There are currently around 2,500 people waiting to be executed in the United States. But in many states the lethal injection is exposed after several mishaps. Instead of ending the cruel chapter, the Republicans are bringing back a tried and true method from the time of Hitler’s Germany.
Arizona carried out its last execution in 2014. It was a gruesome act. Two-time killer Joseph Woods gasped for breath an hour after the state gave him the lethal injection. In total, his agonizing agony lasted almost two hours. After seven years of compulsory hiatus, the desert state is now planning its fatal comeback. In order to avoid further breakdowns, another method: death row inmates are supposed to be killed in the gas chamber. It has been restored after a decade-long break, as the British “Guardian” first reported.
States that kill their own populations are convinced that they can do it “civilized” and “humane”, says historian Jürgen Martschukat from the University of Erfurt in the ntv podcast “Wieder Was Learned”. Executions were more likely to be celebrated until the 18th century, he explains. In the past 50 years, lethal injection has been the dominant method of killing, which works quickly, technically and medically.
In the United States, around 2,500 people are currently waiting for the death penalty. In 2019, “only” 22 criminals were executed, compared to 17 last year. In January, the outgoing government of ex-President Donald Trump pushed through three more executions. Texas executed a convicted murderer for the first time that year in May – the same day Governor Greg Abbott passed a tougher abortion law.
Execution without pain
Only one of these people died from the electric chair, all the others from lethal injection. Ideally, it should appear to outsiders as if a patient is falling asleep peacefully. “Without agony, without external injuries,” says Martschukat. “There is a small puncture hole, but no decapitation, no blood that splatters.” The problem: Despite clinical processes, the execution rarely succeeds today, as in the past, without pain or agony.
“When the electric chair was introduced in the late 19th century, it was thought that the electricity would kill so quickly that the person killed would not even feel it. There is a blow and the person is dead,” says Martschukat in the podcast. “That didn’t work, there have been so-called failed executions again and again, in which the convicts suffered terrible burns, where flames came out of the head or who were not dead after the electric shock.”
When the United States introduced the gas chamber in the early 20th century, the idea was similar. “The convict should fall asleep peacefully without external harm,” says the historian. “Today we know from history: It doesn’t happen quickly in the gas chamber. It takes minutes, minutes, minutes.”
Nevertheless, the USA and Japan are the only industrialized nations to adhere to the death penalty. Lethal injection was the perfect way to kill people painlessly in the eyes of the United States. First the convicts are given an anesthetic that makes them unconscious. They are then given a relaxant that paralyzes the respiratory muscles and causes suffocation. The third substance is potassium chloride, which stops the heartbeat. The deadly procedure is said to take only five minutes.
But in the last few years the painful mishaps have increased for various reasons. In many cases, untrained personnel are used because doctors and medical professionals refuse to give the lethal injection, says Jürgen Martschukat. Many death row inmates were also addicted to drugs for many years, were used to toxic substances and narcotics in their bodies and had veins that were not easy to find. And the poison cocktail that is used? “It is sometimes outdated and sometimes mixed up incorrectly,” says the historian – because many pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply the USA with the important narcotic for the first step in the killing. That is why the states that still want to kill use drugs that are neither approved nor tested.
A German was the last
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That is why reality is frighteningly often like the execution of Clayton Lockett in the state of Oklahoma. The convicted killer received an untried triple cocktail like Joseph Woods in Arizona in 2014. Contrary to what was planned, he does not pass out and falls asleep peacefully: A vein bursts in the 38-year-old and the deadly chemicals do not get where they are supposed to. The dying African American gasps for 43 minutes before he finally suffers a heart attack.
Because of such horror stories, among other things, the death penalty in the USA has been under great pressure for many years. More and more states are realizing that they cannot guarantee a humane execution. In 2007, 38 of the 50 US states resorted to the highest of all penalties, today there are only 27, i.e. around half. “That increases the pressure to act on states like South Carolina or Arizona,” says historian Martschukat. “In principle, they have two options: they can follow the procedure and stick to the death penalty. Or they abolish it. But this limbo seems to be something that seems unacceptable in the long run.”
Arizona and South Carolina have made their position clear: Abolishing the death penalty is out of the question for them; instead, they are trying to do it like Hitler’s Germany did in the Nazi extermination camps. South Carolina brings the firing squad back, Arizona its gas chamber. The last time highly toxic hydrogen cyanide was passed into it in 1999 to kill the German Walter LaGrand of all people. Hydrocyanic acid was still known as Zyklon B during World War II.
Milestone in Virginia
But there are also success stories. One of them is from Virginia. The southern state carried out executions regularly until ten years ago. In March he became the first member of the former southern states to abolish the death penalty. Or Illinois. There, Republican Governor George Ryan pardoned all 167 death row inmates in 2003 – even though he had advocated the death penalty for years. But since the 1970s, nearly 200 death row inmates in the United States have been released who were innocent in prison. Mostly African American.
A judicial system cannot afford to make mistakes, especially when it comes to the death penalty. Instead, George Ryan realized that America was racist and unfair. And damn expensive. Because, of course, almost every death sentence is appealed and revised several times, says party researcher Philipp Adorf from the University of Bonn in the “Another thing learned” podcast. Interestingly, this is one of the arguments used by conservative critics of the death penalty to say: it takes too long, it is too expensive. Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply change the sentence to life?
This argument has not yet worked in Arizona and South Carolina. The Republicans provide the governor in both states, have majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives and thus control the money, but they support the death penalty out of conviction.
Republicans are on the death penalty
“In the mid-1990s, 87 percent of all Republicans were in favor of the death penalty and 71 percent of all Democrats,” says Philipp Adorf. “The latest data shows that the Republicans are still 77 percent, while the Democrats are down to 46 percent.”
Why are the Republicans so keen on executions? It is probably related to the Bible and their beliefs. The death penalty is mentioned and demanded in several verses – and that is the unadulterated word of God, says party researcher Adorf. Historian Martschukat also believes that an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” philosophy plays a role; that innocent life should be protected retrospectively.
But he also believes that states like Arizona and South Carolina are at a loss as to how to deal with the “death penalty” problem. Perhaps even so desperate that they are once again relying on methods of execution that were abolished as “inhuman” decades ago. A major argument for death row attorneys as they go to court against Arizona and South Carolina.