COVID-19 exposes the selfishness of the death penalty

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Capital punishment has always been perverse, but during our country’s struggle with the coronavirus, its selfishness sticks out like a sneeze, its sickly aerosols joining racismclassism, and festering immorality — all the hallmarks that have long-infected its practice.

The strongest evidence of this abhorrent selfishness to surface recently — of this compulsion to exact retributive vengeance at all costs to our country’s justice system, moral fabric, the children of the condemned, and, in this instance, even to the physical well-being of its populace — has to be the widely reported letter written by Dr. Joel B. Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Emory University.

Co-signed by six other leading medical professionals, this earnest, logical, unheeded plea, was sent to the corrections departments of all the death penalty states in the U.S.; it implored correctional officials in these states to turn over their stockpiled lethal injection drugs, including sedatives and paralytics, because, ironically, when used ethically and responsibly in a hospital setting — instead of brutally and barbarically in an execution chamber — these same drugs have the capability to keep critically ill coronavirus patients alive.

“These medicines were never made or developed to cause death — to the contrary, many were formulated to connect patients to life-saving ventilators and lessen the discomfort of intubation,” Zivot and his fellow medical professionals’ letter says. One of the medicines, midazolam, a sedative which as I’ve written about elsewhere, states like Alabama have been using to torture poor people with for a long time, is reportedly “facing several shortages” because of “increased demand” and “manufacturing delays” associated with the pandemic.

What I want to know, along with anyone else in possession of a pulse and a conscience, is how on earth can correctional officials — and death penalty proponents — justify the moral depravity of denying these potentially life-saving drugs to, what Zivot and his fellow signatories estimate, as many as several hundred sick and dying Americans with Covid-19?

How can they do it despite the fact that all the remaining scheduled executions this year are being stayed and indefinitely postponed like dominoes, one after the other — due to the coronavirus — even in Texas and Tennessee, states which regularly and with no consternation, tie condemned human beings to electric chairs or gurneys, to kill them?

Wisely, no state is willing to bear the inherent risk of a mass-coronavirus infection by forcing the congregation of the number of people legally, ethically, and practically required to conduct an execution. Moreover, as Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center told the Marshall Project last month: “Every state that intends to go forward with an execution during this health crisis will have legal issues. When you’re in the final weeks before an execution, access to a client is an absolute necessity and access to the courts is an absolute necessity. Where that access is impaired because of a public health emergency you simply can’t go forward.”

And yet unconscionably, despite the fact it is a virtual certainty no state will be able to conduct an execution for the remainder of 2020  — with some legal experts, like law professor Douglas Berman, opining that the pandemic could be the tipping point that pushes the nation toward complete abolition (God, I hope he’s right) — no state that has received Dr. Zivot’s letter has indicated it’s willing, during our country’s great time of need, to give up their difficult to obtain and often nefariously acquired pharmaceutical stash, and no reasonable legal or other observer expects that they will.

And so borrowing from one of our nation’s greatest cultural critics and wordsmiths, H.L. Mencken, my question, and I hope yours, too, is: What “dangerous and malignant excrescence upon the face of humanity” but capital punishment could be more selfish, more merciless, more morally bankrupt, that it could cause government officials to deny critically ill patients life-saving drugs solely because — at some indeterminate, far distant, perhaps never arriving point-in-time — they might be able to use those scarce drugs to inhumanely torture and kill?

About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq