Freddie Lee Pitts

Capital Punishment: New Drugs, New Questions



The death penalty is back in the news with increasing frequency —and there is, in fact, a reason. See if you can piece this together:

  • In Ohio, it took Dennis B. McGuire 25 excruciatingly painful minutes, from the time he was injected with fatal drugs to the time he was declared dead. The state used a new drug combination in its execution of Mr. McGuire, and received court approval to proceed despite defense attorneys asking for a delay, “in fear of the unused drug causing ‘air hunger,’ inflicting ‘terror and agony’ upon their client.”
  • In Virginia, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would mandate death by electrocution in many cases, while Missouri and Wyoming have flirted with reintroducing the firing squad.
  • The Supreme Court issued a last-minute, temporary stay of the execution of a Missouri inmate, Herbert Smulls, in the hours between President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday evening and the man’s scheduled execution at 12:01 Wednesday morning, following the state’s refusal to disclose where they obtained a lethal-injection drug.
  • The first four executions of 2014 are being carried out by Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Texas, respectively. Each is using a different lethal injection procedure.

These stories are intertwined because, beyond the issue of capital punishment, they involve the lack of available lethal drugs. Many of the drugs previously used were made in the European Union, where the death penalty is not used and considered inhumane, while others were made by domestic manufacturers who faced significant-enough pressure from death penalty opponents to cease their manufacture. As a result, in recent months the 32 states that still use the death penalty have been scrambling to obtain the necessary drugs, often turning to so-called compounding pharmacies which are not subject to FDA regulations. The resulting chaos with various states trying out their own formulas has led to some disturbing results.

While the Torah mandated capital punishment for some crimes, rabbinic Judaism made its application extremely difficult. In the Talmud, the Mishnah Sanhedrin establishes a series of legal requirements intentionally so complex and difficult to satisfy as to make carrying out the death penalty practically impossible. (A fuller explanation of these complex requirements is available here.) Likewise, the URJ has opposed the death penalty since 1959, “believing that, there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified, and that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods in dealing with crime… in the spirit of the Jewish tradition of tshuva (repentance).”

In the West Wing episode Take This Sabbath Day, White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler discusses the death penalty with his rabbi—who reminds us that while society has a right to punish, the death penalty is wrong by “any ethical, modern standard.” The uncertainty of execution and, in some cases like the one in Ohio, the barbaric manner in which some executions have been carried out, serve to remind us of the arbitrary and cruel nature of the death penalty.

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Charlie Arnowitz

About Charlie Arnowitz

Charlie Arnowitz is a Legislative Assistant at the RAC, responsible for civil rights, immigration, and healthcare issues. He is a native of Highland Park, IL and a 2013 graduate of Vermont's Middlebury College.

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  1. Oklahoma Botches Execution: What’s Going On? | Fresh Updates from RAC - May 1, 2014

    […] in McAlester, Oklahoma. In recent months, makers of traditional drugs used for lethal injection have halted their production, leading the 32 states that still use the death penalty to scramble to obtain the necessary drugs. […]

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