Death by ... state

Which means we’re all involved

Posted: July 31, 2014 at 3:59 a.m.

The death penalty has been back in the news. Does it ever go away? The whole subject is as persistent as . . . conscience. For of all the things the state does for (or to) its citizens, taking a life is surely the gravest, the most solemn--and irreversible. It's final.

Last week, the state of Arizona became the latest to botch an execution. The convicted murderer in this case, Joseph R. Wood III, was injected with chemicals last Wednesday--and proceeded to take nearly two agonizing hours to die. They say he gasped again and again, and his breathing was labored throughout the whole ordeal as he was put to death by order of the state, that is, by we the people. It's painful even to think about. Or pray about. He shouldn't be the only one agonized by what happened to him last Wednesday.

The experts that officials in Arizona quoted insist the inmate wasn't awake during his execution, that he felt no pain, and all the other things the experts say in such cases, but how they know for sure is beyond us, and maybe beyond anyone else. The only person who could testify with any intimate degree of knowledge about what happened to Joseph R. Wood III last Wednesday is Joseph R. Wood III--and he is beyond this world now.

After the execution, the family of those Joseph R. Wood himself put to a horrible death told the press . . . well, the less said about that, the better. For the family lost two of its own to Mr. Wood's vicious and murderous ways. And they've been waiting since 1989--Nineteen Eighty-Nine!--to see justice done. Whatever they said, they shouldn't be held responsible for it. How blame them for wanting revenge, revenge, revenge! Indeed, that's one of the reasons these things now are left to the law rather than to the family that has been devastated by the awful crimes: to keep just those kinds of emotions at a distance from the actual operation of justice in so terrible a crime.

But the rest of us . . . .

The rest of us must know, must insist on knowing, that the death penalty is foolproof, or at least as foolproof as humans can make it. There are reasons we don't burn people at the stake any more. Among them, we have our own souls to think about. That's why We the People need to think about what has happened in Arizona.

Lest we forget, that state is only the latest to botch an execution. Back in January, both Oklahoma and Ohio produced chilling stories about executions gone excruciatingly wrong. And in April, again in Oklahoma, executioners seem to have pushed an IV through an inmate's vein, causing the deadly chemicals to go amiss--and not have their desired effect. The condemned man died of a heart attack instead.

A civilized society--a civilized people--can't have this. As long as the death penalty is on the books, we have to get it right. And if we continue to get it wrong, that failure raises the deepest doubts about whether it is possible to execute a criminal at all, at least with a decent respect for ourselves and our God.

Here in Arkansas, the death penalty has been making the papers, too. The courts and the state are going 'round and 'round with Arkansas' version of the death penalty. The Legislature writes a law about it, a court says the law gives too much discretion to the Department of Correction about how to carry out the executions, so the Legislature comes back and rewrites the law, the higher court rules again . . . and reporters are kept hopping.

Not that it may matter much to an inmate on death row which branch of Arkansas' government decides what chemical is going to kill him. But when the state decides to take a life, nothing should be left beyond reasonable doubt. Even and especially details in a law that give the state power over life and death.

This controversy isn't just about crossing the t's and dotting the i's in the statute books. The inmate on death row--or his family--wouldn't call this a debate over legal technicalities. Or only a problem of semantics. As if the wording of a law--and a state's death penalty law at that--were a word game, like an argument over Scrabble. No, this is a matter of life and death.

A government that can't even decide which of its branches should decide how to execute the condemned is a profoundly incompetent government. And nobody wants, or should want, an incompetent government executing people. These things are serious, the most serious. So let's get this right. Or not do it at all.

Because this isn't just about the condemned. It's about us, and may God have mercy on our souls.

Editorial on 07/31/2014