John Oliver examines lethal injections and the death penalty on ‘Last Week Tonight’

John Oliver
John OliverEric Liebowitz/HBO/File/HBO

“Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver got serious Sunday night during his show, discussing the issues and complications surrounding the death penalty and the use of lethal injection in the United States.

Oliver outlined the basis for his opposition to the death penalty after leading his audience through a brief diversion — the squeaking cry of the desert rain frog.

Watch: John Oliver discusses lethal injection (video includes content some may find offensive

Changing the subject from the cute African frog back to the grim reality of the death penalty was unfortunate, Oliver noted, but he wanted to discuss lethal injections because people seem uncomfortable doing so.


Lethal injections, the comedian said, are considered the “humane” method of the death penalty, although he made it clear he does not agree with the death penalty under any circumstances.

“I don’t think it should exist whatsoever,” he said, citing research that has demonstrated no drop in crime due to the death penalty and an increased expense in killing prisoners as compared to imprisoning them for life.

“It’s a wrong, bad thing that government should not be able to do, which kind of makes my first two reasons irrelevant there,” he added.”

He also noted that conservative estimates by the National Academy of Sciences suggest at least 4 percent of prisoners sentenced to die are innocent.

Oliver went on to detail the history of lethal injection as an alternative to the electric chair and other execution methods. He pointed out that lethal injections aren’t performed by medical personnel, who are barred by modern medical ethical codes from being involved in the death penalty.

He also unpacked the evolution of the modern lethal injection method, highlighting a state medical examiner, a so-called expert, and what Oliver called the “amateurs” of lethal injections across the United States.


After outlining the injection process and several cases of mismanaged executions — lethal injections have the highest botch rate of any method of government execution — Oliver concluded by making it clear that he thinks planning for the death of a fellow citizen is simply a process that the United States should discard.

“The hard truth here is: There is no perfect way for the government to kill people,” Oliver declared.

The fundamental fact to understand about lethal injection is: It is a show,” he said. “It is designed not to minimize the pain of people being executed but to maximize the comfort of those who want to support the death penalty without confronting the reality of it, which is that it is violent, and it’s brutal and it’s never going to be anything other than that.”

Peter Bailey-Wells can be reached at peter.bailey-wells@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pbaileywells.