Dead is dead, except in the death chamber


If there’s one thing we’re good at in America, it’s killing people. Random, criminal gun violence killed some 12,000 people in 2013. And that’s just here at home. We can target Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen from a war room in the States and pretty much guarantee a kill. We can send soldiers to war and absolutely guarantee that many of the enemy and too many of ours will die. We can send Navy Seals to rescue a kidnapped merchant sea captain and, in a rolling sea, from a great distance, they can nail the captors and save the captain. Sometimes, in war, without even trying, we accidentally kill dozens of innocent bystanders.

But what we aren’t very good at is killing people as punishment. As recent botched executions have demonstrated, we are inept, imprecise and amateurish when it comes to state-mandated executions.

As a longtime opponent of the death penalty, I see the increasingly flawed lethal injection as perfect proof of why we should not be in the execution business. I say this not out of empathy for the killers, but because of what state-run executions do to us, the bystanders. I think about the witnesses who watched last week as Joseph R. Wood III took nearly two hours to die after poison was injected into his body intravenously. And he didn’t go quietly or gently. Witnesses said he gasped for air hundreds of times. His protracted death reportedly took so long that his lawyers were able to file an emergency appeal. He expired before it could be heard.

How ironic that we kill one another at a rate of some 12,000 a year. And most times, it’s quick and easy — shots through a window, a bullet in a school yard, hundreds of domestic murders. Yet we continue to mess up the planned, organized and legal killing of some really bad people who have been convicted of unforgivable crimes.

In January, convicted killer Dennis McGuire did not die quickly when injected with an experimental two-drug concoction. A witness, Lawrence Hummer, said that some 12 minutes after the deadly infusion began, the prisoner gasped and clenched his fists. “It was much like a fish lying along the shore, puffing for that one gasp of air . . .,” Mr. Hummer said. “I came out of that room feeling that I had witnessed something ghastly. It had taken 26 minutes.”

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