Should America drop the “humane” mask of lethal injections, accept the death penalty’s brutality and forthrightly “ready, aim, FIRE?” A federal judge in the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals believes we should employ firing squads or similarly straightforward methods of execution. The man has a point, made in one of Joseph R. Wood III’s unsuccessful appeals.
Wood was not a sympathetic figure. On August 7, 1989, after a history of domestic violence, he shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her father in the father’s Arizona body shop, then was seriously wounded when he aimed his gun at police. In 1991, Wood was convicted of 2 counts of first degree murder and 2 counts of aggravated assault against a police officer, and then sentenced to death. After 22+ years of appeals, Wood was put to death by lethal injection on July 23, 2014.
Woods’ death – characterized by some as nearly 2 hours of torture and by others as merely snoring – highlights some problems with lethal injection. On ethical (and publicity) grounds, many U. S. and European pharmaceutical companies will not provide drugs for lethal injection. Consequently, many states must rely on “compounding pharmacies” – providers who mix individual ingredients together to make drug mixtures “from scratch” – and must treat executions as “chemistry experiments” that could go awry. Woods’ execution marked Arizona’s first use of a protocol that was problematic in an earlier Ohio execution. Woods’ possibly agonizing death led Arizona to halt executions pending review of death penalty procedures.
At least one of Woods’ appeals was based on the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment (of course) but was also based on the 1st Amendment due to the secrecy surrounding Arizona’s lethal injection deaths. Wood argued that the public and the convict have the right to know the source/manufacturer/National Drug Codes of the lethal injection drugs and the qualifications of the people who will perform the execution in order to make intelligent decisions and arguments regarding the death penalty, lethal injection and the methods/drugs specifically used. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Wood, voted 2-1 to stay the execution and further discuss the effects of government secrecy on public discourse about the death penalty. Their decision was overturned and Wood was eventually executed but Judge Alex Kozinski’s dissent is still widely discussed.
Judge Kozinski’s dissent and follow-up interviews traced the various methods of execution, including the transition to lethal injection. Kozinski, who supports the death penalty, criticizes lethal injection as a flawed system subject to repeated challenges because it uses drugs and personnel whose normal goal is saving lives in order to disguise the brutality of executions. In Kozinski’s estimation, firing squads would be more appropriate for executions because: America readily accepts guns; guns and ammunition would be easily obtained; the executions could be carried out by non-medical personnel or even by unmanned devices; and the true nature of executions – the savagery and brutality of executing human beings – would be evident. Kozinski states, “If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”
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