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Sunday, December 11, 2016

No species in nature kills its own kind more often or more creatively than humans do, yet we cannot seem to devise a reliably swift, painless method of capital punishment.

Oklahoma’s bungled execution of Clayton Lockett is the latest death-chamber debacle. After receiving a supposedly lethal injection, the convicted murderer began writhing and mumbling, and tried to rise off the gurney.

Officials later said that the procedure caused a “vein failure.” The executioner who was administering the fatal dose might have been unaware, since he was separated from Lockett by a wall.

That’s not standard procedure in hospitals and medical offices. Usually the person giving the injection is standing next to the patient, not hiding from him.

When Lockett squirmed back toward consciousness, the execution was stopped. Prison officers said he died of a heart attack 27 minutes later. By that time the blinds to the chamber window had been shut to prevent the witnesses from seeing Lockett’s continued suffering.

He had received the death penalty for a hideous crime, shooting a woman and burying her alive. Most of those who now say he didn’t suffer enough have never attended an execution. I have.

The faces of those who supervised Lockett’s final moments were ashen when they emerged. Torture is bad policy in capital cases because the Constitution outlaws “cruel and unusual” punishment. The underlying moral precept is that the state shouldn’t act as savagely as the person who committed the murder.

Every flubbed execution gives more weight and momentum to the legal challenges mounted by opponents of capital punishment. Not only are death sentences handed out inconsistently, and not only have many innocent persons been convicted (and later been exonerated after decades on Death Row), but the very act of execution clearly hasn’t be engineered to make it humane and instantaneous.

We’ve tried all kinds of ways to kill — firing squads, the gallows, gas chambers and electric chairs — with mixed and sometimes grisly results.

One of many nationwide nicknamed “Old Sparky,” Florida’s electric chair was retired in 2000 after several cinematic screw-ups. Real sparks and smoke came from the face mask of Jesse Tafero while he was being executed for the murder of a Highway Patrol trooper. Years later, inmate Pedro Medina’s head actually caught fire while he was strapped in the chair.

In both cases, prison officials said Old Sparky had functioned flawlessly, and they blamed the unexpected combustion on sponges that were placed beneath the inmates’ death caps. There was much debate about whether the men died before, during or after the scorching.

The chair was eventually rebuilt to support the bulk of Allen Lee Davis, a monster who had murdered a pregnant woman and her children in Jacksonville. In 1999 he became the last person to die by state electrocution in Florida.

Blood dripped from Davis’ nose during the procedure. An autopsy also revealed burns to his head, leg and groin, the gruesome death photos provoking such worldwide outrage that the state mothballed the electric chair and switched to lethal injection.

To a conflicted public it seemed like a better solution — just give the bad guy a shot and put him to sleep forever. Veterinarians do it all the time to ailing dogs and cats.