Alva Campbell Jr. is sick. He is going to die very soon, but not of natural causes. Tomorrow morning, he will shuffle down the hallway of Ohio’s death row with the help of his walker, toting an external colostomy bag. Beforehand, he will receive his four daily breathing treatments for asthma and emphysema (and his possible lung cancer). The state of Ohio has rejected Campbell’s requests for his execution to be stayed on the grounds of serious illness, but they have agreed to one thing: they will give him a special wedge-shaped pillow that will place him in a semi-recumbent position, so that he will not encounter breathing issues ― as he is being injected with a lethal cocktail that will cause his lungs to collapse. This wholly ironic act perfectly encapsulates the mental gymnastics necessary to justify state killing in 2017.
Campbell was sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of 18-year-old Charles Dials. On death row, Campbell’s life story is not an unfamiliar one. One judge described Campbell’s childhood home as an “abusive, loveless, amoral and unstable environment.” He was surrounded by violence and suffering from a young age: his father regularly beat Campbell and his five siblings and sexually molested two of Campbell’s sisters. Both of his parents were alcoholics, and they regularly got into frightening physical altercations with one another. His home environment became so dangerous that Campbell was placed in foster care at the age of 10 and spent his adolescence bouncing between various group homes.
Campbell’s execution will be only the third to occur in Ohio in over three years; the state temporarily stopped putting people to death after Dennis McGuire’s botched execution in 2014. Ohio had run out of its lethal injection drugs in 2013, and thus tried, with McGuire as the captive guinea pig, a new method of execution using just two drugs commonly found in hospitals: midazolam and hydromorphone. McGuire was injected with the untested combination of drugs, and it took him an agonizing 26 minutes to die. Witnesses reported that he was gasping for air, fists clenched, for more than 15 minutes before he passed away.
Despite this, a federal appeals court ruled this year that Ohio could continue to use midazolam, the drug present in several botched executions, including McGuire’s. “We will grant that the plaintiffs have shown some risk that Ohio’s execution protocol may cause some degree of pain, at least in some people,” wrote Judge Raymond Kethledge for the majority opinion. “But some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution — no matter how humane. And the Constitution does not guarantee ‘a pain-free execution.’”
The search for the kindest way to kill has been going on for quite a while. In the late 19th century, the state of New York traded in hanging for the electric chair, based on the findings of a legislative commission that stated that electrocution, not hanging, was the most “humane and practical method known to modern science.” Nevada was the first to implement death by lethal gas, in 1921, after again asserting that it was “the most humane manner known to modern science.” In 2008, the Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the practice of killing inmates by means of lethal injection (the existing method in the 35 states) because, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, lethal injection does not involve a “substantial risk of serious harm.” But how does one separate harm from death?
We, as a country, believe that we have made immense moralistic strides since the days of public hangings, death by firing squads, and beheadings. But what the outcry over the various methods of execution makes clear is this: attempting to make murder humane for everyone involved is wholly impossible. Indeed, death by firing squad may be more humane to the person being put to death — it’s almost certainly quicker and more painless than the increasingly opaque cocktails of lethal drugs we are using now — but it doesn’t fit into our narrative of being a civilized, modern society quite as neatly as a white-gloved hand injecting lethal drugs into a sanitized spot on the arm.
Lethal injections look civilized, peaceful, and painless, though they are anything but. Tomorrow morning, the state of Ohio will give a special pillow to a sick man, so that he will ostensibly be more comfortable as they kill him with an untested, potentially extremely painful, combination of drugs. If this sentence sounds ludicrous to you, it’s time to start speaking out against the death penalty.