Cruel and Unusual: Rethinking the Death Penalty

L. R. Riedel
6 min readJan 9, 2021


“Oh, man… I’m not…” muttered Clayton Lockett, as he jerked and clenched his fists while strapped to the cold execution table. Declared fully unconscious only moments earlier, these became his last agonizing words as he struggled, dying for an insufferable forty-three minutes. This botched execution was certainly not America’s first major “mess up”; countless executions have ended dreadfully, with prisoners straining through unbearable amounts of pain. This singular case on April 29, 2014 involved Clayton Lockett, a man accused of first-degree murder and rape. He was sentenced to death by means of lethal injection, and however “painless” this method may seem, procedures such as these are capable of taking a violent turn. Sixty percent of Americans today still agree with the death penalty, which is over half the population. This massive wave of supporters consists of many sincere Americans, who believe that execution is a righteous means of delivering justice. The death penalty does feel like an excellent way to bring justice to the victims of merciless murderers, and furthermore, the execution methods used appear sufficient and painless. However, the death penalty is broken beyond repair; because underneath its apparent perfection, its killing tactics are cruel and unusual, it violates the constitutional promise of equal protection, and it is proposed disproportionally on minority groups. America’s death penalty is a major violation of the eighth and fourteenth ammendments, which ensure a ban on cruel and unusual punishment and promise equal protection under the law, therefore it is unconstitutional.

Since the year 1967, 1510 people have been executed in America. Out of those 1510 people, a whopping 1332 people were killed using the lethal injection; this method is responsible for almost ninety percent of all executions. Currently, lethal injection is the most commonly-used method of execution, backed up by alternative methods such as electrocution, hanging, gas chamber, and firing squad. This three drug cocktail, administered through an IV Saline drip, was originally brewed up by a man named Bill Wiseman, who ironically was against the death penalty. His initial goal was to create an execution drug that would humanely euthanize people. The first drug to enter the inmate’s body is a powerful anesthetic called Sodium thiopental. The drug is normally used as a clinical barbiturate, and induces deep sleep and general anesthesia. Following the sodium thiopental is a muscle relaxant called Pavulon, also known chemically as Pancuronium Bromide. This paralyzing agent does not serve a main medical purpose, and some critics claim that it is “purely cosmetic”. It is likely that the Pavulon is only administered to ensure that if the anesthetic fails, this second drug will mask all visible signs of the inmate’s suffering to the audience. To finalize the execution, a lethal dose of the toxic agent Potassium Chloride is pumped through the veins of the inmate, inducing cardiac arrest and stopping the heart. Although Wiseman’s lethal injection appears clean and humane to the uneducated eye, when compared to every other current execution method in America, lethal injection has the highest botched execution rate, a considerable 7.12%. From the year 1890 to 2010, a grand total of 276 people have suffered through executions that went wrong in some way. It is unacceptable that America still uses lethal injection as its primary execution method when it has the highest botched rating. If the United States continues with high risk methods such as these, they are threatening the rights of an innumerable amount of citizens. In allowing the risk of a long and inhumane death, the death penalty clearly violates the eighth amendment, or the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It is cruel because there is a substantial risk that the execution could take a dreadful turn, leaving citizens suffering through intolerable amounts of pain.

For centuries, humans have experimented with all sorts of confounding execution methods. However, by the end of 2018, a majority of the world’s countries, and nearly all first-world countries, abolished the death penalty, deeming it unconstitutional. Many of these modern countries understand that executions do not belong in a civilized society, and have discontinued capital punishment. Nevertheless, America is among the world’s leading executioners, standing with countries like Iraq, Iran, and China. It is a disgrace that America has not yet abolished the death penalty. Not only is it no longer nessecary, but it reflects barbaric punishments that were used during times of slavery. The death penalty is merely a cruel, medieval tradition, that promotes violence because it lacks respect for human life. Among the monstrous murderers that are found on death row, there are all too often innocent people, whose lives are thrown away carelessly by the national government. Since 1973, over 156 people were determined innocent and released from death rows in twenty-six states. Additionally, for every ten people that are executed, at least one person is found innocent. It is quite appalling that there is such a high disregard for life, and that innocent humans are unlawfully executed. It is cruel and unusual, therefore a major violation of the eighth amendment, to execute potentially innocent people.

The death penalty is applied in an unjustified manner against people of color and minority race. On death row, white lives are valued disproportionately more than black lives. Black men make up forty percent of all murder victims, but currently, only eight percent of people executed have murdered black men. On the other hand, murderers of white women are treated with much more severity. Almost half of all executions, forty-three percent, have been for murderers of white women, although they only make up a relatively low thirteen percent of all murder victims. This is an obvious violation of the fourteenth amendment, which ensures equal protection under the law. The color of an individual’s skin should never influence whether or not they receive a death sentence, however, this data reveals that race is largely factored into determining someone’s life. Since 1967, an unacceptable forty-three percent of total executions have been against people of color. In the United States military alone, eighty-six percent of inmates on death row are of a minority race. In addition to racial discrimination, the death penalty is largely dependent on the defendant’s wealth. Those of lower-income and poor education have a higher chance of recieving the death penalty than wealthy, educated citizens. Furthermore, the scope of citizens who are still allowed to recieve the death penalty is constrained in an unfair manner. People with intellectual disability, juvenile offenders, and those who commit interpersonal crimes besides murder cannot recieve a death penalty. In limiting certain groups of people from the death penalty, the fourteenth ammendment’s promise for equal protection is destroyed.

A society that respects life does not deliberately kill human beings. The death penalty is unconstitutional because it violates the eighth ammendment, a constitutaional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and the fourteenth ammendment, an oath that all citizens are treated equally under the law. It is cruel because there is an extensive risk that the execution could be botched, meaning it would cause a tremendous amount of prolonged pain to the individual. It is unusual because every year, innocent people are unlawfully executed. Innocent people can be released from prison, but death cannot be undone. The death penalty is discriminatory; race, wealth, and status play an unfair role in death sentencing. There is a drastically higher percentage of black men condemned to executions than any other race. The death penalty is used against racial minorities, the poor, and people with mental disabilities. The death penalty violates the most fundamental human right, the right to live.


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L. R. Riedel

Boston-based journalist, studying at Northeastern