John Oliver Captures the Death Penalty's Twisted Logic Better Than Any Pundit


Last week, Fox News reported, "A convicted killer from Oklahoma dies after a botched execution." "Forty three-minute execution fails, inmate dies anyway," CNN's chyron screamed. Reuters columnist Jack Shafer jumped on the opportunity to point out the irony, writing, "Oklahoma's executioners accidentally killed Clayton D. Lockett last night while trying to put him to death." 

While some may have squirmed over Shafer's dry humor, it's hard to argue that lethal injection hasn't gotten a little bit ridiculous. It was created as an attempt to make the process more humane, but too many times, it's achieved nothing of the sort. 

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin put it quite well a few months ago: "In 1890, the Justices said that the process could not include 'torture or a lingering death.' Accordingly, in 2008, the Court rejected a challenge to execution by lethal injection — the prevailing method in the 35 states with prisoners on death row — because, as Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his opinion, the procedure did not present a 'substantial risk of serious harm.' In other words, death is required, but harm is forbidden. Clear?"

Clear. But clearly senseless. Not only must harm occur, but torture often occurs as well.

Executions by lethal injection have been bungled 32 times since 1982. Anesthesiologist Joel Zivot wrote an op-ed for USA Today in which he voiced his strong opposition to the procedure. It "creates an illusion of humane, professional execution," but in reality, Zivot said, states are "usurping the tools and arts of the medical trade and propagating a fiction." He concluded that we need "a moratorium on the use of all anesthetic agents for lethal injection. If the state is inclined to execute, it might be the time again to take up hanging, the electric chair or the bullet."

Toobin seems to agree, arguing that, while it's understandable that the justices have attempted to make the process "a little more palatable," there is a "meagre kind of progress in moving from the chair to the gurney." 

Toobin and Zivot make compelling arguments, but leave it to a comedian to capture the irony of the modern death penalty better than anyone else. On his HBO show Last Week Tonight, British comedian John Oliver used the Oklahoma incident to address how absurd the death penalty has become.  

READ: Executioners' Reflections Reveal a Twisted Side of the Death Penalty


Contact or tweet Laura with thoughts or questions.