The Supreme Court has just issued its decision in Glossip v. Gross, a petition on behalf of Oklahoma inmates along the familiar lines of tinkering with the machinery of death. After the Court found the three-drug protocol constitutional in Baze v. Rees, many executions stopped because the first drug in the trio became scarce (partly because European countries, disgusted with our retention of the death penalty, stopped exporting it.) As a solution to the problem of not being able to kill people, Oklahoma has introduced a substitute, the anesthetic Midazolam. This morning’s decision sides 5:4 with the state, finding that the inmates have not proven that using Midazolam would violate the Eighth Amendment, nor shown an alternative method.
The “tinkering” line of death penalty cases stems from the post-Gregg convention that the death penalty is constitutional in principle, and therefore there must be a constitutional way to administer it. The problem is that, in the search for such a way, we have tried and abandoned several methods. As Austin Sarat shows us in Gruesome Spectacles, there really is no good way to kill people: approximately 3% of all executions are botched. The line between an execution that “went well” and one that didn’t becomes remarkably blurry with the modern, pseudomedical ways to kill people. Still, there are enough documented lethal injection cases in which things did not go as planned to remind us that, no matter how clean and medical they appear, all of these methods will essentially fail to achieve the impossible distinction between death and suffering.
You can’t divorce death from suffering: death is suffering. And it is clinging to the farce that the two are separable that makes court decisions on this matter farcical as well. Today’s decision complains about “activists” that have made the drug scarce–as if it is their obligation to mitigate the harm. It also finds that the inmates have not offered a better solution to the state, as if they should wrap the executioner’s ax with velvet: “here, this might be more comfortable for me.”
What would happen if we let go of the assertion that there must be a way to kill people? If we let go of incessant litigation about the technologies of death? If we let go of the immensely costly post-conviction mechanism in which death row attorneys, completely out of options that invoke a true fundamental conversations about the heart of the matter, have to juggle chemicals and contraptions arguing that no, this one ain’t good enough, either?
(I should say: I don’t fault litigators one bit for engaging in this chatter. You do what you can with what you have to zealously defend your client. The abolitionist movement contains multitudes, and it is okay to fight for one’s client’s life by any means necessary while others continue to tackle the death penalty itself.)
The tenor of today’s decision, which clings to the moral imperative to kill people in the face of medical and scientific evidence that doing so is truly not possible without flukes and without the suffering that goes with any inflicted death, further supports my conclusion from the last couple of years of this, namely, that the death penalty will not, itself, be executed. It will die a slow, costly death from a chronic disease–much like the inmates at San Quentin.