06/17/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Here's Everything You Need To Know To Win An Argument Against Using The Death Penalty

A Tuesday execution is planned for Georgia death row inmate Marcus Wellons, who was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of his neighbor, high school sophomore India Roberts.

Wellons will be the first U.S. inmate put to death since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, who died of a heart attack in April after clenching his teeth and showing distress while officials administered a new lethal drug combination for the first time.

Wellons likely won't experience the same fate as Lockett, as Georgia only uses one drug for lethal injections: pentobarbital. The Georgia Department of Corrections has confirmed that it has secured the pentobarbital for Wellons' execution, the Athens Banner-Herald reports.

But it's inevitable that this execution -- or the next two: Missouri inmate John Winfield faces execution six hours after Wellons, and Florida inmate John Ruthell Henry is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday -- will spark yet another debate about the death penalty. Not in favor of it? Here's a list that can help you win any argument with someone who supports the death penalty.

Why should we show mercy for the inmates who themselves showed none for their victims?

Setting aside the question of whether the behavior of the worst criminals among us should dictate our own approach to justice, studies have shown the death penalty is likely taking the lives of innocent people. According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, almost 4 percent of U.S. capital punishment sentences are wrongful convictions, meaning about 1 in 25 people who are sentenced to death are likely innocent. This could mean that approximately 120 of the roughly 3,000 inmates currently on death row in America might not be guilty, and at least several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977 were innocent.

The Washington Post's Radley Balko writes:

If you support the death penalty, you have to recognize that it will be administered by human beings, who are flawed, and then you have to acknowledge the possibility that no system of justice can be perfect. This means that at over time, the probability of executing an innocent person eventually reaches 1. The question, then, isn’t whether you believe an innocent person has ever been executed. The question is how many innocent people you’re comfortable executing.

But most of these people are horrible individuals; should we care if they die excruciating deaths?

Even assuming that all inmates actually committed the crimes for which they are being executed, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution says "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

Because lethal injection is such a secretive procedure, we can't definitively say it's not cruel and unusual. The Washington Post reported in March on the secrecy surrounding the death penalty procedures in different states, and the way lethal injection -- which supporters often view as a sterile and more humane form of killing -- matches up against other forms of execution:

But today’s fight over transparency and lack of concern over botched executions are good reminders of the fundamental lie at the heart of lethal injection: It is a punishment that, by its very design, has always been rooted in secrecy rather than medical science. Never mind the rhetoric about “humane and dignified death.” However brutish the electric chair or gas chamber might appear by comparison, the only thing that truly sets lethal injection apart is that it was devised to mask what it was doing to its victims. As states have been forced to abandon that original design, lethal injection has been exposed for what it actually is: an experimental, unscientific form of premeditated killing.

But most executions go smoothly, so do we even need to be concerned about what happens in the process?

While the majority of executions may appear to go "smoothly," in that a properly sedated inmate dies without being able to express pain, Lockett's is an example of just what happens when they don't.

After his execution, prison officials told The Associated Press that, of the last 19 executions in Oklahoma, an average of 6 to 12 minutes passed before inmates died. Lockett was pronounced dead 45 minutes after his execution began due to complications with the lethal injection procedure.

But he's not the only one to suffer on the gurney: On Jan. 16, Ohio executed convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire by lethal injection with an untested combination of drugs, including the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. It took him 25 minutes to die.

In 2006, it took Joseph Lewis Clark, who was also executed by lethal injection, 86 minutes to die.

Amherst law professor Austin Sarat examined every execution from 1890 to 2010 and found that 3 percent of them did not go according to protocol. Though Sarat says these botched executions included decapitations at hangings and defendants catching fire in electric chairs, he also notes the percentage hasn't gone down with the adoption of lethal injection.

"Botched executions have not disappeared since America has adopted the current state-of-the art method of lethal injection," Sarat wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed. "In fact, executions by lethal injection are botched at a higher rate than any of the other methods employed since the late 19th century, 7 percent."

An attempted execution in 2009 was so bungled that inmate Romell Broom actually lived. Broom's execution was halted after a team tried for two hours to find a suitable vein, sticking him with needles at least 18 times and causing pain so excruciating he cried and screamed.

Isn't it more expensive to keep death row inmates in prison? Why not just execute them so we don't have to pay for their food, housing and medical care?

Death penalty trials can cost millions more than non-death-penalty trials -- a cost that's passed on to taxpayers. The Economist reports:

An execution itself is not expensive, but the years of appeals that precede it are. Defendants facing death tend to have more, better and costlier lawyers. Death-row inmates are more expensive to incarcerate, too: they usually have their own cells, with meals brought to them and multiple guards present for every visit. “It’s because of this myth that these people will be executed in a couple of months,” explains Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Centre.

The price of execution drugs became 15 times higher from 2011 to 2012, costing nearly $1,300.

But some people just deserve the death penalty. Isn't lethal injection the most humane way to do it?

Some scientists argue that it is not. In a 2010 interview with Scientific American, Teresa Zimmers, a molecular biologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said "there isn't any medical evidence" to support using lethal injection over other forms of execution.

"Part of the paradox is that it looks like a medical procedure, but it hasn't been rigorously tested," Zimmers said. "There are no controlled trials, data collection, analysis or peer review of the processes to determine whether it works the way it's been said to work."

The last words of some executed inmates also raise concerns about whether lethal injections are humane. Michael Lee Wilson, who was executed by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in January, told prison officials he could feel the combination of drugs just before his death.

"I feel my whole body burning," Wilson said before succumbing to the drugs.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains a website devoted to executed offenders that includes each inmate's last statement. Many of the statements contain phrases like "it's burning"; "I feel it"; "I'm feeling it"; "I can feel it, taste it"; and "this stuff stings."

"My left arm is killing me. It hurts bad," said Jonathan Green, who was executed in October 2012.

Sarat noted that pain may be inevitable in executions.

"A close look at executions in America suggests that despite our best efforts, pain and potential for error are inseparable from the process through which the state extinguishes life -- and that the conversation about capital punishment needs to take that fact into consideration," Sarat wrote.

Fine then, why don't we just forget about lethal injection and try something else?

Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic widely used in executions, is in short supply after the sole American manufacturer said in 2011 it would no longer produce it. This led some states to consider other methods, including the new drug combination that left Lockett writhing on the gurney.

Some lawmakers are also considering execution methods of the past, including firing squads, electrocutions and gas chambers. Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin (R), who in January proposed firing squads as an option for executions in his state, said his suggestion wasn't an attempt to "time-warp."

"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," Brattin said, noting he thinks it's unfair for relatives of murder victims to wait years, even decades, to see justice served.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R), meanwhile, has signed a bill allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates if lethal injection drugs could not be obtained.

While this may all sound medieval, perhaps avid supporters of the death penalty should be willing to see a return to the days of the guillotine or firing squad. After all, by many accounts, they are more reliable, humane and cost-effective than lethal injection. And the act of killing another human is inherently barbaric, whether death is delivered by needle or bullet. Perhaps facing it in its most honest form would allow us to more accurately measure the weight of these actions.

Aren't executions common around the world?

The United States was 1 of 22 countries to report executions in 2013, according to Amnesty International. The U.S. was the only country in the Americas, and it and Japan were the only two in the G-8, to have carried out executions last year.


The U.S. came in fifth on the list of most executions, after China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Is that really the kind of company we want to keep when it comes to human rights?



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