as a way to deter the most horrendous crimes. They generally insist, though, that criminals are entitled to a "dignified end." The dominant "dignified" method of execution throughout the 19th century was a combination of the electric chair, the firing squad or hanging. These methods eventually led to the advent of the gas chamber, thought to be a more modern way to kill cleanly.

The 20th and 21st centuries have given rise to execution-by-lethal-injection. The standard method used is a combination of three drugs: a sedative, often sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide as a paralytic agent and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Some states have enacted "secrecy laws" guaranteeing anonymity to suppliers of these lethal-injection drugs.

Protocol recommends that the best procedure for lethal injection is to connect an intravenous line into the convict's arm. These days, however, these drugs and recommended procedures are anything but uniform. Drugs have sometimes been used that have reached their expiration date and last-minute decisions are made to switch drug methods. A cavalier attitude oftentimes prevails. One expert in criminal sentencing comments, "What's the big deal, as long as the guy ends up dead."

At times untested drug combinations from unknown suppliers are used, in some cases prison wardens buying drugs from pharmacies under their own name. Use of untested drug combinations from unknown suppliers increases the chances of inhumane deaths and violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

High profile cases are examples in point.

On Jan. 9, Oklahoma injected convicted murderer Michael Lee Wilson with a combination of pentobarbital, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Before dying, Wilson said, "I feel my whole body burning."

On Jan. 16, Dennis McGuire entered the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correction Facility. An IV was placed in each arm near the elbow joint. The execution began at 10:27 a.m. as 10 mg of hydromorphone entered his veins. He tried to break free of the straps, arching his back and pushing his wrists and head against the gurney. He kept thrashing and making loud gurgling noises, appearing to be drowning. At 10:50 a.m. he stopped moving and was pronounced dead at 10:55 a.m.

On April 29, Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett. After seeming to pass out, he opened his eyes and started mumbling and thrashing against the gurney. Believing that he would survive, the warden sought to have the execution stayed and resumed at a later date. But 43 minutes after the execution began, Lockett died of a heart attack.

In July, when expiration dates had expired for the lethal combination of drugs, Arizona's Corrections Department deviated from its protocol and switched drug methods. The convicted murderer Joseph R. Wood III took nearly two hours to die, during which time he received 13 more doses of lethal drugs than the two doses set out by the state's rules.

Executioners often have no medical training and have virtually unlimited discretion to deviate from state guidelines and protocols.

Executions have become medical nightmares. They create a second class of victims. They constitute unethical and inhumane procedures and demonstrate the same level of disrespect for human life as abortion, infanticide, genocide and trafficking in women, children and men.

In Catholic moral parlance, executions are intrinsically immoral and cannot ever be permitted or tolerated.

(Sulpician Father Gerald D. Coleman is vice president for corporate ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System and a lecturer in moral theology at Santa Clara University.)

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