Philosophically speaking, I’m pro-death penalty. In a small number of extreme cases, there is no path to rehabilitation, and removing some people from society is simply a net benefit. However, in practice, it’s become impossible to defend America’s use of the death penalty, therefore I am functionally anti-death penalty. We have proven time and time again that we cannot handle this responsibility, from the endless line of wrongful death-row convictions to horrific stories like the torture of Doyle Lee Hamm by the state of Alabama. Per Slate:
On the night of Feb. 22, Doyle Lee Hamm lay strapped to a gurney, hoping to die. Earlier that evening, the Supreme Court had voted 7-2 to let Hamm’s execution proceed despite grave doubts about the ability of executioners to access his compromised veins. Those doubts proved prescient. For several hours, employees of the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama stuck needles in Hamm’s body in an effort to flood his veins with deadly drugs. They allegedly punctured his bladder and femoral artery, releasing a torrent of blood. But the executioners were unable to find a suitable vein for lethal injection. At 11:30 pm, they gave up, sending the still-conscious Hamm back to death row, where he has languished for 30 years.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told reporters that “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem,” and that’s the problem. America has packaged barbarity as justice in the form of capital punishment, and we have proven that we are incapable of taking someone’s life away in anything resembling a civilized manner. The harrowing stories coming from America’s harsh judicial system have forced me to admit that I can only defend the death penalty in theory, and in practice, it is something that deserves to be abolished.
So enter Nebraska with a new innovation in barbarity. Their legislature got rid of the death penalty in 2015 before voters reinstated it the following year. Per The Washington Post:
Authorities in Nebraska used the powerful opioid fentanyl to carry out a death sentence on Tuesday, an unprecedented move that came as the state — which just three years ago briefly abolished capital punishment — completed a remarkable reversal and resumed executions for the first time in nearly a generation.
Nebraska experienced a series of firsts on Tuesday morning: the state’s first execution in 21 years, its first lethal injection and the country’s first death sentence carried out with fentanyl, which has helped drive the opioid epidemic.
Drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016, and nearly two-thirds of these deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid. The CDC singled out fentanyl as a culprit, stating that “the overdose death rate from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) more than doubled, likely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF).” We are in the grip of a massive crisis that kills someone every eight minutes.
This tragedy is partially caused by the natural incentive structures inherent within capitalism, and Nebraska took inspiration from that malaise to execute a man convicted of murdering two Omaha cab drivers in 1979 (Carey Dean Moore acknowledged his guilt in this letter). This feels like a cruel joke. Not only is America doing very little to stop an overdose crisis that gets worse by the day, but we are now coopting it in order to carry out state-sanctioned executions. In a sense, this is a message that America does not plan on taking this genuine crisis very seriously.
Researchers at the CDC interviewed fentanyl users, and per LiveScience's writeup of the study, this is what happens during a fentanyl overdose.
The researchers asked the respondents to describe what happened during a suspected fentanyl overdose. The most common characteristic, described in 20 percent of the cases, was that the person's lips immediately turned blue, followed by gurgling sounds with breathing (16 percent of the cases), stiffening of the body or seizure-like activity (13 percent), foaming at the mouth (6 percent) and confusion or strange behavior before the person became unresponsive (6 percent), according to the report.
This is how Nebraska killed a man. By emulating the tragedy taking place in forgotten towns across America. This country surpassed parody with the election of Donald Trump, and now we are taking inspiration from our despair to inflict pain on those that our harsh judicial system has deemed worthy of removal from society. Not only is America failing to live up to our stated ideals, we seem to be actively reveling in defying them in the Age of Trump.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.