Oklahoma’s Botched Execution and the Death Penalty’s Rough Justice History

The execution table used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it's actually pretty scary-looking.

The execution gurney used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it’s actually pretty scary-looking.

Clayton Lockett’s last minutes on this earthly plane were, by any stretch of the imagination, rough. The state of Oklahoma executed Lockett by lethal injection on April 29, 2014, but something went wrong, and he apparently struggled for over a half-hour before finally dying of a drug-induced heart attack. Lockett’s botched execution has raised more concerns about what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as prohibited by the Constitution, and rekindled the long-running debate over whether America should still administer the death penalty.

But the legitimacy of capital punishment isn’t so easily dismissed or endorsed. In America, execution is the direct result of a long historical proclivity towards brutal, racially motivated rough justice — lynching — and the later attempts to contain and satisfy the primal human need for vengeance within a civilized legal framework. Basically, humans wanna’ kill each other — heck, they often enjoy killing each other — and capital punishment in America exists to satiate that blood lust.

Now, as long as we’re talking about blood lust, it’s easy to conclude that Clayton Lockett deserved his wriggly, torturous last few minutes on earth. After all, he was sentenced to death for kidnapping, beating, gang-raping, and eventually murdering eighteen-year-old Stephanie Neiman during a 1999 robbery-escape gone haywire. And how did Lockett and his accomplices dispatch their victim, you ask? Well, when Neiman refused to give Lockett the assurance that she wouldn’t go to the police, the scumbag spent a good twenty minutes digging Neiman’s grave before shooting her twice with a sawed-off shotgun. I go back and forth when it comes to supporting the death penalty. For one thing, there’s plenty of evidence that it doesn’t deter crimes. But Clayton Lockett was clearly what we might call, in legal parlance, a piece of slime, and I have to admit, my own inner vigilante thinks that he deserved his fate.

But therein lies the thorniness when it comes to capital punishment: it exists to satisfy that primal need to seek vengeance, and in the process, it runs the risk of sanctifying in the administers of justice the same brutal thoughts that lead men like Lockett to commit their horrendous crimes. Historically, the sanctification of blood lust caused some real problems when it came to administering justice in America, especially when we throw in the equally thorny issues of racism and individual rights.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, capital punishment was usually administered extralegally, in the form of lynching (aka “rough justice”). Historian Manfred Berg writes in Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America, that the term “lynching” came out of the American Revolution (though the actual practice existed since time immemorial) and defines lynching as “extralegal punishment meted out by a group of people claiming to represent the will of the larger community and acting with an expectation of impunity.”* That’s right, at its core, lynching is execution by mob law. But lynching never respected due process — when the mob decided that you were guilty of a crime, you were gonna’ die regardless of whether or not you committed that crime.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

Now, this might have been all well and good if the victims of lynching were, in their heart of hearts, guilty, but if not, the result was community-sanctioned murder. But there was even more to it than that. Americans have never been ones to employ a tactic without running roughshod over some non-white people, and their approach to lynching was no exception. In his somewhat dense, but still fascinating book Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching, historian Michael J. Pfeifer explains how white Americans used lynching to suppress minority rights. By lynching blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans, and even poor whites, white Americans “rejected growing legal reforms that offered the promise of legal fairness to the unpopular and powerless by protecting the rights of those accused of crimes.”*

Indeed, in nineteenth century America, lynching was at the heart of debates between those who favored locally administered rough justice characterized by swift (and trial-less) retribution, and those who favored due process characterized by reform of the criminal, the right to lawyer, and the state as the ultimate administer of justice. Proponents of due process, including an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, recognized that white mobs tended to lynch people whom they deemed inferior and unworthy of equal rights — especially African-Americans.

While lynching was national in scope, in was most prevalent in the South. It was common for slaves to be lynched in the antebellum era, but the number of black lynchings not coincidentally exploded alongside the enactment of late-nineteenth century Jim Crow laws that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship by denying them suffrage and severely curtailing their rights in private and public facilities. Whereas southern whites initially used slavery as a system for controlling blacks, slavery’s demise necessitated other forms of racist control, and since Jim Crow laws said that blacks were fundamentally not equal to rights, whites justified the lynching of blacks through community approval. The result was rough justice run amok.

Historians estimate that between 1898 and 1968, roughly 4,743 blacks were lynched in the South, although the number was likely higher since many lynchings went undocumented. Lynching victims were most commonly accused or murder and the rape of white women. And the methods of lynching were brutal. Victims were burned alive, disemboweled, tortured with hot brands and pokers, mutilated, shot, and hanged. One mob in Georgia tore a woman’s unborn infant from her abdomen and stomped it with their boots. In far too many instances, this was how the death penalty was administered in America.

National outrage against lynching couldn’t stop it, since criminal justice was the purview of the states, not the federal government. But the eventual decline in lynching coincided with a more legal form of justice: the death penalty. Anti-lynching activists recognized the need to offer swift, harsh, and legal criminal justice in order to stem the popular tide of mob law, and that’s just what happened. By the 1930s and 40s, capital punishment gradually replaced lynching in the South, and with more executions came fewer instances of rough justice. The 1930s in the South, for example, saw 60 percent fewer lynching than the previous decade, but legal executions increased by 44 percent. By the 1940s, the number of legal executions rose up to 61 percent.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty, and often for good reason, given it's historical connection to rough justice.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty — often for good reason, given its historical connection to rough justice.

As Manfred Berg notes, “the death penalty appeared to be the appropriate cure for lynching. If the people could be certain that murderers and rapists would end up promptly on the gallows, they would no longer see the need to take the law into their own hands.”* Of course, this didn’t mean than the racial component of lynching vanished. Blacks accused of crimes continued to suffer swift (and not always just) convictions defined by short trials, shoddy evidence, and convictions by all-white juries thrown together to appease pitchfork and torch-wielding mobs outside of courthouses.

Even today, the issue of race is inextricably bound to the death penalty issue. Scholars Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat note that decades of capital punishment studies have shown the “powerful race-of-the-victim effects in the decisions about who will receive a death sentence,” and they point out that of all the American executions since 1976, 43 percent of the defendants were black or Hispanic.* Commenting on a Pew Research poll showing that more whites than blacks support the death penalty, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie casts these findings as springing from the intertwined history of capital  punishment and “racialized ideas on crime and criminality.”

The historical connection linking the death penalty to racially motivated lynching demonstrates why the justice of state-sanctioned execution is anything but blind and far from morally clear-cut. There’s no question that Clayton Lockett was a nasty SOB who deserved to be punished for his crimes, but whether or not he deserved death and torture — however unintended the latter may have been — is a question worth ruminating over. After all, if we demand the swift murder of criminals, no matter how vile they may be, we place ourselves in uncomfortable company with the raving lynch mobs of days gone by. And while our intentions may be theoretically purer than theirs, the emotions are the same. Rough justice has largely been stamped out of American society, but the deep human desire for vengeance remains, and that blood lust is something worthy of continued discussion — and wariness.

* See Manfred Berg,  Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), ix, 159.

* See Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat, eds., From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.

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