In U.S.’s Crimes against Humanity, Remember the Victims
By NAVID FARNIA
“After weeks of Oklahoma refusing to disclose basic information about the drugs for tonight’s lethal injection procedures, tonight Clayton Lockett was tortured to death,” said Madeline Cohen, an attorney for Charles Warner. Charles Warner is an Oklahoma death row inmate who was scheduled for execution on the night of April 29th. His execution was delayed however following the events of that evening.
When Oklahoma officials began the process of murdering Clayton Lockett, they weren’t doing so without controversy. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallon vigilantly ensured that Lockett and Warner’s respective lethal injections moved forward, despite concerns about the lack of transparency regarding the drugs being administered. In fact, those concerns caused the Oklahoma Supreme Court to initially stay both executions. But Fallon wasn’t listening.
And so Lockett and Warner were to die that night. Only Lockett did. Lockett could only muster the word “man” as he lay dying in agonizing pain. His execution went horribly wrong.
Clayton Lockett, a man who was who was convicted of murder (among other crimes) in 2000, “writhed, clenched his teeth and appeared to struggle against the restraints holding him to a gurney” after being injected with the first drug in a combination supposedly designed for a quick death. The first injection was at 6:23 pm. Lockett’s body reacted so violently to the first drug that officials halted the execution process. He died anyway at 7:06 p.m., 43 minutes after the initial drug was administered. “It was a horrible thing to witness,” lamented David Autry, Lockett’s attorney. “This was totally botched.”
And it was. Lockett’s execution was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m. but didn’t commence until 6:23 because the technician couldn’t find a place to insert the IV for the drug. He finally inserted it into a vein in Lockett’s groin area. Ultimately, the execution took over seven times longer than the average lethal injection in Oklahoma since 2010. The technician’s uncertainty indicates the overall ineptitude that went into the whole process. Moreover, the state’s efforts to omit Lockett’s pain and other information from the official timeline of events reflects a haphazard yet sinister cover-up.
Since that fateful evening, state officials have been steadfast in defending their decision to carry out the execution. Fallon has led that charge. Although Fallon, her cronies and death penalty supporters everywhere remain vigilant, they’re unable to conceal the truth: America’s “criminal justice” system is the world’s most prolific perpetrator of crimes against humanity, and the death penalty epitomizes the barbarity of those crimes.
Race, the Death Penalty and Retributive Justice
According to the International Criminal Court (ICC), crimes against humanity are “acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Those acts include murder; imprisonment; torture; forcible transfer of a population; rape; enslavement; extermination; and persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds, among others.
Of course, the ICC only targets African and other Third World figures while ignoring American and European officials’ exponentially worse transgressions. For this reason, the validity of the ICC’s definition should be questioned and not be taken as all-encompassing, but it does provide a reference for what constitutes crimes against humanity. As it is, the death penalty, torture practices, and the overall system of mass incarceration exemplify a state’s (and its representatives’) crimes against humanity because they target “identifiable groups.”
The staunchest death penalty supporters often cite the victims of crimes to justify state-sanctioned murder. In a statement entitled, “In Death Penalty Debate, Remember the Victims”, Mary Fallon defended her decision to continue with the execution despite widespread concerns:
Lockett had his day in court. The state lawfully carried out a sentence of death. Justice was served. It is my hope that Stephanie Nieman’s family and friends, as well as Lockett’s surviving victims, have found some measure of closure and peace.
The people of Oklahoma do not have blood on their hands. They saw Clayton Lockett for what he was: evil. His execution means he will never again harm or terrorize another person.
Oklahoma Representative Mike Christian corroborated Fallon’s statement with even stronger words. “I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don’t care if it’s by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions,” Christian said of Clayton Lockett’s botched execution.
Officials like Fallon and Christian conceal their crimes under a guise of morality. Their moral appeals are rooted in the belief that vengeful violence is just. Retribution as justice is a defining feature of the U.S.’s prison system. Therefore, it’s not enough to criticize the death penalty by pointing out the system’s flaws. The system is rigged, especially against people of color.
In order to challenge the death penalty and the U.S. prison system at large, it’s necessary to attack the ideology that rationalizes any execution, even capital punishment for those who have committed violent crimes. This includes people like Lockett and Warner. Opponents must challenge how Lockett, Warner and countless others have been treated because the state will always make examples of them to explain why policies like the death penalty are valid.
Fallon’s declaration that Lockett was evil enables society to dehumanize him and for the state to commit savage violence against him. The fact that Lockett is Black makes the state’s job that much easier. It’s no coincidence then, that state violence routinely and disproportionately targets Black and Brown people. This explains how the belief in justice through retribution is an ideology based on state-sponsored racial violence.
The Prison System’s Global Reach
Crimes against humanity aren’t rare in the U.S. In an Ohio execution earlier this year, Dennis McGuire’s struggles were very similar to Lockett’s. McGuire’s last words were, “I feel my whole body burning,” after he was injected. Lockett and McGuire’s cases are among the more gruesome examples, but in reality, every death penalty murder and/or act of torture is a crime against humanity. And such crimes occur both within and outside U.S. borders.
The U.S. not only houses the world’s largest prison population, but it also has the highest incarceration rate. Of course, the majority of people in America’s prison system are Black and Latino. But the persecution goes beyond sheer numbers and racial demographics; prison conditions are so bad in the U.S. that many inmates have experienced what would be widely understood as torture if it transpired elsewhere. A private Mississippi facility for example, has been described as having “barbaric” conditions, where rape, beatings and robberies occur regularly.
The treatment of America’s incarcerated population in its federal, state and private (which are often the worst) prisons is utterly inhumane. Prisons across the U.S. and even abroad consistently use solitary confinement as a punishment tactic. Solitary confinement is torture. Even a high-ranking official from the United Nations, a U.S.-sponsored organization, classified over 15 days of solitary confinement as torture.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report detailing the extent to which those on death row are put in solitary confinement. “While death row prisoners fight for their lives in these failed and failing systems, they spend years and years subjected to the devastating effects of solitary confinement. Ultimately, some will ‘volunteer’ to die rather than continue to live under such conditions. Many will be broken beyond repair – their minds gone before the state ever executes them,” the report explains.
Anthony Graves, a former death row inmate, writes of solitary:
When I was sentenced to death, I did not know that this sentence would also mean that I would have 12 years without any human contact, i.e. my mother, my son, my friends. All those people were stripped from my life because of this injustice. I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. All for a crime I did not commit. The injustice.
Incarcerated people who aren’t on death row also regularly experience solitary. Around 30,000 people in California prisons staged hunger strikes protesting their treatment, particularly the use of solitary confinement against them as punishment for gang activity. More than 200 people in California’s prisons have been held in solitary for over 10 years. The strikes’ successes recently caused a federal judge in Oakland to allow the California inmates’ class-action suit against the state to move forward. The case will likely shape future policy on solitary confinement. If solitary confinement is eventually deemed unconstitutional, it will have been long overdue.
The U.S.’s torture practices are also well-documented abroad. At Guantánamo Bay, solitary confinement and other, more brutal tactics are the norm. Inmates at Guantánamo have been staging their own hunger strikes, and prison officials now force-feed them as retaliation. Moreover, the U.S. has set up secret prisons, known as “black sites”, in countries around the world, undoubtedly torturing its detainees in the name of national security. The U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency has operated black sites at one point or another in Poland, Thailand, Morocco, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Djibouti, other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and finally, on its own naval vessels (and these are only the known sites). The public knows little to nothing about what goes on at black sites because the CIA won’t even acknowledge they exist. Thus, confirming black sites’ existence and locations is itself a battle.
A Rigged Prison System
No matter their purpose, U.S. prisons and detention centers all function as cogs in a system that sanctions and normalizes mass crimes against humanity, particularly against people of color. Death row’s racial composition is a perfect indicator. As of October 2013, people of color constituted the majority of death row inmates. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people executed since 1976 are those who received capital punishment for allegedly murdering a white person. “In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered Blacks,” states a 1990 report released by the U.S. General Accounting Office.
Additionally, a recent study found that at least 4 percent of people on death row are actually innocent from their crimes. The study also explains that although almost 2,700 people were taken off death row from 1993 to 2004 after questions were raised about their convictions, many of them will remain in prison for life. Says the RT article on the findings:
Instead of being exonerated, though, many of those thousands of people were given new sentences (more often than not life without parole) that will ensure their death behind bars anyway. Their situation is in some ways even more precarious because no longer being under threat of execution means they are no longer seen as a priority in the system, either by judges, prisoner advocate groups, or the department of corrections itself.
This information illustrates the U.S. prison system’s inherent violence. Nonetheless, many Americans still support such punitive policies and practices. Because these proponents often personalize victimhood and place a moral emphasis on their arguments, it’s imperative to challenge the ideological foundation of a system rooted in retributive violence. Only then will the U.S.’s mass crimes against mostly people of color reveal a prison system that is rigged and intent on racial elimination. Individual acts of violence don’t justify state violence, especially in a country that routinely targets people of color with oppressive and murderous zeal.
While studies and statistics are certainly helpful, information alone won’t force advocates to acknowledge the American “criminal justice” system’s racism. As long as the belief in justice through retributive violence is unchallenged and people continue devaluing Black and Brown lives, they will also champion the U.S. prison system. A vengeful justice system not only inevitably victimizes people of color, but it also debilitates entire communities, both at home and abroad, that witness their family and friends taken to cages and death chambers.
Stephanie Nieman and a few others were victims of Clayton Lockett’s crimes, but Clayton Lockett and countless others are victims of America’s crimes against humanity. And while Lockett paid for his transgressions with his life, the U.S. remains unaccountable, a perk of being the world’s most powerful political entity.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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