America’s “Other” Death Penalty
May 13, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Nation-wide, there is a serious shortage of drugs needed to kill Americans sentenced to death. The situation has grown so dire that Missouri, normally a seeker of handouts, may find the generosity to distribute its drugs to other states so they can kill their own citizens.
But all this seems a bit complicated. The trial. The appeals. The endless changes of law. Struggles with the Eighth Amendment. The public’s decreasing appetite for killing people who may turn out to be innocent. There’s got to be a better way!
Well, there is one faster method.
Wayne Pratt received the death penalty at the hands of three police officers for the misdemeanor crime of failing to stop and give information.
That’s Judge Catherina Haynes, writing in dissent from an opinion of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, holding that officers had qualified immunity to a claim that they had used excessive force when they killed an unarmed, intoxicated man who continued to resist their efforts to arrest him after he walked away from a car accident, and the officers who were trying to ask him questions about it.
Now, the officers here didn’t use a three drug cocktail to kill Pratt. They didn’t have to rely on any hard-to-find ingredients. All they needed was to tase him, hog tie him with handcuffs and a “hobble restraint,” put a knee to his back, and wait for him to asphyxiate. It wasn’t a deliberate killing. But it doesn’t take a medical expert to say that that combination of factors can lead to death.
Asphyxiation is such a terrible way to die that it’s frowned upon a bit by the courts. A kind hangman was one who could get the rope to the right length to avoid strangling his target to death. There’s the problem of air-hunger, which has been compared to having a major heart attack.
But at least as far as Wayne Pratt was concerned, it was a completely legal method of execution. How wonderfully efficient.
Now, Pratt wasn’t a perfect gentleman. When officers approached him, he was acting erratically, shadow-boxing around his car. They asked him to stop, but he kept walking. The officers’ first resort, after telling him to walk back, was to tase him. And when that didn’t work, to tase him twice more within a minute. And then another officer tased him. The record isn’t clear on why it took so many. Maybe one of the probes didn’t strike true, maybe Pratt’s heft had an effect.
When Pratt continued to struggle, officers applied handcuffs and a “hobble restraint” to tie his ankles together, effectively hog-tying him. This may have been in response to Pratt kicking one of the officers in the groin after he promised to stop fighting. It probably wasn’t something they did to just anyone, since it was specifically prohibited by department policy. Like I said, not a perfect gentleman.
By the time EMS got there, the combined effects of being tased and kneeled on by multiple officers had run its course. Pratt had no pulse. Another victim of excited delirium. Or asphyxiation. Or whatever. The distinction makes a difference only for police officers—you don’t beat a murder rap by claiming that the victim died of an undiagnosed mental illness at the exact second you were in the business of murdering him.
As the dissent points out, Pratt didn’t pose much of a threat to these officers. There were nine of them. He never reached for their weapons. He was just another intoxicated person who had run afoul of the First Rule of Policing (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s the exact opposite of the First Law of Robotics).
Yet the court didn’t just rule that there was no clearly established law prohibiting the officers’ conduct here. It went a step further, and said that the force used was “not unreasonable.” It even had an adorable little phrase tossed in—Pratt’s “’on again off again’ commitment to cease resisting” was the cause of his death, not any overreaction on the officers’ part.
We spend so much time agonizing about the death penalty. When Justices Breyer and Ginsburg indicated that they thought the time had come to figure out if it passed muster under the Constitution, it made major waves.
But we’ve done nothing to fix the “other” death penalty system, one that is far swifter, far less expensive and subject to far less review than this whole cumbersome business with painkillers and nurses and media attention. The government uses this system to kill around 1,000 Americans a year.