Black death row inmates suffer botched executions at twice rate of whites in US

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Black incarcerated people have been subjected to prolonged and painful botched executions in America at more than twice the rate of white death row inmates, a new study has found.

While glaring racial disparities have long been visible in US capital punishment, the report from the international human rights group Reprieve finds that the inequities exist even inside the death chamber. It reveals a shocking racial disparity in the rate of botched executions in which lethal injections went awry, both nationwide and in individual death penalty states.

Reprieve analyzed all lethal injection executions between 1976, when the US death penalty was restarted after a brief pause, and 2023. It chronicled 73 confirmed botched procedures – a shocking figure in itself given the suffering that prolonged and flawed executions can cause despite the promise of a “humane” death made by advocates of lethal injections.

When looked at through a racial lens, 8% of executions of Black people were botched (37 times out of 465 executions), compared with 4% for white people (28 out of 780).

The Reprieve report has attracted congressional interest. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, said the findings “underscore the racial injustice of capital punishment and is yet another reason Congress must abolish the death penalty once and for all”.

Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey called on the Biden administration to do more “to address the devastating harms of capital punishment”. He urged the justice department to enforce laws governing the drugs used by states in lethal injections.

A trio of death penalty states stand out in the Reprieve report. In Georgia, which has killed 77 death row inmates since 1976, 86% of botched executions involved Black prisoners when only 30% of all executed people were Black.

About 75% of botched executions in Arkansas were of Black people, who accounted for just 33% of all executions. The state has put to death 31 people since 1976.

The third state with especially disturbing statistics is Oklahoma. Out of a total of 125 executions since 1976, 30% were of Black prisoners yet 85% of those procedures that were botched involved Black people.

Oklahoma was the state responsible for one of the most gruesome botched executions in recent times. In 2014 Clayton Lockett, a Black man, writhed and groaned on the gurney and was declared dead only after 43 minutes.

Last year Oklahoma was one of only five states, mainly in the US south, that carried out executions. It has set an aggressive schedule of 25 executions at a rate of almost one a month, raising fears that it will repeat the disastrous mistakes that Lockett endured.

A report from the Death Penalty Information Center has highlighted the racial bias in the practice of Oklahoma’s death penalty since the first recorded execution in the state in 1841. Since 1976, 32% of all executions have been of Black people who make up only 7% of the state’s population.

One of the most distressing elements of botched executions is how long they take to complete. Of the 73 incidents identified by Reprieve, over one in four lasted more than an hour.

“The death penalty is racist, cruel and inhumane punishment that has no place in a just society,” said Ayanna Pressley, the progressive congresswoman from Massachusetts. She said that the Reprieve report was a damning reminder that “capital punishment has disproportionately killed Black people in America and the lethal injection method has caused unconscionable suffering.”



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