WHAT OTHERS SAY: The irony of capital punishment in Missouri

Monday, July 8, 2013 | 3:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:06 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 8, 2013

Last week, in the latest twist in Missouri’s difficult history with capital punishment, state Attorney General Chris Koster once again urged the state Supreme Court to set execution dates for two convicted murderers.

Reason: If they’re not executed before next spring, the batches of Missouri’s new execution drug will reach their expiration dates.

Also: Mr. Koster raised the possibility that unless the court acts, the Missouri legislature might have to bring back the gas chamber. We hope he’s not serious, but he does intend to run for governor in 2016.

The “don’t let the drugs expire before the inmates do” situation is unseemly and remarkably bizarre, but it’s happened before.

Inmates before drugs

In 2011, the state’s last remaining supplies of sodium thiopental expired. The state just got under the wire in February 2011 when Martin Link became the last man to be executed with sodium thiopental, administered as part of the three-drug protocol that had been standard for more than three decades.

The last U.S. firm that manufactured sodium thiopental had decided it would no longer sell it for use in capital punishment. In 2011, Ohio began using a single drug, pentobarbital, a barbiturate commonly used in veterinary euthanasia. Oklahoma followed suit and then so did Texas.

But Missouri announced it would be the first state to use a next-generation anesthetic called propofol. The Department of Corrections bought several batches of propofol, but the expiration dates come ever closer.

In the meantime, there are federal court challenges to its use in capital punishment, with lawyers for inmates saying it is likely to cause excruciating pain. Missouri’s Supreme Court last year put off setting execution dates until the federal challenges are settled.

Complicating things: The manufacturers of propofol are considering banning sales for use in capital punishment, too. Furthermore, one European firm that manufactures pentobarbital — the drug used in Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma — also has banned sales for capital punishment.

Botched executions

Irony abounds here. States went to lethal injections back in the 1980s because it was seen as more sure and humane than other manners of execution. Usually that appears to be the case, but several botched executions caused federal courts to begin reviewing the procedure.

In the meantime, globalization struck. There isn’t a lot of money in manufacturing anesthetic drugs, so U.S. drug firms ceded the market to European and Asian firms. But last year a federal court banned the use of foreign-made drugs for executions. And because of political pressure against capital punishment in Europe, drug firms began to back off sales to U.S. prison systems.

Now, because of problems in obtaining drugs for supposedly humane executions, states may revert to more tried-and-true methods.

In a press release last week announcing that he’d asked the state Supreme Court to hurry up and set execution dates for two convicted murderers, Mr. Koster warned ominously:

“The court’s current position has allowed successive, limited supplies of propofol to reach their expiration dates. Unless the court changes its current course, the legislature will soon be compelled to fund statutorily authorized alternative methods of execution to carry out lawful judgments.”

Gas chamber 

Translation: The legislature may have to buy us a new gas chamber.

Other than lethal injection, the only other “statutorily authorized alternative” method of capital punishment in Missouri is execution by lethal gas. The death penalty law is ambiguous, but it appears to give the director of the Department of Corrections the discretion to decide which method is employed.

Missouri’s old gas chamber, last used in January 1965, was located at the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. “The Walls” was decommissioned in 2004 and is now a tourist attraction. The gas chamber is a popular stop on the tour.

The legislature is loath to spend money on new capital projects, but a new gas chamber is the sort of job-creating measure it could get behind. Two problems: (a) no one has built one in a long time and (b) if the standard is excruciating pain, death by cyanide gas may meet the standard of cruel and unusual punishment. At the very least, a new gas chamber would result in years of litigation.

Which gets the state back to square one.

Ban capital punishment

So here’s a better idea: Forget capital punishment. It is by nature arbitrary and capricious; for example, Martin Link just happened to be next in line before the last dose of sodium thiopental expired.

Trials and appeals cost millions of dollars. It does not serve to deter crime. Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — innocent people are executed. The death penalty has a certain retributive appeal, but it is not a practice fit for a great nation.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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Michael Williams July 8, 2013 | 5:19 p.m.

It does not serve to deter crime. Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — innocent people are executed. The death penalty has a certain retributive appeal, but it is not a practice fit for a great nation.

First, I care not if it does or does not deter crime. I do not use this "reason" in my defense for capital punishment. I will point out, however, that an executed prisoner commits no further crimes in or out of prison, but that fact is only a minor part of my thinking on the matter.

Second, I am willing to engage in a discussion to modify the crimes/evidence required to judge a capital punishment. We now have at our disposal technology that can exonerate a convicted person; that same technology can prove the guilt of a criminal, to wit: Fingerprints and DNA. It seems to me that such unequivocal evidence SHOULD and MUST be present (in addition to other evidence) before capital punishment is sentenced. The article is correct that some innocents have been sentenced or even executed because of error. We need to eliminate these events.

I disagree with the notion that the death penalty is not a practice fit for a great nation. To me, some crimes are so heinous that a person forfeits his/her right to not only live amongst us, he/she forfeits his/her right to live at all at our expense. Such retribution (translation: justice) IS a reasonable posture for a society.

PS: Is abortion a practice fit for a great nation? And before you skewer me for being pro-choice AND pro-capital punishment, let me remind you that a fetus has committed no crime other than its existence and the imminent conferring of human rights solely because he/she successfully negotiated a narrow squeeze tube. "Oh, hello. Here's your "human" diploma."

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 8, 2013 | 6:39 p.m.

....And before you skewer me for being pro-choice AND pro-capital punishment...

oops. Translate that to [pro-life AND pro-capital punishment]. No, I haven't been hitting the home-made peach brandy.

(Report Comment)
Ken Geringer July 8, 2013 | 7:43 p.m.

There is no irony here. Just more of the we don't really care if we're right, just let us have our fun. So what if you can show that the death punishment is meted out 'gainst those that don't look like us, and can't afford our kind of defense. Let's just have a little fun, you know most of the people executed fall into the if we're gonna kill people, this guy seems to qualify.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 8, 2013 | 8:57 p.m.

K.G. I doubt you are dreaming here, but your post reads like most of them. No sense, or non-sense.

(Report Comment)
Ken Geringer July 8, 2013 | 9:10 p.m.

What kind of dream could it be? Thanks for the nonsense comment. You don't seem to get it at all.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 9, 2013 | 8:29 a.m.

"What kind of dream could it be?" A bad one! Here is what I "get".

Those concerned with the volume of murders and other crime, since the advent of liberalism in our country, are not just having fun.

7 times more murders are committed by those that "don't look like us", white boy! 90% of murders of blacks are committed by blacks.

I do not "get", where you got information that "most of the people executed fall into the if we're gonna kill people, this guy seems to qualify." Was it in a dream?

(Report Comment)

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