Editorial: Cruel but how unusual?

There is a scene in Stephen King's The Green Mile where a prison officer pronounces a successful execution. It has, in fact, been extravagantly cruel.

A sadistic guard did not wet the head of the prisoner in the electric chair; so he had burnt and died in a horrific spectacle. How was that successful, a furious official demands. The answer was implacable: He is dead, isn't he?

A similarly successful execution has taken place in Oklahoma, where a man with a collapsed vein lived 32 minutes after being administered the first of three drugs.

Witnesses described him writhing on the gurney and struggling to speak.

One reporter recorded him saying: "Man ... I'm not ... something's wrong" before the blinds were closed.

By any standard, the crime for which this guy, Clayton Lockett, was convicted was horrific.

He presided over the rape, shooting and live burial of a young woman.

Some commentators were quick to say he would still have suffered less than his victim did.

And of course, people were quick to provide their own moisten-lipped vengeance fantasies of how else he would have died if they had their way.

The fact remains that in Oklahoma they have been making a pig's breakfast of executions.

In January, Michael Lee Wilson gave an anguished commentary on his own execution: "I feel my whole body burning".

United States President Barack Obama does not oppose the death penalty. Had he done so, it is highly questionable he would have been elected in the first place.

And the US Supreme Court has ruled not only to uphold lethal injection, but also to clarify that there is no constitutional right for it to be painless.

Their rule is that there cannot be a system that tolerates "cruel and unusual punishment".

Somewhere between the courtrooms and the death chambers, however, things have been getting ugly indeed.

The state executions have not been providing the ceremonial satisfaction required, to an extent that the convulsions of the bad folk have been making some of the decent folk feel bad.

Can't have that. So practices are being reviewed.

Execution does not act as a deterrent.

It does, obviously, prevent repeat offending, but so do jail terms of sufficient length.

There tends to be a collective impatience with the higher argument against seeking justice in death chambers.

Which is that execution states are upholding the twisted morality of their own worst murderers - some people ain't worth a damn and you would feel better for killing them.

A substantial, peer-reviewed study by a team of legal experts and statisticians from Michigan and Pennsylvania has come up with an estimate for the "dark figure" behind the death penalty: how many of the more than 8000 men and women put on death row, since the 1970s, were falsely convicted. They have determined that the figure is at least 4.1 per cent.

And they stress that their methodology was, at all turns, deliberately conservative.