Friday, June 03, 2016

Lethal injections and the tragedy of America's execution addiction

Lethal injections and the tragedy of America's execution addiction

William David Watkin, Brunel University London

It began in Utah back in 1977. On January 17 of that year, Gary Gilmore became the first man to be executed in the US for more than a decade, ending a national moratorium on the death penalty. Gilmore, guilty of murdering two men during a 24-hour spree, insisted on being executed and chose to die by firing squad.

It is possible that if this mentally disturbed, indeed suicidal man, had not elected to be shot that day, the history of the death penalty would have been completely different and the lethal injection never invented.

As it was, Gilmore’s intransigence over the issue of his destruction meant that the death penalty was acceptable once more and states were faced with a series of tough choices. Should they kill or not? If so, what’s the best way of going about it? And how were the states that eventually reinstated capital punishment going to answer to legal challenges based on the Eighth Amendment that outlawed any form of punishment that was “cruel or unusual”?

Enter Jay Chapman, a young forensic pathologist with no medical expertise in the field of pharmacology, who was tasked by an Oklahoma legislator to develop a more humane method of execution than the firing squad, hanging or the electric chair. It was a chance event that may have been precipitated by a simple remark made by Chapman that animals are put to death more humanely than humans. Such a bald comparison between man and beast inspired strong feelings in the Oklahoma legislature and Chapman was asked to right this wrong by developing a safe, effective and humane drug protocol for the now resurgent killing states to use.


              US states that retain the death penalty on their statute books.
              Death Penalty Information Center

Chapman’s solution was devastatingly simple:

We simply took the standard set for anaesthesia in surgical procedures, then all we did was take the amounts of drugs to lethal levels recommended by a toxicologist.

This standard set consisted of three drugs: Sodium Thiopental to bring about unconsciousness, Pancuronium Bromide which paralyses the body, and Potassium Chloride to stop the heart. It was the potassium which did the actual killing, the other two drugs were applied rather to ameliorate its searing effects so that the patient could die violently of a heart attack, yet peacefully and without pain. Since its inception, around 1,000 people have been killed this way in the US according to Amnesty International. Lethal injection is by far the most favoured mode of execution there – and is a system that has been exported around the world.

Yet the protocol has no real basis in standard medical methodology. It was never tested then – and never has been since. But then again, as Chapman says:

People talk about the drug not being “tested”“. What does that mean? Should we be lining people up against the wall and testing them with different legal drugs?

Ludicrous as this suggestion may sound, that appears to be what penitentiaries across the country have been doing, due to a complex set of global circumstances that means the favoured three-drug model is no longer possible simply because the European pharma companies that used to supply these drugs have since refused to do so.

Drug dealings

In 2009, Hospira – the company that supplied that crucial first drug Thiopental (crucial because it allowed the killing states to prove that the lethal injection was humane) – suddenly found that it could no longer source its active ingredients in America. After an exhaustive search it found a company near Milan in Italy which agreed to provide the missing component. But once the Italian government caught wind of what the drug was being used for, it refused to allow its export. This was to provide a pattern that was initially ad hoc but eventually became a semi-official embargo. First Britain, then Germany suspended the rights of companies to export drugs to America for use in lethal injections.

Oklahoma is called the Sooner State and has a reputation of being first to the party. In the case of the lethal injection, this reputation is deserved, for when they found out they could no longer source Thiopental they switched to another drug, Pentobarbital, supplied by a company based in Illinois called Lundbeck. Pentobarbital is a pretty good switch for Thiopental – but perhaps officials at Oklahoma state pen should have paid attention to the name of the company. Lundbeck is a Danish company and, when the liberal Danes discovered what their Pentobarbital was actually being used for – not for treating seizures as it was designed to do but for masking them – they ceased to ship the drug stateside.

By then it was 2011, which proved to be a bad year for the lethal injection. The halting of supplies by Lundbeck was followed by a Europe-wide decision of nearly every big pharmaceutical company to refuse to provide any drugs to America for lethal injections, an embargo encouraged and backed by the European Union itself.


              The execution chamber in San Quentin prison in California.

The embargo slowly took effect. By 2013 the amounts of lethal stock in the drug cupboards of Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma had dwindled to such a degree that death by lethal injection was, for all intents and purposes, foreclosed. By 2015 the number of executions in the 31 states still using this form of extreme punishment was down to just 28, compared to 98 in 1999.

Although this dramatic reduction has been a massive global success for abolitionism, it is not a definitive victory by any means – the death penalty is being defeated not because it is immoral, unconstitutional or because it contravenes the Eighth Amendment. Rather, it is abolition by a technicality – you can use the drugs but only if you can find them. And, in any case, abolition by technicality has not proved sufficient to put an end to state-sponsored killing.

Faced with the possibility of not being able to kill their criminals, in 2014 many death penalty states started to simply try other drugs to see how they kill. For although the lethal injection always came with a veneer of medical legitimacy, it was never a truly medical procedure. There was no medical evidence that the original drug combination was safe and painless – quite the contrary – so what was to stop states trying other drugs? Nothing, it transpires, nothing legally and nothing medically. So that’s what they started to do.

The terrible botched death of Clayton Lockett

On April 29, 2014 the state of Oklahoma executed a man called Clayton Lockett for his terrible crimes. They didn’t have the right drugs to kill Lockett and they didn’t have the right medical staff on hand either, but that didn’t dissuade them. Unfortunately, things went very wrong indeed.


              Clayton Lockett took over an hour to die.
              EPA/Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

It was decided to try a new batch of drugs that was doing the rounds now that the key drugs were no longer being shipped from Europe. Instead of Pentobarbital, they chose Midazolam, not a very good killing drug to say the least as it is a sedative primarily used on children and the aged because its effects are so mild.

But it was not just ineffective drugs that led to the terrible botching of Lockett’s death – Oklahoma has since been criticised for a lack of technical know-how in the killing room that day. It began when the executioners tried to insert a needle into the arm of Clayton Lockett, usually a routine procedure.

The executioners repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed. Eventually they found a vein in Lockett’s groin, at which point the warden asked for a “modesty sheet”. The provision of the sheet preserved Lockett’s modesty, perhaps, but it also meant that the staff couldn’t see what they were doing – and, after 16 minutes, the blinds were drawn which meant that those legally permitted to observe the procedure were no longer able to observe the procedure.

Behind the curtain it would appear that the botching went on. It had taken nearly an hour to find a vein and during this interminable search it was observed that the IV had infiltrated tissue. This meant the treatment could fail and would probably produce undue suffering. Finally, outside the chamber, corrections director Robert Patton and general council Steve Mullins, argued and then agreed to stay the execution. Unfortunately, in the meantime, what the executioners had been unable to achieve through intention, they had brought about by ineptitude. Lockett, after more than an hour – according to a timeline released by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections – had died of a heart attack. A lethal injection procedure is supposed to take about 15 minutes.

Even at this stage it was argued that Lockett could have, and should have, been revived, so that he could be nursed to health and killed “properly” at a later date. In the end this did not happen, which was yet another breach of standard procedure.


              Oklahoma State Penitentiary which staged the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014.
              Charles Duggar - Oklahoma State Penitentiary, CC BY

By the end of the whole appalling Grand Guignol staged in Oklahoma that day, it was unclear if the untested drugs were the cause of Lockett’s suffering or not, but, as reports came in from other botchings using similar drug combinations, such as the extended asphyxiations of Joseph R Wood III in July 2014, and Dennis McGuire in January 2015, it became clear that these new protocols had transformed the rapid efficiency of the lethal injection into an extended mode of torture.

The “Oklahoma report” was released in May of this year criticising, in no uncertain terms, the officials whose professional duty it had been to carry out executions in recent years.

Here are some of the indictments levelled against Oklahoma’s legalised killing machine after a string of botched executions, including that of Lockett. Their pharmacist ordered the wrong drugs. Even then a top official in the governor’s office insisted the execution go ahead, with the wrong drug. The attitude of those in charge of the executions was described as “careless, cavalier and in some circumstances dismissive of established procedures that were intended to guard against the very mistakes that occurred”. More than once the state used the incorrect drug to kill a prisoner, and – in a strange legal twist – when the state administered the incorrect drugs, this meant that prisoners were not legally allowed to challenge the procedure before their deaths.

Mullins was singled out by the report as “flippant and reckless”, allowing executions to go ahead even though he knew the incorrect drugs had been obtained. He has since quit his post. The list of errors goes on and on; the report is more than 100 pages long.

Cruel irony

Some of the methods that states have used to get around the recent drugs embargo are worthy of a HBO mini-series. Some have been sourcing non-regulated versions of key drugs in India and importing them, illegally, into the US. How do we know? Because the FDA caught them. Other states have made extensive use of poorly regulated compound drug companies to synthesise the embargoed drugs. The FDA is cracking down on this practice.

The awful, tragic irony is that these state authorities charged with taking the lives of criminals are attempting suspect acts in order to continue doing so. In one recent case, a consignment of drugs was paid for in cash with no receipts, making it impossible to trace the provenance or quality of the drugs in question. To compound this obsession with secrecy, even the staff charged with carrying out the execution were paid in cash.

Around the same time as the news came out of the Oklahoma hearing, Pfizer announced that it would no longer supply its products to any agency involved in capital punishment. This effectively means that the embargo is now complete and abolition has effectively been achieved on a technicality. But this is neither safe nor satisfactory. The only satisfactory end to this barbaric practise will be when the US Supreme Court acts. But the court, when last given the chance in 2015 – largely as a result of the Lockett killing – to ban capital punishment refused to do so … but only by a margin of five to four.

The embargo on drugs inevitably feeds into this process. The public may not give a damn about the difference between Pentobarbital and Midazolam, but people are starting to sit up and take notice when they see news reports about botched executions. So it seems likely that the practice of experimenting with new drug combinations will have a limited shelf life, as the public reactions to increased botching will be too negative. Even though most people in the US still favour the death penalty, those who are in control of its fate – the judges – are themselves subject to more localised pressures of opinion and, of course, must uphold the Eighth Amendment. Deaths by botching are clearly in breach of that.

So much so that, following Lockett’s execution the US president, Barack Obama, called for a federal review of America’s death penalty procedures: Americans should “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues”, he said.

Tragic farce

Which raises the question, what happens next? Already several states have started to look for alternatives. Many still have the right to execute by other means on their statute books. Some states have spoken of using the firing squad, others nitrogen gas.  And then there is, of course, Hollywood’s favourite, “Old Sparky” (the electric chair).

Yet most states are painfully aware of the effect these more graphically violent and symbolically loaded methods may have on a wavering public opinion. At the moment, many continue to play a dangerous game to keep on killing criminals.


              ‘Old Sparky’: the electric chair at Sing Sing penitentiary.

Yet it is not only the 31 states who have capital punishment on their books that face tricky decisions. The whole issue of capital punishment teeters on a knife edge. If you find the latest tactics of places such as Oklahoma questionable, is not the current abolitionist strategy problematic as well? It is undoubtedly the case that the drug embargo has led to greater suffering on the part of those who have still been executed by lethal injection. If you are an abolitionist, are you comfortable with suspension on a technicality, when this pushes states to use crueller means to kill?

Either way, it is probably the end of the road for the lethal injection. Its brief life has been a rip-roaring yarn of vision, carpetbagging and malpractice that says so much about attitudes to death, revenge, science and the law – as well as our dependence on drugs. As you read this, I am preparing my pitch for HBO. “It’s like Breaking Bad,” I’ll say, “with chemists and everything. Only Jessie is a prison warden and the drugs they deal don’t make you get high, they kill you. Where’s it set? Oklahoma, where else?”

The Conversation

William David Watkin, Professor of Contemporary Philosophy and Literature, Brunel University London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Snuff or Duff? Images of Brussels Terror Attack are fake

Snuff or Duff? Images of Brussels Terror Attack are Fake

Some of the Brussels terror images are fake.  But then what does authenticity matter when it comes to snuff? Because make no mistake that what these images are.

See Vlog of the article here.

Fake Images of Brussels Bombing

Wait A Minute, That’s Not Brussels!

It transpires that some of the images broadcast after the Brussels bombings were fake.  One particular video, posted on Youtube, appears to show CCTV footage of blurred figures fleeing Zaventem airport.  What they actually show is a flipped and relabelled image of blurred figures fleeing a terror attack on Domodedovo airport, in Russia, in 2004! Other images from terror attacks in Minsk were also used.  This is something that has been going on for a while apparently.  Images shared after the Paris attacks were originally footage of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Vids of Eagles of Death Metal playing at Bataclan on the night of the bombings were actually from a Dublin gig and so on.

Faking the news is as old as the news, but the rise of social media has dramatically increased the possibility that the imagery that accompanies our journalism is fraudulent.  First, because people will publish anything to increase their clicks, shares and so on.  A click or like is the crack cocaine of online addiction, proof that you count, that the world listens to you, that you are included in the endless conversation.  Second, because now there is now such an abundance of footage around, shot by amateurs mostly, that it makes it all the more difficult to determine authenticity. 

This is particularly grave as these days the news is pretty much the image.  In the past a false image would only support the facts of the article, give it a boost. Now the ‘article’ is often just a caption for the image, a tweeticle call it, meaning you can create a whole story out of just one good clip.  It’s an extremely efficient mode of communication, but if the clip ain’t no good, then the whole story is worthless, or so you would think.

You’re Gonna Have to Face it You’re Addicted to Snuff

So the clips are fake, does it actually matter?  Having recently blogged in response to the images from Brussels I revisited them armed with the possibility that some or even all of them were not what they purported to be.  I found that it didn’t make any difference really.  The effect of the images is pretty universal.  One airport looks like another, one wounded victim is as tragic as another, and in any case none of those images represented something new or unique to me or to any of you. 

Since the rise of handheld devices and social media we have all flung open the casements on our consciousness to a steady stream of snuff and these latest images were just a continuation of that mounting contamination.  And yes, I do regard this imagery as snuff because authentic images of violence and death are nothing other than that. So what if those terrified forms are Russian and not Belgian? They are still suffering, terrorism is still the scourge of our age, we should still bomb the shit out of ISIS.  The facts may differ, but the truth of the image, its shared purpose, remains stable, I discovered.

Still, the question over authenticity does give one pause for thought and in that hiatus, that hesitation of consideration that social media buttonism normally militates against, I asked myself, why do we even look at such material? I realised it is because we are now fascinated by, addicted to, our regular hit of snuff.  Snuff has become as much a part of our social existence in the past decade as funny kittens and emojis; indeed we seem to have the same evanescent emotional response to each.  

If we are outraged by images of bleeding corpses that indignation lasts about as long as the giggle we have over a child scooting around the kitchen on its potty.  We like it, we share it, its affect dissipates soon after.  A few days pass, we feel restless.  What, of significance, have we shared of late?  Then, thankfully, something else appalling goes down and we can get incandescent again at terrorism and feel the power of that hatred add a strata of depth to our commute or that tedious mid-morning health and safety training session.

Authentic Fakes

The journalists who have reported the fake imagery naturally take the part of the erosion of authenticity as an attack on the reputation of the fourth estate.  But sadly, as ever, the mainstream media entirely miss the point of social media in a hopeless attempt to retain some relevancy for themselves, a foothold of safety in an avalanche of the erosion of its relevancy.  Truth is, questions of authenticity no longer pertain to the world of snuff.  

In fact, one of the defining features of the genre is the viewer’s titillation bred of their inability to differentiate real from fake; titillation of uncertainty coupled with a profoundly credulous response to any presentation of the pornography of real violence.  Part of us wants every snuff image to be fake, let’s call that the decent part.  Just as part of us wills that every fake image be real, call that the honest part.  Put the two parts together and you find that the whole creature doesn’t much care either way, as long as they get their emotional jollies.

Of course debates over image authenticity go way back to Baudrillard’s famous essay of 1981 on the simulacrum, and his infamous statement later that the Gulf War Did Not Take Place.  The French philosopher’s highly moralistic point was that the new media meant we had lost sight entirely of the authentic to the degree that we were no longer in touch with the real.  In many ways this was a prophetic response to new technology, but looking back now it seems a tad myopic.  What in actual fact has materialised is not a question over the authenticity of the image itself, but the authenticity of our response. 

Baudrillard could not have predicted that we would live as we do now, surrounded by unquestionably authentic, powerfully violent, imagery on an almost daily basis.  From the ISIS decapitations, through the images of Aylan Kurdi on the beach, to this sprouting of questions from Brussels, the question is not, as Baudrillard would have it, that of the hyper-real, but rather of the omni-real.  We do not have a problem with too great a distance between the real and its image as he argues, but instead are grappling with the knottier difficulty of too great a quantity of imagery of the violence of the real.  Baudrillard’s was a rather refined question of quality: How real is this image?  Ours is a much more quotidian issue of quantity: How many images can we contend with, share, approve and subsequently repel?

If We Can’t Share it, We Can’t Bear it

I would go further, as I always go too far.  For my money the significant disjunction of our times is not between simulation and reality, but rather between language and imagery.  Time and again it can be recounted how horrendous it was crossing the Med. In a blow-up boat, or the treatment of ‘’infidels” at the hands of ISIS, but we will only believe it when we see it.  It no longer matters what enters you through your ears; it is all about what enters your consciousness through your eyes.

In my recent article Uneasy Lies the Head for The White Review one of the many points I made about the ISIS videos was that they are in reality rather fake.  They don’t show people being beheaded.  They show people being threatened, then a cut (not a real one but an editorial one), then a body with a head resting on top.  The fact that these images were fake didn’t seem to trouble anyone and was barely commented on at the time.  What was all important was that we suspected ISIS to be beyond the pale, journalists had told us ISIS were beyond the pale, but we needed that visual confirmation.  Thanks to ISIS, the digital caliphate, and the unwillingness of the social media behemoths to police their own content, visual confirmation, in the form of true snuff, was what we got.

As we currently stand the accessibility of snuff is a new phenomenon.  When 9/11 occurred there was little or no hand-held footage of the event.  We just couldn’t accept that now.  No disaster can pass us by without our exercising our digital privileges to be there, first hand, front row.  What is more, if you don’t got the goodies in terms of pics and vids, then you are not going to be liked, shared and so on, and so it is as if whatever happened, never happened.  If 9/11 occurred now, true Facebook would go into melt-down from all the sharing of first-hand footage.  As it stands, however, maybe in less than a generation it will be as if 9/11 never was because, if we can’t share it, then we just can’t bear it.

Not Hyper-Real but Hyper-Feel

Last week I blogged about the interesting resistance there was to sharing the Brussels attacks’ more graphic imagery.  At the same time others noted there was relatively little traffic online about the explosions.  My point was we were developing an emergent, communal social conscience.  Others went instead with the possibility that perhaps we were getting a bit inured to snuff.  Now, less than a week later, my prophesy seems even more irrelevant than Baudrillard’s especially as he had to wait three decades to become obsolete. That my aprer├žus couldn’t even last three weeks is evidence of the pure velocity of experience and change that we currently occupy (as well as of my lack of French genius?) 

Looking back, after one week looking back, I see how ridiculous we have all been.  In resisting the urge to share, to show that we really care, we were actually debating whether or not we should transmit images that themselves were not the transmitted images of the event.  While we fiddled about with our consciences, the Rome of snuff burned all around us, consuming our self-righteousness along with our grip on authenticity.

The simple fact is; it doesn’t matter to us if the images we share are real or fake.  It has never mattered very much whether snuff was real or fake.  What matters is how it makes us feel and, in sharing that experience, how it makes others feel, about themselves yes, but first and foremost, how they feel about us.  And so, in our hunt for constant instant affirmation we are become the new auters of snuff, avid purveyors of all kinds of violent filth and, like any low-level pornographer, we don’t concern ourselves with the quality of the goods, we just attend to the number of bums squirming on seats, and the rapture of those eyes affixed upon the obscenity of the screen. 

Baudrillard was wrong.  The Gulf War did take place;  9/11 did happen.  There are no simulacra in the world of socially mediated snuff, because authenticity does not belong with the quality of the image, but with the power of our investment in it.  We do not live in the age of the hyper-real, but in that of the hyper-feel.  If we can see it, feel it, and share it, then whether the image is snuff or duff, matters not.  We don’t care about what actually happened, we just want another excuse to pass the click-pipe round, and feel that warm glow of social relevancy soften the edges of our increasingly friable, post-millennial existence.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Crisis in Capital Cruelty: How Europe is Slowly Banning the American Death Penality

When I was a child we used to play a gruesome game. Of a weekend you would often find me, my siblings and the occasional honoured guest, lined up on the wall of our back garden. Whoever was ‘It’ would go down the line and ask, in a tone hardened with menace, ‘What do you want to be killed by?’ Each child would choose a method of execution and the executioner would shoulder a rifle, fling some daggers, jazz up a flamethrower or what have you, ‘killing’ the person in question. The convicted would then dramatically perform their death with all the ham and trimmings they could muster. The winner was the best die-er.

I was particularly good at this game. I could really throw myself into a poisoning. If you tried to stab me, you had a West Side Story jazz-fight on your hands, before the inevitable up-to-the-hilt in my gut and down I would go. The elegance of my firing squad, almost Beckettian in its reduced action, was deemed powerful and intense. Boy could I writhe on our small, sparse lawn. Man would I moan, as the noose was draped about my neck. I died countless times in innumerable different ways as I grew up and eventually out of the game, yet never once did I, or any of my fellow delinquents, request the lethal injection.

Clearly, an impassively administered injection did not appeal to our sense of drama. Given free rein across the full menu of annihilation, why would I want to act out the lethal injection? You just lie down in a room smelling of chemicals, and they pump a few drugs into you. Where’s the fun in that?
The banality of death by lethal injection which disallows it from tasteless child’s play, at the same time recommends it as the primary mode of state-sponsored murder in the US. The almost asymbolic nature of the injection is an important by-product of the method’s supposed humanity and efficiency. States want us to think it a pretty mundane task to eliminate the most ‘dangerous’ of our citizens; a run-of-the-mill medical procedure, like having your braces tightened or your ears syringed.

In avoiding the death injection as a child for all these reasons, in retrospect I realise I was missing a trick. For it turns out that lethal injections are not so ‘ho-hum’ after all. That they are regularly botched, with gruesome consequences, is something I could have done a lot with back then. Indeed the difficulty of killing someone through the injection of a compound of drugs such as pentobarbital and potassium chloride, has become so pronounced that, as I write this, the whole practice has been suspended across the majority of states in the US that had previously used the injection as their main mode of execution.

Read the Full Article Here: 

the crisis in capital cruelty or how europe is slowly banning the american death penalty