Could We Have Some Real Scientists Look At Executions Now, Please?

Last night Arizona became the latest state this year to ineptly carry out an execution. Joseph Wood, who was executed for a 1989 double murder of his ex-girlfriend and her father, either "gasped" or "snored" for two hours before finally expiring.

Many of the people fighting over this seem to think it matters what precise term is used to describe Wood's breathing. It doesn't. However he was breathing, he was not expected to keep doing it for two hours after the execution began. Something went very wrong here. Again.

In order to figure out ex would be nice if states did not insist — as Arizona did, first to the Ninth Circuit and then to the Supreme Court — that they had some kind of right to keep the manner and method of executions under wraps. They do this, the prevailing wisdom goes, because they don't want further trouble with drug suppliers who are feeling queasy about the eventual use of the drug.

But it is precisely this veil of secrecy is what makes the "system" for executing criminals in America operate like a Hollywood movie about a madman scientist from the 1930s. The "science" of executions has never been been a precise one, there's a whole Errol Morris movie kicking around about that. Recent events are only serving to highlight that executions are the province of crackpots.

Even if you happen to believe in the death penalty, there should be something that disturbs you about our current state of affairs. A less desperately inefficient "system," for example, might by now have taken note of the fact that midazolam doesn't work in executions. It would have recorded that evidence from Clayton Lockett's botched execution in Oklahoma. It would have used that knowledge to come up with a more intelligent plan.

Instead, the system blithely used midazolam again last night and... once again, it didn't work properly.

As Andrew Cohen points out, the states' insistence on secrecy about their death penalty procedures prevents this grand American executing tradition from proceeding in anything like a logical manner. Without experts at the table, it's impossible for anyone to be having the kind of careful, evidence-based debate science usually insists on:

These executions are un-American because they preclude prime merchants at the "marketplace of ideas" (medical experts, legal experts, ethicists, etc) from evaluating the efficacy of the drugs and procedures these states are using to execute their citizens. They are un-American because they embrace the immoral premise that it is okay to kill someone in the name of the state not by nobly trying to achieve best practices for such killings, but by actively, persistently, ghoulishly ensuring that those "best practices" cannot be obtained so that there will be "imperfect knowledge" about how the killings are to be done.

The adults are not even nominally in charge. You don't even necessarily have to get to any analysis of "cruel and unusual punishment" to see that the only guarantee in this state of affairs is a complete circus.

Obviously, some people want that. Given how hard states have fought to keep these practices secret, and how many courts have managed to believe their assurances, it's hard not to imagine that for some of them there is a perverse pleasure in all this. The one thing all this confusion over drugs has managed to do successfully is replicate the vengeful chaos of a stoning in the town square.

[Image via AP.]