Who Watches the Executioners?

Who Watches the Executioners? June 17, 2014

Yesterday, a federal judge rejected Marcus Wellons’s plea for a stay of execution.  If no other intervention is forthcoming, Wellons will be executed this evening.  Wellons’s argued that his death should be postponed until the state of Georgia was forced to disclose exactly which drugs they would be using to kill him.

After the botched execution earlier this year in Ohio, courts have had to consider whether experimental executions constitute cruel and unusual punishment — a sentence worse than the death that finally ends it.  States are using new cocktails for lethal injections because many European chemical companies refuse to export their drugs to the United States if they’ll be used to kill.  States have scrambled for alternatives and kept their new formulas secret, perhaps as much to avoid having more drugs blacklisted as to avoid criticism of their methods.

In an essay for The Appendix, Stassa Edwards offers “A Short History of the Executioner” and notes that the problem of quick, clean executions isn’t solely a modern conundrum, though the meaning of the means of killing has changed.

While the executioner’s knowledge of anatomy engendered these ironic side jobs, it was acquired with a singular purpose: efficiency. Each was judged on his meticulous ability to carry out a death sentence while avoiding the excessively bloody spectacle of a botched execution. Public executions—by sword, fire or wheel—were the culmination of a theatrical performance through which the crown enacted its deadly authority. The performance of justice needed to be seamless enough to appear natural—any disruption might be interpreted by the gathered crowd as an intervening act of God, a repudiation of the divine rite of kings. Hence it needed to be expertly enacted. To botch the highly choreographed routine was seen as an affront to justice.

No matter how unpleasant or slow Wellons death may turn out to be, the United States will not interpret it as a rebuke to his verdict or the justice of his sentence.  We have accepted that our justice system is not divine or entirely natural.  It’s a crude kludge of laws and solutions, where we expect we may have to roll laws back and commute sentences as we refine our understanding of justice.

We police ourselves, without relying on signs from above to warn us when our justice system has gone wrong.  Another botched killing may prompt us to reexamine the means of murder, but a peaceful looking death shouldn’t be taken as confirmation that the execution is just.

If our nation doesn’t expect the very heavens to cry out when we go wrong, we need to put more work into building feedback loops to warn us when the systems we’ve built are monstrous.  We need both factual checks, like the investigations of the Innocence Project and audits of prosecutors and police, to let us know if we’re convicting people in error.  But the justice system has a duty to the guilty, as well as the innocent.  Even if a conviction is correct, the sentence may not be.

There is no single executioner to hold accountable when a prisoner is left in solitary confinement for years, and suffers a slow death of the spirit, every bit as sloppy and unmerited as the convict who endured repeated blows from a dull ax before succumbing.  The isolation is botched imprisonment, just as grotesque as a botched execution, and just as urgent to prevent.

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