Blog of Rights

The Definition of Insanity

By Cassandra Stubbs, Director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 4:01pm

Last night marked the first executions in this country since the horrifically botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April.

In case you've forgotten, it took Mr. Lockett over 40 minutes to die. He remained conscious, writhing in pain, as an experimental cocktail of lethal injection drugs failed to carry out their intended purpose.

And until last night, this country went seven weeks without subjecting someone to the same sort of medical experimentation.

We know very little about the processes or the drugs that Georgia used to kill Marcus Wellons and Missouri used to kill John Winfield last night. This isn't surprising: We still know very little about Mr. Lockett's execution. What we do know it that state authorities tried to hide all three of these death sentences behind a thick cloak of secrecy, attempting to obfuscate a process for putting people to death that is experimental at best and too often tortuous.

From the limited information we have, we know that executions have failed because the intravenous line placement was botched, there was improper or inadequate delivery of the sedating or pain relieving medication, or the drug itself appeared to be contaminated. Botched IV placement is a potential issue for any state, and both Missouri and Georgia use compounded drugs, which are at greater risk of contamination.

The secrecy cloaking the executions intolerably heightens both these risks. Georgia refused to give Marcus Wellons any information, including information about the training of the person placing the IV or the sources of the medication. We have no information that would shed light on why his execution was so prolonged.

Neither Marcus Wellons nor John Winfield was provided any details about the sources of the compounded drugs to be used in their executions. Mr. Winfield knew from public hearings that Missouri officials purchase the drugs in a manner equal to illicit drug deals: They drive across state lines, hand over thousands of dollars in cash, and bring the drugs back in secret.

These recent executions send the intolerable message that death row inmates are fair game for human experimentation in violation of universal human rights. Recognizing what American courts have thus far failed to see, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asked the Missouri government to halt the execution of John Winfield until it could review the problems with Missouri's lethal injection practices. Missouri shamefully ignored the IACHR's issuance of precautionary measures, ensuring that any findings of violations by the IACHR will come too late to help Mr. Winfield.

After botched executions like Clayton Lockett's and Dennis McGuire's, the question is not whether there will be another botched execution, but when. Allowing this medical experimentation to continue without any public oversight amounts to insanity; carrying out more death sentences will mean making the same inhumane mistake over and over again.

And yet, tonight Florida is poised to become the next state to force a death row inmate to face a real and intolerable risk of torture during his execution. Florida should stop the execution and halt the race to the next visibly botched execution.

Learn more about the death penalty and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Help protect our fundamental freedoms. Donate to the ACLU.
Statistics image