Opinion: This is a civilized society? Three face possible executions this week.

Three condemned men face execution this week.
(Anthony Russo / For The Times)

In the first executions since Oklahoma in effect tortured a condemned man to death last month, three convicted killers face death by lethal injection this week in cases that reflect the barbaric absurdity of the practice.

The first man slated for the gurney is Marcus Wellons, 59, who faces a single massive dose of pentobarbital at 4 p.m. (7 p.m. local time) Tuesday in Georgia, a state that three years ago had its stash of killing drugs seized by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration over questions about whether Georgia violated the law by importing the drugs (sodium thiopental) from a fly-by-night British drug company. Among Georgia’s responses: A new state law barring disclosure of the source for its execution drug (now pentobarbital), which it presumably bought from a lightly regulated compounding pharmacy. And according to Wellons’ lawyers, the state has paid a doctor $5,000 to write a prescription so it can obtain the drugs, without having ever examined Wellons, a potential violation of state and federal laws.

So if Wellons’ execution takes place as scheduled, it will be done in the name of the public, with a sketchy prescription for a drug created and procured in secret — a process that, as I’ve noted before, precludes his lawyers from determining whether he has an argument to make that the drugs could be ineffective and thus constitute cruel and unusual punishment. And given the raft of recent questionable executions lately, the argument is not as much of a stretch as death penalty advocates argue.

It’s hard to have confidence in a process that conducts such crucial business in the shadows.


The second execution is set for just after midnight Wednesday in Missouri, a state that also has had trouble with its execution method, and with obtaining the killing drugs. The condemned killer is John Winfield, and whether the execution occurs will depend on last-minute legal wrangling. A federal appeals court has ordered a stay of execution over questions about state pressure put on a sympathetic prisons worker supporting a clemency bid for the condemned man, in violation of state law. The state is appealing that stay, but the case illustrates some of the lengths state officials will go to ensure executions occur — in this case, muzzling an employee acting out of conscience.

The third planned execution is in Florida, where killer John Henry is set to die, again by lethal injection, on Wednesday despite an argument by his lawyer that, with an IQ of 78 and a brutal early history, Henry’s mental capacity should make him ineligible for the death penalty under a recent Supreme Court ruling that Florida’s parameters for determining eligibility are unconstitutional.

So we have three cases this week in which executions would be carried out under clouds. Yes, the condemned men committed brutal crimes and should both be punished and locked away from society until their natural deaths. But not killed. Especially given how often convicted criminals have been later found to be innocent, including a death row case last week in Florida.

It is a flawed, ineffective and barbaric system. And the state of its nature is compounded now by secrecy and sketchy legal tactics by the authorities charged with carrying out our public business. All in the name of revenge.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle