When King Henry VIII decided to execute his wife, Anne Boleyn, he wanted the killing to be done quickly and efficiently. He therefore paid extra to summon an expert swordsman from Calais.
The fact that Henry ordered an expert French swordsman has been seen as an act of mercy because Anne could have been burned or beheaded in the usual way. Burning was an awful death as the victim could suffer quite a long time, particularly if the wood was damp. Beheading could also be a slow way to die if the axeman missed the neck and it took a few blows to finish you off. Death by sword, however, was a very quick and clean death, so it could be seen that Henry was being merciful to Anne by letting her die in this manner.
The swordsman indeed made quick work of poor Anne Boleyn. Today, almost five hundred years later, one might think that government’s methods of execution must have evolved to become even more effective and efficient. Instead, government in carrying out executions has proven less competent in the 21st century than it was in the 16th. News reports in recent months have carried multiple reports of ‘botched’ executions.
On Jan. 9, Michael Lee Wilson, who was convicted of murdering a convenience store clerk, declared he “felt his whole body burning” after Oklahoma administered a combination of pentobarbital, vecuronium bromide to stop respiration and potassium chloride to stop the heart. A week later, Dennis McGuire, who was sentenced to die for raping and killing a 22-year-old pregnant woman, thrashed and snorted before finally succumbing after about 25 minutes following Ohio’s use of a new lethal drug mix. McGuire’s family is now suing Hospira, a pharmaceutical company, for providing the state with execution drugs. Ohio said this week that its review found McGuire’s execution was “conducted in a constitutional manner,” but that it was increasing drug dosages in future executions.
In April, an execution in Oklahoma went so badly that the state tried to stop it while in progress by issuing a stay.
A little after 6:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton entered the viewing room of the state penitentiary’s lethal injection chamber and announced that a stay of execution had been issued for death row inmate Clayton Lockett, who was then on the other side of a lowered beige curtain writhing and twitching from the drugs entering his veins.
The announcement surprised those watching the execution from behind the glass window.
“My impression was, my God, they’re going to try to save this poor guy so they can kill him later,” says Dean Sanderford, one of Lockett’s attorneys. Sanderford and his co-counsel David Autry were asked to leave the viewing room, believing Lockett would be revived and executed at a later date. At 7:06 p.m., the D.O.C. announced that Lockett had died of a heart attack.
Exactly what happened in those 25 minutes is known only to the prison officials inside the execution chamber. The attorneys were told to leave the viewing room. A few reporters stayed behind, but the curtain remained drawn and their view was blocked. However, some facts are not in dispute. Lockett, a convicted murderer, was injected with an untested blend of drugs obtained from an undisclosed source…
It appeared that midazolam – a sedative meant to put Lockett to sleep – was beginning to take effect. The doctor came over to see whether Lockett was still conscious. He said he was, so they waited a few more minutes.
“At that point, the warden says in this formal tone, ‘Mr. Lockett is now unconscious,’” Sanderford says. “I took that as a cue to the executioners to start with the second and third drug.”
A couple more minutes passed, and that’s when things started going horribly wrong.
“It was almost subtle at first,” Sanderford says. “He started writhing and twitching, and then the writhing and twitching just got stronger and more violent. It looked like he was trying to lift his whole upper body off the table, as if he was trying to sit up. He was mumbling things that were clearly words but I couldn’t understand. His eyes opened at one point. It was the most gruesome spectacle I’ve ever seen in my life.”
And yet another bungled execution occurred just this week in Arizona.
A convicted murderer in Arizona gasped and snorted for more than 90 minutes after a lethal injection Wednesday, his attorneys and witnesses said, dying in a botched execution that prompted the governor to order an investigation and the state Supreme Court to mandate that the materials used in the procedure be preserved.
Joseph Rudolph Wood III’s execution almost certainly will reinvigorate the national debate over the death penalty. He received an injection at 1:52 p.m. at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. The execution became so prolonged that reporters witnessing the execution counted several hundred of his wheezes before he was finally declared dead at 3:49 p.m. — nearly two hours after the procedure began.
While this last inmate’s case was still in the courts, just days before the execution, Appellate Judge Alex Kozinski wrote a prophetic dissent against the use of lethal injection. Instead, Judge Kozinski argued that firing squads would be more effective.
In calling for firing squads, Kozinski said, “Eight or 10 large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time.”
Or maybe the states should just try to hire a swordsman from Calais.
The situation has gotten so bad that it raises 8th Amendment issues regarding cruel punishment.
[T]he White House implied that Lockett’s protracted death may have violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment established in the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely,” said Jay Carney, President Obama’s press secretary. “And I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard.”
The death penalty certainly involves significant moral issues. But leaving aside the morality of the death penalty, it seems to us rather remarkable that government in this day and age should struggle to competently carry out an execution. This is especially remarkable in light of the fact that killing is one of the few things that governments throughout history have done with any proficiency. In particular, executing people relatively quickly and painlessly is something that authorities have managed to do for hundreds of years, even in technologically backward circumstances. But for government today, it’s apparently a real challenge.
Anne Boleyn was fortunate not to be executed in 21st century America.
Even Henry VIII would be appalled.