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Death Penalty Expert On Why Lethal Injection Is So Problematic


Arizona's execution this week added to the debate over lethal injection. It took almost two hours for condemned killer, Joseph Wood, to die. And it's the third execution by lethal injection to go wrong this year. None of this is surprising to our next guest, who has studied well over a century of American executions dating back far before lethal injection. Austin Sarat wrote the book "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions And America's Death Penalty." He argues that the whole history of the death penalty is a quest - a quest to find methods of execution that Americans can live with.

AUSTIN SARAT: If you look at the development of the death penalty in the United States, there's a commitment to trying to find methods of execution that were regarded as safe, reliable and humane. And with respect to hanging, you know, if hangings went wrong, they were actually quite horrible to watch. And in those days, in the late 19th century and earlier, of course, executions were public.

INSKEEP: When did hanging begin to fall out of favor?

SARAT: At the end of the 19th century, New York was the first state to come along and say we need a different method. And the method that New York chose was the method of death by electrocution. The electric chair in New York was developed out of a competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. And that competition had to do with the properties of electricity and the ways in which electricity could be used to kill humanely.

INSKEEP: How did it work out?

SARAT: It didn't always work. Indeed, the first electrocution of a man named Kemmler in New York was horribly botched. And by late in the 20th century, the electric chair really had been quite discredited by some rather notorious mishaps - inmates catching on fire during the course of their electrocutions. That became a special problem in the state of Florida.

INSKEEP: So who was leading the way in advocating lethal injection then?

SARAT: You have people who are frankly called entrepreneurs who come along and say we have a better way of doing it. And the promise was that lethal injection, of course, would be not only humane but would appear to be humane. It's a hospital-like procedure. And indeed the execution chamber has come to resemble almost a hospital operating room. And a couple of legislators in Oklahoma picked up on the promise of lethal injection, which has become the method of choice in the United States, but not the exclusive method. Eight states still retain the electric chair as an alternative. Three states retain the gas chamber. And three states still retain hanging as an alternative to lethal injection.

INSKEEP: Was lethal injection chosen because it was known to be safe, effective and humane or simply because the electric chair was understood not to be very humane or was not considered to be?

SARAT: Well, it was certainly the latter. No one knew for sure that lethal injection would be more humane. It was a promise. The same promises were made about electrocution and then about the gas chamber that it would be a way to ensure that the death penalty in the United States would be compatible with the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

INSKEEP: And have those promises been fulfilled?

SARAT: I've looked at every execution between 1890 and 2010. There are more botched lethal injections than any other technology used during the course of the 20th century. It's not easy to use the lethal injection method, especially when the personnel who are administering it are not medically trained. And as you know, the American Medical Association has forbidden physicians to play an active role in carrying out the death penalty. You've got to get the dosage of the drugs right. You've got to find the vein, and you've got to do so in an efficient way. And those things have turned out not to be easy to do.

INSKEEP: So what have you thought about in recent months as some states have begun to change their laws - Tennessee comes to mind - in ways that would cause them to perhaps rely a little bit less, if they have to, on lethal injection, and be ready to rely a little bit more on the electric chair?

SARAT: Well, I think we're in a period of national reconsideration of capital punishment. With the troubles that have emerged with lethal injection, the system looks like it's kind of breaking down. And when a state like Tennessee reinstitutes electrocution as a possible method of execution, I think it's an indication of how much trouble the death penalty is in.

INSKEEP: Do you think there is a humane method of execution - safe, effective, reliable - that is available today?

SARAT: I do not.

INSKEEP: None, whatsoever?

SARAT: I think that the legitimacy of capital punishment has been sustained by an illusion, and the illusion is that we could find a way of putting people to death that would be compatible with our constitutional commitments. I think we have enough information now to say that this effort has largely failed. And I believe that the death penalty is in decline in the United States because many Americans have concluded that whatever its abstract appeal, the death penalty cannot be delivered in the way that is compatible with American values.

INSKEEP: Austin Sarat is the author of "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions And America's Death Penalty." He's also a professor at Amherst. Thanks very much.

SARAT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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