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Alabama Resumes Lethal Injection After Failed Attempts: A Case Against the Death Penalty

Addressing the debate over the death penalty in the US.

Prisoner handcuffed to death by lethal injection, vial with sodium thiopental and syringe on top of a table, conceptual image
Inmate handcuffed to death by lethal injection, conceptual image. Credit: Shutterstock / felipe caparros

Early Friday morning, Alabama conducted its first lethal injection since three failed executions. This prompted an internal review.

The Inmate

James Barber, 64, had been on death row for almost 20 years for the murder and robbing of Dorothy Epps. He worked as a handyman for the 75-year-old homeowner and, reportedly, was a former boyfriend of one of her daughters.

During his trial, prosecutors said Barber confessed to killing Epps with a claw hammer and fleeing with her purse. The medical examiner on the case, Dr Joseph Embry, testified that Epps had bruises, cuts, bleeding over the brain, rib fractures, and more.

Upon completion of the autopsy, Dr Embry concluded that the cause of death was multiple blunt-force injuries. With this evidence and more, the jury pronounced Barber guilty and voted 11-1 to recommend a death sentence.

The Execution

Barber’s execution took place early Friday morning at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. He was pronounced dead at 1:56 a.m. local time after receiving a lethal injection.

Prior to his execution, Barber filed a request for a stay, arguing he could be subject to “substantial harm” following three recent failed lethal injections in the state. In fact, in November, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey paused executions in order to conduct an internal review of procedures.

Governor Ivey issued the pause after the state stopped two lethal injections because of difficulties inserting the IVs. Though, advocacy groups also claim a third execution, delayed due to IV issues, was botched.

Nonetheless, a federal appeals court panel rejected his appeal in a 2-1 ruling. With their ruling, Barber’s execution proceeded as the first since Alabama’s pause on capital punishment.

Alabama’s Failed Executions

As mentioned, the governor of Alabama paused executions for a while so as to conduct an internal review after three failed lethal injections. Attorneys for one of the inmates involved in these failings described how prison staff poked their client with needles for over an hour in an attempt to find a vein.

Governor Ivey lifted the pause in February, declaring that the prison system had added to its pool of medical professionals, ordered new equipment, and planned to use different IV team members. Additionally, they extended the execution deadline from midnight to 6 a.m. to allow more preparatory time.

However, these measures didn’t seem like enough to some Supreme Court Justices, who commented that the court was allowing “Alabama to experiment again with a human life.”

“The Eighth Amendment demands more than the State’s word that this time will be different. The Court should not allow Alabama to test the efficacy of its internal review by using Barber as its ‘guinea pig’.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Why the Death Penalty?

The death penalty is reserved for those convicted of a capital offence. Examples include murder, treason, genocide, or the killing or kidnapping of a Congressman, the President, or a Supreme Court Justice.

Though many states no longer use the death penalty, the federal government may still use it. However, the Supreme Court does not allow for those under 18 or the intellectually disabled to be sentenced to death.

The Death Penalty Information Center suggests that deterrence is the biggest rationale for the administration of the death penalty. In theory, the threat of death should most effectively convince people not to commit a heinous crime they otherwise would.

However, other punishments, such as life in prison without the chance of parole, seem to be almost, if not equally, as deterring. Moreover, punishments such as that cost less and do not include the risk of executing an innocent person, which can never be reversed.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the efficacy of the death penalty, studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences have neither proven nor disproven a deterrent effect. In fact, their findings show no link between the presence or absence of the death penalty and murder rates. In such a way, if the death penalty is not a proven deterrent to capital offences, is it worth it?

A Case Against the Death Penalty

The essential question to be considered is: should states have the right to kill human beings?

The American Civil Liberties Union argues that the death penalty violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Further, it does not align with the guarantees of due process of law and equal protection under the law.

In the US, the death penalty system is largely dependent on the finances and race of the offender. According to the ACLU, people of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white.

Additionally, the death penalty wastes taxpayer dollars without an actual public safety benefit. As suggested previously, the majority of law enforcement professionals agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime. In fact, a survey of police chiefs nationwide concluded they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce capital offenses.

Perhaps the biggest argument against the death penalty is the fact that innocent people are too often sentenced to death. The ACLU found that since 1973, over 156 people were released from death row in 26 states due to innocence. On a national level, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.

Today, about 3,350 people are on death row. Almost all are poor, many are mentally disabled, more than 40 percent are Black, and a disproportionate number are Native American, Latino, and Asian.

Other Methods of Deterring Violent Crimes

As stated, the death penalty does not seem to have a deterrent effect. This is due to the fact that people tend to commit acts of violence in the heat of the moment, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or because they are mentally ill. Alternatively, those who do plan their offenses often expect to avoid punishment.

In these ways, incapacitation seems to be a better deterrent than the death penalty. Since states that have the death penalty do not have significantly lower crime and murder rates, there is no evidence suggesting that the death penalty is more deterring than life imprisonment.

Overall, capital punishment is not effective enough to outweigh its faults. Therefore, states should practice other forms of punishment to deter crimes, such as life imprisonment.

Written By

hi! i'm nic (she/they) and i am a third year english lit major at the university of san francisco! i enjoy writing about queer topics and social issues and really appreciate you reading my articles :)

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