Our system of justice is increasingly becoming a system of vengeance. Our collective desire to execute those convicted of heinous crimes has led us to extremes that do us no credit. Although lethal injection was touted as a “more humane” method of execution than hanging, the firing squad, or the electric chair, it has really been about sparing ourselves the spectacle of watching the gruesome murder of someone in the name of the state. Now, even that pretext is failing.
Oklahoma has been particularly enthusiastic about finding new chemical methods to execute individuals. Most recently they have come up with a cocktail of midazolam (a sedative), combined with pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. The idea is to inject the midazolam sedative, so that the individual in unconscious, then inject a second drug, pancuronium bromide (its function is to freeze all voluntary and involuntary muscles, preventing the individual from moving or breathing) and then inject potassium chloride, a drug which will cause the heart to stop.
In January of 2015, Oklahoma was poised to execute Charles Warner, a convicted child killer. They thought had secured midazolam for the sedative, pancuronium bromide to freeze his muscles and stop his breathing, and potassium chloride to stop his heart, so the execution proceeded. But it did not go as planned. Rather than being rendered unconscious by the sedative, Warner kept talking. He said that it felt like “acid” was being injected in his veins, and just before he died, that he yelled that he felt like he was “on fire.” The midazolam did not sedate him, the pancuronium bromide did not keep him from moving and speaking, nor did the potassium chloride quickly stop his heart.
Why didn’t the potassium chloride kill him as intended? Because it wasn’t potassium chloride, it was potassium acetate. If you work in the maintenance department of an airport, you probably are familiar with potassium acetate; it is used to de-ice runways. In our desire to obtain vengeance on Charles Warner, we injected him with runway de-icer, and that is how he died. The reason that they used runway de-icer (potassium acetate) instead of potassium chloride, is that the state pharmacist shipped the wrong drug to the prison, and no one ever bother to check the label. The government agent that transported it didn’t check the label, the prison official who inventoried it on arrival didn’t check the label, and the execution team who gave him the drug didn’t check the label.
The story doesn’t end there. Next in line to be executed in Oklahoma after Warner was Richard Glossip. Before Glossip’s scheduled execution date, the State of Oklahoma finally realized they had used the wrong drug on Warner. The first person to discover the mistake was the Warden. Did the Warden tell anyone and warn them not to reuse the runway de-icer? She did not. Another employee eventually discovered the problem and said something like “Let’s not use runway de-icer to kill Mr. Glossip- let’s get the approved drug.” Did that deter Oklahoma from wanting to use runway de-icer on Glossip? Not initially. Even though the Oklahoma Attorney General wanted to postpone Glossip’s execution until the correct drug could be found, the Oklahoma Governor’s General Counsel, Steve Mullins, thought that the two drugs were close enough. He wanted the executions to proceed. Mullins suggested if people didn’t agree with his opinion about the two drugs, they should just “Google it.”
Eventually what passes for reason in these discussions prevailed, and Glossip’s execution was temporarily stayed. We know all this happened because a criminal investigation was undertaken by a grand jury in Oklahoma, and on May 15, 2016, they released a 106 page report detailing all that had gone wrong in the execution of Charles Warner, and the attempts to execute Richard Glossip. That report is available here.
We have demonstrated, over and over again, that the death penalty is not something that can be fairly and humanely carried out. As Justice Harry Blackmun stated in 1994 in Callins v. Collins, it is time for us as a society to stop “tinkering with the machinery of death,” and be finished with the death penalty. Our visceral desire to seek vengeance rather than justice is destructive of our shared societal values; how we administer justice reveals more about ourselves than it does about those we seek to punish.