The last executions took place in Britain fifty-one years ago this month, when Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged simultaneously in Liverpool and Manchester. The death penalty was abolished five years later in 1969 but about 45% of people would like to see it reintroduced. The newly-elected government appears to be softening its position on capital punishment in line with its manifesto policy to review commitments to Europe-wide principles of human rights.

Is it unthinkable that British judges could again be allowed to sentence people to death?

There are long-running and substantial debates about the death penalty: its ethical and legal basis; its effectiveness as a deterrent. My interest here is a little different. Assuming that the almost one in every two people who say that they want the death penalty reinstated are, for the most part, non-violent in their everyday lives, how do they incorporate this endorsement of the destruction of another person into their worldview?

Another way of asking this question is in terms of the margins of error. In the United States between 1973 and the present, 155 people have been subsequently exonerated after having been sentenced to death. These exonerations have been across 26 different state judicial systems with the most (25) in Florida.

How, then, do those who believe that that a life should be taken accommodate the fact that no judicial system is perfect and that a proportion of those killed by the state will have been innocent? Would they accept as justifiable collateral damage someone close to them, and innocent, being executed while innocent?

Here, the work of political and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek provides a perceptive insight. Žižek shows how violence is inherent in the normal state of things, and the standard against which normality is defined. For a country with capital punishment, the extreme violence of the execution chamber is encapsulated in bureaucratic processes and technical language. Here, as an example, is an extract from the official report on the execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29 2014 at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester:

Director Patton received approval from the Governor’s Office to proceed with the execution. He then approved Warden Trammell to proceed. The blinds between the viewing room and execution chamber were raised and Lockett was asked if he wished to make a statement. He refused and Warden Trammell announced that the execution was to begin. The full dose of midazolam and an appropriate saline flush were administered. A DOC employee began to keep time on a stopwatch.

6:30 p.m. The signal was given that five minutes had elapsed and the physician determined Lockett was conscious. DOC personnel began to keep additional time on a stopwatch.
6:33 p.m. The signal was given that two minutes had elapsed and the physician determined Lockett was unconscious. Warden Trammel signalled for the execution to continue. The full dose of vecuronium bromide, an appropriate saline flush and a majority of the potassium chloride were administered.
6:33-6:42 p.m. Lockett began to move and make sounds on the execution table. It should be noted that the interview statements of the witnesses regarding Lockett’s movements and sounds were inconsistent. The physician inspected the IV insertion site and determined there was an issue, which was relayed to Warden Trammell.
6:42 p.m. At the direction of Warden Trammell, the blinds were lowered. The executioner stopped administering the potassium chloride.
6:42-7:06 p.m. It should be noted that the interview statements of the individuals in the execution chamber were inconsistent. However, it was determined the following events did occur inside the execution chamber during this time period.
* The paramedic re-entered the execution chamber to assist the physician.
* The physician attempted IV access into Lockett’s left, femoral vein. However, no access was completed.
* When questioned by Warden Trammell, the physician initially believed that Lockett may not have received enough of the execution drugs to induce death. He also believed there were not enough execution drugs left to continue the execution.
* The physician and paramedic continued to monitor Lockett’s heart rate utilizing an EKG machine. While attempting to gain the IV access, it was observed that Lockett’s heart rate continued to decrease.
* The physician made the observation that the drugs appeared to be absorbing into Lockett’s tissue.
* The physician and paramedic concluded that Lockett’s heart rate had entered a state of bradycardia and eventually slowed to an observed six beats per minute.
* There were three different recollections of Lockett’s movements during this period. Four reported that Lockett did not move, one reported he moved slightly and the last recalled a more aggressive movement.
The following events occurred outside the viewing room door in the
H-Unit hallway.
* Director Patton, OAG representatives Tom Bates and John Hadden and Secretary Thompson removed themselves from the viewing room and discussed with the Governor’s Office about how to proceed.
6:56 p.m. Director Patton halted/stopped the execution, which was relayed to the execution chamber.
6:57-7:06 p.m. Witnesses were escorted out of the viewing room.
7:06 p.m. The physician pronounced Lockett deceased.

This is Žižek’s objective violence, the rituals of normality, the way in which violence is incorporated into everyday expectations.

In contrast “subjective violence” is the experience of violation, pain and death outside such frameworks of normality. Clayton Lockett took 36 minutes to die in extreme pain, after repeated attempts to inject lethal drugs into the vein in his groin. If he had been the innocent victim of a kidnap, his death would have headlined as a horrifying assault. Žižek shows how objective and sanctioned forms of violence set the standards of expectation more broadly; the pairing of the continuing use of capital punishment across a broad swathe of states with the prevalence of gun crime and lethal shootings in malls, cinemas and schools.

This is why organizations like Reprieve are watching the signals from the UK government closely. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has reasserted a commitment to the global abolition of the death penalty. Nevertheless, the combination of spending cuts, the removal of the specific policy commitment and the manifesto pledge to repeal existing Human Rights legislation signals a change of heart.

Such shifts in how normality is understood affect, in turn, what is regarded as acceptable and provide a language that disguises the act of violence on a person’s body – the technical and medical language of the Oklahoma report. And, if the 45% of people who want the death penalty back were to increase to 55%, will a future government not be tempted to put it to the vote?

One way of to change the terms of the debate is to make use of Žižek’s distinction between that which we accept as normal and our subjective sense of violence – the ways in which we experience pain or imagine our own deaths.

The best known innocent victim of a judicial execution is Jesus of Nazareth and the crucifix is one of the most common icons celebrating this event. But how often is this formal representation of doctrine linked with our imagined experience of death by crucifixion? Here’s a summary of what this would have been like:

Nails are driven through the wrists so that the bones of the wrist can support the weight of the body, also causing acute pain by severing the median nerve. For a while, the victim can also support their body by tensing their thigh muscles, despite the pain of having both feet nailed to the upright of the cross. But as the legs give way the weight of the body pulling down on the splayed arms makes breathing increasingly difficult. Shoulders, elbows and wrists are gradually pulled from their sockets, stretching the arms by as much as ten centimeters. As the rib cage is forced upwards, the victim is forced into continual, gasping inhalation until the point of suffocation. Unless there is heart failure, the process of dying can be expected to take more than twenty hours.

In our world, the gurney takes the place of the cross; instead of nails we use intravenous injections. And there are still unjustified executions that follow from failures in the judicial process or are the consequence of unjust laws. This is why the defence of those gains that have been made in the protection of human rights is important.

Anyone who advocates for the return of the death penalty should ask themselves whether it is reasonable that, as the inevitable result of fallible processes, an innocent person should be killed like Clayton Lockett.


Owen Bowcott: “Foreign Office drops references to its campaign to abolish death penalty”. Guardian, August 2 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/03/foreign-office-drops-references-campaign-abolish-death-penality

Reprive: “UK Government to scrap Death Penalty Strategy”. August 3 2015. http://www.reprieve.org.uk/press/uk-government-to-scrap-death-penalty-strategy/

Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty#inn-yr-rc

Will Dahlgreen. August 13 2014: “50 years on, Capital punishment still favoured”. https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/08/13/capital-punishment-50-years-favoured/

Slavoj Žižek (2008). Violence. London, Profile Books.

Oklahoma Department of Public Safety: The Execution of Clayton D. Lockett Case Number 14-0189SI. http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/LockettInvestigationReport.pdf

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