Our View: Capital punishment cannot be fixed with ‘better’ drugs

05/06/2014 4:41 PM

05/06/2014 4:54 PM

California adopted lethal injection as an execution method after the macabre death of murderer Robert Alton Harris in San Quentin State Prison’s gas chamber in April 1992.

The 1992 legislation, carried by then-Assemblyman Tom McClintock, who lives in Elk Grove but represents a congressional district that stretches along the Sierra from Lake Tahoe to Kings Canyon National Park, was supposed to end the possibility of appeals based on cruelty.

The Los Angeles Times quoted McClintock at the time as saying reports of botched executions were greatly exaggerated. Lethal injection, he said more than 20 years ago, would be “the only form of execution which, from our own life’s experience, we can conclude is entirely devoid of discomfort.”

There is no humane or painless way to execute another human, as Clayton Lockett’s botched execution last week in Oklahoma illustrates. Lockett writhed, gasped and apparently died of a heart attack roughly 40 minutes after the drugs that were supposed to kill him were administered.

Lockett’s crimes included burying his victim alive. We have no sympathy for him. But Oklahoma’s inability to carry out the execution, and its refusal to identify the drugs it used, reopens the national debate over capital punishment.

The central question is whether or not we can carry out the death penalty in a way that does not force us to commit the same kinds of atrocities that were committed by those we are executing. If we cannot, then execution of even the most heinous criminal is not worth the damage done to our own morality. Revenge is not sufficient cause for the state to carry out an execution.

California’s condemned population has grown to 745. The states that carry out the death penalty most often – all of which are in the South – are having an ever more difficult time securing sufficient drugs to do their deadly work.

California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, when a federal judge concluded the state’s lethal drug concoction did not comply with the constitutional prohibition against cruel and usual punishment. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation supposedly is developing regulations for a single lethal drug protocol. Gov. Jerry Brown, who opposes capital punishment, clearly is not pushing his department to complete the effort expeditiously.

An initiative to restore the death penalty in California, touted by former Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, won’t be on the ballot in 2014. Even if it gets on the ballot in 2016 and voters approve it, capital punishment will remain beyond repair. State-administered death never will be antiseptic or humane.

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