The Cow-Patty Stench of Texas’s Death Penalty

Photo by Maria Oswalt

The putrid stink of Texas’s death penalty—with its rancid racism, rotten dehumanization, and moral depravity—is about to get worse.

Despite a mental-gymnastics-inducing headline—“Inmates allege Texas plans to use unsafe execution drugs”—Associated Press (AP) reporter Juan Lozano helpfully explains: “Texas plans to use expired and unsafe drugs to carry out executions early this year in violation of state law, three death row inmates allege[.]” Two of the condemned men, John Balentine and Wesley Ruiz, have execution dates in early February, whereas Robert Fratta is scheduled for execution January 10.

In court filings, attorneys for the three men—facing imminent execution with the expired chemicals—are asking “for an evidentiary hearing to determine if prisoners are at ‘serious risk of pain and suffering in the execution process.’”

Meanwhile, in an email sent to the AP, Amanda Hernandez, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), declared: “All lethal injection drugs are within their use dates and have been appropriately tested.”

Appraising this statement from the TDCJ, Caliban Darklock, author of “The Bull Shit Life: Why Everything Sucks,” provides useful guidance: “Everything anyone says when they have an agenda is bullshit, and bullshit isn’t necessarily false, but it’s never really the truth either. So when someone’s bullshitting, you need to pay a little more attention.”

Darklock’s homespun wisdom is equally helpful when considering, as Lozano reports, the “15-page declaration submitted in support of the death row inmates’ lawsuit” by Michaela Almgren, a pharmacology professor at the University of South Carolina.

While TDCJ would undoubtedly argue Almgren, who was awarded the “Clinical Practice Teaching Award” from her university last year, has her own agenda—helping convicted murderers evade execution, or, I guess, getting paid a standard fee—that logic is more than a few pickles short of a barrel. No record exists anywhere suggesting Almgren is anything but an outstanding teacher, a respected academic, and an expert in pharmaceutical science. (Comparatively, as Lozano deftly points out, “There has been a history of problems with lethal injections since Texas became the first state to use this execution method in 1982. Some problems have included difficulty finding usable veins, needles becoming disengaged or issues with the drugs.”)

Why does it matter if Texas’s lethal injection drugs have expired? Let me explain, by reference to what I’ve written previously, to highlight the depravity of lethal injections in Alabama, and, more recently, in Oklahoma:

[Lethal injection] is supposed to put you down, painlessly, like a dog—your eyes just close and ‘go to sleep’ forever. Except often, it don’t work like that. Because when [the inappropriate, ineffective, even expired] drug don’t do the trick…your eyes close like you’re sleepin’, but really, you’re not…then your muscles stop workin’, your lungs can’t breathe, and your beaten broken-down heart goes bust. And then Jesus H. Christ have mercy, you feel it, every sharp stinging step of the way… Like you’re insides are melting, ‘cause they are…they’re melting from the inside out…they’re burning, bubblin’, liquefyin’…like a bonfire raging inside you…and you’re the witch. You ever hear that expression a death by a thousand cuts? The needle, the ‘big jab’, the ‘stainless steel ride’—whatever you want to call this lethal injection business—it may be worse.

Exacerbating the chance of hellacious torture—as TDCJ’s expired pentobarbital is primed—Almgren’s declaration concludes an expired lethal injection drug is “at a risk of stability and sterility failings and may not retain sufficient potency, thus it must not be used.”

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) unsurprisingly—to anyone who didn’t recently fall off a turnip truck—maintains: “Expired medical products can be less effective or risky due to a change in chemical composition or a decrease in strength. Certain expired medications are at a risk of bacterial growth[.]”

Even the FDA, whose agenda includes “protecting the public health,” feels expired drugs aren’t good enough for government work, in this case, putting flesh-and-blood human beings to death.

But what about TDCJ’s adamancy its stockpile of lethal injection drugs is just fine? As is sometimes said in Texas: “The porch light’s on but no one’s home.”

Also Harry Gordon Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, and an expert on bullshit like Darklock—but more credentialed—can help.

Persuasively, in his 2005 book “On Bullshit,” Frankfurt proclaimed: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to the topic.”

Will Texas’s judiciary call out TDCJ’s bullshit? Or to use Frankfurt’s piercing rhetoric: “Is truth something that in fact we do—and should—especially care about? Or is the love of truth, as professed by so many distinguished thinkers and writers, itself merely another example of bullshit?”

Time will tell.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.