States try to hide the barbarism of the death penalty

Vengeance belongs to the Lord, not to the state.

We have reached the point where we can no longer turn our heads to the systematic violence and cruelty of state-sponsored executions.

It’s time for the death penalty to be retired once and for all.

The death penalty is about state-sponsored vengeance, a relic of the past that should not be able to survive in a modern, democratic and pluralistic society.

Every bit of evidence points to the truth: That the death penalty serves no useful purpose, that it’s imposed in a biased, uneven and reckless manner, that it does not deter crime and that it forces the state to contort itself into an unimaginable position to support a sentence that is impossible to justify except as a means of revenge.

It’s cruel. It’s unusual. And it cannot be defended.

The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison. REUTERS/Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states, the federal government and the US military currently allow for capital punishment. Since 2009, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and Nebraska have abolished the death penalty. Voters in Nebraska brought it back by referendum in 2016.

Maine, mercifully, is among the 19 states that do not allow the death penalty.

In the states that allow the death penalty, the most common method is lethal injection in which a cocktail of poison is pumped into a sedated prisoner.

But it’s becoming harder and harder to get the necessary drugs for the lethal injections and high-profile cases of botched executions have left government officials desperate to find a more efficient way of killing people.

A recent article from the Washington Post points to the absurdity of the situation.

The synthetic painkiller fentanyl has been the driving force behind the nation’s opioid epidemic, killing tens of thousands of Americans last year in overdoses. Now two states want to use the drug’s powerful properties for a new purpose: to execute prisoners on death row,” the Post reported on Dec. 9.

In Maine, we’re averaging one opioid overdose death a day – an epidemic that has touched families from every corner of the state. A report released Tuesday urges the Legislature in the strongest terms possible to take action.

Now, the governments in Nebraska and Nevada are considering turning that scourge into a tool to deliver death – on purpose. It boggles the imagination; the inconsistency is bewildering.

There are bad people in the world. There are people who do unspeakable, terrible things who deserve to be held accountable and to be punished. The worst of them should be locked away from society for the rest of their days.

State-sanctioned executions aren’t the answer. They may satisfy society’s desire to be rid of a problem and for revenge, but they do nothing to make us safer and put us in serious moral jeopardy.

According to information compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, there is a clear pattern of discrimination in the application of the death penalty. Black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death and crimes against white victims are more likely to end in a death sentence.

We also have a real risk of killing the wrong person. Since 1976, there have been 1,414 executions carried out in the US. From 1976 to 2015, 156 people who were sentenced to death were exonerated.

The math is terrifying. They show that one in 10 people on death row were innocent. That price is too high to pay.

For many, it’s an article of faith that the death penalty deters serious crime, but the evidence is mixed at best and the vast majority of criminologists reject the idea.

The death penalty is unfairly applied, sweeps up innocent people and cannot be shown to reduce crime. That’s the definition of failed public policy with terrible, human costs.

When I was a young reporter, I applied to be part of the press pool to cover an execution in Virginia. My name wasn’t drawn. An idealist at the time, I thought that witnessing the person’s death was an obligation of the press to ensure that the ultimate act of government power isn’t allowed to happen in secret.

Now, it seems clear that we are all complicit in this immoral act of killing another person, whether the prisoner slowly asphyxiates while gasping for air or feels like they are burning to death from the inside out.

The scramble by death penalty states to concoct new recipes for executions is not driven by concern for the condemned, but by a desire to hide the ghastly effects of execution from the witnesses and to make it appear that death is delivered humanely.

There’s just no justification for the death penalty to continue.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at