Capital punishment and its unfortunate persistence

In an Ohio execution chamber on Jan. 16, Dennis McGuire spent 26 agonizing minutes gasping for air before succumbing to a mixture of chemicals previously unused for lethal injections. The descriptions of his death by reporters, his adult children and his correctional facility’s Catholic priest leave little doubt that McGuire suffered through cruel and unusual punishment.Meanwhile, the execution of Mexican national Edgar Tamayo, in contravention of a ruling by the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, and recent proposals to bring back firing squads demonstrate the indifference of governments at the state and federal levels to international law and the Eighth Amendment. McGuire’s execution was experimental in the worst of ways. It utilized a new two-chemical mixture of midazolam and hydromorphone due to Ohio’s inability to acquire pentobarbital. Pharmaceutical companies have been cutting off the Ohio government and distancing themselves as much as possible from these executions, leading to the pentobarbital shortage. Dr. David Waisel, an anesthesiologist at Harvard Medical School, warned an Ohio court that the drugs would cause McGuire “agony and horror” while he experienced “air hunger.” Essentially, McGuire felt himself suffocate. The United States is the only advanced industrialized country that still executes prisoners. No other country in the Western hemisphere allows for capital punishment, and the dictatorial Belarus is the only European country with the practice in place. By killing its own citizens, the U.S. becomes a member of a dubious club. In 2012, the only countries to conduct more executions than the U.S. were China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International. By executing foreign nationals, the U.S. forges ahead into even murkier territory. In Tamayo’s case, for example, he was not informed of his consular rights to have legal defense from the Mexican government. Had he been informed, his sentence may have been reduced to life imprisonment; he reportedly had an IQ of 67, according to The Guardian, qualifying him as intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for capital punishment. In 2004, the ICJ ruled that the U.S. had violated the Vienna Convention by failing to notify Mexico that some 50 of their citizens had been arrested and, in many cases, failing to notify the convicts of their right to consular legal assistance. Tamayo was among these 50 Mexicans. Despite former President George W. Bush urging Texas to comply with this mandate, then-Texan Solicitor General Ted Cruz managed to have the Supreme Court rule that international law did not apply to the states without congressional authorization. Cruz bragged about this result during his successful 2012 senatorial campaign. Now, state representatives in Missouri and Wyoming are proposing to bring back firing squads as a method of execution. According to CBS, Wyoming State Sen. Bruce Burns, a Republican, introduced a bill to Wyoming’s legislature allowing for the use of firing squads. “One of the reasons I chose firing squad as opposed to any other form of execution is because frankly it’s one of the cheapest for the state,” he said, revealing that his concern was not how humane executions were but that they not burden the state. This would allow for cheaper and more frequent killings. The biggest problem with these executions is not merely their methods, horrific as they can be, but that they occur in the first place. Giving the state the “right” and moral authority to murder its own citizens or foreign nationals – to administer so-called “ultimate justice” – opens the door for totalitarian government. This disturbing trend toward more efficient forms of capital punishment reveals the creeping threat of increasingly authoritarian forms of control.