Last week saw the first executions in the United States since the botched lethal injection of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett, which drew renewed attention to the death penalty. Despite a sharp decrease in support for the death penalty — from 78 percent as recently as 1996, to 55 percent in a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center — the practice remains on the books in 32 states. This reflects the fact that support for the death penalty is uneven, with conservatives and Republicans far more likely to support it than liberals and Democrats.
The result of this disparity is that even as liberal states like Maryland and New York do away with the practice, conservative states like Texas and Utah are likely to stick with it. The fundamental reason conservatives tend to support the death penalty is that, as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephanos Bibas recently told the Boston Globe, it reflects their belief in the importance of individual responsibility. For conservatives troubled by the rights revolution that transformed the U.S. criminal justice system in the 1960s and 1970s, “the death penalty became a symbol: Are we willing to hold people accountable for their actions?”
Perhaps in recognition of this widespread belief in the death penalty as a symbol of individual responsibility, at least some death penalty critics are choosing to emphasize its physical cruelty. For example, the political theorist Austin Sarat of Amherst College, author of Gruesome Spectacles, a history of botched executions, argues that the death penalty is inseparable from physical cruelty, as evidenced by the long history of mishaps and malfunctions that have turned seemingly humane methods of execution into hellish torments.
My own belief is that while virtually all methods of execution, including the most ingenious ones, will at some point fail to deliver a painless death, this isn’t in itself an argument against the death penalty. All human institutions suffer from limitations, and it’s hard to deny that contemporary executions are in important respects less cruel than those used in past eras.
Moreover, there is no reason to believe that progress has ceased. If you embrace the basic premise that the death penalty has important symbolic value, as a sign that some crimes are so heinous as to merit death, you’re not going to be convinced that botched executions are reason enough to abandon it.