Clayton Lockett’s Botched Execution and the Moral Ambiguity of Capital Punishment

by Akim Reinhardt

Let me begin this essay by making one thing clear: I am opposed to capital punishment.

I agree with pretty much all of the arguments against it. It's clearly not a deterrent. The possibility, much less the reality, that innocent people are sometimes executed is beyond inexcusable. A variety of factors have contributed to capital punishment being disproportionately applied to minorities and the poor in the United States. And I don't believe the state should be in business of killing its own people, even its most reprehensible members.

And so for all of those reasons, and several others, I oppose capital punishment.

Stephanie Neiman 3However, I also believe there is an element of moral ambiguity inextricably woven into the issue, and I am not comfortable with the moral absolutism that sometimes accompanies opposition to the death penalty.

While I personally oppose the use of capital punishment, I acknowledge that there is a rational and reasonable moral framework around which some supporters advocate for it. In short, I reject the notion that opponents such as myself can claim some sort of moral monopoly on the issue.

For starters, I think it is perfectly normal for someone to wish death upon a person who has brutally murdered a loved one. Opponents of capital punishment often drift into language of “savagery” when rejecting appeals for capital punishment, and I find this very troubling.

I think it extremely heartless and sanctimonious to label as “savage” or even “immoral” the very understandable desire for revenge by the loved ones of brutal crime victims. To the contrary, those feelings are incredibly normal. Ask any grief counselor.

I know that if someone, say, raped and murdered a member of my family, I would want the rapist-murderer to die. The vast majority of people would. Those who wouldn't are not the norm. Rather, the loved ones living in the aftermath of horrific, murderous crimes, who find it within their hearts to forgive the criminal, or at the very least, not want them dead, are extraordinary and admirable people.

Thus, I reject outright the notion that wishing death upon those who have committed unspeakably immoral acts of murder is itself an immoral sentiment. Rather, I see it as a humane and even sensible one, though I myself do not support the subsequent act of capital punishment.

Beyond the morality of victim survivors' desires, however, I also recognize the morality of a more distanced stance in support of capital punishment, even if I do not support the act itself. This is because I also reject what I consider to be a sentimentalized view of humanity that casts all human life as sacred. Instead, I embrace our mortality and impermanence, I reject our supposed inherent moral superiority to other beings, and I recognize that morality itself is a human construct that no other beings conceive.

I do believe that as human beings, we are responsible to the morality we construct and accept. But since morality is a construct, it must be subject to the highest levels of scrutiny. Furthermore, we must acknowledge not only morality’s malleability and dynamism, but also that reasonable people committed to creating a moral framework can disagree to some extent without either of them being “immoral.”

When I look at the moral universe of humanity, I see that all people behave in many ways, both good and bad. And that when people behave very well they are worthy of praise, while they are worthy of condemnation when they behave very poorly. Thus, I think it is perfectly reasonable and even “moral” to conclude that a society's most reprehensible members deserve the ultimate condemnation: that they do not actually deserve to live. Again, I am opposed to capital punishment. However, it is a very logical, reasonable, and even moral to assert that the world would actually be a better place without, say, Charles Manson. That it is a better place without, say, Jeffrey Dahmer.

The botched execution of Clayton Darell Lockett in Oklahoma last week has brought widespread attention to the issue of capital punishment. And rightly so. In a nation where state executions are frequent enough to render the issue blasé (last year alone there were 39 executions in the United States), more conversation is desperately needed. Oklahoma's rogue execution of Lockett has not only brought much needed attention, but also added fuel to the anti-capital punishment movement.

Stephanie neiman 2Oklahoma's handling of the Lockett execution, extensively chronicled by media outlets around the world, was simply reprehensible. Even if one supports the use of capital punishment as a reasonable and moral answer to humanity's worst imaginable actions, there is no denying that the gross incompetence and unplanned torture that marred Lockett's execution are not only inexcusable, but seemingly a clear violation of the U.S. constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

In addition, the secrecy laws recently put into effect by Oklahoma and several other states, designed to hide the details of their experimental lethal injections, are utterly shameful. That state government would feel justified in hiding its execution methods from the pubic is shocking; it is a severe transgression of democratic values, and just one more reason to say executions should not be happening at all.

In short, the botched execution of Clayton Locket should never have happened. It is entirely unjustified, and the Oklahoma state officials who threatened to defy the courts, and who bullied their way towards this travesty deserve every bit of criticism that comes their way. People should be fired and/or voted out of office.

However, no one has yet convinced me that Clayton Darell Lockett actually deserved to live.

Again, I do not hold the moral stance that every human being has a right to live simply by virtue of being human. I deny the contention that there is a moral superiority or divine sacredness attached to being human. So, for example, I absolutely reject the notion that every human life is somehow sacred but that it's perfectly fine to slaughter other animals for sport or even food. To me, such assertions are morally dichotomous. For human beings to say that human beings are sacred but no other animal is, strikes me as a rather absurd brand of self-serving make-believe. And listening to someone prattle on about how wrong capital punishment is in between bites of a pork sandwich is mystifying. After all, the murderer actually did something worthy of execution. What did the pig do, other than fail to meet an arbitrarily definition of “sacred life?”

The fact is, even though I oppose the capital punishment, I am not morally opposed to the killing of brutal murders. And I will never, ever equate the horrors of Clayton Lockett's execution, as awful and inexcusable as they are, with the horrors he willingly in inflicted on a 19 year old woman named Stephanie Neiman.

Many outlets have graphically covered the travesty of Lockett's execution. However, many if not most of them have failed to even mention the woman he murdered. And those stories that have mentioned Stephanie Neiman, tended to brush over the details of what Lockett did to her.

I believe that as our society discusses the moral and ethical issues surrounding Lockett's botched execution, it is worth revisiting, in detail, what he did to Stephanie Neiman. To remember why some people, including Lockett's own stepmother, believe he deserved to die for the crimes he committed.

Clayton Darrell Lockett had previously been convicted of numerous crimes, including the intimidation of witnesses. The evidence gainst him in the murder of Stephanie Neiman of consisted of DNA, finger prints, the testimony of numerous eye witnesses, and Lockett's own confession. Here is what happened.

Believing a man named Bobby Bornt owed him $20, Lockett and two accomplices broke into Bornt’s Perry, Oklahoma home, where they began beating him and ransacking his house. Amid the break in, Stephanie Neiman drove a friend named Summer Hair to Bornt’s home, where they planned to invite him to a party.

When Hair approached the door, Lockett and his accomplices forced her into the home and beat her. They then had her call Steaphanie Neiman to lure her into the home, where she too was beaten. The intruders then raped Hair. Afterwards, they kidnaped Neiman, Hair, Bornt, and Bornt’s 9 month old baby, and drove the victims out to a rural road.

Driving in two trucks, including one Neiman had received two weeks earlier as a graduation present, the kidnappers soon reached their isolated destination. Along the way, Lockett had repeatedly threatened to kill the three adults and leave the baby at a shelter. The men now raped Hair again.

Lockett asked them if they would tell the police what had happened. Neiman said she would. Lockett then made her watch for 20 minutes as his accomplice Shawn Mathis dug a shallow grave by the side of the road.

Lockett then raised a gun and shot Neiman once, but the gun jammed. So he went back to the truck and returned with a shotgun. As he pointed it at her, he could her beg for or life, the words muffled by duct tape: “Oh God, please, please.”

Ignoring her pleas, Lockett shot Stephanie Neiman once with a single blast from the shotgun. He then told Mathis to bury her in the shallow grave. Mathis informed Lockett that Neiman wasn't actually dead. Lockett directed Mathis to bury her alive. He did.

Lockett later admitted seeing Stephanie Neiman breath as the dirt was piled over her. They left her there to die in the shallow grave. Afterwards they laughed about how tough she'd been.

Stephanie Neiman HS graduationI think we can unanimously agree that Clayton Lockett forfeited the right to live in our society, perhaps forever. The question then becomes, did he forfeit the right to live, period? I say No, but I respect the morality of those who say Yes. I don't think Yes is an inherently immoral answer to that question.

In their appeal to the court after Clayton Lockett's conviction, Stephanie Neiman's parents requested the state of Oklahoma execute Clayton Lockett for what he had done to their only child.

Yes, I oppose capital punishment. But Stephanie Nieman's parents are not immoral for wanting Clayton Lockett dead, or now being happy that he is. Rather, it is immoral to judge them and condemn them for feeling that way. And even though I oppose capital punishment generally, and now condemn in the strongest terms possible the conditions of his execution, quite frankly, I'm glad he's dead.

The horrors of Lockett's execution, which are in fact a very far cry from the horrors he inflicted upon Stephanie Nieman, have led to substantial criticism, and rightly so. Critiques from Europe, where nearly all nations have abandoned capital punishment, have been particularly strong.

Some of the objections emerging from Europe are well reasoned, sober, and convincing. They are the kinds of condemnations I agree with, and I am grateful that such people continue to speak out against capital punishment in general and are denouncing this particularly grotesque execution.

However, some of the criticisms of Lockett's botched execution are pandering, patronizing, intellectually dubious, and morally vacuous.

For example, Alice Arnold of The Telegraph not only calls the botched execution an “atrocity,” she says America is not “civilised,” and recalls how for months she was haunted by images of Timothy McVeigh's 2001 execution; the same McVeigh who in 1995 murdered 168 people, including 19 children, and seriously injured several hundred more when he bombed a federal office building, ironically enough, also in Oklahoma.

Arnold makes no mention of Stephanie Neiman during her screed, much less the hundreds of McVeigh victims. Rest assured that whatever images might haunt the gentle constitution of Alice Arnold, they are naught compared to that which haunt Neiman's parents or the loved ones of McVeigh's victims. I find the depths of Arnold's narcissism to be utterly revolting. It’s a shame, because she makes some good points otherwise.

Then there is Robert Badinter a former French minister of justice who was instrumental in banning the death penalty in France in 1981. For that I admire him greatly. Nevertheless, when discussing Lockett's botched execution, he denounced “methods that are even more barbaric than ordinary barbarism.”

Huh? We're ranking forms of barbarism now? Tell me then, where exactly does Clayton Lockett's barbarism fall on this imaginary scale of sanctimony?

It is forever disturbing to me that Europeans like Arnold and Badinter continue to indulge themselves with the language of “civilization” and “barbarism,” seemingly oblivious to their own nations' colonial history, in which such language was used to justify murderous aggression and enslavement around the world. Of course their continued use of this deeply racist language in no way discredits their larger objections to the death penalty, but it is, if nothing else, stunningly ironic, especially given their refusal to acknowledge the profound “barbarism” of Lockett's heinous crimes.

But perhaps it should not be surprising. Perhaps it makes sense that dated, ethnocentric language would be glibly embedded in didactic arguments about capital punishment. Perhaps the simplistic is drawn to itself in various forms.

Let me close this essay the same way I began it: by stating my firm opposition to capital punishment. Just because I recognize, investigate, and respect moral ambiguities doesn't mean I am incapable of drawing moral conclusions; and I have concluded that I oppose capital punishment.

However, I do think it is important for us to acknowledge such ambiguities instead of grasping for some illusory moral monopoly. And I think such acknowledgments are particularly important in an era when so much public discourse on controversial issues is little more than a predictable cacophony of competing dogma.Stephanie Neiman

Serious issues like capital punishment, abortion, gun control, and immigration policy are controversial precisely because they are morally complex. Because they cannot be reduced to simple equations of moral absolutism as can issues such as slavery or cultural genocide. Because reasonable, rational, morally conscious people can disagree.

But when people who do disagree about morally complex issues take the time and find the courage to engage each other honestly and respectfully, we can begin to move forward as a society.

Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com

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