Edit: An earlier version of this post had the executed person’s name as “James Wood” instead of the correct “Joseph Wood.” Apologies.
People pass off opinions about the death penalty, the rape of prisoners and the general dehumanization of humans, even if they’re criminals, far too nonchalantly.
Arizona botched the execution of Joseph Wood today. Joseph Wood was a bad man. We know this to be the case because in August 1989 he shot to death his estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, 29 and her father, Eugene Dietz, 55, in Tucson. This, we all agree upon. Read the details of the case. He smiled before shooting the father at point-blank range. He told Debra “he had to kill her” before also shooting her at point-blank range. This is a horrific crime. But I’d be surprised if you found anybody in the serious discourse that would say what Wood did wasn’t bad or that what happened to the Dietz’s wasn’t tragic and awful. It’s almost axiomatic, a given, if you will. Notwithstanding, that doesn’t mean we brush over it. They deserve attention because it is their senseless deaths for why we’re here now discussing this particular case.
This is not about Joseph Wood. This is about the death penalty. This is about the system. This is about us.
Joseph Wood gasped and snorted for over an hour and a half and then didn’t die for two hours after his execution began. According to one journalist present, he gasped over 600 times. A case here in Ohio and out in Oklahoma are other recent examples of botch executions, mostly the result of an experimental two-drug cocktail (although, according to the Post, a different drug combination was used in Oklahoma). The family of the victims believe Wood got what he deserved, saying, ““Why didn’t they give him a bullet, why didn’t we give him Drano?”
Now let me pull the top comments (meaning they garnered the most “likes”) from ABC News’ Facebook posting off this link (nothing edited):
“Bring back public hanging. Quick; cheap & never fails. Found guilty today; swing tomorrow.”
“I dont feel sorry for him. Now he kniws what it felt like for people he murdered”
“Why are we supposed to feel bad for these people? They need to suffer worse than their victims!”
“If he gasped for 20 years I couldn’t care less. Worry about something real – like his victims.”
“How could they torture this poor guy? Such inhumane punishment! Of course being sarcastic! Wish they could have all these killers die of a slow death. Have one every day and see if the crime rate drops! Bet it will!”
“He WAS a killer! Does anybody really care if he suffered? Peaceful dying is for hospice PT! NOT KILLERS I HOPE IT WAS NOT PEACEFUL”
“Gasping for air? Puleeeze! He murdered 2 people and was sentenced to die. The only bad thing that happened here is that is took 25 years.”
Does this not disturb anyone else? How sadistic we can be as a people? Radley Balko nailed it on his Twitter feed for me, “Yes, it’s true that “Wood’s victims suffered too.” But perhaps we shouldn’t look to murderers when establishing our baseline for humaneness.” Or a similar thought process from Guy Benson, “The suffering of a killer’s victims does not excuse a state’s screw-up in botching his execution, no matter how vile he is.”
And his follow-up is apt, too, “Nope. Objecting to the state botching an execution makes me neither sympathetic to the killer, nor unsympathetic to the victims.”
Our humanness should mean that we’re better than Joseph Wood. That we don’t derive pleasure from the suffering of others, no matter how much we think they may have deserved it.
I’m not going to go through all the reasons people are wrong and carry myths about the death penalty. That’s a well, well-tread subject, but suffice it to say, again, this is not about Joseph Wood. This is about us and what it says about us as a society. No matter what James Wood did, we as a society are saying, hey, we’re okay that he gasped 600 times for life. We’re okay with his execution taking two hours. We’re okay systematically executing people. We’re okay with an eye-for-an-eye moral philosophy.
Sorry, I’m not okay with any of those things. An eye-for-an-eye is a bankrupt moral system. No matter what James Wood or another offender did, I take no pleasure in hearing that another human being suffered. That people do take pleasure in such an occurrence should mortify us.
Society is best viewed as a reflection upon how we treat the worst and least among us. On that scorecard, as it pertains to this issue, we’re doing really fucking bad.