Fourth of July Thoughts About What the Executions Carried Out So Far This Year Tell Us About America’s Death Penalty

Posted in: Criminal Law

July 4 is a day to celebrate America’s ideals, but it is also a time to reflect on this nation’s failings and areas where our lived realities do not match our lofty aspirations. The continuing use of capital punishment is one of those areas.

So far this year there have been 13 executions in the United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s data, all of them have been carried out in just four states, Texas (5), Florida (4), Missouri (3), and Oklahoma (1). Eleven other executions are now scheduled for the remaining six months of this year in Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Law professor Douglas Berman notes that we have had “more executions in 2023 than took place in all of 2021. And, if just a few more 2023 execution dates get set and most get carried out, this year could end up with more total executions in the United States than any year since 2015 (when there were 28) or even 2014 (when there were 35).”

What Berman does not say is that if we look closely at this year’s executions we will again see things that should be disturbing to all of us, including the continuing chaos surrounding the methods of execution we use, racial inequities, the extended periods that people are held on death row (often in solitary confinement) before they are executed, and the fact that most of those we execute are themselves victims of abuse, neglect, and the crippling life problems that they so often produce.

Symptoms of paranoia, depression, suicidality, mania, and delusion are common on death row and affect the ability of people accused of capital crimes to participate in their own defense. Studies have shown that more than 40% of the people sentenced to death suffer from a significant mental illness.

Not surprisingly, such problems were a prominent part of the stories of many of those executed this year.

Let’s start our mid-year assessment by looking at methods of execution.

Despite its well-documented problems and the efforts of states to bring other execution methods online, lethal injection has been the method used in all of this year’s executions. But saying that in itself would not be enough to indicate that death penalty states have used many different kinds and numbers of lethal drugs.

DPIC reports that eight of the 13 executions carried out this year have involved the administration of a single drug, pentobarbital. All of them were in either Texas or Missouri.

Three-drug protocols, with either of the sedatives midazolam or etomidate as the first drug, were used in the executions in Florida and Oklahoma.

What has happened so far this year is further evidence of the decomposition of the once standard, three-drug lethal injection drug cocktail which was used in every lethal injection execution in this country from 1982 to 2009. Where once we knew what lethal injection meant wherever it was used, we can no longer know.

And while the DPIC dubbed 2022 the year of the botched execution, so far none of 2023’s executions have had apparent mishaps.

Twelve of the 13 people put to death this year have been men. Missouri executed Amber McLaughlin in January, making her the first known transgender woman executed in the history of the United States.

White inmates were killed in seven of this year’s executions. Blacks were killed in five others, along with one Latino.

There were multiple victims in the cases of six of the people put to death so far this year. In seven of them, the victims included at least one white woman. White men were victims in three others. Two of the people put to death in 2023 were convicted of killing people of color.

This year’s race of the defendant and race of the victim figures fit in with a by now well documented pattern.

Research published by professors Scott Phillips and Scott Marceau in 2020 found stark racial disparities in executions. A New York Times report summarizes their findings as follows, “22 of the 972 defendants convicted of killing a white victim were executed, as compared with two of the 1,503 defendants convicted of killing a Black victim.”

Put differently, “the study concluded that defendants convicted of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims.”

And, as has been the case in 2023, the victim’s gender only exacerbates the race effect.

The inmates killed this year had served an average of more than twenty-three years on death row, with Luis Gaskin who was executed in Florida last April having been on death row the longest—thirty-three years. A month earlier, the state of Texas killed Gary Green, who had the shortest stay on death row, thirteen years.

As has been the case year in and year out, many of those executed this year have suffered from severe physical and psychological abuse, cognitive impairments, or mental illnesses.

Joseph Thornton told the story of one of them, Donald Dillbeck, in an opinion piece last March. According to Thornton, “it was undisputed that (Dillbeck’s) life story was one of childhood abuse and neglect.

His history of physical and emotional abuse began in utero and resulted in documented medical and mental consequences. Sadly, he never received mental health treatment and was bounced around the foster care system, dropping out of school in the ninth grade and fleeing to Florida as a teenager.”

Prior to being sentenced to death, Thornton says, Dillbeck “never had access to care for developmental, physical and psychological brain injuries.” And once on death row, “he got clean and sober, developed meaningful relationships with friends on the outside and found prayer and meditation as a way to cope. He had no violent incidents in the last three decades.”

To offer one other example, last month, in the 13th execution of the year, Florida put Duane Owen to death for the 1984 killing of a teenage babysitter and mother of two. Like Dillbeck, Owens was a victim of abuse so severe it left him mentally ill.

His public defender said that she found evidence of brutality from the time Owens was born — from severely alcoholic parents to a violent father. “There was routine,” she reported, “physical and sexual abuse in the home. He witnessed his mother being raped on a regular basis. He had a half-brother who was locked in the basement by his father.”

Nevertheless, Florida went ahead and put him to death with its own three-drug lethal injection cocktail.

In 2020, PBS published a Fourth of July story about the ways Americans use that holiday to reflect as well as celebrate. It quoted one person who captured this attitude well. “‘Each year,’” he said, “‘I don’t just celebrate the birth of our country on July Fourth. I use it as a time to check in and see how we are doing on the task they left for us.’”

Part of that task involves ending America’s death penalty so that one day soon this stain on our country will be removed, and there will be nothing more to say about executions carried out in our name.

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