Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Christian really likes the death penalty. Last May, after an inmate was slowly tortured to death during a botched execution, Christian said that he sees no problem with feeding death row inmates to “the lions.” When the state supreme court briefly stayed that inmate’s execution, Christian ordered articles of impeachment to be drafted against the justices. And now, he wants his state to explore three methods of execution that are widely viewed as inhumane — the “firing squad, hanging and electric chair,” according to Christian, “are definitely constitutional.” Moreover, “I think just about anybody in Oklahoma would support some of these ideas we’re talking about.”
Christian’s conclusion that shooting, hanging or electrocuting inmates is “definitely constitutional” is doubtful. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution bans “cruel and unusual punishments,” language which suggests that when society rejects a punishment as too barbaric — as the punishment becomes more and more “unusual” — it also crosses the line into unconstitutionality. As the Supreme Court has explained, this “Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
Even conservative Chief Justice John Roberts suggested in a 2008 opinion that the punishments Christian proposes does not meet this legal standard, although it’s likely that Roberts would replace it with a more permissive standard if he had five votes to do so. “The firing squad, hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber have each in turn given way to more humane methods,” Roberts wrote in Baze v. Rees, “culminating in today’s consensus on lethal injection.” America has progressed beyond the point where these antiquated methods of execution are accepted — they no longer comport with our “evolving standards of decency.”
Beyond his broader endorsement for largely discredited execution methods, Christian also offered a more modest proposal. Currently, Oklahoma law provides that, if lethal injection is struck down by the courts, the state will electrocute prisoners as a backup option. According to the Associated Press, Christian wants to make firing squads the second choice option instead of the electric chair.
If you accept the legitimacy of the state killing inmates, this is not a ridiculous proposal — largely because electrocution is such a cruel method of execution than virtually anything is more humane by comparison. As Justice William Brennan wrote in 1985,
Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and “ ‘fights the straps with amazing strength.’” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.
“The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound “like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.
Compared to having your body literally cooked alive from the inside, a firing squad where four bullets pierce the heart and the inmates dies quickly thereafter, is probably the better option. But the better question is why an American state would consider choosing between two methods of killing a human being that even Chief Justice Roberts recognizes as inhumane by contemporary standards of decency.