Arkansas’ barbarism sends a message to Philly DA candidates

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“Arkansas set out to execute eight people over the course of 11 days. Why these eight? Why now? The apparent reason has nothing to do with the heinousness of their crimes…. Apparently the reason the state decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the ‘use by’ date of the state’s execution drug is about to expire.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting against the High Court’s approval of the first of eight planned executions in Arkansas.

Arkansas’ supply of the sedative midazolam expires tonight — which meant that state inmate Kenneth Williams had an expiration date of last Thursday. Yet the efficacy of the lethal cocktail that Arkansas uses in killing its death row inmates didn’t really seem all that relevant in the end; despite beating the drug’s listed expiration date by four days, witnesses said that Williams — who admitted to committing four murders — still suffered in his final moments, which was the thing the midazolam was supposed to prevent.

Witnesses said they watched Williams jerk and gasp for air in the death chamber not long after the drugs were administered.  Jonathan Groner, a professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and an expert who has testified against lethal-injection practices, said what Williams experienced right before death was “not a normal reaction to therapeutic doses of midazolam.” Attorneys who are suing Arkansas over its execution procedures were more blunt: In a legal filing, they called it “execution by torture.”

Even in a nation that, over the last generation, has pursued the death penalty — eliminated in the vast majority of the world’s nations — with a Dark Ages kind of zeal, last week’s events in the Razorback State were both shocking and beyond barbaric. An American state tried to pull off a scheme to kill eight inmates in four nights — in the end, after a flurry of legal action, four were executed and four have been spared so far — in a race to beat the expiration date for one of the drugs in its lethal injection medicine cabinet.

Most medical suppliers — in the name of humanity — have stopped the flow of the chemicals that U.S. states now use to kill inmates, but Arkansas was determined to show the world that this state was still open for death. Indeed, the state’s governor signed exactly eight death warrants because that’s how much midazolam was left.

Writing in the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb called it a “lethal clearance sale.” Indeed, the process was so macabre — the planned two-a-night executions sounded like something out of baseball, a twi-night doubleheader — that it’s hard to believe that actual human lives hung in the balance. But they did. The state killing spree began with a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling to allow the execution of Ledell Lee, with new Justice Neil Gorsuch essentially deciding that case in his very first vote. It makes you think that a switch of 100,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan last November would have stopped that execution — a thin line between life and death.

But then, there were so many contradictions on display here that you have wonder if the absurd events in Arkansas marked the last throes of America’s dying infatuation with the death chamber.

Williams’ death revived the debate over whether lethal injection — meant to be the “humane” way of killing prisoners — is more cruel and unusual than the methods of state murder that it replaced. Then there’s the question of whether we continue to sweep up a few innocents in this grim process — not an unreasonable fear considering that 158 death row inmates have been exonerated since the early 1970s. Lawyers for Lee, the first of the four to die, continued to beg for DNA tests they insist might have proved his innocence right up until his final breath.

No wonder that growing numbers of Americans see the death penalty — which was widely popular in the 1980s and ’90s — as a cruel relic of another time. The Pew Research Center found support for capital punishment has dropped below 50 percent for the first time in decades. Here, in Philadelphia, though, in a poll that matters more than most, you will still find a surprising 75 percent level support for continuing capital punishment.

The poll that I’m talking about is the informal survey of the eight men and women running to be next Philadelphia’s district attorney. In a race that’s been dominated by talk of balancing crime concerns with a better emphasis on social justice, by taking on complicated issues such as police misconduct and mass incarceration, six of the eight DA candidates say state-sanctioned murder is still viable in some situations.

That’s beyond disappointing. Moral considerations aside, there’s a huge practical argument against the death penalty, as appeals drag on for years and taxpayers squander hundreds of thousands of dollars per case in (typically unsuccessful) pursuit of capital punishment. But how can one put moral considerations aside? For one thing, high profile cases like the recent freeing of murder convict Anthony Wright, or questions about the death penalty conviction of Walter Ogrod, subject of a new book, have raised serious questions about Philadelphia’s “convictions at all costs” culture of past prosecutors and whether some death row inmates are in fact not guilty.

Beyond that, the state’s power to take a human life is cruel, unusual, and morally unconscionable, period — even for those inmates who are indeed guilty of murder. That’s why the death penalty has been banned in most of the free world but thrives in totalitarian states and monarchies like China or Saudi Arabia. Does a city that rightfully bills itself as the Cradle of Liberty really want to be in same company with these thug nations?

Only two candidates in the Philadelphia DA’s race have stated they will unequivocally never seek the death penalty: Tariq el-Shabazz and Lawrence Krasner. Unfortunately in the case of el-Shabazz, his forceful stance on capital punishment has to be balanced with serious questions about his personal finances and his past record as a defense attorney.

As for Krasner, I’m not thrilled by the news that an out-of-town billionaire, George Soros, is spending big money to promote his campaign. But those qualms are only because we ought to get all big money — regardness of the source — out of American politics. Krasner himself has a long track record of fighting for civil rights as a private attorney. On capital punishment, he said at a recent debate: “For 30 years, my position has been I would never seek it. It is scientific fact that it does not deter anything except (making tax dollars available for) public schools.”

Although other candidates in the race said they’d only seek the death penalty sparingly or in extreme cases, I don’t understand why they’d reserve that right at all. Capital punishment is such a fundamental moral issue that all the wavering makes me wonder if some of these candidates are as committed to fighting social injustice as they’ve been telling Democratic voters ahead of the May 16 primary.

Don’t be fooled by the argument that an Establishment resume is what matters most in this election. Philadelphia’s next DA will need courage and moral conviction if he or she is serious about reversing the mindset that made the city into a hotbed of mass incarceration. And after a week of foolishness and state-sponsored carnage in Arkansas, how can any thinking candidate cling to support for the death penalty?

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