Opinion: Let’s look at the death penalty with statistics instead of emotion


The horror show on Arizona’s death row this week has deservedly raised yet another national debate over the death penalty, particularly lethal injections by states scrambling for fresh killing agents as they find it harder to procure tried-and-true execution drugs.

During this debate, it’s useful to look at the scope of the death penalty these days (and yes, I’m a firm opponent of the practice for reasons I’ve made clear in earlier posts). According to a database maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 26 executions since Jan. 1. Ten of those have involved the sedative midazolam as the first injection in two- and three-drug protocols. Three executions have been botched; each involved procedures using midazolam.

The details matter. In Ohio, Dennis McGuire was seen writhing and gasping as his execution took place, after a doctor warned that the planned dosage of midazolam would not be sufficient to render McGuire unconscious to the point where he would not suffer from the ensuing injections. McGuire reacted pretty much the way the doctor warned he would, struggling to breathe from “air hunger.” Still, Arizona decided to use that very same protocol this week in executing Joseph Wood. We know how that went, nearly two hours in all, including hundreds of gasps for breath, as reported by journalist witnesses.


In the third botched execution involving midazolam, the drug itself may have been a nonfactor in the suffering of Clayton Lockett. It appears the Oklahoma executioners, after failing in numerous attempts to find a usable vein elsewhere on his body, implanted the needle in Lockett’s groin, thinking they had finally hit a vein. They missed. The state aborted the execution after it became clear Lockett was in great pain, and wasn’t dying; he subsequently succumbed to a heart attack. That investigation continues.

So setting aside Lockett’s execution as likely being botched for reasons beyond the drugs used, two of the remaining nine uses of midazolam led to visible discomfort by the dying man. That’s a failure rate of 22%. For the three botched executions out of 26 that have taken place this year, the failure rate is nearly 12%, though it must be noted that the non-midazolam executions didn’t seem to involve out of the ordinary pain (which doesn’t mean the executions were unconstitutional; the mere practice is the definition of cruel and unusual).

It’s useful to note, also, that of the 26 executions this year, 10 of the condemned were white, 12 were black, and four were Latino (three of whom were noncitizens).

The 36 victims of those convicted murders? Twenty-seven were white, four were black, four were Latino, and one was Asian. All of the 10 executed white men were convicted of killing whites. Eight of the 12 executed black men killed white victims. Yet an FBI analysis of 2012 statistics found that in homicides in which the victim’s race was reported, 51.1% were black, 46.3% were white, with other races accounting for the rest.

That’s an uncomfortable disparity.

There’s also a strong statistical chance that at least one of those 26 executed men may have been innocent. Earlier this year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that concluded that if all those sentenced to death remained under that sentence, at least 4.1% of them would likely be eventually exonerated of the crime. For you statistical wonks, the study is here.

Without even getting into the moral and ethical transgressions that capital punishment poses, this is a failed system.


Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.