On January 17, The New York Times reported on a bungled execution by lethal injection in Ohio. The executed man was described by witnesses as having struggled and gasped in his final fifteen minutes of life following the injections; much of the article discussed a dispute over just how aggravated his struggle was ... or wasn’t. Did he gasp loudly, snort, and make choking noises during the struggle? Or did he merely snort loudly and make snoring noises, but not struggle? And so on — the fine calculus of death throes. (Only in America.)
But then came this: “But death penalty proponents said the episode was being sensationalized. ‘Some of the witnesses say he was heard to make snoring noises,’ said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. ‘O.K., I’ve made snoring noises. What’s not disputed is that he [the executed man] got a large dose of sedative. We’ve gotten namby-pamby to the point that we give murderers sedatives before we kill them.’”
(The article noted that some anesthesiologists have pointed out that there is a danger of the drugs Ohio used in the untested “cocktail” producing a condition called air hunger, “in which the gasping victim is unable to absorb oxygen.” As for the Foundation, well, it is proud to have former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese on its board of advisors.)
Fordham Law professor Deborah Denno, who according to the article is an expert in lethal injection cases, commented, “I think this [the Ohio execution] is the worst situation that lethal injection has been in since it was first administered 32 years ago.”
But our Kent will have none of this namby-pamby bullshit. “‘The main point to be emphasized,’ Mr. Scheidegger said, ‘is the inmate does get a sedative as the very first thing. However distasteful it may be to observe, he [sic] is not in any kind of extreme pain that ought to concern us.’”
Putting aside the nagging question of on what factual basis the lawyer Kent is able to make a declarative statement about the sensations the executed man experienced as he was dying, you may ask yourself, So what? After all, plenty of government lawyers — who have not themselves undergone anything close to torture, let alone serve in harm’s way in our military — have in the recent past made unilateral findings of fact as to what constitutes torture, and which tortures cause really bad pain as contrasted with sort of bad but not really bad pain.
No, this little episode bears repeating because it reminds us that our Republic is not riven just by conservative versus liberal, or haves versus have nots. There is this other divide that can blindside us: the split between those of us who, however vestigially, harbor a concern for fellow human beings — and those who are beyond being casually mean-spirited and have lapsed fully into being vicious pricks capable of bringing great harm upon all of us.
Let’s not get lulled into the namby-pamby notion that only convicted murderers of pregnant women, like the inmate in Ohio, are out there to harm us. Some threats come in disarming guises, brandishing law degrees.