by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
Lethal injection is sold to the public as a quick and painless method for executing a person – more humane than the electric chair (with its associated smoke rising from the head and the odor of burning flesh). Reports from Joseph R. Wood III’s execution last month in Arizona paint a different picture. Mr. Wood snorted and gasped for almost two hours after being injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs. According to one media witness, he looked like a “fish gulping for air.” Mr. Wood’s execution is the third execution this year to “not go as planned,” as the Washington Post put it. This execution highlights the inhumanity of the death penalty regardless of the method for execution. Sadly, in the Commonwealth the use of lethal injection is just part of the problem.
While the media is focused on botched lethal injections, in Virginia we have a much larger concern – a botched death penalty system that has led innocent and mentally disabled people to Virginia’s death row. To get people to the lethal injection gurney (or chair if the condemned person chooses electrocution), the Commonwealth relies on a process that has flaws from the police investigation phase at the beginning to the post conviction process at the end. (We issued a report that highlighted many of these same concerns over ten years ago.) And, once a person is on the gurney, Virginia uses a three drug protocol that includes one of the same drugs that was just used in Arizona’s botched execution. Whether you support or oppose the death penalty, either problem should be unacceptable.
Unfortunately, many of our legislators don’t see the need to fix these flaws. During the last legislative session, instead of addressing the problems with the death penalty process, our legislators debated legislation that would have allowed the Commonwealth to execute individuals with the electric chair if it ran out of lethal injection drugs. (Currently the Commonwealth can only use the electric chair if the individual sentenced to die chooses it.) This focus is deeply concerning on two levels.
First, the legislative focus ignores the reason behind the lethal injection drug shortage, and the troubles this shortage has led to. States are having trouble acquiring lethal injection drugs in part because of the European Union’s stance against the death penalty (and its restrictions on the export of certain drugs used as part of execution procedures in the U.S.). In fact, the U.S. is the only western nation that still uses the death penalty. And, because of this drug shortage, some states now rely on untested drug cocktails to carry out their executions, engaging in what can only be described as medical experimentation on human beings. Despite the fact that Virginia approved one of the drugs used in a botched execution, our lawmakers decided to ignore concerns over the Commonwealth’s continued use of lethal injection and instead focused on allowing the Commonwealth to use the electric chair if it runs out of the drugs. Fortunately, our coalition stopped this misguided legislation.
Second, if the Commonwealth maintains a death penalty (and we think it shouldn’t) then legislators shouldn’t be debating the method of execution until they ensure that our death penalty process is fair and accurate. And, it isn’t. In addition to the flaws we have long noted, last August (well before the General Assembly session) the American Bar Association published its assessment of Virginia’s death penalty system – an assessment that found “several areas of concern” with the way Virginia’s death penalty system works. These flaws go to the heart of the process and, unfixed, contribute to the likelihood that an innocent or mentally disabled person might be put to death. The report also included a number of recommendations designed to remedy these flaws. (Delegate Patrick Hope introduced legislation to address some of the ABA’s recommendations, but the bill didn’t even get a hearing.) Instead of addressing these flaws and ensuring the integrity of the process, the General Assembly focused on keeping the machinery of death going.
While we’re committed to the abolition of this cruel and ineffective punishment, until we get there we’re also focused on ensuring that Virginia’s death penalty process is fair, accurate, and free of medical experimentation. Legislators from across the political spectrum should share this focus.
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