Turning Away From Celebrating Death

Despite the recent filibuster in Nebraska, support for death penalty abolition is once again on the rise (Photo Credit: Allen Hailey).

Despite the recent filibuster in Nebraska, support for death penalty abolition is once again on the rise (Photo Credit: Allen Hailey).

LB 543, Nebraska’s death penalty repeal bill, was successfully filibustered this week by a minority of the state’s senators. During the course of two days of debate and occasional voting, it became clear that the votes to pass the bill might have been there, but the two-thirds majority needed to break a filibuster was not.

Nebraska’s death penalty, like capital punishment elsewhere, suffers from arbitrariness, unfairness, and general uselessness, facts that are dawning on a lot of legislators in a lot of states. The defense of the death penalty in the Nebraska debate was not passionate, and relied on the citing of discredited deterrence studies and a vague sense the executions somehow equal justice.

Nebraska’s embarrassing attempts to acquire lethal injection drugs may have been partially responsible for the sheepishness with which the pro-death penalty arguments seemed to be infused. But more likely it’s just that the days of cheering for executions and celebrating the death penalty are over.

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FDA Slammed For Allowing Illegal Execution Drugs

Death chamber in Huntsville, Texas

The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

I’ve written before about how the death penalty degrades everything it touches, and in the words of Thomas Paine,  leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws.  Doctors and other medical professionals complicit in the act of execution violate the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” Drug companies are unwillingly dragged into the business of killing, rather than healing. And now, a recent court ruling exposes how the the FDA, whose stated mission is to keep us safe from bad food and drugs, has abandoned its mandate in order to facilitate state executions.

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The Shady World Of Execution Drug Trafficking

Once upon a time, Chris Harris was a broker for Kayem Pharma, a small India-based pharmaceutical company that sold sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that, in addition to its legitimate health care uses, has been used to kill over 1,000 prisoners in the U.S.  Late last year, he brokered a sale of sodium thiopental to the states of Nebraska and South Dakota, states that have collectively carried out exactly one execution this century.  Nebraska paid just over $2,000 for enough of the drug (500 grams) for 166 executions (there are 12 people on Nebraska’s death row), while pledging it would not be reselling the drug to other states.

Why so much?  That is not clear, but eventually the DEA ruled that it had all been imported illegally anyway and could not be used.  Kayem, meanwhile, expressed dismay that their drug would be used for executions, saying that it violated their “ethos of Hinduism”.   Angry emails between company headquarters and its U.S. agents, with epithets like “drug peddlers” and “piece of sh*t thief”, flew back and forth.  Chris Harris was fired for “indulging in activities detrimental to Company interest.”

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Death Penalty Abolition in the States: It Begins

Today, the first important committee hearings on state abolition bills will be held: one in New Mexico (HB285) and one in Nebraska (LB306).  Nebraska legislators will also be considering a bill to introduce lethal injection as the method of execution (LB36), since Nebraska’s sole method of state killing, the electric chair, was declared unconstitutional last year. 

Meanwhile, the Maryland bill repealing capital punishment has also been introduced in the Senate (SB279), and there appear to be serious discussions on how to break the logjam that has held this bill up in committee in the past, with even some death penalty supporters saying that it is important that this issue get a hearing in front of the full Senate.

Stay tuned …

Can the Death Penalty Cause Wrongful Convictions?

Yes.  It happened most recently in Nebraska, where 6 men were sentenced to various prison terms for involvement in a murder they had nothing to do with, because some of them “confessed” after being threatened with the death penalty.  DNA tests have ultimately exonerated them all, revealing that, according to the Lincoln Journal Star, the state’s case was a “complete fiction” and “entirely fabricated.”

The death penalty is often touted by prosecutors as a useful tool for convincing suspects to confess or to plead guilty.  Here, it is clear that the results can just as easily be false confessions or erroneous guilty pleas.  As with torture, the information obtained by this approach is just not reliable.

Threatening someone with the death penalty is no more a useful tool for eliciting an accurate confession than torture, and it is just as odious, immoral and flagrant a violation of human rights.  And the fact that some investigators still believe they can rely on it is all the more reason to abolish it once and for all.