Last month, in a scene few novelists would dare to write, an Iranian woman spared the life of her son’s murderer seconds before his execution. Samereh Alinejad, whose 18-year-old son was stabbed to death in the northern city of Nowshahr in 2007, told a French news agency that she had first considered granting clemency to the condemned man after a dream in which her son appeared to her and said he was at peace. She remained unsure right up to the point at which she was meant to push the man off the chair on which he was perched, a noose around his neck. (Iranian law permits a victim’s family to participate in the execution.) Instead, she slapped his face and asked her husband to remove the rope. Last year, according to Amnesty International, there were 369 executions in Iran – and likely several hundred more which remain unreported.
Last week, by contrast, in a scene that has been imagined all too often by Hollywood scriptwriters and US cable television, a death row inmate in Oklahoma was killed in extremely questionable circumstances. Clayton Lockett took more than 45 minutes to die after prison officials injected him with a cocktail of untested drugs procured secretively because of the difficulty of obtaining reliable supplies of sodium thiopental – the drug normally used for executions by lethal injection. Ongoing legal challenges in five US states have questioned whether prisons that use lethal injection drugs obtained without proper scrutiny from medical supervisors, or attorneys, are violating state and federal disclosure laws as well as the US Constitution’s eight amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
As the legal analyst and Atlantic contributing editor Andrew Cohen has written: “One can support the death penalty in general, and in the case of Clayton Lockett, and still be morally repulsed by the idea of torturing a man to death under colour of law in circumstances in which the torturers knew or should have known their conduct would violate the Constitution.” Cohen notes that the state of Oklahoma’s bungling also overshadowed a statement from the family of Lockett’s victim, a teenager murdered in 1999, and saddled them with the prospect of watching “months or even years more legal conflict over how state officials chose to kill their daughter’s murderer.”
Regardless of one’s attitudes to capital punishment, these cases illustrate the many difficulties of maintaining the integrity of a process so fraught with moral and political disputes. (In addition to the legal wrangling in the US, executions are complicated by the decision of European drug companies to stop manufacturing drugs used in executions. The EU requires member states to abolish capital punishment or suspend it, as an interim step towards abolition.) Public executions like those in Iran are medieval spectacles that should have no place in modern life and secret executions (often used by repressive governments to silence their critics) ought to be intolerable to democracies. But even when there is broad agreement that a death penalty is warranted – and in Lockett’s case this was largely the case – it remains challenging – even in mature, relatively transparent societies like the United States – to implement capital punishment humanely and effectively.
To date the death penalty remains on the books in many Caribbean states – in principle if not in practice – and often polls well with the public. (A 2010 survey in Barbados – by any measure one of the safest places in the region – found four out of five respondents approved of hanging.) Meanwhile the facts elsewhere repeatedly argue against its efficacy, and raise extremely troubling questions about its implementation. If the European Union can achieve consensus on this issue, surely the West Indies can have a well-informed debate and settle the matter decisively, rather than continue to persist with a legal process that has been comprehensively abandoned by the colonial powers who first brought it here.