Last night, the US executed two people convicted of murder – Marcus Wellons and John Winfield – within twenty minutes of each other, and a third – John Henry – is due to be killed tonight. Capital punishment is not unusual in the United States – a country that executed 39 of its citizens in 2013. However, these three cases have been controversial, as the last few months have seen several disastrous implementations of the primary execution method – lethal injections – in the US.
In January, after being injected, convicted killer Michael Wilson uttered his last words: “I feel my whole body burning”. Several executions later, in April, the state of Oklahoma killed Clayton Lockett – but not before he writhed and convulsed for over 40 minutes after being administered a deadly cocktail of drugs. One reason for these recent debacles is that the European Union, which is staunchly against the death penalty, now refuses to provide the drugs for executions. This is causing US states to experiment with different combinations of chemicals – something that the UK charity Reprieve described as tantamount to “using humans as guinea pigs”. Prior to Wellons’ death, his lawyers appealed against his sentence – arguing that it was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ – as the state refused to disclose the source of the chemicals being used to kill him. However, his appeal was denied; after the lethal injection was administered, Wellons took almost 25 minutes to die in the execution chamber.
Further controversies have arisen regarding US capital punishment in recent years, including the relevance of offenders’ and victims’ race in determining the punishment, as well as the discovery that many people who were executed were wrongly convicted by biased juries or prosecutors. Data from the US-based Death Penalty Information Centre shows that 61% of the ‘capital convicts’ to have their convictions overturned, and be found innocent, were ethnic minorities. Wellons and Winfield, who were executed last night, and Henry – who is due to be killed tonight, are all Black – as were the two aforementioned offenders who endured painful deaths earlier this year at the hands of their state. It is worth noting that capital punishment is most prevalent in states with histories of racism; Texas executes the largest number of prisoners per year, while Oklahoma – the home of Black Wall Street before it was devastated by white American terrorism – has the highest per capita rate of executions.
Proponents of capital punishment in the United States often argue that it is an effective deterrent for homicide; that if the state promotes killing as a method of justice, it will somehow discourage citizens from killing. Unsurprisingly, a 2012 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows that the US murder rate is far higher than those of developed countries which have outlawed capital punishment. The rate of intentional homicide in the US is 4.8 per 100,000 – in stark contrast with rates of 1.6 in Canada and 1.0 in the United Kingdom, where the death penalty has been outlawed. Of course, there are numerous important factors that affect a nation’s rate of murder and violence, but – seemingly – punishing murderers with unpredictable and torturous deaths is not reducing it.