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Clayton Lockett's Inhumane Execution and What We Should Really Be Talking About

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David J Sams via Getty Images
David J Sams via Getty Images

Last night, Clayton Lockett was tied down to a gurney in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He sat behind a glass window, accompanied by doctors, lying in front of an audience of media, court magistrates, men and women associated with his correctional facility, and families related to his case. At 6:23 p.m., he was administered the first of three drugs that would complete his lethal injection.

Then, via The Associated Press:

About three minutes later, though, Lockett began breathing heavily, writhing on the gurney, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow. After about three minutes, a doctor lifted the sheet that was covering Lockett to examine the injection site.

What the doctor found was described as a "blown vein." Once Lockett began writhing uncontrollably, a curtain was dropped. At 7:06, more than 40 minutes after his execution began, Lockett died of a heart attack.

So now we are left with a question: a 38-year-old convicted of shooting a young girl with a sawed off shotgun, then watching her be buried alive, dies in agony and pain (when he was meant to be killed peacefully, I suppose). How do we respond?

Here is how we should respond: Let's take this opportunity to look deeper into our prison system. Executions, especially tortuous ones that are dehumanized with the word "botched," get a lot of warranted attention; but the discussion we're left having about capital punishment avoids a more pervasive and correctable issue. We should respond by making prison reform the next great civil rights movement of our generation, even while grappling with the persistently formidable issues of racial equality and gay rights.

Let's start with the issue at hand: Clayton Lockett's story is about how the ultimate responsibility of taking a human life lies, ironically, in the potency of a drug.

There's an attractive drama and controversy in writing a story about the ethics of killing a convicted killer. There's certainly room to move within the margin of being strictly anti-death penalty by asking what makes a society evolved. What can we say about the state of American Christianity that there seems to be a correlation between a given state's percentage of Christians and that state's number of enacted death sentences? It's a provocative question, rife with debate along lines where they really shouldn't be drawn. It's provocative, but distracts from the main issue.

Let me instead draw your attention to the blunt fact that roughly 2.4 million Americans are currently imprisoned, and nearly five million are on parole or probation. That means that in a country of more than 300 million people, over 3 percent of adults are under some level of punitive control. If you want to keep being distracted from the main problem, stop here and marvel at the fact that the United States is home to 5 percent of the world's population, and 25 percent of the world's prisoners -- but I press you to go further.

The main problem is the tool of Lockett's execution itself: drugs. It isn't that "drugs are bad," but that the punishments themselves are far worse. The American incarceration rate increased as a response to the War on Drugs, which preceded Reagan's official declaration by many decades with the imprisonment of a disproportionate number of Chinese-Americans on opium charges, before moving on to disproportionately punishing Mexican-Americans for marijuana, then black people for crack-cocaine. And now, with white people being imprisoned disproportionately on meth charges, drug incarceration has evolved from being statistically racist to becoming a full-fledged war on the poor.

Want the numbers? Take as many as you can get, they're very easy to find.

Our judicial system is occupied too much with non-violent crimes, it's historically racist, and yes, it's just the United States.

All this is not only obvious, not only unsustainable, not only unconscionable, but more than anything vulnerable to change with a ground swell of support. If we had a political climate that could be conducive to a high-profile politician who can state these things openly without the fear of being labeled "soft on crime," made unelectable, then removed from all positions of change, we could have a stunning force to rally with. We have to start by changing that climate.

Maybe we should start that change here, in response to Oklahoma Death Row's drug problem, and build that vitriol proportionally with the mass number of people whose lives have been plagued by punitive control for their own drug problems. Maybe we can build it with a show of support from a popular news outlet like HuffPost openly and convincingly, and make that support larger and larger until a more prominent voice can confidently blast anyone who labels reformers "soft on crime" with the full weight of an educated public behind it.

We have to stop imprisoning our neighbors; but let's start with at least killing them humanely.