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Monday, May 5, 2014

The death penalty and the worst among us

Posted By on Mon, May 5, 2014 at 5:00 PM

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Oklahoma's botched execution of convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett stirred memories of a time when Indiana struggled to kill someone.

Lockett's death was a kind of dark farce. The officials overseeing his death apparently didn't administer well the drugs that were supposed to kill him. Witnesses to the execution said that Lockett writhed and struggled in pain until officials closed the curtain so no one could see what was happening. More than 40 minutes after he had been drugged, Lockett died of a heart attack.

The ugliness of his death touched off a national and international debate about the death penalty.

Part of the difficulty in killing Lockett came from international revulsion at America's addiction to capital punishment. Many countries - and their pharmaceutical companies - now refuse to supply us with the drugs we need to make the "cocktails" that kill people on death row. And many doctors question - or even oppose - on ethical grounds having medical personnel take part in executions.

We've seen this before.

In the summer of 1996, Indiana put Tommie J. Smith to death. I covered the execution, which took place in Michigan City.

Like Lockett, Smith was a bad human being. He shot and killed a police officer.

There were a lot of people in Indiana eager to see Smith take his last breath.

en though the skies pounded rain on the night of Smith's execution, the event drew a crowd. One guy bicycled over to watch the proceedings, which were scheduled to begin right after midnight, because he thought seeing someone put to death would be entertaining.

"It's not something you see every day, so I thought I'd come check it out," James Koehler told me as the rain drops bounced off the yellow slicker he wore.

At another spot, a teenage boy named Chris stood outside the prison's stone walls with his younger sister.

Chris told me the two of them had come because they hoped to see a fight between the group protesting the death penalty and the crowd cheering Smith's death.

"Me and my sister, we've each had two years of martial arts training, so we're ready," Chris said.

Chris almost got his wish. At times, the two groups yelled back and forth at each other, then marched toward each other until they stood just a few feet apart. As the rain slammed down, they screamed at each other.

Inside the prison, officials poked and stuck Smith over and over again with needles trying to find a vein that would carry the lethal injection that would kill him. Smith was conscious the whole time.

It took them more than an hour before they were able to insert a needle into his foot. He died nearly an hour and a half after they started the process.

Then, as now, there were people who scoffed at reports of suffering endured by Smith and Lockett.

They point to the fact that Smith and Lockett did despicable things. And they're right.

Smith murdered a police officer. Lockett raped, shot and then buried alive a young woman.

Even if these two murderers' deaths were terrifying and horrible, death penalty supporters argue the states that killed them just showed about the same amount of mercy that those two men showed their victims.

That always has been my problem with the death penalty.

We justify doing awful things because people like Smith and Lockett have done awful things. I don't want the worst among us - people who rape and murder - to set the standards of conduct for me.

Or for the government that represents me.

That night of Tommie Smith's execution, I remember walking away from the prison after the state of Indiana finally had succeeded at killing him and wishing the rain would wash clean what I'd seen and heard.

It didn't.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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