July 7, 2022

Capital punishment stumbles ahead in US

Lethal injections are becoming more difficult to administer

Three news items this week illustrate the patchwork of capital punishment legislation in the United States.

On Thursday, a 59-year-old man, Billy Irick, was executed in the state of Tennessee for the rape and murder of a 7-year-old, a crime he had committed in 1985.

Tennessee, whose last execution took place in 2009, uses a cocktail of drugs to sedate and then kill the prisoner. Lawyers for prisoners on Tennessee’s death row described this as inhumane, but the challenge was dismissed by the State Supreme Court. A last-minute challenge on grounds of mental incapacity failed in the US Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent: “If the law permits this execution to go forward in spite of the horrific final minutes that Irick may well experience, then we have stopped being a civilized nation and accepted barbarism.”

The state of Oklahoma has not executed anyone for more than three years, partly because it cannot obtain the necessary drugs. After a botched execution in 2014, a three-year moratorium was declared on lethal injections. In 2015 the legislature made nitrogen asphyxiation the preferred method of dispatching prisoners. However, this week it was announced that protocols for this new method had not been finalised; it is unclear when executions will resume. Sixteen inmates on death row have exhausted their appeals and await the dates of their execution.

The state of Nebraska is planning its first execution in 21 years – a 60-year-old man, Carey Dean Moore, who killed two taxi cab drivers in 1979. But a German pharmaceutical company has sued to stop the execution because it will suffer reputational damage if its drug is used. Fresenius Kabi claims that the state obtained two of its drugs through illegal channels.  

Adding heat to the debate over capital punishment in the US was a recent move by Pope Francis condemning it as “inadmissible”. He decreed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an authoritative reference for official teaching, should be amended to read: “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”. This came at an awkward time for Nebraska’s governor, Pete Ricketts, a Catholic who is an ardent supporter of the death penalty.   

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