Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced today that he’ll seek the death penalty for 20-year-old Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the April 15, 2013 homemade shrapnel-filled pressure cooker twin-bombs that killed three and injured 260. Dzhokhar’s 26-year-old older brother Tameran, killed in a shootout with Boston and federal police April 19, 2013, masterminded the attacks, killing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, before the April 19 late-night shootout that felled Tamerlan. Facing 30 federal charges all with the potential death penalty, Holder charged Dzhokhar with using a weapon of mass destruction, carrying by itself the death penalty. Whether Dzhokhar deserves the death penalty or not, federal and state authorities face growing shortages of death penalty drugs, now embargoed by European suppliers because of the death penalty ban.
Faced with growing shortages of federally-approved death penalty drugs, Holder knows that the likelihood of Dzhokhar facing execution is slim-and-none. On more mudane cases around the country, problems with lethal injection, even before the shortages, raise Constitutional issues regarding cruel-and-unusual punishment, with various reports about prisoners writhing in agony for up to one hour before their deaths. When Oklahoma and Texas’ state medical examiners in 1977 approved a three drug combination of (a) sodium thiopental or pentobartital, a short-acting anesthetic, (b) pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant and (c) potassium chorlide, a heart stopping agent, a new era of “humane” execution had begun. Since then, death penalty opponents have found fault with medical forms of euthanasia, once used by the Nazis for euthanizing prisoners..
Faced with an embargo of European suppliers, several states have scrambled to revive old gas chambers, electric chairs, hanging platforms or even firing squads. “This isn’t an attempt to time-warp back into the 1850s or the wild, wild West or anything like that,” said Missouri State Rep. Rick Brattin, concerned about shortages of death penalty agents and lengthy legal delays. “It’s just that I foresee a problem, and I’m trying to come up with a solution that will be the most humane yet most economical for our state,” insisted Brattin, answering his own question. If you talk about “humane,” the U.S. should follow Europe’s lead and stop the same practices routinely performed in the most barbaric countries on the planet, including China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. It’s difficult to talk of a “humane” solution to state-sponsored executions when the obvious option is to end the practice.
When Ohio death row inmate Dennis McGuire writhed and gasped-for-air for 26 minutes strapped to a gurney Jan..16, death row officials knew they had problems. Only a week before Jan. 9, Oklahoma’s Michael Lee Wilson muttered, “I feel my whole body buring,” signaling more problems with lethal injection. With the EU banning drug companies from exporting chemicals used in executions, state departments of corrections have been left scrambling. Missouri officials announced they sought Propofol, the same anesthetic agent that killed pop singer icon Michael Jackson June 25, 2009, only to find a ban from European suppliers. Without the approved three-drug combo, Missouri and other states seek non-approved alternatives from compounding pharmacies, killing inmates with unregulated doses of pentobarbital. Whether humane or not, legal objections abound.
Holder’s announcement today to seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar serves only symbolic notice to would be terrorists since, for all practical purposes, the federal government hasn’t executed anyone since Louis Jones Jr. March 19, 2003 in Terre Haute, Indiana. With all the legal challenges, including the current shortage of lethal injection drugs, it’s difficult for states like Missouri, Wyoming, Utah, Texas, etc., to return to what looks like macabre forms of execution. Instead of going backwards, death penalty-inclined states must take a fresh look whether fighting the old battles is worth it. “Many of these politicians are trying to tap into a more populist theme that those who do terrible things deserve to have terrible things happen to them,” said University of Missouri, St. Louis criminal justice professor Michael Campbell, opposed to capital punishment.
Shortages of lethal injection chemicals have opened to door for pro-death penalty states to take a hard look at capital punishment. Going back to the old barbaric ways of execution raise even more objections to the practice. Once the humaneness was stripped from lethal injection, it gives death penalty advocates less clout when they insist on going back to more objectionable ways. Advocating a return to hangings or firing squads—no matter how cost effective—doesn’t pass the smell test now that the more advanced medical approach of lethal injections has proved fallible. Republican State Virginia Rep. Jackson Miller believes the state must fulfill its duty. “But I also believe that the process of the justice system needs to be fulfilled,” said Miller, ignoring legitimate objections to capital punishment. If lethal injection qualifies as “cruel-and-unusual punishment,” then it must be stopped.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.