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John Oliver: As you know, our show is dedicated to covering the biggest news of the week, whatever that news may be. We have a long, proud, one week history of doing that. So, what was the biggest news story of this week?

: We begin in Oklahoma tonight, with an execution that didn't go as planned.

Reporter: A convicted killer from Oklahoma dies after a botched execution.

John Oliver: OK. OK. OK. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Wait, you're really not going to do a comic take on the death penalty, right? It's your second episode. I haven't even decided if I like this show yet." Well, you're right. Don't change the channel. We don't have to talk about the death penalty. No one is forcing us to.

Barak Obama: In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems. I think we do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions.

John Oliver: Do we? Do we really have to do that? Can you not just answer those questions for us? 'Cause I do not want to talk about the death penalty. And, judging from the noise that you make when you talk about it, neither do you.

Barak Obama: What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling . . .

John Oliver: Ah… I know that sound. That's the sound of a man drowning on dry land, desperately hoping for Biden to suddenly walk out into the Rose Garden in an open robe. "Oh god, Joe. Joe's here. Thank god you're here. Let's lighten the mood, everyone. Let's talk about Benghazi."

OK. OK. So, let's do this then. Let's talk about the death penalty. And, before you turn this show off, there was a YouTube video this week, of tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos and it's as magical and as uncomplicated as you think. And if you make it to the end of this story, I promise we will watch it together. OK? But you have to stay with us. You have to stay with us to get it. OK. So. The death penalty. Should it exist, and what should its limits be? Can someone give me a broad, almost infantile guideline, of when they think it's appropriate?

Alberto Gonzales, Former U.S. Attorney General: The Supreme Court has already told us that the death penalty is constitutional. I do believe in the death penalty, but only with respect to those that are guilty of committing the crime.

John Oliver: OK. OK. Bold idea. We shouldn't execute innocent people. I think most people would probably agree with that. You, sir, are a regular Atticus Finch. But executing the innocent is not really the tough question here. It's whether we should be executing the guilty. And let me acknowledge right up front that i come to this as a bit of an outsider. Britain does not have capital punishment, so in a way, I really don't know what I'm talking about. But in another way, I really do know what I'm talking about because before 1965 we didn't just have capital punishment, we literally went medieval on people’s asses.

Narrator: The history of capital punishment in Britain is a long and bloody one. Since the Middle Ages, those condemned to death have variously faced being boiled alive, burnt at the stake, or hung, drawn and quartered.

John Oliver: Yeah. We did that. We boiled people. And in the grand tradition of British cuisine, if anything, we over-boiled them. We boiled them up. We loved killing people so much, we kept coming up with new, inventive techniques that looked like they were designed by the Marquis de Sade and named by Willie Wonka.

This is the Head Crusher.

Narrator: The small and seemingly innocuous Thumb Biter originates in 14th century Scotland. These devices have almost childlike names, like "Penny Winkies".

John Oliver: Oh ho! Penny Winkies! A delightful English cousin of the Throaty Tog-tog, and the Jolly Shocky Buzz Buzz Tickly Wickly Seat. And, look, I know, I know that all of this is still technically horrifying, but that's kind of the point because whether you are boiling people alive, or putting them to sleep with a tiny injection administered by a puppy dressed as Winnie the Pooh, in the end you are getting the same result. And here's the thing: just because the British people don't have the death penalty anymore, doesn't mean that we don't want it back.

Recent polls suggest that at least half the population would choose to have it reinstated, which makes complete sense because the death penalty is one of those things that is natural to want, but you shouldn't necessarily have. The death penalty is like the McRib. When you can't have it, it's so tantalizing, but as soon as they bring it back, you think, "This is ethically wrong. Should this be allowed in a civilized society?" And by the way, there is you new slogan, McRib. You are welcome. You are welcome. You can have that for free. That's yours. Because there are things about having the death penalty which might make you a little bit queasy.

Reporter: What does the United States have in common with Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia? The answer is the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, those four nations and China are responsible for 82% of the world's executions.

John Oliver: Look, this is going to seem like a gross simplification, but any list that contains Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and China, is not a list you want to be on. Ideally, you want to be on one of those lists that Finland is on. Finland is on all the good lists like countries with the best pastries or best countries to host your overseas lesbian wedding." And I know what some of you are thinking, "But, John, I hear you saying that most Western countries no longer have executions, but if someone committed a heinous crime, I would still very much like to kill them." OK, well, let's start with "if."

Reporter: There have been 312 DNA exonerations in this country since we have been doing forensic testing.


Anderson Cooper: It is interesting how things which were once considered complete, air-tight evidence against somebody are now sort of being viewed as junk science.

John Oliver: Isn't it interesting? Is interesting really the word that you're looking for there, Cooper? Facts found on Snapple caps are interesting. Oh! The Statue of Liberty's nose is four feet, six inches long. Huh. That's an interesting fact. But facts like innocent people are potentially executed by our government on a regular basis are not so much interesting as fucking horrifying. Put it this way, if you found that on the bottom of a Chobani lid, that would make a container of Chobani even harder to swallow than it already is. And, look, look, statistics suggest that false convictions aren't all that rare.

Ashleigh Banfield: Just this week we are learning from the proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a study that shows 4% of death row inmates are innocent.

John Oliver: I think you might be using the wrong tone. Four percent! The outrage about this must be off the charts. I remember a certain Texas Governor who felt that four individual cases of voter impersonation in the last decade was a moral issue important enough to address.

Rick Perry: Any person who does not want to see fraud believes in having good, open, honest elections. Transparent. Well, we take it to the Supreme Court.

John Oliver: To the Supreme Court? Over a voter impersonation rate essentially close to 0%. So a potential executing the innocent rate of 4% must really eat away at Rick Perry.

Debate Questioner: Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

Rick Perry: No sir, I never struggled with that at all.

John Oliver: No. I never struggled with it. In fact, I sleep great, like a big, muscular baby. Fourteen hours a night, legs in the air, with a mobile above my head. Crying when I shit myself. I'm a big baby. I sleep like a baby.

But, but, OK. OK. Let's imagine for a moment a magical world where you could be sure of someone's guilt. What are the arguments for killing them then? Is it that it's a deterrent to others?

Audrey Gaughran: There is no credible evidence that the death penalty is a particular deterrent to violent crime.

John Oliver: Although, to be fair, the death penalty is an amazing deterrent to fishing without a license. Listen, Todd, I'd love to go with you, but is it worth it? You've got a wife and children. So what about the argument then that we shouldn't have to pay to house and feed a convicted killer?

Reporter: An average death penalty case costs the state millions of dollars. In California alone, since 1978, the total cost of enforcing the death penalty has been over $4 billion. That's $308 million for each of the thirteen executions carried out.

John Oliver: In fact, it costs up to ten times more to give someone the death penalty than life in prison. So what our death sentence is really saying is, "Hey, this is America. And the way we treat the most despicable members of our society is by spending the entire budget of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on them."

So, what we know now is, the death penalty is expensive, potentially kills innocent people, and doesn't deter crime. And here is where it gets hard. Harder than is potentially appropriate for a comedy show late on a Sunday night, but if we are going to answer difficult and profound questions, as the president told us to, the toughest one is probably, if someone is guilty of committing a horrible crime, and the family of the victim want the perpetrator executed, do we want to live in the kind of country that gives that to them? I would say, “No.” You might very reasonably say, “Yes,” or at the very least . . .

Barak Obama: Ah . . .

John Oliver: But it’s a question that is going to need an answer and, in the meantime, a much easier question is, do you want to watch a YouTube video of a tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito because at this point, at this point, you have fucking earned it.


And that is how you end a comprehensive segment on the death penalty.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

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