POLITICS
08/02/2018 01:51 pm ET

Pope Francis Was Right To Speak Out Against The Death Penalty. Here's Why.

The pope argued the death penalty is an attack on the dignity of humans. He has a point.

Pope Francis again spoke out against the death penalty, arguing in a new teaching that it’s “inadmissible” because it’s an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

The new policy, approved in May but made public Thursday, lines up with Francis’ personal opposition to the death penalty. He’s called it “inadmissible” before, arguing in 2017 that using the death penalty amounts to voluntarily killing a human life.

A 2017 Gallup poll showed support for the death penalty in the United States was at its lowest point since 1972, with 55 percent of adults saying they favored the death penalty for convicted murderers.

Still, the United States was one of 23 countries to carry out executions in 2017, according to Amnesty International. And President Donald Trump has argued for it at times, tweeting that a suspect in a 2017 attack in New York “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

But there are a few reasons the death penalty deserves to be called into question.

We’re likely putting innocent people to death

A report released in 2017 from the National Registry of Exonerations said there were 54 exonerations in homicide cases in 2016, and every one involved either police or prosecutorial misconduct, or perjured testimony/false accusations, with some cases involving both.

Race is a factor, too: The report notes black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people, and those exonerated had to wait years longer than white people for their names to be cleared.

A statistical study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 showed about 1 in 25 people who are sentenced to death are likely innocent. This could mean at least several of the 1,479 people executed since 1977 were wrongly put to death.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were 2,817 people on death row in the U.S. as of July 2017.

Executions can be excruciatingly long affairs

Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett was pronounced dead 45 minutes after his April 2014 execution began. The average length of the previous 19 executions in Oklahoma, prison officials told The Associated Press, was 6 to 12 minutes.

Due to complications with the lethal injection procedure, Lockett writhed and rolled his head back and forth on the gurney as the area around his injection site swelled to the size of a golf ball. He tried to speak and get up off the gurney until his heart rate weakened and eventually stopped altogether.

Lockett’s not the only one to suffer on the gurney: On Jan. 16, 2014, 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 executed by lethal injection, 86 minutes to die.

Executions are often botched

Amherst College law professor Austin Sarat examined every execution from 1890 to 2010 and found that 3 percent of all executions during those years 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 of executions not done properly 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 botched that inmate Romell Broom actually lived. Broom’s execution was stopped after an execution team tried for two hours to find a suitable vein, sticking him with needles at least 18 times with pain so excruciating he cried and screamed.

Executions methods often cause physical pain

Michael Lee Wilson, who was executed by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in January 2014, told prison officials he could feel the combination of execution drugs injected 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, which 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, 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.

Death penalty trials are expensive

Death penalty trials can cost millions more than non-death-penalty trials — a cost that’s placed on taxpayers. The Economist reported in 2014:

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.

Very few countries perform executions, and we’re in some questionable company with the ones that do

The United States was one of 23 countries to report performing executions in 2017, and it is the only country in the Americas to have carried out executions for the past nine years, according to Amnesty International. 

We’re considering lowering our standards for how to execute people, rather than reconsidering the idea itself

A short supply of lethal injection drugs several years ago led states to consider other methods of execution, including the new drug combination that left Lockett writhing on the gurney in the execution chamber.

Aside from sedatives and heart-stopping drugs, some lawmakers are considering execution methods of the past, including firing squads, electrocutions and gas chambers. Within the last three years, lawmakers in Arkansas and Mississippi have proposed bills allowing execution by firing squad.

Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin (R), who once 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 in 2014, noting he thought it unfair for relatives of murder victims to wait years, even decades, to see justice served.

Nick Wing contributed to this report.

Versions of this story were originally published in April 2014, after the execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett; in May 2015, after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombings; and in November 2017, when President Donald Trump called for a suspect in a New York City attack to be put to death.

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