Human Sacrifice: A Look at the Death Penalty in America

Source: Wikimedia.
Source: Wikimedia.

Friedrich Nietzsche postulated that, in pre-modern times, when a man was wronged he retaliated against the transgressor irrespective of the transgressor’s “intent”, “negligence”, or “soundness of mind.” Before the inception of “free will”, along with the notion that man “chooses” to commit wrongs, pain was inflicted to forge a memory. It mattered not whether the transgressor knew what he did was wrong. Penance was not about correcting the culprit’s behavior. It was about making him suffer. From this primitive background sprung the origins of the modern death penalty.

We do not normally think of Aztec human sacrifice rituals, or medieval torture devices, when we think about today’s death penalty. But what separates these rituals and diabolical mechanisms from present forms of state sponsored execution? The differences are trivial. For example, we still adorn the condemned with hoods, which shield their view of the firing squad; we read prisoners their last rites before we administer lethal injections; and we provide inmates with bountiful “last suppers” before sending them to the “chair.” In effect, only the devices with which we administer death have changed. The basic principal behind why we execute has not.

As I tried to make clear in my last piece for the Decisive Utterance, when countering the threat posed by terrorists and violent killers, the state is often justified in taking life. Men like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, murdered civilians in the name of their apocalyptic quest for paradise, and skillfully evaded capture in the process. Thus, the U.S. government was just as morally, and constitutionally, justified in killing those men as a police officer is justified in shooting down a gunman who has opened fire in a crowded shopping mall.

By contrast, when a culprit (foreign or domestic) is captured, and the threat they pose has been neutralized, there is absolutely no justification for killing that person. Killing in such circumstances is a luxury, and a perverse one at that. It is in these instances that we see the old practice of human sacrifice rear its ugly head. A prime example of this type of morbid indulgence was evinced when Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, gloated at a 2012 Republican Presidential Primary Debate that Texas was number one in the country in executions. It mattered not that Texas’s murder rate was above the average murder rate for states without the death penalty because, again, the death penalty is not aimed at correcting improper behavior. Rather, in Governor Perry’s case, it is about sending the world a message about Texas’s “values.” Even more sadistic than that was when then Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, executed a mentally retarded African American prisoner named Ricky Ray Rector, in an effort to assure rival Republicans that he was “tough on crime.” This, in many ways, is the quintessential example of a modern human sacrifice. It clearly demonstrates how the death penalty is more about pleasing the political “gods” and forging memories on the part of the executioner than it is about teaching the recipient a lesson. Ricky Ray Rector was thus a human sacrifice in a disturbingly literal sense.

Recall, that the four main goals behind punishment in criminal law are deterrence, rehabilitation, restraint, and reciprocity. The death penalty certainly satisfies the restraint and reciprocity portions, since victims’ families often take solace in the fact that their loved one’s murderer is dead and, because he is dead, he will obviously never commit another crime. But there is no rehabilitation and, according to the Washington Post’s Max Ehrenfreund, there is no evidence of deterrence either. Thus, there is no evidence that the death penalty makes society better. In reality, it corrodes society’s moral fabric by unnecessarily exposing people to violence.

Take, for example, Utah’s 2010 firing squad execution of inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner. According to National Public Radio, Gardner had earlier explained his decision to choose a firing squad over lethal injection thusly: “I lived by the gun, I murdered by the gun, so I will die by the gun.” Granting Gardner’s wish, the gunmen took aim, and fired. At 12:17 a.m., the coroner pronounced Gardner dead. Ronnie’s brother, Randy, was there to witness the aftermath. When asked by an NBC reporter if he thought death by firing squad was humane, Randy couldn’t help but balk at the irony of the question: “I had the opportunity to see my brother after four bullets hit his chest,” he noted. “[A]nd I could have put my hand in anyone of the holes. It didn’t look very humane to me.”

Ronnie Lee Gardner was “grandfathered in” as a victim of the firing squad, as Utah had at the time nominally done away with the practice in 2010. But in March of 2015, Utah brought firing squads back. The reason: in 2011, European drug manufacturers began refusing to sell lethal injection chemicals to U.S. prisons in an effort to discourage states from administering the drugs. According to Eric McCann of The Guardian, the European boycott has largely been successful. However, some states, like Texas, Georgia, Missouri, Florida, and Oklahoma refuse to give up the practice. This recalcitrance has led to some states concocting their own “drug cocktails” as substitutes for the chemicals lost to the boycott. The results have been unnerving to say the least.

For example, in April of 2015, Oklahoma administered an experimental “drug cocktail” to inmate Clayton Lockett, who, according to eye-witness Katie Fretland, “writhed”, “groaned”, and “thrashed” on his gurney for 43 minutes before finally dying of a massive heart attack. Fretland stated that midway through Clayton’s convulsions officials drew curtains over the execution chamber, “obscuring the gruesome spectacle from public view.” Even before the boycott, inmates explained that their arms felt like they were set on fire as the now unavailable lethal chemicals entered their veins, supposedly killing them “humanely.”

Justice Sotomayor has voiced concern over the lack of scientific testing done on these new lethal injection “cocktails.” Though she is right to be concerned, it is doubtful that any amount of scientific research will make the death penalty justifiable, because- as Randy Gardner pointed out to NBC News on the night of his brother’s death- there is “no humane way to execute anyone…” Looking at the history of executions, it appears that Randy is right. After all, if firing squads and lethal injections are inhumane, then what can be said of other methods of execution the U.S. has employed, such as gallows, gas chambers, and electric chairs? Electric chairs are particularly ghastly devices, which makes it all the more unsettling that Tennessee’s governor not long ago signed into law the revival of their use. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that several states have never taken the “chair” off the books. For those unfamiliar with the ways of “Gruesome Gertie”, they need look no further than to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, who described the sentence thusly:

“[T]he prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire….Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.” (Ecenbarger, 1994).

Aside from the documented carnage, many studies show that a frighteningly large number of prisoners on death row have been wrongfully convicted. According to, 156 people on death row have been exonerated since 1973. If this number is accurate, one shudders to think how many wrongfully convicted men have been executed. The fact that even one person could possibly be executed wrong- fully should be enough to convince people to end the practice altogether. But that is not the case. For many, the ritual of killing is clearly more important than the social goals that supposedly legitimize it.

As citizens of a liberal, constitutional democracy, it should not be our goal to sanctify revenge under the pretense of seeking justice. Rather, our goal should be to insulate the sentencing process from the passions of victims. As for those who would argue in favor of the death penalty, by citing the gruesomeness with which many death row inmates have murdered their victims, I would say this: it is one thing for a mad- man to dole out cruelty and torture, but it is something completely different for our government to do the same, and to do so in our name no less. The abolishment of this practice is long overdue. It is time for America to rid itself of this hideous relic: the human sacrifice.

By John Albarran

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