Sometimes you just have to stop reading. Part way through an article on the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, I had to push the back button on my tablet. I needed to process the mix of horror, anger and rage that had welled up inside me.
My reaction took me by surprise. In this job you encounter many horrible things. But Smith’s death, by the untested method of suffocation by nitrogen over a period of more than 20 minutes, seemed to me to be particularly cruel.
The detailed testimony of witnesses was shocking.
Alabama – for so long a synonym for antediluvian behaviour – had claimed Smith (who survived a previous attempt at execution) would be dead in minutes. The witnesses described in chilling detail his prolonged struggle for breath.
Smith is not the first person to be executed in the United States, and sadly he will not be the last. Until last week, when his case came to the fore, I wasn’t even aware he existed. But his death has diminished me as a fellow human being, and it has besmirched the already tattered reputation of the United States of America.
The death penalty is an evil in our world. And sometimes it is hard to feel sympathy for those condemned to die for heinous crimes. But societies that embrace judicial murder – for murder is what it is – bring themselves down to the same level as those who inhabit death row.
The state must be better than those who break society’s rules. But so often it is not, and that harms each and every one of us. You do not need to be a person of faith to recognise the individual dignity of each human life. Violence cannot be defeated by violence.
Societies that embrace judicial murder – for murder is what it is – bring themselves down to the same level as those who inhabit death row
In respecting life, you put in place the moral and ethical framework that protects the rights of each of us to live in peace. When that framework is breached there must be punishment, but justice should be tempered by mercy.
There are ways of dealing with murderers that do not make us murderers ourselves; and to kill the killer does not undo the crime. As Mike Sennett, the son of Smith’s victim Elizabeth Sennett, said after the execution: “Nothing that happened here today is going to bring mom back.”
There are broader issues about the use of the death penalty in the United States. The judicial system consistently operates to the benefit of those who are white and well-off. You are more likely to be on death row if you are black, poor or mentally ill.
The US Supreme Court rejected Smith’s appeal based on the eighth amendment to the constitution which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”. Nothing could be more cruel and unusual than to suffocate a man to death using an untried procedure, having previously failed to kill him using lethal injection.
The Supreme Court’s position says something profound about the hypocrisy that suffuses public discourse in the United States. The court does not reflect the complex make-up of the country’s religious and ethnic diversity.
Packed with right-wingers by former president Donald Trump, it has been increasingly using its powers to advance a far-right agenda. Six of the nine justices – who hold their positions for life – are Catholics (for context, there have been only two Catholic presidents in more than 200 years).
The Catholic justices claim their allegiance is to the constitution, not their Church. Yet under their watch a pro-life agenda has been advanced with the overturning of Roe versus Wade – the 1973 court judgement that said the state could not forbid abortion because of the constitutional right to liberty.
For some reason those who are the most trenchant pro-lifers are also advocates for judicial murder.
Put simply, you cannot be pro-life and support the death penalty. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, said Smith’s execution “may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. It does, and the US must stand condemned for it. It has demonstrated clearly that it is pro-death.