Tinkering with the Machinery of Death: Lethal Injection, Procedure, and the Retention of Capital Punishment in the United States
This Note builds on the work of Professor William Berry, who has proposed a concept called “procedural exceptionalism” to explain the persistence of the death penalty in the United States in an age of abolition elsewhere in the West. Berry argues that there is a distinctive American faith in the procedural protections afforded defendants, such as the jury trial and multiple levels of appeal, which helps legitimize the institution of capital punishment in the United States. This analysis, however, only takes into account the conviction and sentencing aspect of the death penalty. This Note contends that the actual method by which executions are carried out is equally important in explaining the retention of capital punishment. This Note applies Berry’s idea of “American procedural exceptionalism” to method of execution in the particular context of judicial decisions governing the administration of lethal injection. It argues first that lethal injection as a method of execution perpetuates the notion of a more “humane” death penalty, and second that judicial faith in the perfectibility of the procedures governing lethal injection serves to reinforce this notion. This faith in the perfectibility of the procedure of lethal injection works in conjunction with a similar faith in the procedures governing conviction and sentencing to create an equilibrium that allows for the continued use of capital punishment in the United States.