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​Death sentences and the demise of human rights in the US

John Wight is a writer and commentator specializing in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.

Published time: January 24, 2014 17:36
The death chamber at California's San Quentin State Prison is shown in this undated file photograph (Reuters / California Department of Corrections)

The recent execution of Dennis McGuire by the state of Ohio using a previously untested cocktail of lethal drugs confirms that in the 21st century the words barbaric and United States of America belong in the same sentence.

Prior to McGuire’s execution on January 16 for the 1989 rape and murder of a 22-year-old pregnant woman, a court hearing to determine whether the execution should proceed had been warned by a medical expert that the combination of lethal drugs scheduled for use would likely cause the prisoner “agony and horror”. David Waisel, associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard medical school, was cited as an expert witness by the defense. After the execution, during which McGuire took 25 minutes to die after the drugs were initially administered, and during which according to eyewitness accounts he was in a state of extreme agony and distress throughout, Waisel said, “Initially I was angry, because I told them this would happen. Now I'm very sad about this. I'm also horrified and aghast. This was all totally unnecessary.”

Waisel had presented Judge Gregory Frost with a nine-page statement setting out his medical opinion of what would happen if the execution of McGuire went ahead using the drugs concerned – midazolam and hydromorphone – during the appeal hearing at the US district court for the southern district of Ohio. Waisel warned the court that the prisoner was at “substantial, palpable, objectively intolerable risk of experiencing the agony and horrifying sensation of unrelenting air hunger…” An official for the state of Ohio, who also gave testimony at the hearing, reportedly said, “You’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.”

The use of the death penalty in the United States has long been shrouded in controversy. It is currently legal in 32 out 50 states and 39 inmates were executed in 2013, all but one by lethal injection. One of those inmates was a female, Kimberly McCarthy, who was executed on 26 June 2013 by the state of Texas, which holds the distinction of executing more inmates than any other state since the US Supreme Court lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in 1976. Of the 1300 plus men and women who’ve been executed since then, Texas accounts for a third.

Campaigners in the US continue to characterize the death penalty as a form of legal lynching, based on its racial bias against blacks, who’ve consistently constituted a disproportionate number of inmates on death row since 1976 and those subsequently executed. A report on the death penalty in the US by Amnesty International in 2003 noted, “It is over eight years since the United States ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, thereby committing itself to work against racial discrimination, including its effects in the criminal justice system. In general, courts and legislatures in the USA have failed to act decisively in the face of evidence that race has an impact on capital sentencing…”

Another controversial aspect on the administration of the death penalty in the US is its history of executing juveniles (interpreted as under the age of 18 when the original crime was committed) and the mentally ill, which is illegal under existing international human rights legislation. Between the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976 and the Supreme Court’s ruling imposing a moratorium on the execution of juveniles in 2003, 22 inmates under the age of 18 were executed.

Another compelling factor in the US death penalty debate is socioeconomic status and background. An overwhelming number of inmates executed in the US come from poor and broken homes. As such, the quality of legal defense they have had fighting their cases has in many cases been questionable, based on the strong association between justice and wealth in the land of the free.

In North Carolina and Florida, the execution process has been speeded up in recent years. In North Carolina this involved the repeal of the state’s Racial Justice Act, a law which had allowed another avenue of appeal for death row inmates who believed their sentences were the result of racial bias. In Florida, meanwhile, the process involved the creation of a new law that requires the governor to sign an inmate’s death warrant within 30 days of his or her appeals having been exhausted.

According to the website, Death Penalty Focus, execution by lethal injection was first used in the United States by the state of Texas in 1982. It was earlier employed by the Nazis during their euthanasia program of mentally ill adults and children in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the Nazis adopted poison gas as their preferred method.

An issue surrounding lethal injection has been the involvement of medical personnel. Despite trained doctors and nurses being the most qualified to administer the drugs involved, the process is incompatible with the ethics of medicine, prompting the American Medical Association to formally prohibit its members from participating in them, as have the American Nurses Association. This has meant that many executions are carried out by orderlies and technicians, who in many cases are inexperienced and/or not fully medically trained, resulting in incidents of botched executions adding to the suffering and pain.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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