Want a neat, antiseptic death penalty policy? That’s never been how Death Row works

Published 12:55 pm Wednesday, June 29, 2022

In some circles in recent weeks, there seems to be some unease about the approach of a new law that authorizes Mississippi Department of Corrections employees to decline the method of execution for Death Row inmates sentenced to be executed for their crimes.

We’re not talking about whether the death penalty should be imposed as punishment for crimes – the moral argument. We’re not talking about disparities in who receives the death penalty based on race or economic status – the fairness argument. We’re not even talking about Mississippi’s failures to fund a credible, working indigent defense and post-conviction appeal process – the due process argument.

No, we’re tut-tutting about the procedural argument. There are objections to giving discretion to the MDOC personnel charged with actually carrying out the sentences our state judicial system that mandates imposition of the death penalty for certain crimes. We’re fretting over MDOC personnel deciding whether they execute a condemned inmate by lethal injection, lethal gas, electrocution or by use of a firing squad.

Email newsletter signup

Why has Mississippi adopted the notion of giving MDOC officials discretion over execution methods? It is a direct response to roadblocks raised nationally by death penalty opponents. It is a response to shortages of the chemicals used in lethal injection or in the gas chamber caused by varying degrees of legal challenges, corporate shaming, or other public protests.

Some of the same groups concerned about MDOC getting discretion in execution methods were part of the long strategies to hamper or discredit the lethal injection or gas chamber processes.

As one who has witnessed executions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, please allow me to point out the absolute absurdity of the notion that we ever had or ever will have a neat, antiseptic method of execution in which there is a guarantee of no pain or suffering on the part of the inmate.

MDOC or MDOC-contracted personnel can only train so much on execution procedures that are infrequently implemented, subject to supply-chain interruptions, and focused on a Death Row population of inmates in varying degrees of physical or mental health.

Sometimes years, even decades have passed between executions being carried out in Mississippi based on the prevailing opinions of the Supreme Court. Some 13 years passed between the last Mississippi gas chamber executions in the late 1980s and the state’s first lethal injection execution in 2002 when I saw inmate Tracy Alan Hansen put to death for the brutal killing of State Trooper Bruce Ladner.

Having watched men put to death by the state in the gas chamber and by lethal injection, my observations were that lethal injection was a cleaner, faster, and more humane execution method than the chaotic, unpredictable gas chamber. I have no frame of reference on electrocution or firing squad.

The point is this – in 2021 Pew Research Center pollsters identified 60% support for the death penalty in the U.S. even though actual imposition of it was significantly down nationwide. Mississippi is one of 27 states that utilize the death penalty along with the federal government and the U.S. military.

There are valid objections to the death penalty – the moral argument, the fairness argument, and the due process argument. I have covered crime from crimes scenes to the courts to the execution chamber at Parchman – and the extreme outlier is seeing monied inmates who could afford private attorneys executed at the same rate as indigent inmates who relied on court-appointed counsel.

But the notion that in venues where the voters embrace use of the death penalty there is some magic execution method in which inmates are guaranteed not to experience pain is a fool’s errand. The death penalty is neither clean nor easy not painless – it is the decision of the people to take the life of an individual as punishment for their crimes.

Training? Consistency? Transparency? Sure. But in the end, Death Row never was and never will be a place free from pain and a degree of chaos. That is the nature of the capital punishment beast and the only way to change that is to get out of the capital punishment business.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com