Thanks to movies and television, most of us have an image in our head of a prisoner about to have his or her life ended in jail undergoing a slow, exacting and detailed series of final moments — a last meal, a dramatic walk to wherever the execution will occur, perhaps a moment of tension while anticipation for a last minute reprieve lingers.
That’s not real life, however. Apparently in the real world, executions are a rushed affair. In Missouri, they can’t even be bothered to wait until the appeals process is fully complete.
According to Think Progress, that was exactly the case with Herbert Smulls. Smulls, who was given the death penalty for shooting and killing one person and permanently injuring another in a jewelry store robbery in 1991 was allegedly “in the middle of a phone call discussing his attorneys’ final efforts to save his life when he was reportedly seized by prison guards, hauled into an execution chamber, and injected with a toxic cocktail of drugs,” according to the progressive news site. He was officially pronounced dead four minutes before state Supreme Court officially gave permission to allow the execution to proceed.
If this sounds like an honest mistake, odds are it wasn’t. In fact as Andrew Cohen reports in The Atlantic, this is the third case in the state of an execution beginning before all legal appeals had been officially exhausted. This troubling trend may actually be perpetuated by correction officials who have taken it upon themselves to decide when the convicted have had enough time to win their appeals if they were going to. Jim Liberman, a Columbia Law School professor told the Associated Press that “it is unusual, but not unheard of, for an execution to proceed with an appeal still pending,” and that “…corrections officials could reach the point of believing that enough is enough.”
In the Smulls case, “enough” was apparently the 20 years that had passed since he was convicted and given the death penalty in 1993. His most recent appeals, however, revolved around concerns over the unidentified drug maker that would be producing the drug used in the lethal injection. According to Smulls’ lawyer, lethal injection drugs are not subject to Federal Food and Drug Administration oversight, leaving the potential for suffering during the execution.
The corrections officials may have seen this as a worthless last minute gambit, but recent history actually would have been on Smulls’ side. In January, an Ohio inmate reportedly took 15 gasping, strangling minutes dying via lethal injection after a new drug was tested on him, violating the rule against cruel and unusual punishment. Now, Louisiana has put its own upcoming execution off while an appeal is being heard over a death row inmate being subject to a previously untried in the state lethal injection drug, too.
The death penalty on its own is a highly problematic solution to criminal action. It is often applied disproportionately to people of color, and a shocking number of those who are on death row have later been found to have been wrongly convicted of crimes. Just those two facts alone make it unfathomable that corrections officers should ever take it upon themselves to begin an execution before absolutely every last legal challenge has been completely exhausted.
Until the day that we rightfully end the death penalty all together, at the very least we must insist that everything possible is done to ensure a person about to be executed receives as much justice as the system will allow.
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