The state as executioner

Much to my dismay—and rage—the United States remains on the ignominious list of nations that continue to practice the death penalty despite social outcry, clear economic evidence against it, and common decency. California, Texas, and Florida retain the dubious honor of being the top killers when it comes to execution within the prison system, but there’s another kind of capital punishment that’s equally pervasive in the US: The summary execution of citizens on the street, without trial, without an opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law, a right that is supposedly guaranteed to all under the Constitution and with the reinforcement of centuries of legal precedent.

The Supreme Court recently affirmed that states with the death penalty—a thankfully slowly shrinking number—are permitted to use drugs known to cause serious complications in executions. The justices argued that the lethal injection represents the most ‘humane’ way to murder people, despite cases in which people experienced severe medical distress as a result of the medications used. Despite the fact that some drug suppliers are refusing to sell to the US for fear their medications might end up in the prison system. Injecting people with a solution that may or may not cause symptoms like burning agony is ‘more humane’ than shooting, electrocution, gassing, or hanging, all of which were used at one point in history—and in some states some of these methods still are.

Justices have to walk a delicate balance in the interpretation of the law, and in this case, the justices couldn’t rule on the Constitutionality of the death penalty itself, because that’s not what was at stake. Instead, they were asked to consider a specific method of execution. Had they ruled against the use of this particular drug, however, it would have been a blow against the death penalty, one in a list of incremental victories that could eventually lead to a nationwide ban as opposed to a state-by-state hodgepodge that could be easily shifted or dismantled. This isn’t an issue of personal beliefs or values about the death penalty, but a question of whether it can truly be supported in light of the Eighth Amendment and what we know about all available execution methods.

The death penalty is on the minds of many this year as several mass murderers faced trial and sentencing, including the Boston Marathon bomber, the man responsible for the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting, and the white supremacist who murdered nine people in Charleston in cold blood. Advocates on both sides fought viciously back and forth in these cases, which can become true litmus tests for death penalty supporters and opponents alike: For supporters, such cases seem like a classic illustration of why the state needs to be able to murder people in the face of such heinous acts, while opponents have to defend alternate methods of punishment (this is a punitive, not restorative, justice system) in the face of horrific and reprehensible crimes.

But summary execution is on our minds as well, even if many aren’t talking about it in those terms. However, when a representative of the state in the form of a police officer walks up to a civilian—armed or unarmed—and shoots that civilian, it’s a form of summary justice. The officer is forming a judgement and passing sentence in a matter of minutes, and tellingly, such shootings are heavily informed by race and mental health status. This is a nation where committing horrible acts like serial rape and murder can result in a death sentence, but so can committing the innocent act of being alive in black and brown skin.

This is a form of structural, institutionalised summary execution. It’s backed by investigations and reports that almost never hold law enforcement accountable in cases where they kill civilians, or that give officers little more than a slap on the wrist when they’re involved in fatal shootings. Much like the executioner of yore, they can hide behind a mask, but they’re still swinging the axe no matter how their defenders like to protect them. Killer police lurk behind the glass, pulling the levers that kill actual human beings, and as we address the myriad aspects of criminal justice reform that the nation so desperately needs, we must also define acts within the ‘justice’ system by their true names.

Killing someone in the name of the state is an execution, and the state argues that executions are necessary as punishment, to protect public safety by removing people from the public sphere permanently, and as a form of deterrence to criminals considering similar acts—though the argument for deterrence isn’t a compelling one, that doesn’t stop people from throwing it out anyway. In the context of trials and courts, victims of the death penalty are subjected to a series of legal hoops and they’re often at a profound disadvantage due to prejudicial courts and socioeconomic disadvantage, before they face down a series of costly appeals in a quest to save their lives. In the context of the streets, police officers kill with discrimination, and without mercy, depriving people of an opportunity to be heard in a court of law, even a flawed, deeply troubled court within a problemetised justice system.

Death penalty opponents and those working against police shootings have many social and political attitudes in common, and often work together in solidarity. These causes are explicitly tied together, and this is an issue we need to be discussing as we evaluate the flaws of the justice system. If the execution of mass murderers and white supremacists is wrong—which it is—the execution of innocent unarmed civilians attempting to go about their daily business is beyond reprehensible.

Image: The Executioner, James Kaarremaa, Flickr