When legislators first decided to use lethal injection to execute a criminal, they didn’t know what they were getting the United States into. In fact, the legislator who came up with the idea didn’t even support the death penalty.
“I don’t hear the word lethal injection or execution or anything else without feeling a tug because it’s tied to me, I’ll always be tied to it,” said Bill Wiseman in a 2005 interview. As a state legislator in Oklahoma in 1977, Wiseman helped create the three-drug mixture used for executions in an attempt to develop a humane version of the death penalty. Little did he know at the time, he was introducing his country to a dark era of drug use from which there seems to be no return.
Isn’t that how drug addictions usually start? Nobody wants to become dependent on drugs. Nobody wants to spend an inordinate amount of money and energy desperately seeking the next hit. Nobody wants to use fentanyl, the extremely deadly synthetic opioid responsible for heightening our country’s overdose epidemic to unprecedented levels.
And yet, here we are. At 10:24 a.m. Tuesday, Nebraska became the first state to administer the death penalty with fentanyl when it executed 60-year-old Carey Dean Moore.
Nebraska is just the latest state to experiment with new combinations of toxic drugs to execute its prisoners. Like other states, it has desperately been clamoring for new injection cocktails. Why? Because our justice system is dependent on these drugs and the supply is going dry.
The problem is, drug manufacturers are increasingly unwilling to take part in putting people to death. In fact, the Nebraska execution almost didn’t happen because of a lawsuit from a German drug manufacturer that objected to the state potentially using its products in the procedure. Just last week, 15 states joined Nevada to fight off a similar lawsuit from drug companies, which they call part of a “guerrilla war against the death penalty.”
This is a growing threat for states with prisons brimming with death-row inmates, so those states are in search of someone — anyone — who can supply the goods. Shady products from overseas? Fine. Do we know if it’s perfectly safe? Who cares.
But, of course, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to oppose these injection cocktails, which have gone terribly wrong in the past. In fact, lethal injections are more likely to be botched than any other method of execution. Last year, for example, the execution of Kenneth Williams in Arkansas resulted in violent convulsions, a struggle to breathe and an audible groan of pain. And in 2014, Joseph R. Wood III, an Arizona inmate, gasped and snorted through his execution, which lasted almost two hours.
If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable enough, consider that these injection cocktails are typically designed to make sure the process looks like it goes smoothly even if it doesn’t. The traditional combination has three components: The first, usually some form of sedative, keeps the subject from feeling pain. The second, in case the first doesn’t work properly, paralyzes the subject to mask any indication that something went wrong. The third — usually potassium chloride — does the actual killing, burning the subject’s body from the inside.
There’s no way around it: This cruelty is damaging our justice system and reducing the standing of the United States in the world. And yet, states, enabled by public opinion, are scrambling for drugs to continue the practice.
This is what happens when we compromise our values on life — even the lives of the worst in our society. Since we first implemented lethal injection four decades ago, we’ve justified the executions of close to 2,000 people as somehow acceptable because it was done “humanely.”
It’s clear, however, that our society is morally sick — experimenting with chemicals on people in the name of justice is wrong. It’s time we seek treatment to end this abuse.