Botched Executions And the Murderers Exposed

“My planes, My guns. My money, My soldiers, My blood is on my hands…It’s all my fault.”

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, X.

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” William Munny (Unforgiven)


As a frequent critic of the death penalty, I get one question regularly when I’m asked to explain my position, and it’s a question I wrestle with myself: what about the victim?  I read it again yesterday when I posted on Facebook my outrage at the “botched execution” (already a cliché) of Joseph Wood two days ago.  I pointed out that Wood took two hours to die, and that he was reportedly “gasping and snorting” for a significant portion of that time. A Facebook friend commented on my post, “What did he do to deserve the execution?  Then, I’ll tell you if I have a problem with it.”


Joseph Wood

What he did was murder his ex-girlfriend and her father in 1989.  Apparently distraught over their breakup, Wood went to her father’s business where she worked, shot her father in the chest, grabbed her by the throat, and then, while expressing his love for her and how it was all her fault, shot her as well.  She was 29 years old, her father in his mid-50’s.  But for Wood, she would likely still be here, and possibly, so would her Dad. Understandably, a relative of the Dietz commented that she was less than sympathetic, having seen her relatives “lying in pools of blood.” Like an extremely high percentage of convicts on death row, Joseph Woods was not a decent guy.

There’s an essential difference between the death of a homicide victim and that of people like Joseph Wood, the homicidal, and it’s not just that the murderers deserve it.  The other, seemingly too obvious to mention difference, is that we’re doing the killing.   So, if the condemned dies on the injection-bed with a grin on his face, floating away on a rainbow, we did that, but the gasping, snorting, 2 hour torture-deaths like that Wood’s—we did that too.  We can look away and say it was the state, and that the condemned deserve what they get, but let’s not kid ourselves.  We’re doing it. We advocate for it.  We insist on it.  We’re all responsible for it.


Relatives of Debbie Dietz

Capital Punishment is not an affront to society because executions hurt, but the recent, so-called “botched executions” illustrate just how barbaric a practice it is, and how barbaric we are for allowing it. A few recent slip-ups:

  • Joseph Woods allegedly gasped 660 times during his lengthy execution;
  • In Oklahoma, Michael Wilson declared as the lethal drugs entered his system, “I feel my whole body burning.”
  • Dennis McGuire’s execution took 25 minutes on January 16th, during which he repeatedly gasped;
  • Clayton Lockett’s execution was almost called off when the catheter was pushed through a vein in his groin into his tissue, so the drugs didn’t circulate through his bloodstream, causing him to writhe in pain for about 45 minutes. He died of a heart attack.

“2014 is Already the Worst Year in the History of Lethal Injection,” Ben Crain, The New Republic.

None of these people deserve our affection. Here’s what they did: Wilson beat a coworker to death with an aluminum baseball bat while robbing the convenience store where they worked; McGuire cut the throat of a young woman advanced in pregnancy; Lockett buried a 19 year old woman alive .


Victims Joy Stewart (McGuire) and Stephanie Newman (Lockett)

The need for revenge is strong with us, and it’s understandable to feel that if anyone needs to die in pain, it’s these four. Bereaved relatives of the victim express possible gratification for the pain these four suffered, and that makes sense, considering the pain these four caused.

Execution by lethal injection is just the latest method of execution designed to kill more humanely, and there’s a reason we try to kill humanely. It’s not because the constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment. It’s not because we feel a man who buries a woman alive deserves a gentle death. It’s because we’re killing people, and we like to believe the killing we do is dignified. We kill the way good people kill.  We kill, but we’re better people than the ones we’re killing.

When do we look at ourselves and say something is wrong with our view? When do we say that there’s something wrong with advocating for the kind of death of a man that causes him to yell, “I feel my whole body’s burning?”  When we shrug at these stories and say “they deserved it,” do we think our hands are clean?

We have some bad people among us.  Let’s not forget that we are the ones torturing some of those people to death.

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About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a Miami lawyer still deciding what he wants to do for a living. Once a lover of Pynchon, Pinter, and any other artist whose work he barely understood, he has since "come home" to genre fiction and fandom, where he truly belongs. He focuses most of his fan-attention on his wife Elena and his three little girls, who will one day be a female president, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a supermodel/astrophysicist. (He's not sure which one will be which yet.)

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