More than forty years ago, during the first week of December in 1982, the U.S. executed its first prisoner using lethal injection. On December 7 of that year, six years after the death penalty was revalidated by the Supreme Court, Charles Brooks Jr., who had been convicted of murder, was executed in Huntsville, here in Texas. To date, 1,380 others have been executed via lethal injection, comprising nearly 90 percent of all death row executions. In 2023, eight more Texans will be executed by injection.
Just days ago, on January 10, Robert Fratta, who was sentenced for hiring two men to kill his estranged wife, was put to death in Texas’s first execution of 2023. He was part of a lawsuit brought with three other inmates alleging that the execution drugs used in Texas are long past their expiration dates, thus forcing the condemned to suffer inhumane and painful executions. Texas courts have consistently rejected all such inmate claims, despite a history of botched and painful executions in this state, and they let Fratta’s execution proceed.
Ever since the Age of Reason, nations have turned to science to remove incorrigible criminals from society swiftly and relatively painlessly. Beginning in the eighteenth century, a whole field of technological innovations sprang up to give the world’s governments more-enlightened ways to kill: Dr. Guillotin’s beheading machine was an improvement upon the axe-wielder’s haphazard strokes; Spain’s garrote cut short lengthy strangulations by breaking its victims’ necks; and hanging drop tables, developed in England in the nineteenth century, allowed hangmen to apply precise amounts of force to victims’ necks so that the ropes would immediately sever the spinal cords but leave the heads attached. Each innovation was aimed at modernizing executions.
The story in the U.S. is similar. After persistent and luridly reported botched executions by hanging in New York State in the late nineteenth century, the New York legislature appointed a committee to study and recommend a more humane form of capital punishment. The committee took evidence from hangmen, journalists, physicians, and others, and it also canvassed district attorneys, judges, and sheriffs. After considering all the input, the committee favored a proposal for the injection of a lethal dose of prussic acid (cyanide). The medical profession advised in favor of electrical execution, however, and the Electrical Execution Law was introduced in 1889. On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler died in the first electrocution. It was horribly botched, and the attending physician stated that it “can in no way be regarded as a step in civilization.” One of the attending electricians called it “a decided failure.”
Nearly a century later, lethal injection again became part of the discussion. In 1973, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, compared execution by lethal injection to the killing of wounded animals. “Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” he said. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep—that’s it. I myself have wondered if maybe this isn’t part of our problem, if maybe we should review and see if there aren’t even more humane methods now—the simple shot or tranquilizer.”
After nine years of no U.S. executions from 1968 to 1976, a period that included a four-year moratorium imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Supreme Court allowed the return of capital punishment in its landmark Gregg v. Georgia decision. The following year, in Oklahoma, state officials abandoned their electric chair and the idea of paying $200,000 for a gas chamber in favor of lethal injection. Lawmakers reasoned it would be cheaper and less gruesome, and that more juries would vote for the death penalty if it was administered by injection. In 1982, Texas became the first state to execute a death row prisoner by lethal injection. Today, 22 other states are using the method of execution, which was hailed by proponents as a technological advance, more humane and less barbaric than the electric chair, the firing squad, and the gas chamber. To conduct executions, most states employed a compound of drugs, administered by IV lines: usually one drug to induce near-immediate unconsciousness, a second to induce paralysis, and a third to stop the heart and cause death by cardiac arrest. The entire procedure, without problems, usually takes between five and ten minutes.
But the history of lethal injection is the history of continual failures. There have been 75 botched lethal injections in the last forty years, a problem that became particularly acute last year. In a newly released report by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, 2022 is referred to as “the year of the botched execution.” The report found that the number of executions in 2022 remained significantly lower than the count even a decade ago, when more than twice as many death row prisoners were killed. (As public support for the death penalty has waned, the number of death sentences and executions has largely been in decline since the late 1990s.) But of the twenty execution attempts in 2022, seven were “visibly problematic”—cases in which executioners were unable to find veins and punctured prisoners repeatedly—including two that were ultimately abandoned.
When an execution is botched, it’s far from humane: one death row victim famously pleaded with his lawyer from the gurney to investigate how he was being “butchered” during the process to insert an IV drip, and another victim, in 2015, gasped for air more than six hundred times across nearly two hours after injection before finally dying.
Moral apathy abounds in the U.S. and in Texas on the issue of capital punishment. A majority of the country favors the death penalty, as do 63 percent of Texans, according to polling from the Texas Politics Project. Many Americans simply do not care what happens to the condemned. Death row does not affect them. But there is also a dangerous belief compelling the U.S.’s continued use of lethal injection: the idea that some violent criminals are “unworthy of life” and “subhuman.” Because of the agony, hurt, and suffering that the condemned once caused innocent victims, many Americans are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the suffering of the condemned themselves. State-sanctioned killing, frequently listed officially on the death certificates of the condemned as “homicide,” is considered justified because the condemned are dehumanized.
It is likely too painful for Americans to come to grips with the brutal and stark reality that the usage of the death penalty in this country is a continuation of an ideology in which individuals and members of groups can be labeled as something less than human, and killed with the full approval of the majority of citizens who have been socialized and numbed over decades of time to accept this preposterous notion without question. Lethal injection is for the benefit of those doing the killing. It has nothing whatsoever to do with “humane” death.
It is time for us to reflect upon who we are as a people, and whether or not we have the political and the moral courage to end the historical barbarism in this country known as the death penalty.
Rick Halperin is the director of the Southern Methodist University Human Rights Program.