Which raises the question of why we ended up with this technology in the first place. Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst whose engaging history of botched executions (from which I drew the statistics above) is out this week, believes that legislators were chasing the appearance of a humane, dispassionate, and clinical means of execution without much sense of how to actually achieve it. “There was a lot of investment in the optics of execution,” Sarat told me. He quotes early enthusiasts of the method describing it as “visually palatable.” The desire to make capital punishment less macabre, less visually abhorrent, Sarat argues in his book, has helped spur each of the modern changes in execution method, from hanging to the gas chamber to electrocution to lethal injection.
If appearance is what you are after, lethal injection seems perfect. One of the drugs usually given is a paralytic, which renders the inmate unable to show pain. “The modern death chamber has come to resemble a hospital room,” Sarat writes — the condemned prisoner is strapped to a gurney as an emergency medical patient would be, and the execution is carried out by medical personnel. The complications — obesity, vein obscurity — are medical complications. Oklahoma was the first state to install lethal injection as a technology of execution, and the legislators pushing the initiative spent significant time courting the state’s medical association, which refused to participate. “The legitimacy of capital punishment depends upon the ability to say that what we are doing as a state is different and better than those we condemn,” Sarat told me.