The disaster in Oklahoma is the clearest example of why capital punishment in this country must end immediately – we can’t trust the government not to fuck it up. Obviously, the catastrophe on Tuesday night is part of it. It doesn’t matter if it was a faulty IV or the drugs that caused Lockett to writhe on the gurney, experiencing the onset of his own heart attack. It certainly shouldn’t persuade us either way when the state conducts their own review and ascribes blame to an unidentified “medical technician” (DEF was not the drugs, you guys!!!! Srsly.). Viewing the chaos of last week as a symbol of the need for transparency is understandable, but myopic.
What happened in Oklahoma is much larger than the events of Tuesday night and the state’s incompetence isn’t limited to inserting an IV wrong or using guesswork to execute an inmate. When you zoom out from the unsettling details and untangle the procedural labyrinth leading up to the execution, a larger picture of systemic failure appears.
All the familiar evils were present – politics, opportunism, human error, cowardice. As Oklahoma reminded us, sometimes judges abdicate. Sometimes the other branches bully an insolent judiciary into submission, or manipulate procedural rules so they technically can’t lose. It doesn’t matter if it’s a capital case or if a fundamental right is at stake. After denying the defense any meaningful access to the courts for their appeal and witnessing the disastrous outcome they specifically fought to avoid, governor Fallin had the balls to look into the camera and say “Due Process has been served.”
To her credit, I believe that she believed that. Over the past months it’s become evident that Due Process in Oklahoma really means pandering to the electorate while maintaining the appearance of Due Process. This revelation shouldn’t be shocking, considering all the gatekeepers in Oklahoma–executive, legislature, and even the ‘neutral and detached’ judiciary–are also seasoned politicians, fighting to keep their seat at the table. As OK state rep, Mike Christian, explained after filing impeachment proceedings against the Supreme Court – “the voters didn’t put [him] there to sit on his hands!”
When a high profile capital murder case is so blatantly manipulated, complete with a “rogue” state rep’s public admission that he doesn’t care if the men die from lethal injection or if they’re fed to lions, it’s time to look at what we’ve become. This is the process and these are the people empowered to decide life and death. People who focus on the specific heinous crimes of the two men or their certain guilt forget that there are other capital cases in Oklahoma, other people whose lives are in the hands of this government.
We know that our system can be deficient and produce the wrong outcome. I’d like to believe that in a vast majority of cases, we get it right. But you would have to be completely removed from reality/the internet/American history/’annoying friends like me who are always bitching about the government’ to believe the system always gets it right.
Cameron Todd Willingham, sentenced to death by a Texas jury in 1993 for purposefully setting fire to his house, killing his three little girls. The prosecution charged him with three counts of murder and concocted a meritless tale about how he was trying to cover up child abuse. The only evidence against him came from two men – an arson expert, who gave various reasons for his belief that the fire was set purposefully, and a jailhouse informant, who claimed Willingham confessed to setting the fire while they were cellmates. The prosecutors watched silently as the informant took the stand and claimed he’d received nothing from the state in exchange for his testimony. By 2000, he’d recanted every word – expressing guilt that his lies put a man on death row. Later evidence showed he did strike a deal with the state, they were all lying (some still are).
By 2004, every piece of the arson evidence against Willingham had been disproven. But when all this information reached governor Perry’s desk in an 11th hour appeal, it fell on deaf ears. With zero evidence against Willingham and, by now, a chorus of supporters in the public and mainstream media, Texas knowingly executed an innocent man who sat on death row for over ten years, grieving the loss of his three little girls.
In 2009, a Texas judge drafted an order for a posthumous exoneration. In his written opinion, he blasted the courts and Perry, writing that Governor Perry’s decision to proceed with the baseless execution “exemplifies either a gross negligence when reviewing the evidence or a callous disregard for human life.” But the order never saw the light of day. A higher court determined that the judge didn’t have the authority to review capital cases. Unsurprisingly, no other court ever pursued the matter and the TX Board of Pardons has repeatedly rejected Willingham’s family’s pleas to issue the exoneration. They never will.
This is the process and these are the people empowered to decide life and death.
This is only one example, there are others that we know of and I’m sure some that we don’t. The point is, our system will never attain the proficiency necessary to prevent another Willingham – look no further than the highjacking that just occurred in Oklahoma. If they behave this badly with an audience, imagine how they function in the cases that garner less attention. Little has changed in Texas since Willingham. The Court of Criminal Appeals is still a rubber stamp for the state and they still execute five times as many people as the second runner up. Guess who that is?
Since 2000, DNA evidence has completely exonerated 18 people from death row. That’s not a testament to our system – it was technology. Before those advances, due process determined they were guilty as charged. Mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes prosecutors lie or whithold evidence, valid arguments fail. Sometimes entire state governments fail. That’s a reality of even a well-functioning system, but the stakes are far too high here.
If each year, forty truly evil people are allowed the ‘privilege’ of living out the rest of their days in an 8×10 cell in order to be absolutely certain that what happened to Willingham and others never happens again, then that’s justice. Not the other way around. Justice doesn’t require sacrificial lambs as collateral damage. It doesn’t require us to stick our heads in the sand and temporarily unlearn the realities of what it takes to achieve and keep high level office in this country. Enough is enough. We’re better than this, as people and as a nation.