Oklahoma Botches Execution: What’s Going On?
Last night, the state of Oklahoma effectively tortured one of its prisoners to death, after weeks of legal back-and-forth between the state’s courts about the legality of the execution. Clayton Lockett’s execution was halted after it was clear that the lethal injection procedure was botched, but he suffered significantly and ultimately died as a result of the botched procedure.
Lockett was scheduled to be the first of two prisoners executed last night 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. Those states have largely turned to compounding pharmacies, which combine or mix custom drugs, with little oversight for small batches.
As a result, in Oklahoma and other states, officials have been extremely secretive about where they are obtaining the supplies necessary for lethal injection. Officials even used petty cash to procure the drugs. The secrecy resulted in a legal back-and-forth between the state’s two highest courts and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin. The state Supreme Court stayed the executions of Lockett and another death row inmate last week, but ultimately allowed the executions to proceed.
The execution was scheduled for last night, and the state was to use a drug combination that had not been tested or publicized. Midway through the injection procedure, it became obvious that Lockett was in immense pain and semi-conscious, so officials halted the execution after about 15 minutes. Less than half an hour later, however, Lockett died of a heart attack.
Whatever one thinks of the death penalty, something is wrong here. This botched execution is not the first problem with lethal injection in recent months, and our opposition to torture means that we must be particularly careful about “cruel and unusual punishment.” Moreover, the incident further highlights the issue of capital punishment more broadly. As Jews, our belief in the sanctity of human life precludes the use of the death penalty. 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.
In another passage, the rabbis show distaste for executions. “Said one: The Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) that puts to death one person in seven years is termed tyrannical. Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azariah says, ‘One person in seventy years.’ Rabbi Tarffon and Rabbi Akiba say, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would have ever been put to death.’ (Mishnah Makkot 1:10).” The United States is clearly exceeding those standards by any measure, and last night’s execution in Oklahoma further illustrates that this inhumane, often-arbitrary punishment is unacceptable.