May 1, 2014

Botched Execution Sparks Clash Over Death Penalty

We need some perspective on the death of a murderer.

Stephanie Neiman was 19 and just out of high school in 1999 when she and a friend arrived at a home that was being burglarized. Three assailants bound and gagged both women and the man who owned the house, drove them out a dusty country road, raped both women, and then shot Neiman twice and buried her alive because they believed she would report them to police. Today, Neiman gets little more than a mention near the bottom of news stories lamenting the botched execution of her killer.

Clayton Lockett, a four-time felon and the man who shot Neiman, was executed for his crime Tuesday in Oklahoma. The state’s new three-drug lethal injection combination, however, didn’t work as planned. Lockett lay on the gurney writhing in pain as the drugs failed to work properly, and he died of a heart attack more than 40 minutes after the first drug was administered. As a result, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin ordered a two-week stay of another execution planned for Tuesday – this one of Charles Warner, who in 1997 raped and murdered his girlfriend’s 11-month-old daughter, Adriana Waller.

What happened to Lockett is tragic and inexcusable. The fundamental idea of our judicial system is that we’re better than this botched execution. In capital cases, there is no single executioner (it’s “all of us” via a jury), and we don’t needlessly prolong suffering. The methods are controversial, but so is capital punishment itself.

Capital punishment is completely constitutional and, in our view, an acceptable method of justice for the most horrific crimes. The Fifth Amendment says the government may indeed deprive you of life so long as there is “due process of law.” In capital cases, due process takes years, often decades. Indeed, the two murders in question took place 15 and 17 years ago, respectively. Also, the Eighth Amendment bans “cruel and unusual punishments.” One may argue that Lockett’s painful death violates that ban – the White House said it “fell short” of humane standards – and, as a policy matter, his demise may result in changes.

In particular, several death row inmates are challenging secrecy laws regarding lethal drugs in various states. Lockett and Warner had challenged Oklahoma’s method, but lost. Some drug companies, especially in Europe, refuse to provide drugs for executions, leaving states to try new things that, as we saw in Oklahoma, don’t necessarily work very well. It’s ironic that the never-ending effort to be more humane in executions – a worthy goal given the grisly history of capital punishment, including current practice in other nations – has virtually eliminated more effective methods. Lethal injection is the primary method in all 35 states that exact the death penalty (three have abolished it, though not retroactively). Electrocution, gas chamber, hanging and firing squad are permitted but rarely used in just a handful of those 35.

It’s also interesting to note that those protesting the death penalty loudest often support abortion on demand, thereby sentencing the innocent to death and the killers to life. Catholics are consistent in their opposition to both because all life is sacred. But we’d argue that’s exactly why capital punishment exists – because murder is such a heinous crime that justice demands it.

Capital punishment itself will no doubt continue to be on trial. Popular support for the death penalty has been waning for years, and Lockett’s suffering may aid the cause of opponents. But some crimes merit the severest punishment. In this case, we simply suggest remembering two words: Stephanie Neiman.

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