Gruesome Spectacles by Austin Sarat

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This week in Oklahoma, two executions were stayed, yet one of the prisoners still died. Few will cry for the deceased, Clayton D. Lockett, a man convicted of brutal rape and callous murder. His ordeal, a “botched” lethal injection that lasted nearly an hour and appeared to be very painful and terrifying (and seems to have resulted in his death by heart attack), doesn’t compare to the suffering of his victim.

We the People of the United States do not wish to meet or exceed the depravity of those we deem too depraved to live. We just want to kill them. We want to have our death penalty and be good people, too.

How we deal with these two competing desires (and how we convince ourselves that they are not competing) is at the core of Austin Sarat’s Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty. Sarat raises the question: Why have botched executions in America led to a series of method changes (from hanging to electric chair, from gas chamber to lethal injection) rather than to the abolition of the death penalty in whole?

To answer this, Sarat takes us through the history of botched executions and the legal responses to them. He begins in medieval Europe, where executions were (intentionally) torturous entertainments that both displayed the power of the sovereign and, since subjects participated (as a willing audience), also aligned the people with the sovereign in a conspiracy of killing.

Lynchings operated similarly. By the time the United States was founded, though, there was a desire to make state executions painless and semi-private, or not to have them at all. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was among America’s first death penalty opponents, but not because of sympathy for the condemned: “Capital punishment, he claimed ‘lessens the horror of taking away human life and thereby tends to multiply murders.’” Without a viable alternative to hanging, Rush favored abolition. Later generations given the seemingly less cruel options of the electric chair and the gas chamber adopted these methods rather than continue risking slow, terrible strangulations and bloody decapitations by rope.

Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat

But of course every new method employed brought its own horrors. The electric chair could give witnesses “the impression of somebody being burned alive.” The gas chamber could show them a gasping and choking person slowly asphyxiating to death. All methods have taken “too long”—we want executions to be, in the words of one of the many Supreme Court decisions upholding the death penalty, “the mere extinguishment of life,” the snuffing of life by the flip of a switch, not an excruciating ordeal. But this goal has proven elusive. What happened this week in Oklahoma has happened many times before, by chair and by chamber as well as by needle.

Of course the families of the victims might prefer that the condemned man suffer. If our goal is revenge, how does a peaceful, painless death befit a man (to use one of the examples from Gruesome Spectacles) who raped and then killed a three year old girl by shoving her face in mud? Sarat points out that:

We remain committed to the effort, when we do execute, to execute gently—to impose no more pain than is necessary. That the law requires the state to kill in this manner seems, in a way, counterintuitive; it may precipitate one kind of crisis of legitimacy by distancing the state from the voices of victims and the demands of vengeance and, in so doing, by raising questions like those raised by the mother of a murder victim . . . “Do they feel anything? Do they hurt? Is there any pain? Very humane compared to what they’ve done to our children. The torture they’ve put our kids through. I think sometimes it’s too easy. They ought to feel something. If it’s fire burning all the way through their body or whatever. There ought to be some little sense of pain to it.”

But Sarat shows through the language of legal decision how our response to botched executions has far less to do with concern for the victims or the condemned than for the witnesses to the execution and the society that must go forward knowing what was done in its name. One hardly weeps for the Timothy McVeighs or Ted Bundys of the world, but we do apparently feel for the wardens, prison guards, and witnesses (mostly clergy, reporters, and lawyers); we don’t want the witnesses to see something that will give them nightmares. Sarat’s account shows that it is “the experience of execution by its witnesses—their “suffering”—[that] fuels the search for painless death.”

Further, we are concerned for ourselves. If “our” killing, state killing, is different in kind from the killing for which the condemned must die, then this distinction should be apparent: our killing must be good and merciful, even beneficent; there must be no grounds for the condemned to claim victimhood. In Sarat’s words, “the search for painless death might be better understood as one way of keeping sentimental simplifying narratives of criminal and victim intact by not allowing the condemned to assume the status of victims of outmoded technologies of death.”

So botched executions have not convinced us to give up killing—they’ve only pushed us to kill by other means, to inflict what we believe, until we learn otherwise, will be “painless” deaths. Questions about whether or not the condemned is actually guilty of the crime for which he is to die have fueled much more anti-death penalty sentiment in the US because they convince us that the mistake we make will be to kill innocent people. But a different kind of mistake, the mistake of killing a guilty person so that he suffers, inspires a very different response: we inject the condemned with a drug that will paralyze his body and disguise any pain and suffering as peaceful repose.

Clayon D. Lockett

Clayon D. Lockett

One would expect a book titled Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty to inflame the senses and create moral outrage with its horrifying descriptions of executions gone wrong. But Sarat does not attempt to increase your suffering by writing about these deaths in a way that might stir the viscera. Even when photos of the brutalized body of an executed man are included in a legal decision—the images believed, by at least one judge, to be important to the case—he does not offer these photos or even a compelling description of what they showed.

But he does offer, in the final chapter of the book, a rhetorical analysis of the way botched executions have been reported in American newspapers in different periods, showing what those approaches tell us about attitudes towards capital punishment at the time, including “sensationalist” narratives (“Warden, physicians, everybody lost their wits. There was a startled cry for the current to be turned on again.”), “professionalized” journalism (“A heavy rain caused a stretching of the rope with which Weeks was hanged, allowing his feet to drag on the ground after he had been dropped through the trap.”), and “objective” reporting that gives “both sides” of any story (“A defense attorney who witnessed the execution of William E. Vandiver says the state could choose a more humane method of execution. A prison official, meanwhile, defended procedures used to test the electric chair that took five jolts of voltage and 17 minutes to complete the execution.”) In some ways this final chapter is the most fascinating part of the book, perhaps because it is the only part that offers by quotation some vivid descriptions of the botched executions discussed throughout.

If ever a book took a measured approach to an incendiary subject, it is this one. Which leads one to wonder about Sarat’s rhetoric and what it implies. Each case begins with a short account of the “botch” followed by a long, detailed narrative of the crimes that led each criminal to his death at the hands of the state. In most (but not all) cases, the guilt of the condemned is not in doubt, and the crimes are horrible. Is this a structure you would adopt if your goal were to persuade readers of the evils of the death penalty? Most of the “victims” of these botched executions are not sympathetic; far more time is spent establishing their villainy than their victimhood. But the approach of the book seems to be to offer facts and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

While Gruesome Spectacles points out that “the original legislation authorizing the use of gas stipulated that the condemned was to be put to death ‘without warning and while asleep in his cell,’” it makes no effort to argue that (or why) this is a particularly inhumane thing to propose. If you’re hoping for an anti-death penalty screed, this book will disappoint you. If you’re looking for a thorough accounting of botched executions in the United States, the relevant legal decisions and what they mean, as well as an analysis of the language used to describe these cases in the press, this book has everything you’re looking for. Gruesome Spectacles does not assert that capital punishment is wrong. It merely asks, “What exactly is at stake when the state imagines itself executing decently, painlessly, humanely, and flawlessly?” Sarat supplies you with all the information you need, but the answer itself is in your hands.

Amy Letter is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in PANK, Puerto Del Sol, Quarterly West, and other journals and magazines. She is the Digital / Electronic / New Media Literature Editor at the Rumpus and assistant professor of Fiction and New Media at Drake University. More from this author →